mourning black seems to be a form of armour which Milton’s poetic personae
prefer to wear. In works from “Lycidas” to Samson Agonistes, the
potency of grief, disillusionment, and loss is fundamental to Milton’s
literary self-fashionings. In his prose texts and his poetry, the Miltonic
speaker is often isolated, deprived, sorrowful, in mourning over the slaughter
of the Waldensians, the loss of England’s religious supremacy, the death of a
college friend, the surrender of the people to wantonness, the betrayal of
divine principles, or the failure of the Revolution (1).
This literary mourner, gathering up the parts of Truth or questioning the
water-nymphs or recounting the death of “mother with infant,” creates for
himself the righteousness of grief and the right to protest, and these two
“rights” are Milton’s primary goal. What is both fascinating and culturally
ambiguous about this pattern of turning grief into judgement is how clearly
the Miltonic text also responds to the gendered ideology of grief in
post-Reformation England. This is manifest in the many moments in which his
self-authorizing sorrow shifts from resisting to invoking tears as “women’s
weapons” as he associates or distances his own grief with or from prophetic,
deified, or prescient women-mourners. This particular nexus of grief, women,
and the poetic prophet is a tool with cultural connections which explain the
double-edged ambivalences of Miltonic self-fashioning in Paradise Lost.
The trope of
gendered mourning forms one of the epic’s responses to the central,
well-studied problem facing the Miltonic narrator in Paradise Lost: the
audacity of his claim to present divine mysteries and to “justify the ways of
God to man.” As John Guillory argues, “the intersection of epic invocation
with biblical inspiration [is], in its origin, an ambivalence of identity”
William Kerrigan’s The Prophetic Milton examines the many
configurations of divine or prophetic receivership which the Miltonic narrator
employs in Paradise Lost. What Kerrigan does not explore, however, is
the epic’s particularly potent juxtaposition of the figure of the prophet with
the conventions of grief. The powerful, ambiguous mourner stands alongside
and infiltrates the exculpatory devices of muse, dream, rational discovery and
divine indwelling which Milton’s prophetic narrator invokes. The Miltonic
speaker, strongly influenced and influencing the cultural discourses on grief,
invests considerable energy in the strategic cross-gendering potential of this
sacred but problematic social role.
is of course in its largest sense a lament for the loss of human innocence.
And there are several moments where characters grieve thoughout the poem: Eve,
Adam, Satan, the fallen angels. But a small number of passages in Paradise
Lost reveal with particular clarity the authorizing functions of gendered
grief in the poem. These displays of authorizing grief occur most frequently
in the invocations, where sorrow is ambivalently presented as both a strength
and a danger to the poetic narrator. In the invocations the Miltonic speaker
configures himself as the suffering mourner, a strategy which, alongside his
appropriation of the muses, enables and defends his prophetic identity. In
far less obvious ways in the invocations the muses also function as proleptic
mourners, shadows of disabling maternal grief against which the Miltonic
speaker positions himself. Epitomizing the strengths and the dangers of such
mourning are the central images in Book 5 and Book 10 in which Eve becomes the
most prominent woman-mourner in the epic. Her tears, also in proleptic
fashion, mimic and invoke both the enabling and the disabling sorrow of the
Miltonic narrator. In these different ways, then, the invocations and Eve’s
mourning-narratives figure forth in Paradise Lost the relationships
between gendered grief and the prophetic imagination. The correlatives
between narrator and muse, narrator and Eve both resonate throughout the poem
and quickly dislimn, which perhaps reflects Milton’s ambivalence over this
category of gendered grief—one both useful and problematic in his grander
project of lamenting the loss of paradise (3).
If Paradise Lost in these ways imitates elegy, it is hardly alone
in doing so. The elegiac mode’s ubiquitousness in European literature
springs from its particular capacity to enable prophecy, patronage, self-empowerment
and advancement, as it invites the valorization of the poet and the poet’s
work as literary monuments to the absent subject (5).
As “the right to inherit was traditionally linked to the right to mourn,”
in taking on such a role mourning poets can also symbolically claim status
as inheritors (6). (The power granted to the elegist
is certainly clear in the aggressive appropriations of Milton’s narrator in
But the cultural value of grief in this period often plays a complex and
troubled role in literary texts expressing grief and mourning. The value
of sorrow in post-Reformation England was often a highly vexed question, constrained
by ecclesiastical battles over the meaning of death and purgatory, medical
and philosophical theories of the passions, shifting spiritual ideologies
of consolation and submission to divine will, and political analogies of exile
and loss. Scriptural and ecclesiastical edicts, sermons, pamphlets,
and parliamentary legislation all testify to the significance of mourning
as a cultural question in post-Henrician England (8).
Despite the problematic ideologies attached to mourning for English reformers,
historians agree that there was certainly no wide-spread Protestant attempt
to suppress grief or its expression. Sermons on the subject quote Paul’s explanation
that mourning is a righteous act and cite Ecclesiastes 7:7: “it is better
to go to the mourning-house, than to the house of banqueting.” John Jewel
explains that Jesus healed “sometimes by mourning and sorrowing” (9).
As Robert Burton asserts, in less theological language, “’tis a naturall passion
to weep for our friends, an irresistible passion to lament, and grieve” (10).
The social role of official or chief mourner was understood likewise as a
mark of prestige; Milton and many others note “the honour to be admitted [a]
mourner” (11). The political analogy of the protestant
movement as the woman in the wilderness, a Una figure who “laments and mourns,”
was also a powerful trope among English polemicists (12).
The special visionary power of grief (womanly grief in this case) is evident
in Mary Rowlandson’s narratives: “Oh! The wonderful power of God that mine
eyes have seen, affording matter enough for my thoughts to run, that when
others are sleeping mine are weeping” (13). Proper
grief, penitential sorrow, lamentations, were seen as biblically authorized,
spiritually necessary, signs of proper affection and correct self-understanding.
