- Death, Life, and Agency in Paradise Lost
Given that the introduction of mortality into human lives is the most significant outcome of original sin, Milton’s Paradise Lost is, on one level, an interrogation of the meaning of death. The results would be predictable had Milton regarded death simply as a termination of biological life, or as a release of the soul from the shackles of the body. But Milton’s understanding of death is more intricate and shapes his presentation of central themes in Paradise Lost, themes that initially appear unrelated to mortality—in particular, that of meaningful action.
The narrower motivation for this essay’s revisiting the portrayal of death in Paradise Lost concerns our understanding of the poem as such. Developments within Milton criticism support modifying our view of Milton’s perception of death and exploring how such revision affects other themes in the poem. A new understanding of Milton’s sense of nature and of matter allows us to see how the typology of death presented in On Christian Doctrine harmonizes with death’s appearances in Paradise Lost. What the poem is able to demonstrate regarding meaningful action, labor, and the experience of space and of being alive is thereby significantly deepened. [End Page 201] An additional concern animating this essay relates to the antagonism between philosophy and literature. This rivalry is not merely restricted to asserted or implied content. True, Milton’s understanding of death differs from the prevalent view in the Western philosophical tradition (his belief in a “living deadness” does not assume that agency and death are mutually exclusive, an assumption that is an undisputed given in philosophical texts). Such difference, though, can be articulated philosophically—discursively, argumentatively—and Milton does not hesitate to do so elsewhere. What is unique to Paradise Lost is the interplay between content and adopted communicative intent: an implied perception that the choice of a right orientation in life is not primarily a matter of holding on to the right propositions. What seems more important are, rather, particularities relating to the inhabiting of an imaginatively construed space.
While philosophy establishes beliefs, poetry can fashion worlds, inviting its readers to position themselves between these. On its own, this is not exceptional—in some sense, all literature conjures up an imaginative world. But Milton’s mode of world-making is undergirded by a holistic metaphysics, one that distinguishes between literal differences of the beheld world when apprehended by distinct viewers. Paradise, Eden, earth, and hell are thus not mere locations between which the reader travels. Rather, such labels refer to the increasing limitation of perceiving God’s inseparability from matter. Faith and its loss become different orientations to one’s space, to one’s sense of inhabiting a place. Only a language capable of instilling a vivid sense of distinct topographies (hell’s darkness, heaven’s light, Eden’s trees) can convey to its reader the felt difference of one’s world when there are several others in which one can be. To put the point broadly: the difference between poetry and philosophy—at least in the case of Paradise Lost—is that the latter is framed as a discourse of reasoned persuasion, whereas the former constitutes a rhetoric of location. Death relates to all of this because location does not merely designate the physical situation of a self in space. As we shall see, for Milton, to inhabit a location conditions our being more or less alive. Poetry, [End Page 202] spatiality, and vitality are thus interwoven: to occasion a change in one’s location through language—through a committed response to poetry—amounts to modifying one’s vitality.
In Western philosophy, death is typically characterized either as an irrevocable frustration of all desires, or as a deprivation of types of goodness that life offers.1 It is then asked whether such a state constitutes a harm if it cannot be experienced as harmful. This puzzle then spirals into the familiar debate over the potential irrationality of the fear of death.
When such discussions are read either against Paradise Lost or On Christian Doctrine, it becomes clear that Milton endorses an altogether different notion of...