When Milton's Death, poised at the gates of hell, upturns his nostril to snuff the smell of mortal change on earth, we find a strikingly compressed nexus of theology, ontology, cosmology, and intertextuality in Paradise Lost. The primordial snuff is Death's response to his mother, Sin, who, with Satan's success in tempting Adam and Eve, feels "new strength within me rise, / Wings growing, and dominion given me large / Beyond this deep" (10.243–45) and urges Death to go with her to earth, "For Death from Sin no power can separate" (10.251).1 Death, a perpetually ravenous "meagre shadow" (10.264), needs no further encouragement, avowing:
I shall not lag behind, nor errThe way, thou leading, such a scent I drawOf carnage, prey innumerable, and tasteThe savour of death from all things there that live.(10.266–69)
The "equal aid" (10.271) that Death offers Sin parodies the mutual help and solace of Miltonic marriage as well as the Son's salvific mission on behalf of the Father. Milton now accords Death, hitherto a shapeless shadow, a cosmic nostril:
So saying, with delight he snuffed the smellOf mortal change on earth. As when a flockOf ravenous fowl, though many a league remote,Against the day of battle, to a field, [End Page vii] Where armies lie encamped, come flying, luredWith scent of living carcasses designedFor death, the following day, in bloody fight.So scented the grim feature, and upturnedHis nostril wide into the murky air,Sagacious of his quarry from so far.(PL 10.272–81)
Much can be deduced from this vivid and memorable moment. The snuff presages the creation of a bridge through Chaos, and the mutual work of death and destruction on which Sin and Death embark, joined with Satan in an infernal trinity that inverts the heavenly, or perhaps, as Neil Graves argues, constitutes Milton's satire on orthodox Trinitarianism.2 We know from the work of Stephen Fallon that Sin and Death as allegorical figures are, theologically speaking, nonbeings, ontologically deficient, conveying an Augustinian privative sense of evil;3 here, we can further note that Death has no real material agency, as he sniffs the mortality that he himself represents. That not only Adam and Eve but also earth and all its creatures have fallen shows us, as scholars such as Ken Hiltner and Diane McColley have stressed, Milton's ecological awareness, his foregrounding of how human actions affect the earth and of the importance of place-based human stewardship.4
The moment is also rich for source-criticism, evincing Milton's use of philosophical and literary precursors in the long simile of the "ravenous fowl." Milton may allude to Pliny's belief that three days beforehand vultures will presciently fly to places where there will be future carcasses.5 The vulture lore is echoed satirically in Plautus's Truculentus, when the rejected suitor Diniarchus recognizes that the clever prostitute Phronesium and her servant are awaiting new prey: "she's waiting for someone; the soldier, I believe. Now it's him they're keen on, like vultures they have foreknowledge three days in advance as to what day they'll be eating on."6 Most apposite at this point in Milton's narrative, though, is Lucan's graphic account of the aftermath of Caesar's defeat of Pompey's army at Pharsalia.7 As Caesar, refusing to bury the bodies, feasts his victorious army, wolves, lions, bears, and dogs converge upon [End Page viii] the Emathian fields, along with "every creature that perceives by the power of scent (literally, "by a sagacious nostril," nare sagaci) air that is impure and tainted with death."8 Along with the beasts, Lucan writes, "the birds that long had followed the armies of civil war now flocked together."9 The horror culminates in a vision of bloody, gorged vultures: "Never did the sky clothe itself with such a host of vultures; never did more wings beat the air. Every wood sent its birds, and when the birds were bloodstained, every tree dripped with a crimson dew."10 As the birds drop body parts on Caesar, himself mindlessly gorging, Lucan shows the barbarity of tyranny and war, darkening and extending Virgil's own vision.11 Milton's simile may also thus implicitly critique England's recent history of civil war, as well as the nation's ongoing imperialism, as the snuff leads to a descent that will colonize the inhabitants of the New World.12
Death's upturned nostril hence conveys a freight of contextualized meanings. And yet as we reread the exchange between Satan's "offspring dear" (10.238)—their energy and adventurousness, their enthusiastically professed sentiments of mutual help and regard, the delight with which the monster "snuff[s] the smell / Of mortal change on earth"—the narrative moment exceeds its theological and cosmological registers. Even if we remind ourselves of the characters' ontological deficiency, the energy and verve of the narrative draw us in. If Milton echoes Lucan's powerful vision, the tone differs dramatically: here we are seeing the battlefield not through the eyes of the horrified narrator but from the prescient point of view of the birds, about to feast and, even, delight. Lucanic gore and disgust are held at a distance, temporarily suspended. The moment, then, is also an instance of exemplary Miltonic poetics: character and dramatic situation conveyed by figurative language, sensuous imagery, apt diction, sound, meter, and rhythm shaping sense, and multiple correspondences between tenor and vehicle in the epic simile.13
Reading the moment as poetry, we see how emphatic verbs and colloquial language convey the energy of the newly delighted Death. Alliteration heightens the immediacy: "So saying," "snuffed" and [End Page ix] "smell," "scent of living carcasses," "So scented the grim feature," and "Sagacious," "so far," or, "As when a flock / Of ravenous fowl," "to a field," "come flying"; and "designed / For death, the following day" (emphases mine). The epic simile, a single largely monosyllabic sentence that is run-on from lines 273–78, conveys the eager onrush of the birds. The oxymoronic "living carcasses" startles the reader into recognizing that the process of death has begun. Death's upturned nostril, like an arched eyebrow, offers the knowing superiority of an in-joke that the reader shares, emphasized by the polysyllabic and punning "Sagacious," acute in perception, especially by sense of smell, and in mental discernment (parodying the human Fall).14 The black comedy of the passage reminds us how Miltonic poetics not only give life to but reshape and (in the experience of the reader) go beyond the philosophical, theological, and cosmological. As such we can see, as critics have begun to recognize, rich and complicated relationships between the poetry and the prose.15 And we see the value of returning to questions of form and formalist poetics that have been of so much recent interest in Renaissance scholarship more broadly.
