10. God and Mammon: The Wealth of Literary Memory

Professor John
Rogers: Traditionally in Renaissance literature,
the muses — and this will be familiar to many of you — the
muses are thought to be the daughters of Memory,
and the nine muses up on Mount Helicon — that’s where the
muses are believed to have lived — are the offspring of the
goddess of memory, whose name in the Greek is
Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne, whose name is
spelled with some difficulty, is spelled on the lower part of
your handout. Now, there’s an important
reason for this genealogy, the idea that the muses are the
daughter of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.
In the Renaissance, the most potent source of
poetic inspiration was often believed to be the poet’s own
memory, the degree to which the poet
could call up, just out of sheer recall,
literary topoi or commonplaces stored in his or
her memory from a lifetime of reading.
Milton himself, and this seems to be true,
is said to have had one of the most capacious,
one of the largest memories in English letters.
This is the effect that we get, I think, from reading Milton —
is this notion that he seems to have had one of the largest
memories imaginable and that he’s remembered just about
everything he’s ever read.Now we know that Milton
was blind probably well before the time he began writing
Paradise Lost, and therefore,
of course, he was then unable to read.
Even though there were people, mostly young men,
willing and able to read to him,
it’s clear that the vast quantity of learning that gets
poured — all of that erudition that gets poured into the pages
of Paradise Lost — it’s clear that this is not a product
of Milton’s last-minute review of the classics.
This learning springs from the recesses of Milton’s memory.
I take this to be an undeniable fact, but this is easy for us to
say — it’s easy for us to say that it’s Milton’s memory which
is the fount of so much of the poem’s erudition.
It’s easy for us to say that it was Milton’s memory that
facilitated his grasp of the Christian and the classical
traditions.But I think Milton would probably feel a
little uncomfortable with our easy attribution of so much of
the poem’s learning to his memory.
That’s because to suggest — just think of it — to suggest
that Milton is relying on his memory as he composes so
allusively and so dependently, in a lot of ways,
so much of Paradise Lost — to say that is simply to say
that the poem has been generated by Milton and not by God.
Milton has expended, we know, a considerable amount
of energy in establishing what he wants us,
I am assuming, to believe is the divine
authority behind the poem. This poem, Milton tells us
again and again, has been authorized by that
same Holy Spirit who had inspired Moses to write the Book
of Genesis. And so in order to make an
extraordinary claim for divine authorization,
Milton has to defend against this notion that I just began
this lecture with: the idea that memory is on some
level really at the source of Milton’s poetic inspiration
because to rely on memory is simply in some sense is to admit
that this is just one more epic. It’s to admit that this is in
fact a late epic and that it derives from a close,
studious, student-like imitation of the great epics of
Homer and Virgil.Now you’ll remember from our discussion of
the opening invocation to Paradise Lost,
that insistent bid that Milton was making:
the bid to be first. His adventurous song is one
that “with no middle flight intends to soar / above th’
Aonian Mount, while it pursues things
unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.”
And so it was with such pride that he declared that this poem
was going to soar above all of its classical predecessors,
but the category [laughs] “Prose or Rhyme” is a large
one. It covers just about
everything, I would have to say, and the literary spectrum from
prose to rhyme, of course, would have to
include the Bible as well. There’s even the suggestion
here that Milton will be pursuing things unattempted yet
even in holy scripture. That is an extraordinary claim
for the poem’s originality.But it’s a
difficult claim because even as Milton makes this claim,
he manages to undermine its force.
Merritt Hughes usefully notes this in one of the notes at the
bottom of the page, that Milton in that line,
“things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme,” Milton’s
actually alluding to the opening of another romance epic.
This is the Orlando Furioso by the great
sixteenth-century Italian poet Ariosto.
What is happening? [laughs]
Milton had borrowed this claim for an absolute originality.
He’s taken it from somebody else, and in doing so I think
he’s doing this deliberately; he’s exposing some of the
darker ironies behind his own literary ambition.
It’s a good sort of question that gets raised in such a
problematic allusion: how do you set out to write an
original poem within such a conventional genre like the
epic? What does it mean to be
inspired to write by the Christian Holy Spirit when your
epic, in fact, just imitates a whole
array of classical pagan conventions?
How can you write an original poem when your literary
consciousness is essentially made up of the memory of all the
things that you’ve read before?This is what I’ll be
proposing over the course of this lecture:
that memory is a problem that Paradise Lost is
continually confronting. So much of the pathos of
Satan’s fallen condition involves his painful memory of
that blissful state in heaven from which he had fallen.
