- The Genius of Every Age:Milton and Dryden
According to an old story, John Dryden asked John Milton for permission to "tag" Paradise Lost, and Milton granted it.1 But after reading The State of Innocence, we may wonder how Milton would have responded if Dryden had explained that he meant to treat Paradise Lost as a builder might use an ancient structure, breaking it down to its smallest components and recycling some of the materials to erect a building with little resemblance to the first. Dryden omits the narrator and most of the heavenly characters from Paradise Lost; chops up many of its speeches, reassigning the bits and pieces to different characters; condenses the epic radically in the process of converting it into heroic drama, a genre with its own ethos; and tosses out Milton's theology. He cannibalizes the great Christian epic to create a work radically incompatible with Milton's aims and vision.
The result is so strange that scholars reading The State of Innocence have wildly differing views of it. Louis Martz considers it "basically serious . . . a religious poem," but Steven Zwicker dismisses it as a "ridiculous adaptation of Paradise Lost."2 Sharon Achinstein opines that Dryden's work is "not just a tagging of [End Page 263] Milton's lines but rather a thoughtful condensation and tightening of his language and structure," while Nicholas von Maltzahn argues that State of Innocence is an "outstanding contribution to English libertine literature" as well as "a Hobbesian recension of its more godly original."3 In a different vein, Anthony Welch suggests that Dryden's opera was an "intervention in the reception history of Paradise Lost."4 Barbara K. Lewalski proposes that Dryden's "opera-drama" is a challenge to the "essential substance as well as [the] style" of Milton's epic.5 And recently, Joad Raymond calls it "a translation that discloses the shift in Restoration literary modes."6 The work's hybrid nature accounts for the differing interpretations. The State of Innocence is Dryden's effort to supersede Milton's recently published epic with his own sexy, condensed, sometimes ridiculous dramatization of Milton's version of the Genesis story, tailored to his idea of the perspective and taste of the "modern" audience.
The State of Innocence represents a departure from the practice of poetic (as opposed to dramatic) literary appropriation that had been developing in England since Wyatt and Surrey translated Petrarch's sonnets.7 Foreign works such as those Italian poems and the classics—the products of a different tongue or a distant time—were usually considered to be available for the taking. There were also some adaptations of contemporary English poetry that did not raise issues of property or literary honesty: answer poems; extensions of existing texts; parodies of amorous, topical, or political verses; and recastings of religious texts were unexceptionable.
In the context of the appropriation of English writers by other English writers, however, Dryden's 1677 publication of The State of Innocence is extraordinary. Although the first English author to be adapted was Shakespeare, Milton is the first poet whose published work was openly arrogated by a contemporary. As Marcie Frank exclaims, "Milton only died in 1674, the same year Dryden finished The State of Innocence!"8 Dryden may have thought his appropriation was justified because some authors approved rewriting that involved generic as well as linguistic translation. "'Tis true," he wrote, "that where ever I have lik'd any story in a [End Page 264] Romance, Novel, or forreign Play, I have made no difficulty, nor ever shall, to take the foundation of it, to build it up, and to make it proper for the English Stage."9 Since Paradise Lost was neither ancient nor foreign, reasons of cultural or linguistic accessibility that might have been supposed to make its rewriting desirable were irrelevant; but Dryden might be said to "take the foundation" of the epic to "make it proper for the English stage." And, indeed, Lara Dodds has shown how well he "translated" some aspects of "Milton's verse into theatrical effect."10 However, Dryden's play is not a straightforward adaptation of Paradise Lost. The fact...