For a poet so bent to “prompt the age to quit their clogs / By the known rules of ancient liberty” that he even freed his “Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming,” Milton populates the cosmos of Paradise Lost with a surprising number of walls and boundaries.1 These bounds are by no means the work of Satan’s impious crew, but of God, who circumscribes heaven with a crystal wall of undetermined shape, hell with a fiery, adamantine wall, and paradise with a verdurous one. In spite of the power of the God who created them, Satan transgresses each of these walls over the course of the poem: heaven’s wall opens to expel him and his legions; his paramour and daughter Sin unlocks the adamantine gates of hell; and he enters paradise twice, once by overleaping the wall and once by involving himself in a mist. Milton’s God carefully delineates the boundaries of the three realms, only to allow his archenemy to breach them with ease.
Both the ubiquity and the permeability of boundaries in Milton’s cosmos derive from his understanding of liberty, which consists not [End Page 107] in freedom from all constraint but in the ability to use reason to circumscribe oneself.2 His well-known account of self-esteem in The Reason of Church-Government promotes just such self-binding:
But there is yet a more ingenuous and noble degree of honest shame, or call it, if you will an esteem, whereby men bear an inward reverence toward their own persons. And if the love of God,3 as a fire sent from heaven to be ever kept alive upon the altar of our hearts, be the first principle of all godly and virtuous actions in men, this pious and just honoring of ourselves is the second, and may be thought as the radical moisture and fountainhead, whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth. And although I have given it the name of a liquid thing, yet is it not incontinent to bound itself, as humid things are, but hath in it a most restraining and powerful abstinence to start back, and globe itself upward from the mixture of any ungenerous and unbeseeming motion or any soil wherewith it may peril to stain itself.(680)
Milton displays some doubt about the aptness of liquid as a metaphor for self-esteem: although the image of an overflowing fountain celebrates the brimming self-esteem of humanity and the scope of the human mind that can “range beyond the confines of the world,” liquid things fail to capture the self-defining and self-restricting aspect of self-esteem since they incontinently spill over all boundaries and limits (Prolusion 1, 607).4 For Milton, the free human soul must be both liquid and nonliquid, unbound and bound: it must be capable of wandering “beyond all limit and satiety,” but must also restrain itself from such wandering in order to fulfill God’s demand for “temperance, justice, continence” (Areopagitica, 733). Miltonic liberty lies in using reason to distinguish between the pure and the impure and then globing oneself upward from the mixture of vices, or, as J. B. Savage argues, “Freedom for Milton is merely the action of the soul in harmony with itself and with God. It is freedom within the scope of his true stature that Adam has been given, and from this it follows that, were he to exceed the limits of his own being by pursuit of things not properly belonging to him, he should immediately find his will not free but frustrate.”5 [End Page 108]
Because self-limitation constitutes the essence of Miltonic freedom, in Paradise Lost God establishes boundaries to inform his creatures of the distinction between good and evil but leaves them free to transgress these boundaries so that they may exercise free reason. Since Satan reads the world according to power rather than goodness, he interprets his ability to leap over God’s limits as a sign of his own might. Milton demonstrates the disastrous self-violation that results from this...