As Eric Song shows in this provocative book, Milton’s creation spanned not just the ordered universe but chaos as well. While the arguments he puts forward are in a somewhat chaotic style, this book deserves very careful study as it contains many gems of insight.
Most books about Milton concentrate on Paradise Lost, but Song looks at a wider panoply ranging from his early poems to his last prose work, Of True Religion (1673), where he correctly states that “Popery, as being idolatrous, is not to be tolerated either in Public or in Private.”
I found his analysis of the story of Samson particularly intriguing. It is contained in a work entitled Samson Agonistes, which was added to Paradise Regained, another work much less well known than Paradise Lost. At the heart of the story of Samson, Song detects a riddle that elucidates many of the elements he discusses in this book. It comes from Samson’s line that reads “Be less abstruse, my riddling days are past.”
This line by Milton was inspired by Samson’s original riddle from the Bible: “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” What all this was leading up to was that Samson turned his experience of eating honey from a lion’s carcass into a riddle for the Philistines, but when his first wife (a Philistine herself) gave them the answer, he killed 30 of them and annulled his marriage. (Not exactly sane behaviour, but we are talking here of Biblical figures. His second marriage to the infamous Dalila did not turn out to be a role model for marriage either).
From this tall tale that Milton worked into his poem Samson Agonistes, Song divines that “Milton’s Samson wants to put the riddle of gender relations behind him rather than genuinely solving it. He will return once and for all to his father’s house as a dead hero. Yet his fate suggests that even this conclusion does not free his identity from its riddle.”
Song goes on to say that “Upon Samson’s riddle converge the various motifs that I have been tracing across Milton’s 1671 poems: bodily purity, gendered and sexual identity, familial versus public knowledge, and the way all these factors beset the typological settlement of Hebraic past and Christian future.”
There are many other fascinating elements in this book; the trick is trying to relate one section to another, as the threads are sometimes rather tangled. In the context of his discussion about chaos, I was surprised he did not reference the book Space and ‘March of Mind’ by Alice Jenkins which devotes a whole chapter to the subject as it relates to Milton and subsequent poetry.
The section about relating country house poetry of the 1600s with Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost is quite engaging. “At once a country house, Near Eastern garden, and colony designed to replicate the imperial center,” writes Song, “Eden occupies an unstable middle ground in God’s kingdom.”
As Song says in conclusion, “Milton’s writings may aspire to universality, but they emerge from an impasse that precludes any path to universalism. Their ultimate value cannot lie in prescriptions but rests in acts of reading that bind spiritual and political impulses together through a poetic medium that affects both mind and body.” Song, who is assistant professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College, has given us new perspectives that will certainly generate more spirited debate in what he characterises as the “robust afterlife” of Milton’s writings.
There is a typo on pg 60: “at naïve” should be “as naïve”
Dominion Undeserved: Milton & the Perils of Creation (215 pages) is $49.95 from Cornell University Press.