The other week, a friend was helping us take down our storm windows, and my job was to hold the bottom of the ladder and keep it stable. He commented that they also serve who only stand and wait; this was more apposite than he realized, since it is the last line of John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, in which he worries that he will be unable to contribute anything useful because his light has burned out “Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.” “Dark world and wide” is good, really good, and Milton’s struggle with disability lends him a personal appeal that to some degree offsets his tendency to get all magisterial.
Still, when I saw that the BGL was offering a bio called John Milton: A Hero for Our Time, it seemed a bit much. My guess is that the author had in mind JM’s politics, and if forced to choose, I would say that he was on the right side in the Civil War (a Parliamentarian Roundhead rather than a Royalist Cavalier), though the Cromwell administration in which he served as Latin Secretary (somewhat analogous to Foreign Minister) didn’t exactly have an unblemished humanitarian record; for example, Cromwell was remembered very well, and not very fondly, in Ireland. Milton also gets credit for advocating freedom of the press in Areopagitica, in which he argued that all opinions should have a chance to compete so that the truth might emerge…all Protestant opinions, that is—Catholic books should be burned, of course. As for Milton’s gender politics, well, it’s almost enough to make me want to read the book to find out how that can be salvaged.
The JM I encountered when I first became an English major was a hero of sorts, a tragically conflicted one torn between a sense that love calls us to the things of this world (h/t Richard Wilbur) and a crushing and ultimately victorious superego that needed to curb and throttle our most human impulses. My teacher, Toni McNaron, seemed pretty exotic at the time: the Alabama accent, the rather butch personal style, the tendency to wax lyrical over the big sexy horse-butts in Delacroix paintings. But returning to Paradise Lost now, I find a Milton who is pretty much her Milton, and the weird stuff she said is, mutandis mutatis, the kind of thing I would say.
One of the big surprises, in Paradise Lost is that Adam and Eve have sex. Milton comes right out and says that abstinence is thesort of thing Satan would advocate, and one can’t help applauding him for it. Another surprise for me was the insistence on pruning and tidying the Garden—Adam has an obsession with yardwork that would put Hank Hill to shame. The mania for ordering and controlling vegetation forms an odd contrast to Milton’s lush and sensual portrait of the flowers in Eden, all the more notable because the visceral impact of colors becomes muted for us blind people.
Similarly, Milton’s insistence that innocence is perfectly compatible with sexual pleasure doesn’t mean that he was free of the impulse toward domination and repression. Here hi is, describing the first couple as only a little below the angels (4.295ff):
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seemd;
For contemplation hee and valour formd,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthin Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
Shee as a vail down to the slender waste
Her unadorned golden tresses wore [ 305 ]
Disheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receivd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, [ 310 ]
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
One striking thing is how, though Milton insists there was no shame in their nakedness, her hair is a “veil,” and its untidiness (“disheveled” and even “wanton”) requires a manly authority to put it in “subjection.” Adam shows his greater godly restraint by sticking to what I guess is an Edenic mullet.
And notice that Milton finds the idea of female desire too scary even to be addressed. Adam is pretty hot, but “hyacinthine” likens him to Hyacinthus, the favorite lover of Apollo (it didn’t work out, one day the boys were all stripped and oiled for some manly fun but Apollo accidentally bonked H on the head with a discus and killed him). That is, Milton finds it less frightening to talk about Adam as the object of male desire. And when he come to Eve, he gets almost incoherent—his syntax is always pretty bizarre, but that last sentence is so tortured that it makes me think Milton was being torn between communication and avoidance.
The meaning confirms this, for Eve may aloowed to have sex, but she is not allowed to want it. It has to be a form of submission, her reluctance overcome by Adam’s domination, or it’s no good. And indeed, Milton later elaborates on the idea that Eve is not attracted to Adam in his rather bizarre account of Eve’s awakening. Not sure who or what she is, she goes to a pond and admires the hot babe she sees reflected in the water. She would, like Narcisses, have fallen in love with the image of herself, but a voice tells her to come away. Seeing Adam, she notes that he isn’t nearly as cute as the girl in the pond, and runs away, but he runs after and grabs her, and later she decides that only manly wisdom is “truly fair.” She doesn’t sound all that convinced.
So Milton’s promising gesture toward valorizing pleasure ends up being co-opted in the service of dominance and submission. I understand that JM was an old-timey guy, and people had old-timey opinions, but actually his was a time of great turmoil and diversity of opinion, including pamphlets advocating the equality of the sexes. At a less extreme level, 17th-century Protestants were instrumental in forming a new idea of marriage as not simply an arrangement for labor and reproduction but a source of intimate friendship and genuine partnership. JM could have done better than “He for God only, she for God in him,” which implies that Eve is as far below Adam as Adam is below God.
And it gets worse. Here is Eve, responding to Adam’s rather innocuous assertion that it’s time to get horizontal:
To whom thus Eve with perfet beauty adornd.
My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst [ 635 ]
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more
Is womans happiest knowledge and her praise.
A hero for our time? To paraphrase the homophobic slogan, it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Fido.