The essays in this volume of Milton Studies take us, from different perspectives, back to issues of poetics, poetic form, and poetic relationships placed alongside but not subsumed by Miltonic theology, cosmology, materiality, and questions of literary influence and genealogy. The first section, "Poetry and Theology," offers three essays that variously align Paradise Lost and De doctrina Christiana. If C. S. Lewis famously argued against a personal reading of Paradise Lost in favor of a formalist reading of the poem as a secondary epic,16 John K. Hale opens our volume by reinstating the personal: by exploring the ways in which Milton's own beliefs and preconceptions drive his omission, selection, changes, and additions to Scripture in his writing of De doctrina Christiana. As such, Hale might seem to be moving away from poetry and form, but in fact he argues, ultimately, that Milton's imaginative needs in part shape his theology. Not only, then, can one correlate De doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost, but Hale shows how Milton composes the theological treatise with poetic and imaginative needs [End Page x] in mind (hedging on the place of hell, for example) as well as with selectivity based on his deeply held theological and social beliefs (on the Trinity, on divorce). Above all, Hale finds that Milton's theological treatise holds interest for its eloquence and passion, for the infusion of the poetry into the prose.
In the essay that follows, Sarah Smith revisits the debate over whether the chaos in Paradise Lost is good or evil and the seeming inconsistency between the poem and Milton's De doctrina Christiana. Critics have compared the chaos of Paradise Lost to the "first matter" in De doctrina, but what, Smith cogently asks, if the two terms are not commensurate? Arguing that Chaos in the poem is a realm defined more by its disorder than its material, Smith traces how Satan and his allies aspire both to undo God's creation and to provide a perverse alternative to it by rearranging and manipulating matter against God's will. Distinctions between the poetic universe and the theology of De doctrina have implications for the poem's environmental ethics, including connections between the human and the nonhuman and the importance of stewardship and proper use of all matter. In turn, Mandy Green looks at the imaginative and narrative working out of the four degrees of death in the aftermath of Satan's and Adam's falls, showing how the complex, perhaps inexplicable, interaction of divine and human agency opens up moments of narrative tension and poignancy: will Satan repent, and if he does, will God forgive him? Will Adam despair? Or will he forgive Eve, the marital reconciliation being the hinge upon which redemption turns? Green suggests that by presenting sequentially what is doctrinally synchronic, Paradise Lost demonstrates the importance of human action, exploring and conveying the full meaning of regeneration as not based on the work of God alone.
Opening the second section, "Materialist Poetics," Thomas Festa argues that attending to the material texts of Paradise Lost—from the extant manuscript of book 1 through the history of editions to modern day—allows for consideration of how the material presentation affects interpretation of the poetry and poetics of the epic. Attending to the history of the material book allows us to listen [End Page xi] differently to the material aesthetics of Milton's verse. Milton's inclusion of rhyme (despite the headnote rejecting it) or of strikingly regular or irregular metrics creates local poetic effects that are as cognitive and conceptual as they are aesthetic. In turn, Caryn O'Connell reexamines Miltonic materiality through his poetics, arguing that the idea of ontological evolution, in which humans ascend to a higher, more spirituous nature in a monist universe, has been overestimated in Paradise Lost and tracing instead a "terrestrial aesthetics" in which bodies are bounded and linked with place. If Festa looks at the materiality of Milton's own texts to offer new insights into poetic form and meaning, O'Connell shows how Milton's poetic imagination, in particular the images of the solid, bounded earth that he draws from such hexameral poets as Du Bartas and Tasso and applies to all earthly creatures, reshapes materiality in Paradise Lost. Earthly creatures gain in efficacy and standing by virtue of their formal and substantive identity with their natural place, the self-standing earth.