The problem of memory is just as important to the
psychological dynamics of the fall of Adam and Eve,
but as we will see when we look at Book Four,
surely it’s the problem of the poet’s memory that’s the most
troubling in Paradise Lost. Milton’s own faculty of
memory — this is the idea that I’m going to be floating here —
seems to provide something like, or pose a stumbling block or an
obstacle for, his attempt to write an
original, divinely inspired poem.
I want to suggest in this lecture something that will
initially sound, I assume,
like a peculiar formulation: there’s a strange way in which
Milton has to imagine himself losing his memory if he’s
actually going to open himself up to the muses’ inspiration and
the inspiration of the Christian,
the heavenly, muse. There’s a sense in which Milton
will have to forget everything he’s learned up to this point.
There are some important signs, I think, especially in the
first two books of Paradise Lost of what we can think of
as Milton’s — it’s a literary fantasy,
a literary fantasy of forgetfulness.As you may
well have gleaned from your reading,
the first books of the poem are particularly absorbed with the
idea of forgetting, because more than any other
part of Paradise Lost they display so
ostentatiously the remarkable scope of Milton’s own memory.
These books are without question more heavily allusive
than any other books in the epic.
They are steeped in the entire literary tradition of the
underworld journey that stretches from The Odyssey
of Homer up through Virgil’s Aeneid,
and of course up through all of the Renaissance
romance epics. And it’s important to remember
that Milton will — this is probably an invariable truth,
but I’ll qualify it nonetheless — that Milton will typically
imitate his predecessors only with a difference.
He usually takes pains (for example, in his great depiction
of hell in Books One and Two) to avoid the standard epic scenes
of the torture of the damned, for example,
with which we’re familiar if we’ve read Homer or Virgil or,
of course, Dante much later.There are
nonetheless a few details from the classical underworld that he
seems to have lifted more or less wholesale and one of them
— I’m going to ask you to look at page 246 in the Hughes.
This is line 582 of Book Two.
One of these little details that Milton has lifted rather
directly is that of the river Lethe,
the river of oblivion that was believed to flow in the
underworld. It’s a river that,
I think, all classical writers, and a lot of Renaissance
writers, are very comfortable placing in the underworld.
So this is Book Two, line 582, Milton:
Far off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion rolls Her wat’ry
Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,Forthwith his former
state and being forgets, Forgets both joy and
grief, pleasure and pain. So in this context,
the river of oblivion serves an obvious purpose in the context
we have here in Book Two. To drink from this river would
allow the fallen angels to forget their fallen state,
to forget the fact of their fallen-ness from their more
blissful former condition. On some level,
forgetfulness would just ease the grievousness of this
miserable new psychological dynamic with which they are
tormented.But there’s also, I think, a deeper sense in
which Milton himself might want to drink from this slow and
silent stream. If Milton could silence — see
what you think of this — all of his literary memories,
perhaps he could better guarantee his fresh intake of
inspiration from the Christian heavenly muse.
It’s a fantasy, of course, because no such
brainwashing is going to be possible,
just as the fallen angels — if you look at line 607 — will be
barred from drinking their fill of the river Lethe,
forgetfulness is impossible. The fallen angels, they:
… wish and struggle,
as they pass, to reachThe tempting
stream, with one small drop to loseIn sweet forgetfulness
all pain and woe, All in one moment,
and so near the brink;But Fate withstands,
and to oppose th’ attemptMedusa with Gorgonian
terror guardsThe Ford, and of it self the water
fliesAll taste of living wight, as once it fledThe
lip of Tantalus. It’s an amazing passage because
in a lot of ways, I think, Milton is actually
directly enacting for us, the reader, the impossibility
of such sweet forgetfulness. As soon as he describes the
impossibility of forgetting, a flood of classical figures
pours into his own narration. They pour with such a force,
I think, that Milton permits — I think this is a significant
rift that fissures or fractures the otherwise seamless text that
we have in Book Two. I’m convinced that there’s
something very strange going on.Standing in the Lethe of
Milton’s hell is none other than the classical figure,
the figure from classical mythology, Medusa.
You know Medusa. She has the power with her
snaky locks to turn men into stone, and so this seems to be
unique — I don’t know of any predecessor that Milton had for
this: Medusa, having been placed by Milton in
the river Lethe, in the Christian underworld,
can prevent, of course, the fallen angels
from drinking the waters of oblivion.