Women’s tears were often seen to exemplify these virtues, and they were cited,
in the repentant sorrow of Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary’s pain, the lamentations
of Rachel, the sufferings of the early women-martyrs, as particularly important
analogues for Protestant piety.
But, as Burton’s somewhat ambiguous defense of “natural passion” suggests,
the ancient anxieties over the medical, spiritual and social hazards of grief
resurfaced with new energy in this period. The “passion” of sorrow, either
as excessive grief or as formal mourning, as signs of either a lack
of faith or of the wrong kind of faith, became a site of considerable concern.
As a reaction against “Romish” rituals surrounding deathbeds and funerals,
in campaigns against the perceived emotional immoderation which fed the doctrine
of purgatory, or as part of the renewed emphasis on individual faith in election,
many English authorities challenged the appropriateness of overt grief and
mourning. James Pilkington, the bishop of Durham in the mid-sixteenth
century decreed that “not superstition should be committed in [funerals],
wherein the papists infinitely offend, as in masses,dirges, trentals, singing…crosses,
pardon letters to be buried with them, mourners, de profundis
by every lad that could say it” (14). Some reformers
in the late sixteenth century decried those ‘wailing the dead with more than
heathenish outcries” (15). John Jewel dismissively
recounts St. Hilary’s invocation of “the sacrament of weeping” (16).
Calvin in his commentaries on the gospels says that “this is a common disease,
that [they] …eagerly increase their grief by every possible means” (17).
In a long tradition of consolation, but also in the fight against the Roman
power of purgatory, appeared tracts with titles like The Meane in Mourning
(Thomas Playfere, 1597) and An Antidote Against Immoderate Mourning
(Samuel Clarke, 1659). Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy exhorts
his readers to defend against excessive passion: “howsoever this passion
of sorrow be violent, bitter, and seizeth familiarly on wise, valiant, discreet
men, yet it may surely be withstood….we should not dwell too long upon our
passions, to be desperately sad, immoderate greivers, to let them tyrannize”
(18). Burton argues out of a long-standing belief
in the importance of the will in moderating feeling, but Calvin sees this
as a specifically Protestant issue of faith: he says that “Paul does
not demand of us a stony numbness, but tells us to grieve in moderation, and
not abandon ourselves to grief like unbelievers who have no hope” (19);
by “unbelievers” he clearly means (among other things) papists. He explains
the temptation of grief for Protestants: “the vanity of our mind makes us
sorrow or grieve over trifles, or for no reason at all, because we are too
much devoted to the world….our feelings are sinful because they rush on unrestrainedly
and immoderately” (20). Richard Hooker likewise
explains, “now though the cause of our heavinesse be just, yet may not our
affections herein bee yeelded unto with too much indulgencie and favour” (21).
Hugh Latimer argues, as does William Perkins, that only a godly sorrow will
be blessed, “as the wicked, when they weep, they are sorrowful….so we must
learn to be content; to go from weeping to laughing” (22).
The ancient association of women with tears was often elided with this intensified
Reformed concern over excessive or improper mourning (23).
Andreas Hyperius in his influential work The Practice of Preaching
instructs his readers that “all that be of a sound iudgement, doe thincke
it very uncomly and womannishe to lament without measure, and to take so impaciently
the chaunce that happeneth;” “in comfortinge,...so to increase sorrowe, as
that a womannish kinde of wayling and shricking should follow...[doth] incurre
reprehension” (24). Calvin explains that David’s
“continued crying [in the psalms] did not proceed from [the] softness or effeminacy
of spirit” which he argues does infect the Romanists with their belief in
purgatory (25). Hyperius says that “it becommeth men chiefely
to imbrace all manhood and prowesse” when faced with death, lest effeminate
weakness rob them of “constancye” (26). In his discussion
of Martha, Lazarus’ sister, Calvin decries those who “nourish the excess of
her grief” (27). In King Lear “women’s weapons,
water-drops” are a sign not only of immoderate grief but also of “the
mother,” “hysterica passio”(28). Burton
cites the shamefulness of “grave staid men otherwise” lamenting like “those
Irish women, and Greeks at their graves, [who] commit many undecent
actions, & almost goe besides themselves” (29).
Burton also notes that Socrates called his companions women (“mulieres”)
for weeping at his deathbed, at which “they were abashed, and ceased from
their tears” (30). Womanly grief is elided with
a Romanist form of primitive idolatry, lending new potency to its status as
the emasculating culturally other, a sign of emotional or spiritual pathology,
an image of excess, appetite, and error.
A common element of this resistance to womanly tears appears in the argument
that feminine sorrow is a just and correct consequence of Eve’s transgression
(31). A 1640 funeral-sermon entitled “Death in Birth,
or the Frute of Eves Transgression” rehearses the argument that “there is
a…punishment inflicted upon all women kind in answer to the…sinnes committed
by our Grandmother Eve…it was pronounced presently upon her, that
her sorrowes…should bee multiplied” (32). Tears
are thus both effect and sign of woman’s originary trespass. Thomas Playfere,
in his tract The Meane in Mourning, honours women’s tears, but also
says this: “Naturally (saith S. Peter) the woman is the weaker
vessel, soone moved to weepe, and subject to many, either affectionate passions,
or else passionate affections... the sinne of a woman was the ruine of man.
Therefore these women… wept the more” (33).
