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  • "The Minstrelsy of Heaven":Representation and the Politics of Lyric in Paradise Lost
  • Andrew S. Brown

In beginning Paradise Lost chronologically—though, crucially, not narratively—with the Father's exaltation of the Son in book 5, Milton founded his epic on a scene of representation that has proven endlessly vexing to later readers. The language of the Father's decree affords few details concerning the physical cause or theological reasoning behind the Son's newly elevated status, instead focusing on how it will transform the landscape of heaven. Beginning with an apparently exhaustive roll call of the angelic hierarchy of "Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers," Milton's God makes a brilliant visual spectacle of his paternal approval by identifying the Son not yet by his "merit more than birthright" but merely as he "whom ye now behold / At my right hand."1 Moreover, he goes on to choreograph the assembled host's response to his own originary speech-act with the claim that he "by myself have sworn to him shall bow / All knees in Heav'n, and shall confess him Lord" (5.607-08). William Empson observes of this moment that "to give no reason at all for the Exaltation [End Page 63] makes it appear a challenge," and some subsequent scholars similarly suggest that the deliberately unexplained, flagrantly ceremonial manner in which the Father enacts the Son's elevation appears to provide Satan with a defensible or at least plausible motive for his revolt.2 Certainly, in the chiastic, sharp-edged turn of the lines that follow, as Raphael explains that "with his words / All seemed well pleased, all seemed, but were not all" (5.616–17), Milton's bare monosyllables keenly strip away any opportunity for readers to linger upon the splendorous scene without some degree of critical reflection.

Such readings have figured the portrayal of the Father in book 5 primarily as that of a political tyrant capriciously imposing "New laws" on the inhabitants of heaven and thereby licensing the emergence of "new minds" and "new counsels" among Satan and his followers (5.679–81). But through its depiction of the moment when the "only Son" (5.604) is first empowered to speak and act on his Father's behalf, Paradise Lost is also deeply implicated in contemporary debates surrounding the nature and purpose of representation more generally. In delineating the "theological contours" of Milton's account of the exaltation, John Rogers argues that this "seeming fiction" is rooted partly in the poet's engagement with the heretical doctrine of Socinianism, which grounded the liberty of Christ and indeed of all human beings in the actions of "a Father who punctuates Christian history with a series of arbitrary, voluntary, temporally specific decrees," thereby releasing them from any natural obligation to the deity and enabling them freely to express their obedience and devotion.3 As Milton would have known, however, a related strain of Socinian theology asserted that the Son was an "image" or "person" of the Father, not in the conventional Trinitarian sense but, rather, in the same manner as human prophets such as Moses, serving as a representative of the deity in the physical world—a claim adopted by his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, in chapter 16 of his Leviathan.4

In the comprehensive theory of representation outlined here, virtually any individual may covenant with another, establishing a contract in which an "Author" licenses an "Actor" to "beare [End Page 64] his Person, or act in his name."5 Leviathan follows this with the more radical claim, however, that both the "Son of man" and the "Holy Ghost" are also such actors or "personations" of the "true God" and bear an equally "Artificiall" relationship to the authoring deity.6 In this way, Hobbes's capacious account juxtaposes the theological subtleties of Trinitarianism with the most basic processes whereby the "words and actions" of one person or thing can be made to represent another. As he insistently emphasizes, "There are few things, that are uncapable of being represented by Fiction," extending this model even to "Inanimate things, as a Church, an Hospital, a Bridge."7 Such a concept of representation is not only theological or political but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-796X
Print ISSN
0076-8820
Pages
pp. 63-92
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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