Such is her power. But we have every right to ask
what Medusa — this is a figure from Greek mythology — what
Medusa is doing in a Christian hell.
There are, of course, dozens of figures taken from
the texts of classical mythology who are alluded to throughout
the first two books, but invariably they appear,
just as Tantalus does in this very passage,
within the context of a simile. They’re not actually present in
the real world of Milton’s hell, or if it’s a pagan god who’s
mentioned, Milton will tell us that the
pagan god was just an early manifestation of one of the
fallen angels.But at least within the context of the
present narration, the figures mentioned in
Milton’s hell are all former inhabitants of the Christian
heaven. And the fallen angels
themselves — Satan, Moloch, Belial,
Mammon, and Beelzebub — these are all demons who were drawn
from the Judeo-Christian tradition of demonology.
They’ve been clearly been hurled into hell by a
Judeo-Christian deity. So this little moment,
this Medusa moment, we can call it,
is really quite strange. In the midst of all of the
Judeo-Christian realism, we have standing here a
decidedly pagan — and I think this is not uninteresting — a
decidedly female presence. You’ll correct me if I’m wrong,
but I think I’m right to insist that this is a unique phenomenon
in these books.I think there’s actually a reason for
this aberration. Medusa can turn men into stone.
She subjects them to that posture of absolute paralysis
that we’ve seen represented in a number of the early poems.
The Lady, the Lady in Milton’s mask, was stuck to her seat in
the presence of the Shakespearian magician Comus,
and Milton himself had claimed in the poem “On Shakespeare”
that Shakespeare “dost make us Marble with too much
conceiving.” Shakespeare can turn us to
marble because he can fill our imaginations and leave us
incapable of thinking for ourselves,
incapable of maneuvering around, or moving around,
on our own. I think it’s possible to see
Medusa here as an emblem or some sort of figure for a similarly
paralyzing power. You could think of Medusa as
Milton’s counter-muse. If Milton’s true muse,
or so he hopes or so he wants us to believe,
has a Christian origin, then this counter-muse is
unquestionably classical. She’s a daughter of Mnemosyne,
the goddess of memory, and she represents that force
that prevents Milton from forgetting all of the pagan and
all of the classical literature that,
of course, he had spent so much of his life reading.Now I
asked you to read for today, and I’m hoping you remember
some of the reading, the canto from Spenser’s
Faerie Queene that features the cave of Mammon.
The cave of Mammon is the home of Mammon, the money god,
who stores in his cave all of the wealth and all of the honor
that human beings spend so much energy striving for.
Now Spenser’s hero in Book Two of the Faerie Queene is
Sir Guyon, and Sir Guyon descends into Mammon’s Cave —
it’s a Spenserian underworld — and it’s in Mammon’s Cave that
he is tempted by the money god himself.
This little bit of the Faerie Queene is
important for Milton in all sorts of ways.
It’s first of all a depiction of an underworld,
and so it provides Milton with an important Christian
representation of a hell. In that respect,
it has a kind of priority over the hells or the underworlds of
Homer and Virgil. It also provides Milton with
the figure of Mammon who will, as you will see over the course
of this semester become — well, here in Paradise Lost
he’s one of the key fallen angels in Milton’s hell.
Mammon actually seems to represent the Miltonic position,
or that position in the debate in hell that seems to resemble
most closely Milton’s own moral temperament,
we could say; and you’ll see at the end of
this semester that Spenser’s cave of Mammon canto is even
more central to Milton’s sequel to Paradise Lost,
which is Paradise Regained, which in many ways
is a more or less close rewriting of Spenser’s story
with Satan playing the role of Mammon and Christ in the role of
Sir Guyon, the hero.Now you also may
remember that we have already run into Spenser’s Mammon before
this point, before Paradise Lost.
Mammon had surfaced — I’m testing your memories here — in
the text of Areopagitica. Because this is one of the most
famous passages in the treatise, and it’s not one that we
actually looked at for Mammon himself,
I’m going to ask you to turn to Areopagitica.
This is page 728 in the Hughes, the right-hand
column. This is where Milton began to
consider the problem of temptation that,
of course, will become so important to Paradise Lost.
Here though, Milton is talking about the
temptation of reading classical literature.
This is an argument that we’ve examined before.
Read everything you can, Milton insists,
because only then can you overcome what he thinks of and
characterizes as the temptation of reading.
