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Satire and Speculation in Milton’s Limbo

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 229-258 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

So on this windy Sea of Land, the Fiend
Walk’d up and down alone bent on his prey,
Alone, for other Creature in this place
Living or lifeless to be found was none,
None yet, but store hereafter from the earth
Up hither like Aereal vapors flew
Of all things transitory and vain, when Sin
With vanity had fill’d the works of men.

(Paradise Lost 3.440–47)

One of the most interesting places in the geography of Paradise Lost is the stretch of rim on which Satan, breathing from his wild journey through Chaos, walks and considers before diving into the world, down on his way to earth and Eden. It is interesting because Satan’s act marks the spot: in a rambunctious epic catalogue, the narrator asserts that this expanse will later come to serve as halfway house and junkyard for Satan’s unknowing imitators and imitations. The area, the narrator says, has “since [its population been] call’d / the Paradise of Fools”; but it is also known to critics as the Limbo of Vanity, since the narrator describes it as “a Limbo large and broad” and “vanity” is a key term in the passage. More simply, it is “Milton’s Limbo,” since, even though the narrator does make out that it was known to popular tradition, it is Milton’s invention.

A minor wonder in Satan’s odyssey to the new world, the episode has attracted relatively little sustained attention in the massive literature on Paradise Lost. But two critics have written about it particularly well, arguing in different ways for the breadth of the poem’s narrative framework. John King presents Limbo as but one of several episodes in the epic that deploy Protestant satiric and controversial discourse, a significant moment in a sporadic but pervasive political dimension that would have been recognized as such by fit and unfit members of the Restoration audience. In an essay less focused on Milton’s politics than on the kind of narrative Paradise Lost is, Karen Edwards chooses the Limbo episode as an example of the systematic presence of two worlds in the poem: there is the first “world” of the narrative present, of the two fall stories, more or less; and there is the second world of narrative description and gloss, which is largely the Restoration world as lived and perceived by Milton, a blind and persecuted late humanist nonconformist republican. To read Milton’s epic is to move consistently from one world to another, to find the first world opened onto, and interpreted by, the second. Both critics tend to present the episode as typical in its dissonance of Milton’s method and meaning, though to somewhat different effects. For King, it is particularly useful because it is one of the more undeniably Protestant-polemical passages in the poem, its dissonance of a piece with the disharmonious spirit of Protestant satire itself; in its open militance it communicates the true spirit of the work, however necessarily damped down this must be over the general course of the narrative. Edwards too sees the episode as one of a series bringing a modern, nonconformist, relatively enlightened perspective onto the narrative of the Fall in general, here of Satan’s journey. But her accent falls on the way Milton uses epic devices to make the story “relatable,” to accommodate it to the Restoration present; the dissonant jolts are part of an ongoing process of complex meaning-making.

Both these readings are useful and powerful, yet even while stressing the un-neoclassic discontinuity inherent in Milton’s epic method, they reduce the strangeness and singularity of episode and work. This is most readily evident in that neither seems to recognize the basic question of whether the Limbo of Vanity is to be taken literally, whether it is to be believed in or not. I aim to keep this question—which I take finally to be undecidable, an objective crux—in view, and to attempt to convey how it colors the tone of the episode in its two main—satiric and speculative—dimensions, and works to shift the one into the other.


Considering Joseph Addison’s remarks on the...

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