The women to
whom Playfere refers represent the inherited error which women’s tears were
seen to represent: a weaker capacity to judge correctly. This aspect of
blurred vision in women’s grief is a common concern for the guardians of
Protestant decorum and theology. Richard Hooker in a funeral sermon discusses
the proof-text on this, from the gospel-account of the women mourning Jesus on
his way to the crucifixion:
When Christ…was led unto cruell death, there followed a number
of people and women, which women bewailed much his heavie case.
It was naturall compassion which caused them, where they saw undeserved
miseries, there to poure forth unrestrained teares. nor was this reproved.
But in such readines to lament wher they lesse needed, their blindnes in
not discerning that for which they ought much rather to have mourned, this
our Savior…[putteth] them in minde that the teares which were wasted for
him might better have beene spent upon themselves (34).
Hooker makes it
clear that he imagines women in particular to be more prone to this “natural
compassion” which can fall short of spiritual wisdom.
The cultural language of grief, then, often seems to have been a site of
considerable ambiguity in post-Reformation England. Grief itself was
seen to have spiritual, theological and political merit, for men and women
alike; it was seen to be natural and biblical, lending spiritual authority,
affective weight and political or poetic privilege to the participant in the
lineage of sacred mourners (35). But grief also
seems to have been seen as a social, medical, spiritual danger, stigmatized
by its frequent association with Eve’s particularly womanly weakness, ignorance,
or sin. The conjunction of these discourses on grief with Paradise
Lost’s major and minor sorrow-tropes generates and contextualizes, then,
the ambiguous mourning of the epic.
III Paradise Lost
The Positive Power of Grief
The invocations to Books 3 and 9 make clearest the Miltonic narrator’s positive ideology of
authorizing sorrow. These passages connect, as authorizing strategies, a
contained expression of loss, the presence of the feminine muses, and the
prophetic emblems of inner vision. In the tradition of biblical prophets like
Jeremiah or Amos, the Miltonic narrator in these passages emphasizes his own
sorrow in order to lend ethical authority to his inspired message.
In Book 3, the address to “Holy Light” introduces the “Heavenly Muse,” (3.19),
and the “Muses haunt /Clear Spring, or shady Grove, or Sunny Hill” (3.27-8)
where the poet dallies, “smit with the love of sacred Song” (3.29).
Whatever, or whomever, the invocation begins by addressing, the Miltonic narrator
sees as connected to his feminine muse and her sacred precincts (36)
to provide him with the prophetic insight he requires and claims:
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (3.51-5)
Milton carefully collects these images of height, of secret, sacred space,
of the mysterious darkness through which his guides can lead him, to create
the mystery of prophecy around his literary work. The baptismal waters
of the muses’ sacred hill he “visit[s]…Nightly” (32); he describes his “obscure
sojourn” (15) in Hell and his return as a kind of trance-like vision; his
thoughts “voluntary move/ Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird/ Sings darkling,
and in shadiest Covert hid/ Tunes her nocturnal Note” (3.37-40). The
prophetic gift requires here the conventional passive, trance-like state,
a world of shade and darkness.
important element of this fairly conventional representation of inspiration,
though, lies in what seems to be for Milton a necessary correlative in his own
sorrow. Here the Miltonic speaker quite explicitly and deliberately encircles
the darkness of the prophetic dream with a lament for the physical darkness in
which he constantly lives:
Revisitst not these
eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing
ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene
hath quencht thir Orbs,
pOr dim suffusion
…not to me returns
Day, or the sweet
approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or flocks, or herds,
or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and
Surrounds me, from the
cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the
Book of knowledge fair
Presented with a
Of Nature’s works to
me expung’d and ras’d,
And Wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
(and defends) himself by claiming the muse’s territory and the sacred
prophets’ role, but grief here seems a necessary element of that prophetic
power. Milton quite deliberately casts his grief in pastoral terms, as an
echo of Lycidas; in images of Hell, to echo the profound grief of the
fallen Angels; and in petrarchan images of the unseen flower, to pre-figure
Eve’s romantic laments. The final image of “Wisdom at one entrance quite
shut out” suggests the dream-gates in the Aeneid, both the true and the
false, as Milton’s prophetic dreams and the darkness of loss cross paths.
The prevalence of verbs of seeing in the following passage (“th’Almighty
Father…bent down his eye…” (56-8)) only emphasizes, by contrast, Milton’s
sense of bereavement.
Miltonic narrator’s invocation of loss is as strategic as his conflation of
genders in his vision of his Muses. He indulges in persistent mourning here
in order to ally himself with the forms of subjectivity which Mary Rowlandson
claims for herself above. The mourning poetic prophet who is both
supernaturally empowered and uniquely suffering is a very powerful ideological
figure with whom to ally oneself, as the Miltonic narrator does here. The
invocation claims, like Rowlandson, that sorrow has lent him greater vision:
“so much the rather thou Celestial Light / Shine inward,…that I may see and
tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight” (3,51-2,54-5).
The invocation to Book 9 likewise frames mourning as empowering, in this
instance as a particularly strategic defense against the charge of agency.
The intentional note of grief, imagined, anticipatory, and incipient, is again
an important element of that defense. Milton's attempt to construct a poetic
identity here locates itself in absences and griefs which reveal both kenotic
submission to Urania and negative poetic mastery (37).
The Miltonic narrator’s central strategy here is to empty himself of poetic
agency. He is, he claims, “nor skill'd nor studious” (42) of other subjects,
a blank slate (38). He particularly casts himself
as the object of the Muse's “unimplored” sleep-visions, then, the vehicle
only for “unpremeditated verse.” Milton’s lack of premeditation matches
(and implies) Urania's intentionality, her divine premeditation. And
Milton's use of a term with Calvinist resonance (“unpremeditated”) suggests
that Urania has appointed and elected the human speaker for this literary
task. Milton's speech here is full of subjunctives and conditionals which
reinforce the dream’s and the muse’s role of masking the direct activity of
Milton also attempts to temper, or resolve, the self-authorizing tone of
this invocation through suggestions of grief, especially his own over
lost opportunities (“an age too late, or cold/ Climate, or Years” (44-5));
he feels his wings “deprest” (46). The Miltonic narrator begins the
preface with a lament: “I now must change/ Those Notes to Tragic… a world
of woe,/ Sin, and her shadow Death, and Misery…sad task” (5-13).