So in the right-hand column of 728:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,
unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees
her adversary, but slinks out of the race
where that immortal garland is to be run for,
not without dust and heat. [I’m going to skip a couple
lines here.] …
[W]hich was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser,
whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or
Aquinas [Scotus and Aquinas are medieval philosophers]
describing true temperance under the person of Guion,
brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon,
and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know,
and yet abstain. Spenser’s cave of Mammon is
central to Milton’s understanding of the Christian’s
resistance of temptation, the temptation posed in
Areopagitica by scandalous and seemingly
non-virtuous books. Spenser, Milton argues here,
knows the importance of reading everything, the Miltonic
position. However evil those books are in
and of themselves, we have to read them so that we
might see and know and yet abstain.Now this passage is
famous for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it’s
wonderful. It’s juicy evidence that
provides for Milton’s intense fondness for — we might even
think of it as a passion for — this earlier English poet.
The passage is also famous because in it Milton does
something that he almost never does.
Milton has made a mistake. John Milton has made a mistake.
He’s made a literary mistake and, as I think all editors
know, Spenser does not. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie
Queene does not bring Sir Guyon with his palmer through
the cave of Mammon. Guyon descends in to the cave
of Mammon by himself. The palmer has been Guyon’s
guide up to this point, his teacher.
The palmer accompanies him on all of his adventures but this
one, and Spenser in stanza two of this canto makes a big deal
of the fact that Guyon is descending in to the Cave of
Mammon by himself. He’s been separated from his
guide, his teacher, the palmer.Milton seems
actually to have forgotten something is.
His memory has failed him and, given the general importance
that I’m attributing to problems of remembering and forgetting,
I think it’s safe to assume that something important is
going on here. The temptations that Mammon
offers Guyon are literally within the story itself
temptations of wealth, but they’re also temptations to
the wealth of classical learning, the wealth of the
entire classical heritage. You’ll remember that Mammon has
a special place within his cave that’s called the garden of
Proserpine, and the Garden of Proserpine
has within it all of the central symbols of pagan wisdom and of
beautiful epic literature. Perhaps you’ll remember,
too, that Tantalus is present in the cave of Mammon,
literary temptation being as important as all other
temptations in this canto of Spenser’s.
The temptations of classical literature are so genuinely
tempting to Milton that he finds it impossible to imagine that
Guyon could have seen and known and yet abstained from them
without the aid of his teacher, the palmer.You’ll note in
this passage from Areopagitica that Milton
himself calls Spenser a teacher. He’s a better teacher than
Scotus or Aquinas, and the text seems almost to
suggest that Milton can’t do without his own teacher,
Edmund Spenser. Milton needs Spenser — this is
an argument that’s been amplified at some length and
really quite brilliantly by John Guillory in the book Poetic
Authority — Milton needs Spenser to serve as the
Christian poet who can help Milton fight off the temptations
of pagan poets like Homer and Virgil;
or perhaps Spenser is a poet who can help Milton fight off
the temptations of even a secular contemporary like
William Shakespeare. It’s almost as if the story of
Mammon’s temptations of Guyon has hit a raw nerve in Milton.
Milton’s lifelong susceptibility to this story,
and that will without question prove to be the case,
speaks to a truly profound ambivalence about the pleasure
to be derived from a reading of secular literature.
Milton seems genuinely ambivalent about all of the time
and all of the study that he has invested in his own education to
become an epic poet. I think that the metaphors of
investment here and of profit are especially applicable since
it’s the figure of Mammon who provides Milton with a literary
version of his economic account of poetic investment and poetic
profit.Let’s look at the first appearance of Mammon in
Paradise Lost. This is page 228 of the
Hughes, Book One, line 678.
Milton’s describing the landscape of hell,
and hell here, it turns out,
seems to resemble Milton’s heaven in that it contains deep
within it — and we would never have expected this — it
contains deep within it a soil that is hiding precious metals.
This is an underworld, of course, but there seems to
be another underworld resting just beneath it.
It’s an underworld filled with gold that a brigade of fallen
angels begins to extract with spades and pick axes.
