- Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.—Psalm 8:4–5 (AV)
As the psalm’s rhetorical question illustrates, humanity has often sought to understand its own nature through comparison with angels. Milton’s angelology in Paradise Lost places him within a long scriptural and exegetical tradition in which angelic being elucidates human being. As God’s only other rational creations, angels are essential for understanding the nature and potential of embodied being in Milton’s monist materialist universe. Michael Schoenfeldt has examined the poem’s model of digestion as a capacity shared by humans and angels alike, finding in Paradise Lost an “alimental vision” that legitimates matter in part by legitimating human appetite.1 This critical framework emphasizes the substantial similarity and only accidental difference between humans and angels where monism and appetite intersect.2 Digestion is undoubtedly the model for matter’s potential for becoming in the cosmos, but as Raphael reminds Adam, love “is the scale / By which to heavenly love” humans may “ascend” (8.591–92).3 The natural expression of this love is erotic activity, but where monist materialism and erotic desire intersect, we find complications that a focus on digestion tends to obscure.
Eros is a foundational principle in the cosmos of Paradise Lost but also a troubled one, as erotic desire and the problems of sex and gender are, like appetite and food, closely connected to both Satan’s and humanity’s falls. Despite the putative heteroerotic ideal in Eden, sexed bodies in the poem are often both a sign and a result of internal division, of ambisexual [End Page 117] vitalist matter responding to lack or signaling a lapse in cosmic harmony.4 As most of the trouble accumulates around the female body, several contradictions emerge. Problematic sex is consistently heterosexualized (if not always precisely heterosexual), Edenic conjugality is both a lost ideal and clearly inferior to angelic sexual activity, the homoerotic desire circulating in the poem is at once superlative and foreclosed, and eros is both abundance and superfluity, the stuff of a self-generating monist materialist cosmos and a threat to divine hierarchy. Milton has placed these contradictions at the center of his epic poem not to resolve them but instead to highlight the imperfect, unfinished nature of paradisiacal existence and thus the importance of temperance for all rational, sensitive creation, angelic as well as human.
Milton’s is a radical theology of recovered eros, although critics have not always agreed on precisely how it is envisaged as working or on what operative terms. Richard Rambuss has delineated the importance of the corporeal in early modern devotional poetry in which the body of Christ is so often the object of longing and the center of affective piety in an emphatically incarnational Christianity.5 This early modern Christ descended into the flesh and can be imagined as flesh in human terms at once erotic and salvific. Rambuss finds that compared to the “intense and visceral displays of devotional affect” in the Christ-focused poems of John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, Milton’s Christ “appears hardly to have a body at all.”6 Kent Lehnhof, who charges Rambuss with “dismiss[ing] Milton’s poetry” (rather than his Christ) as “de-corporealized,”7 has recently argued for Milton’s interest in the corporeal. Lehnhof insists that the somatic is central to Milton’s mature poetry, identifying the scatological activities of both the divine and the demonic in Paradise Lost. Like many critics treating Milton’s monist materialism, Lehnhof tends to focus on the model of digestion; he does not look for and thus does not find the erotic.8 Readers accustomed to finding eros accumulating around the body of Christ will find it curiously absent in Milton’s canon. Readers attuned to the alimental and scatological will find digestion to be the dominant somatic trope.
While Milton is indeed interested in the passible and insistently material body, this is not...