He seems to lament his own subject, to make himself into the official mourner
of the fall to come, as a container for his own hubris in claiming his subject.
He also grants himself the unearned title of the only true elegist of “Heroic
Martyrdom” (32). Milton’s capacity to be a mourner, for himself
and especially for others, frames the problem of creative identity for the
miltonic son of the Muse in Book 9. The kenotic sacrifice of the poetic
son, the imminent fall of man, and his own dreamlike allegiance to the gift
of heavenly Wisdom all attempt to buttress the Miltonic narrator’s authorial
self-constructions. Mourning here becomes the poet as he seeks to win
“the identity of the prophet in the renunciation of the not sacred” (39)
and in his laments for the loss of the sacred as well.
The Temptation of Grief
However, just as
grief was seen culturally as both affective virtue and emotional weakness,
Paradise Lost also hints at the dangers of disabling womanly sorrow. The
most shadowy woman-mourner in Paradise Lost, whose imagined weeping
represents for the Miltonic speaker the temptation rather than the protection
of grief, is Calliope, the mother of Orpheus. She appears as an echo of the
narrator’s own loss in Book 7, though here the Miltonic narrator also attempts
to distance himself from through the agency of his divinely inspired Muse.
His visionary voice is potentially stifled by sorrow and grief, and he
attempts to contain that dangerous erosion of his prophetic vision. This
attempt to resist, while invoking, mourning is clear:
But drive far
off the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his Revellers, the Race
Of that wild Rout that tore the Thracian Bard
In Rhodope, where Woods and Rocks had Ears
To rapture, till the savage clamor drown’d
Both Harp and Voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her Son. So fail not thou, who thee implores:
For thou art Heavn’ly, shee an empty dream. (7.30-39)
Milton imagines himself as a not-Orpheus with a not-mourning muse not present
in his own poetic work, a ghost of the denaturing sorrow he here seeks to
resist and contain (40). The difficulty is of course the
absent presence of both Orpheus (another poet) and Calliope (a mourning
muse) in this invocation of his own muse. Milton seems to declare himself
to be the resurrected, redeemed (Christlike) version of Orpheus, but he is
simultaneously declaring that his own “fit audience” is rather uncomfortably
akin to the “wild rout” who destroyed Orpheus. As Patricia Vicari explains,
“now, instead of being connected with ideal beauty and the art that redeems
from death, Orpheus represents to Milton the precarious situation of the poet”
Reinforcing Milton’s uneasily kenotic connection to Christ/Orpheus is the
figure of the helplessly grieving mother, a mother who is simultaneously the
Virgin Mary, unable to “defend / Her Son” (38-9) and Calliope, the ineffectual
maternal muse to the dying sacred poet. It is this image, powerfully
emphasized by a strong caesura and the immediate comparison Milton makes to
his own muse, which reinforces the threat to Milton himself as a messenger
of the Word. Calliope, as the ninth and greatest muse, “representing
the harmony that the other eight produced,” is here powerless (42).
The proem's reworking of Horace's “Descende caelo” can only emphasize this,
as in the original Horace claims that Calliope protected him as a child (43).
The mourning mother recirculates the lament of the earlier lines as Orpheus
and Calliope are themselves “fall'n on evil days.” Milton’s declaration
that Calliope is only an “empty dream” only reinforces the troubling resemblances
between her putative helpless grief and the speaker’s own dreams, presided
over by his muse, which are meant to console him. Orpheus, the sacred speaker,
torn by the “wild Rout” (7.34) while his mother helplessly watched, invokes
both the death of Christ and the crucial problem of loss of voice suggested
by, and expressed through, the lament of the Miltonic speaker.
The Miltonic speaker in the invocations has an ambivalent relationship to
the prophetic medium of lamentation and mourning, then, sometimes adopting
and sometimes resisting the role of the mourner as he imagines himself inspired
by his heavenly muse. The question of Eve’s tears becomes a necessary
correlative to this dynamic, then, especially given the cultural meaning of
her sorrow and especially as in the poem her own weeping is so interestingly
juxtaposed with reflections on and of poetic imagination and divine knowledge.
Though she is a character-function of great complexity and with many different
modalities throughout the poem, she more than once seems to function like
the muses in representing the authorial self-fashioning of the Miltonic narrator.
This is particularly true in Book 5, where the narrator frames Eve’s innocent
sorrow in terms which predict his own inspired grief over both his personal
losses and the grander loss of paradise itself (44).
Eve's sorrow opens Book 5, creating a structural parallel with the invocations
which open other odd-numbered books in the epic. The parallels between
Eve’s inspired dream and Milton’s imagined inspiration in Book 7 of the epic
are of course familiar. Eve in her dream is guided by “one shap'd and
wing'd like one of those from Heav'n” (5.55); he offers knowledge and the
right to “be henceforth among the Gods” (77), “not to Earth confin'd” (78).
Eve eats the forbidden fruit, ascends “up to the Clouds” (86) and then descends
again to awaken. Milton's narrator is likewise led by one who “visit'st
[his] slumbers nightly” (7.29). He is guided by a “Heavenly born” (7)
muse who has access to “Eternal Wisdom” (9) and who leads the speaker “up...