So this is what Milton tells us at line 678:
Mammon led them on [this angelic brigade]Mammon,
the least erected Spirit that fellFrom
heav’n… And even in heaven,
we’re told Mammon was always looking down [laughs]
— it’s kind of a cute scene — Mammon was always looking down
at heaven’s golden pavement rather than contemplating the
more elevated figure, presumably, of the heavenly
father. And in line 684 we are told
this of Mammon: …
[B]y him firstMen also, and by his suggestion
taught,Ransack’d the Center, and with impious
handsRifl’d the bowels of thir mother EarthFor
Treasures better hid. Soon had his crewOp’nd into
the Hill a spacious woundAnd digg’d out ribs of Gold.
When we consider the degree of Milton’s anxieties about his own
attachment to classical learning,
I think we can see the significance of Mammon’s actions
here. The image of men,
and it’s a grotesque image, of men rifling the bowels of
their mother earth for treasures better hid — this is a
disgusting and terrifying image of a lot of things.
One of the things, I think, that it’s an image of
is the practice of literary excavation.
To ransack the intellectual treasures hidden away in the
landscape of literary history is an act, on some level,
of a kind of a violent desecration.
Milton, I think, would need to defend himself
from the implications of this act of violence.And so
Milton calls on none other than his teacher,
Spenser. Milton seems to have dug around
rather carefully in his copy of the Faerie Queene,
and he’s come up with this illusion.
You actually see this near the top of your handout,
the allusion from the Faerie Queene.
It’s the passage from Spenser’s cave of Mammon
canto that describes this same scene of violation,
the violation of mother earth. The first discovery of gold for
Spenser took place when “a cursed hand, the quiet womb / of
his great-grandmother with steel to wound…”
Spenser, just like Milton after him, seems to be associating the
digging of gold with the pursuit of a very literary past.
They’re on the same wave length here.Now it’s not entirely
clear that Milton has been successful in sufficiently
vilifying Mammon’s project of the excavation of riches.
I think in a lot of ways — and this could probably be said of
Spenser as well — Milton is attracted to the excavation
project. Look again at the sentence that
I just read, the last lines: Soon had his
crewOp’nd into the Hill a spacious woundAnd dig’d out
ribs of Gold.” The fallen angels may be —
okay, they may be violating mother earth,
not so great, but look what this violation
produces. Out of the wound are dug “ribs
of gold.” The image that seems initially
negative begins to resemble something, I think,
quite important and quite beautiful.
I’m thinking here of the creation of Eve.
Adam will tell us later — this is in Book Eight when Adam
recounts for us the creation of Eve — that God:
… op’n’d up my left side,
and tookFrom thence a Rib…[W]ide was the
wound…[but t]he Rib He form’d and fashion’d with his
hands. And when we remember that God
will dig a rib out of Adam’s wound in order to create the
beautiful, the golden Eve,
we realize how complicated, how complex and how ambivalent,
Milton’s little image is here at the beginning of the poem.
Milton is loading every rift of this passage with ore,
and there seems to be something at least provisionally — at
least for a moment, there seems to be something
potentially redemptive and potentially generative about the
activity of excavation that Milton is describing otherwise
so negatively here, that he’s condemning here.
Mammon uses this extracted gold to create that magnificent
structure Pandemonium, and the function of this
structure is implicit in its name.
Pandemonium comes from pan daimonium:
pan-demon. It’s the place where all of the
demons, all of the fallen angels, will congregate.
This is their political capital. This is where they will debate
their future and establish a new political institution.
This structure — and this is something that’s important for
Milton to convey to us — is genuinely beautiful.
It’s not entirely clear that Milton wants us to think of
Pandemonium as unambiguously evil.
Clearly, it’s evil in all sorts of ways.
This is the fallen institution established by the fallen angels
— but it’s more complicated than that.
Look at Milton’s description of the architect of Pandemonium.
This is the man who appears as the fallen angels enter the
building at line 732. The architect of Pandemonium is
Mulciber and: [H]is hand was
knownIn Heav’n by many a Tow’red structure high,Where
Scepter’d Angels held thir residenceAnd sat as
Princes… Mulciber was famous in heaven
for building beautiful palaces there, and Milton lets us know
that there isn’t actually that much of a difference,
at least in terms of architectural or aesthetic
quality, between the palaces of heaven and the palaces of hell.
For a moment at least, it’s almost as if there were a
strange moral equivalence between the palaces up there and
the palaces down here. A lot of the rigid moral
distinctions that the poem has actually been working rather
hard to establish are beginning to blur.
The line between good and evil is beginning to blur.