In the third section, "Poetic Genealogies," David Loewenstein challenges a scholarly tradition that sees Paradise Lost as anti-Virgilian and as resisting and inverting the Aeneid, while adhering to the republican sentiments of Lucan's Pharsalia. Loewenstein suggests, rather, that Virgil provides an important epic model for Milton on how to write obliquely on contemporary events in a post–civil war context. If Virgil's poem endorses dynasty, it also shows a tragic sensibility and dramatizes the human cost of civil war. Following the poetic model of the Aeneid, Paradise Lost turns to an originating myth to frame its political sentiments, and crafts its representation of liberty, tyranny, servility, and the use of political rhetoric in such a way as to remain accessible to a wide audience while covertly appealing to a "fit audience … though few." Second in this section, Thomas H. Luxon, responding to the critical tendency to oppose John Dryden and Milton, and to see Dryden's State of Innocence as ridiculing Paradise Lost, explores, rather, what Dryden learned from Milton and how he adapts and rewrites Miltonic motifs for different political ends. In this context, Luxon shows how beauty becomes central to Dryden's reshaping [End Page xii] of a new heroic, and he argues that the force and role of beauty—in Dryden's dedication to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, and in his reworking of Milton's Adam and Eve—evince the power of beauty without the attendant anxieties and fears found in Paradise Lost. Finally, Todd Butler expands the Miltonic genealogy by exploring the early modern roots of spousal privilege in Milton's private and discursive definition of marriage. Placing Milton's divorce tracts and the marital conversations of Paradise Lost alongside both seventeenth-century marriage manuals and modern-day legal formulations, including the marital communications privilege and the adverse testimony privilege, Butler demonstrates that Milton and modern liberal theory share a difficulty in accommodating distinctions of gender in regard to self-interest. Legal questions inform but are finally subsumed within the poetic narrative, as divine foreknowledge precludes the necessity of Adam and Eve's spousal testimony and incrimination after the Fall in Paradise Lost.
The intersection of poetics, materiality, and genealogy explored in these essays can be seen, again, as we return briefly to Sin and Death. That Milton seems to have recognized the potential for Sin and Death to exceed their allegorical and ontologically deficient roles can be seen in the divine interjection insisting that the pair—now about to enter Eden—serves a divine purpose. Despite their seeming freedom, God the Father maintains, "I called and drew them thither / My hell-hounds, to lick up the draff and filth / Which man's polluting sin with taint hath shed / On what was pure" (10.629–32). In what seems distinctly undignified language for a deity, the Father goes on to describe how the pair will unknowingly do his bidding, "till crammed and gorged, nigh burst / With sucked and glutted offal" (10.632–33), they too will be designed for death: at one "sling" of the Son's victorious arm, "Both Sin, and Death, and yawning grave at last / Through chaos hurled, obstruct the mouth of hell / For ever, and seal up his ravenous jaws" (10.635–37). The archangel Michael will more decorously explain to Adam that "to the cross [Christ] nails thy enemies" (12.415), that the Crucifixion "shall bruise the head of Satan, crush his strength, / Defeating Sin and Death, his two main arms" (12.430–31). If the [End Page xiii] initially heroic-seeming Satan is reduced to a grotesque serpent, Sin and Death are envisioned as no longer sentient beings but returned to their symbolic and accidental status.
But if in the projected and promised future Sin and Death will be pinned down, defined, and defeated, in the world of the poem they continue to plan, collude, and act, escaping hell and anticipating a world of prey, their subversive energies uncontained. Gordon Teskey hence sees Sin and Death as crucial figures in Milton's delirious poetics, marking a shift from Spenserian allegory. For Teskey, "Sin's lacerated entrails and Death's vast seeking nostril … resist any idealization as meaning," and, as such, "they produce the effect Milton intended: to force open the rift between the material and the ideal, until the ideal disappears altogether, overwhelmed by the exudations of substance."17 Thus, Teskey is led to take a very different position from Fallon's: "Milton intends to destroy in this manner any possibility of his poem being interpreted allegorically. He does so by pressing to extremes the violent physicality that had been dialectically awakened in his great allegorical forebears, Spenser in particular."18 In so doing, Teskey argues, "Milton frees Sin and Death to become daemonic beings. … Death is not the symbol of death but is death itself, the killer. Sin is not the symbol of sin but sin itself."19
Yet I would argue that Teskey here tells us about the poet somewhat at the expense of the poetics. Teskey conflates Sin's earlier suffering with the exuberance and black comedy of this later moment of triumph, and brings in the horror that Milton (at least temporarily) holds at bay. Sin's anguish and Death's snuff do not occur alongside one another but come in sequence as the characters develop or, perhaps more accurately, acclimate themselves to changing situations. Rather than debating whether Sin and Death are real or ideal, physical or symbolic, we might come back to narrative, readerly experience, and poetics, viewing Sin and Death as characters who recognize and enthusiastically embrace their own allegorical roles and, in doing so, exceed them. We have seen that Milton's God uses, perhaps even needs, the energy and activity of Sin and Death to fulfill his own purposes: the two escape from hell, [End Page xiv] acting on their own initiative, but are also permitted, foreseen, and even "lured" by the divine creator. Does Milton also depend on the energy and opposition of Sin and Death for his own poetic ends? We might ask, then, whether the infernal pair escape from allegory on their own initiative or whether their human creator had always already intended both to box them in and to let them out.