/ into the Heav'n of Heav'ns” (13). The narrator breathes “Empyreal
Air” (14) like Eve. Milton's narrator returns to his “Native Element”
(16), the Earth, in an echo of the epic's narratives merging Eve with the
maternal earth of Eden (45). A vision of the fall guides
the narrator as well: “Lest...I fall...Erroneous there to wander and forlorn”
(17-20), “fall'n on evil days, / On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues,”
“in darkness, and with dangers compast round, / And solitude“ (25-30).
Here the sorrowing Eve writes “Milton” in the Mother of Mankind's re-configuration
of the narrator’s authorizing laments (46).
Such evidence of similarities between Milton-the-poet and Eve has, of course,
been used primarily to defend Eve as a character whose poetic gifts match
Milton’s own (47). But in many ways this vector
of meaning is double-ended; what Milton says about Eve, Eve also says about
Milton. Even if Eve were more than a literary function in the poem,
and even if she is a primary symbolic figure of womanhood, it is dangerous
to imply or assume that she is redeemed by being the "embodiment of Milton's
defense...of poesy" (48). Some of the
same evidence which McColley and others have used to prove Eve's authorial
gifts: her imaginative powers, her naming of the flowers, her spontaneous
nocturnes and sonnets, her ability to mirror nature – may instead, in the
contexts Milton constructs, confirm that the narrator’s own poetic persona
has an uneasy relationship to gender and spiritual authority (49).
Certainly the corresponding griefs invoked by Eve's troubling dream in Book
5 and Milton's in his invocations would suggest as much.
The differences between the two accounts are, of course, crucial to the
narrator’s point about his poetic endeavour. His guide is not Satan
but Urania, a favoured consort of "th'Almighty Father" (7.11).
Satan offers knowledge, while Urania offers wisdom. As Diane McColley
notes, Satan in the dream can only parody Eve's evening song, that sign of
her poetic virtue (50). And the Miltonic "I"
imagines the Heavens not as part of Satan's temptation to be a god but as
a mark of divine approval of his "mortal voice" (7.24). He
claims for himself Augustine's highest prophetic achievement: "the minds
of certain men themselves are raised to so lofty a height by the Holy Spirit,
as to perceive the immovable causes of future things...as they are in themselves,
in the very highest pinnacle of the universe" (51).
But in other
respects this same argument betrays still further the similitude between Eve's
pre-vision of evil and Milton's doubtful poetic vision in Book 7. Milton may
be suggesting that Eve's passive innocence as dreamer is a model for his own
prophetic receivership. But achievement, rather than passivity, connects
these two sleepers. As William Kerrigan argues, "the third heaven of the
visiodei requires the absolute passivity of the rapt soul," but
Milton is highly active in his vision, choosing to advise, instruct, and
assist his heavenly guide. Both Eve and Milton have, in their fancy's work, "presum'd"
(7.13) to see "The Earth outstretcht immense" (5.87). If Eve's dream
previsions the fall, Milton's sleeping fancies do likewise, redolent as they
are of the same ambition with which Satan tempts Eve.
interesting for this argument, though, is the relationship between Eve’s
response to her vision and the Miltonic narrator’s to his. The narrator
expresses his sense of loss over his present circumstances:
More safe I Sing
with mortal voice, unchang’d To hoarse or mute, though fall’n on evil days, On
evil days though fall’n, and evil tongues; In darkness, and with dangers
compast round, And solitude (7:24-8)
The lamenting repetitions of the lines
here are striking, as are the echoes of the other grieving invocations; "in
darkness, and with dangers compast round” is reminiscent of the openings to
both Book 3 and Book 9. His “fall” into the present world is felt to be
literal, physical, and metaphorical, though he claims that his grief is both
expressed and contained by the inspiring presence of Urania. Eve’s fall in
her dream is likewise both real and not real. But though her fall is only
prophesied, Eve still feels "sweet remorse / and pious awe, that fear'd to
have offended (5.135)":
silently a gentle tear [she] let fall
From either eye, and wip'd them with her hair;
Two other precious drops that ready stood,
Each in thir crystal sluice, [Adam] ere they fell
decorous sorrow is far from the “immoderate mourning” so distrusted in the
homiletic and elegiac traditions, and her tears are precisely for her own
potential sin, as both a prophetic and a self-correcting sign of her
lapsarian tendencies. Unlike the women following Jesus, Eve here
understands for whom she should weep; like the women after her, Eve “weeps
the more” in considering her own potential and originary guilt. Eve is a
cultural sign of her own legacy at this moment, even while she mirrors the
More interesting, though, is the other specific signifier of female sorrow
which this passage represents. The gesture of crying precious tears
and drying them with hair invoke the account in the gospel of Luke of Mary
Magdalene, whose extravagant washing of Jesus’ feet with her tears was seen
as a gesture both of feminine repentance for sin and as a prophetic act of
mourning for Jesus’ upcoming death (52). These cultural
identifiers of Mary Magdalene--tears, hair, kiss, even the precious container
(the "crystal sluice")--suggest that Eve is also here anachronistically
adopting the role of Magdalene as "the weeper," the official mourner
for the fall of man and the death of Christ.
This Eve/Magadalene figure is clearly an initial step in Paradise Lost’s
defense of specifically reformed piety, an intermittent project of the poem
which is often buttressed by typological treatments of Eve and Adam as righteous
mourners like the Protestant exiles who “lament and mourn/ in Germany and
[England]” (53). In this instance in Book 5, Adam
and and the tearful Eve seek to worship as good Protestants, with "fit
strains... unmeditated" (148-9), surrounded by "the shrill Matin
Song/ of Birds" (7-8). Their unliturgical praise is clearly valorized
in the poem, and Milton's further critique of the Roman church is hinted at
throughout Eve’s dream, as in it she falsely rises to Heaven "by merit"
(80) to become a kind of saint or idol. Milton’s chaste appropriation
of the Magdalene trope of eroticized sorrow, so celebrated in the baroque
sentimentality of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, is a deliberately ironic
undercutting of the values of the Roman church.