Look at Milton’s account of what happened to Mulciber later
on earth. This is line 739:
Nor was his name unheard or unador’dIn ancient
Greece; and in Ausonian landMen call’d
him Mulciber; and how he fellFrom Heav’n,
they fabl’d, thrown by angry JoveSheer
o’er the Crystal Battlements: from MornTo Noon he fell,
from Noon to dewy Eve,A Summers day;
and with the setting SunDropt from the Zenith
like a falling Star,On Lemnos th’ Ægean
Isle… Milton tell us that the story
of Mulciber in ancient Greece — in Homer’s account of The
Iliad, he tells us this story.
It’s actually the Homeric version of the story of Mulciber
that you have reproduced for you on the handout.
Milton is reminding us with this illusion of the punishment
of Mulciber and the punishment by implication of all of the
fallen angels by an angry God; but at the very moment that
he’s telling us of Mulciber’s punishment, he’s allowing
himself to dilate, to augment or to expand,
this beautiful little nugget that’s been excavated from the
pages of Homer, and he allows himself to linger
over its beauty. Just look at those lines again:
[F]rom MornTo Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy
Eve,A Summer’s day. I propose that for a moment,
we almost forget what’s actually being described in the
passage. It’s as if the story of
Mulciber’s punishment has come to a standstill.
Of course, it’s with no small help from Milton’s incredibly
elastic blank verse here that the headlong rush of Mulciber’s
fall has been drawn to a provisional stop.
It’s been drawn out and spatial-ized.
It’s as if it’s been spatial-ized into a scene of a
beautiful summer’s day, and we’re left contemplating
not the punishment of evil but — I don’t know,
one of the things we’re left contemplating is the sheer
beauty of Homeric poetry. Milton has dug up a gem from
the pages of The Iliad, and this gem
has something like a Medusa effect on the poem or perhaps on
us as readers. Time almost seems to stop when
we begin appreciating this image solely on aesthetic
grounds.But Milton, of course, is a Christian poet,
and he will not allow time to stop forever;
for as soon as he explains that Mulciber fell like a star on
Lemnos, the Ægean Isle, he adds this:
[T]hus they relate,Erring;
for he with this rebellious routFell long
before… This is so mean. Just as we were beginning to
appreciate the loveliness of the classical tradition,
Milton reminds us — once again he reestablishes the moral poles
of good and evil: “hus they relate,
/ erring.” Who cares?
Who cares what Homer says? What did Homer or any of
Homer’s contemporaries know about Mulciber?
Mulciber fell long before Homer because Mulciber fell long
before the creation of the earth — and it’s Milton,
and it’s no other poet before Milton, who’s finally able to
set the record straight. Milton’s insisting here that
all of the pagan deities had originally been fallen angels.
He’s providing us with something of a prehistory of
classical mythology, a prehistory of classical
mythology that had, of course, been completely
unknown to Homer and Virgil, naturally, because they didn’t
have the benefit of the Christian story of the fall of
the rebel angels.Now without doubt this is a dubious theory
of classical anthropology. Milton probably knows that;
but it’s a theory that serves an obviously useful function for
Milton. It allows the poet to
appropriate all of the classical literature that he wants to
because in the end he’ll be able to correct that literature.
He can compare the myths of Homer — the earliest myths we
have — he can compare them directly to the time scheme of
Christian history and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that
his own version, that Milton’s own version,
of the story comes first. Milton may be writing after
Homer, but the story he’s telling comes first.
This is one of the primary strategies that Milton develops,
especially in the first two books of Paradise Lost,
as a kind of defense against his dependence on
classical literature.Now Milton may not be able to forget
Homer, but he is able to correct Homer
or to preempt Homer. Let’s look at a later
manifestation of Mammon. This is in Book Two, line 249.
This is page 238 of the Hughes, Book Two,
line 249. This is Mammon’s speech during
the great consult in hell. The subject of the debate has
been the nature of the fallen angels’ political future:
essentially, the question is where do we go
from here? Moloch, you’ll remember,
is the military general who will risk absolutely anything
for revenge. Belial is the lovely
intellectual, the intellectual seeking peace
and who prizes above all things his intellectual freedom:
our thoughts, as Belial puts it,
our “thoughts that wander through eternity.”
Mammon is the profiteer. Mammon is the goldsmith’s son
who wants to invest his talents with labor and with hard work in
order to show a profit. Mammon’s advice is thus not to
seek revenge on heaven or to give up, as Belial is
counseling, in despair but to cultivate all
of the rich resources that we have down here in hell.
So line 249 of Book Two: Let us [this is Mammon]
not then pursueBy force impossible, by leave
obtain’dUn&a grave;cceptable,
though in Heav’n, our stateOf splendid
vassalage, but rather seekOur own good from
ourselves…[T]hough in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferringHard
liberty before the easy yokeOf servile Pomp.
And a few lines down Mammon tells us that we will “work ease
out of pain / through labour and endurance.”
He’s offering us essentially an economic model that,
I think, we as readers of Milton recognize.
This is the model of investment and profit that had
characterized Jesus’ parable of the talents.
It’s the model of investment and profit that characterized so
many of Milton’s own early writings,
including that promise, you’ll remember,
to his fellow Englishmen that he would one day produce a work
of literature that his countrymen would not willingly
let die.Now for my money, it’s Belial who gives us the
most beautiful and the most seductive contribution to the
debate in hell, but it has got to be Mammon who
most resembles Milton himself. It’s Mammon that comes closest
to Milton’s own — this puritan ethos of disciplined liberty,
hard work, and this kind of absolute self-sufficiency.
In so many ways it seems that Mammon is actually echoing a lot
of the political prose that Milton had written a decade
before. It’s almost as if in the
character of Mammon, we have Milton’s parody of
himself. That cry, “Let us seek our own
good from ourselves” — it’s a perfect Miltonic tag for the
first two books of Paradise Lost.
Milton is always seeking a good from himself that is
morally superior to the good of his classical predecessors.
Milton refuses the state of splendid vassalage to a kingly
poet like Homer. He’s continually seeking a good
from within his own religious and from within his own literary
sensibility.Now in these two books we’ve seen Milton dig up
and discard just about the entire [laughs]
tradition of epic poetry. It’s at the end of Book two
that Milton seems to complete this process,
this process of a trashing of his literary predecessors.
It’s here at the end of the second book that Milton is
finally ready to embrace the poetics of his better teacher,
Edmund Spenser, and out of nowhere — and I
know that all first-time readers of Paradise Lost are
surprised by this — we have Milton engaging the fine art of
Spenserian allegory. So let me remind you of what’s
happening. Satan flies out of hell.
He journeys heroically through chaos in order to find that new
planet that he had heard about in heaven,
and he’s stopped by a figure who holds the keys to hell’s
gate and who can determine who is able to leave and who is able
to enter.Now it goes without saying that Milton has not been
up to this point writing an allegorical poem.
The creatures moving and speaking have been actual
creations of the deity, with the strange exception of
Medusa. They have a substantial reality
within the fictional context, the mimetic context,
of this epic. These are angels.
They are individual creatures who seem really to be in hell
just as they seem really to have been in heaven;
but the figures of Sin and Death, they are entirely
different animals. They are mere personifications
of abstract ideas, and it’s not at all clear that
Sin and her son, Death, exist as individual
entities in the same way, or on the same plane,
that Satan does, for example, or Beelzebub.
It’s reasonable, I think, to invoke Dr.
Johnson here, Samuel Johnson,
who writes in his Life of Milton that Milton’s (I love
this) unskillful allegory appears to be one of the
greatest faults of the poem. Whenever Johnson is being
arrogant and mean about Paradise Lost,
invariably he’s on to something,
and here he’s telling us that Milton’s gone too far.
He’s taken his allegory too far. He permits a real character
like Satan to interact with a merely allegorical or symbolic
character like Sin. The effect for Johnson — and
who can say that this is — that Johnson is wrong?
— involves an awkward collision of different artistic
modes and entirely distinct planes of reality.I don’t
know. If you’ve ever seen a movie —
well, there are lots of movies that do this;
one of the first movies that did this was “Who Killed Roger
Rabbit?” — if that’s something you’re
familiar with — in which the interaction of real people with
what are called “Toons” in that film is part of the film’s
pleasure. The boundary between different
levels of reality is crossed. Milton’s performing a similar
boundary-crossing aesthetic gesture here.
Now it might be morally useful to talk about the forces of Sin
and Death as if they were actual moral agents,
but it makes no sense within the mimetic narrative that
Milton has created for us here in this realistic poem.
I think that Milton is acutely self-conscious of the uncertain
status that these allegorical characters that he has invented
have. And so I’m going to propose
this: the idea that Milton’s own allegory, while it is a serious
allegory and it’s performing all sorts of work that I don’t have
time to talk about, is at the same time a critique
of allegory.Look at the description of Sin.