But the specific point of this particular allegorization and appropriation
is, in a kind of recursive loop, to support the sacred poetics which the Miltonic
narrator is building for himself (54). Mary
Magdalene's passive mode of prophecy, the witness and servant rather than
the publisher or defender of the resurrection, is clearly ironically appropriate
for Eve as well, who is here the unknowing messenger of the fall-to-come.
In Milton’s search for a prophetic position of unknowing knowledge,
then, this conflation of Eve and Mary Magdalene is a helpful tool. As
Mary Magdalene was also often portrayed as a reclining "reader"
in paintings and illustrations, and described repeatedly through her role
as the first prophet-messenger of the resurrection, this suggestion of the
New Testament's chief woman-mourner resonates with Milton’s image of Eve as
the Old Testament's first woman-mourner, and both together are a central image
for the prophetic narrator (55).
controlled prophetic penitence of Eve is remarkably different from the second
Magdalene-moment in Paradise Lost, in which Eve serves as the tearful
suppliant to a temporarily Christlike Adam:
…Eve Not so repulst,
with Tears that ceas’d not flowing, And tresses all disorder’d, at his feet Fell
humble, and imbracing them, besought His peace, and thus proceeded in her
plaint. Forsake me not thus, Adam, witness Heav’n What love sincere,
and reverence in my heart I bear thee, and unweeting have offended (10,
Here Eve’s postlapsarian grief is at least potentially excessive and
immoderate, “with Tears that ceas’d not flowing,” her spirits “disorder’d.” The
striking evocation of Magdalene’s eroticized sorrow (“imbracing” Adam with “love
sincere”) reveals Milton’s ambivalent appropriation of the mourning-woman
figure; here her “plaint” is both appropriately spiritual and inappropriately
symbolic of feminine excess at the same time. Eve’s tears here are perfect in
one sense; by Hooker’s standards she weeps correctly for herself and her own
sinfulness. As a mourning prophet, however, she is imperfect; she believes that
their death will alone prevent the spread of evil, for instance, and she
suggests a revisionist history of the fall by implying that it is Adam
she has most truly “offended” and that her offense was “unweeting” (916). She
also misperceives her own linguistic power, saying that she “know[s] / how
little weight [her] words with [Adam] can find,” (967-8) while her words have,
until almost the end of Book 9, been entirely influential for Adam. This
combination of right sorrow, disorderly excessive weeping, and misdirected
historicizing reinforces the extent to which Eve is here figured as the absolute
archetype of the woman-mourner: her tears are indeed “the frute of Eves
transgression,” and they point backward and forward to the “death in birth”
which she both fears and exemplifies.
The problematic utility of Eve’s typological mourning is only the most obvious
indicator of this figure in Paradise Lost, though. Since Eve’s actions
were held to be cause and sign of improper womanly sorrow, she cannot help
functioning in Milton’s epic as an avatar of mourning. And since mourning was
understood to be both authorizing and disabling, Eve’s grief, perhaps not
surprisingly, has an ambiguous value in the web of referents to the narrator
himself. But her status in the composite laments of Paradise Lost is
precisely like, in its ambiguity, the gendered grief in the invocations as well.
Conclusion In all of these attempts to construct a prophetic authorship,
then, Paradise Lost employs a nexus of empowerment and grief which
springs from an affiliation between the narrator and a woman-figure. The
feminine-mourner trope, from classical times on, had several obvious uses: it
not only enabled various kinds of divine patronage, but it also supported the
artlessness or speechlessness-defense for truth-claims; it valorized
authoritative empathy; it granted privileged spiritual virtues; it allowed for
models of correction and consolation; it fueled a prophetic voice. This
particularly labile gendering of the authorial voice in Paradise Lost
bears along with it, though, the particular freight of post-Reformation
England’s unease over female sorrow, its excess, error, and danger. In Books 3,
7, and 9 of the epic, the Miltonic narrator invokes a muse who will provide the
necessary calling and creative empowerment for the grieving poet, and he creates
images which imply filial obedience to that Mother-figure through a Christlike
or Orphic kenosis. The parallel dream in Book 5 suggests, through Eve and her
association with Mary Magdalene, a model of poetic/prophetic utterance implying
passive containment of the sacred imagination. In each case, the required
prophetic unnaming, passivity and tranquility proves transitory; Milton's
narrator invokes gender and authorizing sorrow in an effort to contain and
defend the sacred filial authority which he fears is both necessary and
indefensible. Paradise Lost thus reveals the difficulties and
possibilities inherent in creating a position from which to utter forth a
biblical lament. The narrator’s visions issue from a multiple source, multiply
gendered, which allows him great flexibility in his self-defenses. But the
indirections and variability in this recurrent set of authorizing strategies
demonstrate the deep uncertainty and cultural ambivalence surrounding his
invocations of maternally sanctioned grief. The prophetic dreams of
Paradise Lost, both the narrator’s and Eve’s, forge a link between
woman-inspired imagination and an empowering sorrow—an ambidextrous cultural
weapon which Milton uses, though he seems to know it is not only two-handed but
(1) On Milton’s preoccupation with mourning, see in particular
William Kerrigan, The Prophetic Milton (Charlottesville: Virginia UP,
1974), 162-6, 184-6; Amy Boesky, “The Maternal Shape of Mourning: A Reconsideration
of “Lycidas””, Modern Philology 95:4 (May, 1998), 463-83; Dennis Kay,
Melodious Tears: The English Funeral Elegy from Spenser to Milton (Oxford:
Clarendon UP, 1990), 222-232; Celeste Marguerite Schenck, Mourning and Panegyric:
The Poetics of Pastoral Ceremony (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP,
1988), 91-106; Michael Lieb, Milton and the Culture of Violence (Ithaca
and London: Cornell UP, 1994), 40-41, 46-51, 60-63; Louis L. Martz, Poet
of Exile: A Study of Milton’s Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale UP,
1980), 60-75, 79-94.