This is line 648 on page 247 of the Hughes:
Before the Gates there satOn either side a
formidable shape;The one seem’d Woman to the waist,
and fair,But ended foul in many a scaly foldVoluminous
and vast, a Serpent arm’dWith mortal
sting. Now those of you who have taken
English 125 or any course that has asked you to read Spenser
will recognize almost instantly I think,
I hope, Milton’s literary depth. At the very moment that Milton
is beginning his own attempt at allegory, he alludes to the most
famous allegorical character by England’s most famous
allegorical poet. This is Errour,
the filthy dragoness who charms us, or doesn’t charm us,
in the first canto of the first book of the Faerie Queene.
Like Milton’s Sin, Spenser’s Errour is half woman,
half serpent, and in a lot of ways she
embodies the very problem of religious error.
Dr. Johnson is right to suggest
that Milton’s use of Spenserian allegory only invites a
confusion of what are essentially disparate and
irreconcilable categories; but what Johnson doesn’t seem
to understand is that the confusion is precisely Milton’s
point. It doesn’t make sense to speak
of sin and death as if they were living entities capable of
action and actual influence, as if they were living entities
moving about as agents in the world.And why is that?
Within the perspective of Milton’s free-will theology,
sin can’t exist as an external reality.
It can’t exist as a force that conceives a human individual
from the outside without that individual’s consent because we
all freely sin. No one can be compelled to do
anything within the Miltonic theology of free will.
Sin can only exist as the product of individual choices
that freely willing people, like Adam and Eve or like Satan
before his fall, make and for Milton to parse
the world into rigidly determined categories like good
and evil, or sin and virtue,
is simply to be guilty of intellectual error.
This isn’t how the world works in — this isn’t the Miltonic
universe. Milton is alluding so
unashamedly here to Spenser’s Errour because,
I think, on some level he wants to brand
Spenserian allegory as an erroneous literary
practice.Now we’ve seen Milton do this before.
He uses — and I’m thinking of “uses” in a pejorative way — a
poet like Homer to extract what beauty he can from deep within
the Homeric minds, and then he does that only to
turn on Homer with that devastating dismissal:
“hus they relate, / erring.”
He doesn’t even give Homer the credit of [laughs]
being singular in having composed The Iliad.
“They” — who’s “they”? He can’t even bring himself to
say, “Thus he relates, erring,” so powerful is this
defense against Homer. Homer was in error,
Milton told us, and Milton called on the moral
voice of Spenser to help him make that moral judgment against
Homer. But one of Milton’s projects in
Paradise Lost is to effect his forgetting of all of
his literary precursors. That means that he has to expel
from his system not just Homer, not just Virgil and Dante,
but also his better teacher, Edmund Spenser.
It’s almost as if we can hear Milton say, after he’s given his
own really quite elaborate display of allegorical poetry,
“Thus Spenser relates, erring.”Now in 1644 when he
wrote the Areopagitica, Milton may have forgotten
that Spenser’s Guyon did in fact descend in to hell without the
help of his teacher, the palmer.
For Milton then, at least at that point in his
career, his literary career, such a trip without a guide may
well have seemed unthinkable. The temptations of the wealth
of classical literature represented by Mammon perhaps
were too powerful to resist alone;
but now in the 1660s I think it’s possible to see a way in
which Milton finally gets the story right.
He realizes now that it is possible, perhaps it is
possible, for the Christian poet to descend into the literary
underworld alone, just as it was possible for Sir
Guyon in the actual Faerie Queene to descend in to the
cave of Mammon alone. Milton surveys the wealth of
literary tradition before him, and he resists its allure
without the help of any human guide.
He can reject the beauty of Homer, he can reject the beauty
of Virgil, but he can also reject — and this has got to be
an even greater challenge, perhaps — he can also reject
the help of his Christian teacher, Edmund Spenser.And
so I’m going to leave you here at the end of this lecture less
with a conclusion than with a paradox.
I think that Milton in Paradise Lost finally
remembers what actually happened in Spenser’s cave of Mammon,
how the hero triumphed alone, but Milton remembers this
particular Spenserian story only once he has successfully
forgotten Spenser — only once he has set aside fully his
teacher’s style of poetry.Okay.
That’s it for today. Next time reread for the third
time — you will be repaid by your dedication — Books One and
Two, this time focusing on the similes.
Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of class,
read the essays by Stanley Fish and Geoffrey Hartman.

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