(2) John Guillory, Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton,
and Literary History (New York: Columbia UP, 1983), 106.
(3) For a detailed history of the correlation between dream-visions
and prophecy, see William B. Hunter, The Descent of Urania: Studies in Milton
1945-1988 (Toronto: Associated UP, 1989), 21-30. See Maureen Quilligan,
Milton's Spenser (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1983), 218ff., on Milton's
resistance to women's prophecies.
(4) This article is the second half of what was originally
a much longer piece comparing Lanyer's work to Milton's. The Lanyer-half of
the argument as published separately as "Prophecy and Gendered Mourning
in Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum", Studies in English Literature
43:1 (Winter, 2003), 101-116. My thanks to SEL for permission to use
parts of this history-section previously published in that SEL article.
(5) On elegy in Milton’s day, see especially: Peter Sacks,
The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), chapters 1-5; Dennis Kay, Melodious Tears: The English
Funeral Elegy from Spenser to Milton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990); Robert N.
Watson, The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance
(Berkeley: California UP, 1994); Eric Smith, By Mourning Tongues: Studies
in English Elegy (Ipswich: Boyedell Press, 1977), chapters 1-2; Joshua Scodel,
The English Poetic Epitaph: Commemoration and Conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), chapters 1-7; Speaking Grief in English Literary
Culture, Shakespeare to Milton, ed. Margo Swiss and David A. Kent (Duquesne
(7) Celeste Marguerite Schenck, Mourning and Panegyric:
The Poetics of Pastoral Ceremony (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP,
1988), 16. See on “Lycidas” Amy Boesky, “The Maternal Shape of Mourning".
(8) David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual,
Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford
UP, 1997), 397-474; on this social history, see especially Ralph Houlbrooke,
Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750 (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1998), Christopher Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550
(London: Routledge, 1997), Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional
Religion in England c. 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992); Philippe Aries,
The Hour of our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1981); Clare
Gittings, Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England (London:
Croom Helm, 1984); John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment (Oxford:
(9) The Works of John Jewel, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1847), Vol. II, p. 1136.
(10) Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Nicolas
K. Kiessling, Thomas C. Faulkner, & Rhonda L. Blair (Oxford: Clarendon,
1997), Vol. II, p.180.
(11) John Milton, “The Reason of Church Government Urged
Against Prelaty,” Book 2, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose,
ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 667.
(12) “Show Me Dear Christ,” Complete English Poems of
John Donne, ed. C.A. Patrides (London: Dent, 1985), p. 446, line 4.
(13) Mary Rowlandson, “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,”
in Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724,
ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 74-5.
(14) Quoted in David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death,
(17) John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Gospel According
to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John, trans. T.H.L.
Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1959), 10-11.
(21) Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall
Politie, ed. W. Speed Hill (London: Harvard UP, 1977), 6 Vols., Vol. 5,
(22) Hugh Latimer, Works, ed. George Elwes Corrie
(Cambridge: Parker Society, 1844), Vol. I, pp.479-80.
(23) See especially on this broader subject: Patricia
Phillippy, Women, Death, and Literature in Post-Reformation England (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2002); Speaking Grief from Shakespeare to Milton, ed. Margo
Swiss and David A. Kent (Duquesne UP, 2002), chapters 7,8, and 12; Juliana
Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and The
Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992);
Lynn Enterline, The Tears of Narcissus: Melancholia and Masculinity in Early
Modern Writing (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995), chapters 1 and 2.
(24) Andreas Hyperius, The Practise of Preaching,
otherwise called the Pathway to the Pulpit (London: Thomas East, 1577),
(25) Jean Calvin, Commentaries on the Psalms, trans,
ed. James Anderson (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society.1847-9). Vol 5, p.
131; Vol. 4, p.408.
(28) William Shakespeare, King Lear, in The Riverside
Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 3.1, lines
277, 143. Lear’s linking of his own maddening grief with his daughters’
want of proper feminine softness suggests what he fears: a transgendering, a
transference of feminine grief Goneril and Regan them to Lear, and a transference
of masculine power from himself to his daughters.
(31) Patricia Phillippy notes the connection between Eve
and women’s tears as well (Women, Death, and Literature, 150).
(32) “Death in Birth, or, The Fruite of Eves Transgression,”
in Threnoikos, or The House of Mourning; Furnished with Directions for the
houre of Death… Delivered in LIII Sermons…By Daniel Featly, Martin Day,
Ri. Houldsworth, Richard Sibbs, Thomas Taylor…Thomas Fuller and other reverend
divines (London, 1660), 713-723; p. 617 [sic: misprint for “719”].
(33) Thomas Playfere, The Meane in Mourning. A
Sermon preached at Saint Maries Spittle in London on Tuesday in Easterweeke,
1595 (London, 1616), B1v-B2r.
(35) On the mourner-role for women-poets, see for example:
Wendy Wall, “Our Bodies/Our Texts? Renaissance Women and the Trials of Authorship,”
Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women,,
ed. Carol J. Singley & Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (Albany: SUNY UP, 1993),
51-71; Patricia Phillippy’s Women, Death and Literature, chapters
5,6, and 7; chapters by Donna J. Long and W. Scott Howard in Speaking Grief;
Elizabeth M.A. Hodgson, “Prophecy and Gendered Mourning in Lanyer’s Salve
Deus Rex Judaeorum,” SEL 43:1 (Winter 2003), 101-116; Janel Mueller,
“The Feminist Poetics of Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum,” Feminist
Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, eds. Lynne Keller and Cristanne
Miller (Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1994), 208-36; Margaret Hannay, Philip’s
Phoenix: Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke (New York: Oxford UP, 1990).
(36) William B. Hunter and Stevie Davies make clear the
importance of gender in this invocation’s slide from “Holy Light” to the Muse
herself (The Descent of Urania, 31-43).
(37) See also on this point William Kerrigan,The Prophetic
(38) John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose,
ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957). All subsequent citations
will be from this edition and will list line numbers (with book number when
(40) Patricia Vicari, “The Triumph of Art, the Triumph of
Death: Orpheus in Spenser and Milton,” in Orpheus: The Metamorphosis
of a Myth, ed. John Warden (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1982), 207-230: pp. 215-16.
On this topic see also John Block Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970); Richard J. DuRocher, Milton and Ovid (Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1985); and Michael Lieb, Milton and the Culture of Violence.
(42) E.R. Gregory, Milton and the Muses (Tuscaloosa:
Alabama UP, 1989), 100.
(43) “Descende caelo et dic age tibia/ Regina longum Calliope
melos” (III, iv): Horace Odes and Epodes, ed. Paul Shorey, rev. ed. Paul
Shorey and Gordon J. Laing (Chicago: Sanborn, 1919). For this parallel,
see Michael Lieb, Milton and the Culture of Violence, 63.
(44) On this parallelism, see also Noam Flinker, "Courting
Urania: The Narrator of Paradise Lost Invokes His Muse," Milton
and the Idea of Woman, 86-99, pp.93-4; Diane Kelsey McColley, Milton's
Eve, 91-2; Maureen Quilligan, Milton's Spenser, 228; Michael Lieb,
Milton and the Culture of Violence (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1994),
65; Kerrigan, Prophetic Milton, 145.
(45) Sara Van Den Berg, "Eve, Sin, and Witchcraft,"
Modern Language Quarterly, 47:4 (Dec. 1986), 347-65, p.364.
(46) Michael Lieb, Milton and the Culture of Violence,
(47) Barbara Lewalski, "Milton on Women--Yet Once More."
Milton Studies VI (1974), 3-20, p.8; Diane McColley, "Eve and the
Arts of Eden," in Milton and the Idea of Woman, ed. Julia M. Walker,
(Urbana and Chicago: Illinois UP, 1988), 100-119; Diane Kelsey McColley, Milton's
Eve (Illinois UP: Urbana, Chicago, London, 1983); Deirdre Keenan McChrystal,
"Redeeming Eve," Milton Quarterly 23:3 (Fall 1993), 490-508.
See also J. Hillis Miller in "How Deconstruction Works: Paradise Lost
IV, 304-8," New York Times Magazine, (February 9, 1986), p.25: Eve
is identified, Miller argues, with "Milton's independent power of poetry."
Quoted in Catherine Gimelli Martin, "Demystifying Disguises: Adam, Eve,
and the Subject of Desire." in Renaissance Discourses of Desire,
ed. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia & London: Missouri UP,
(48) Diane McColley, "Eve and the Arts of Eden,"
in Milton and the Idea of Woman, 102. On Eve as a function rather
than a character, see Mary Nyquist, "The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity,"
Re-membering Milton, 99-127; Karen L. Edwards, "Resisting Representation:
All about Milton's Eve" Exemplaria 9 (1997): 231-53.
(49) See McColley, "Eve and the Arts of Eden"
for more on these similitudes between Eve and the poet. On the fractures
and fissures in Milton's depictions of Eve, see: Michael Lieb, "'Two of
Far Nobler Shape': Reading the Paradisal Text," Literary Milton: Text,
Pretext, Context, ed. Diana Trevino Benett and Michael Lieb, (Pittsburgh:
Duquesne UP, 1994), 114-132; Joseph Wittreich, "'Inspired with Contradiction':
Mapping Gender Discourses in Paradise Lost," Literary Milton,
(51) St. Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna,
The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 45 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic
University of America Press, 1963), Book 4, ch. 17, p.158. See on Augustine's
hierarchy of prophets William Kerrigan, Prophetic Milton, 29.
(52) Origen connects these images and the text to which
they refer (from Luke 7:36-48) with Canticles, a tradition which became part
of Mary Magdalen's iconography. Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary
and Homilies, trans. and annotated by R.P. Lawson, Ancient Christian Writers:
The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 26 (Westminster, : Newman Press,
1957), 160-1. For a more detailed discussion of this iconographic tradition,
see Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (New York: Harcourt
Brace, 1993), 91, 219-20.
(53) “Show Me Dear Christ,” Complete English Poems of
John Donne, ed. C.A. Patrides (London: Dent, 1985), p. 446, line 4.
(54) Haskins, Mary Magdalen, p.94. See also
Walter S.H. Lim, "Adam, Eve, and Biblical Analogy in Paradise Lost,"
SEL 30 (1990), 115-131. Lim notes in particular the repetition
of this association of Eve with Mary Magdalene in Book 10, lines 910-18.
See also Catherine Gimelli Martin, "Ithuriel's Spear: Purity, Danger, and
Allegory at the Gates of Eden", SEL 33 (1993), 167-90, and Margo
Swiss, “Repairing Androgyny: Eve’s Tears in Paradise Lost”, Speaking
(55) See for instance paintings by Elisabetta Sirani, Francesco
Furini, Correggio and Orazio Gentileschi, in Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen,
264-5, 304-5. On her role as prophetic "illuminatrix," see Haskins,
pp.220 & 226.
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