1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (New York, 1998). Subsequent references are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically by book and line number.
2. For an incisive account of the infernal trio, see Joseph H. Summers, The Muse's Method: An Introduction to "Paradise Lost" (Cambridge, 1962), 32–70. On Satan, Sin, and Death as a parody of the infernal Trinity, contributing to a structural opposition of good and evil in the poem, see Balachandra Rajan, "Paradise Lost" and the Seventeenth-Century Reader (London, 1947), 46–47; and Robert B. White Jr., "Milton's Allegory of Sin and Death: A Comment on Backgrounds," Modern Philology 4 (1973): 337–41. More recently, Neil Graves, "The Trinity in Milton's Hell," in Milton Studies, vol. 52, ed. Laura L. Knoppers, 111–36 (Pittsburgh, 2011), 276–83, argues that the infernal trio is the Arian Milton's satire on patristic Trinitarian theology.
3. See Stephen M. Fallon, "Milton's Sin and Death: The Substance of Allegory," in Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), 168–93. Fallon is responding to Philip J. Gallagher, "'Real or Allegoric': The Ontology of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost," English Literary Renaissance 6 (1976): 317–35, who insists that Sin and Death are "consistently real (i.e. physical and historical) throughout Milton's major epic, their allegorical onomastics notwithstanding" (317). Both Fallon and Gallagher respond to Samuel Johnson's famous critique of the unsuitability of the mixed allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death, in his Samuel Johnson, "Life of Milton," in Lives of the English Poets, ed. Roger H. Lonsdale (Oxford, 2006), 1:291.
4. Ken Hiltner, Milton and Ecology (Cambridge, 2003); Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell (Burlington, Vt., 2007); Hiltner, ed., Renaissance Ecology: Imagining Eden in Milton's England (Pittsburgh, 2008); and Leah S. Marcus, "Ecocriticism and Vitalism in Paradise Lost," Milton Quarterly 49, no. 2 (2015): 96–111. See also Sarah Smith's essay in this volume. [End Page xv]
5. "Triduo autem ante advolare eos, ubi cadavera futura sunt": Pliny, Natural History, vol. 3, books 8–11, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), book 10, c. 6, 17–19. See Karen Edwards, "Milton's Reformed Animals: An Early Modern Bestiary: Vulture," Milton Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2009): 264–68nn269–70.
6. "Nescioquem praestolata est; credo, militem. / illum student iam; quasi uolturii triduo/prius praediuinant, quo die esuri sient." Plautus, vol. 4, Stichus, Trinummus, or Three Dollar Day, Truculentus, trans. Wolfgang De Melo (Cambridge, Mass., 2013), 2.1.336–39.
7. Lucan, The Civil War (Pharsalia), trans. J. D. Duff (1928; repr., Cambridge, Mass., 1977). Teaching editions of Paradise Lost (including Fowler's) point to the Lucanian allusion here. On the grotesque mode, both horrific and ludicrous, that Satan and Lucan's Caesar share as they seek absolute rule, see Ivana Bičak, "Transmutations of Satan and Caesar: The Grotesque Mode in Milton's Paradise Lost and Lucan's Pharsalia," Milton Quarterly 49, no. 2 (2015): 112–25. Bičak (121–22) notes Caesar's beastlike feeding and the arrival of the animals and birds, and insightfully links Caesar, Satan, and the vultures but does not consider the pertinence to Death.
8. "Et quidquid nare sagaci / Aera non sanum motumque cadavere sentit" (Lucan, Civil War, 7.829–30).
9. "Iamque diu volucres civila castra secutae / Conveniunt" (ibid.,7.831–32).
10. "Numquam tanto se volture caelum / Induit aut plures presserunt aera pinnae. / Omne nemus misit volucres, omnisque cruenta / Alite sanguineis stillavit roribus arbor" (ibid., 7.834–37).
11. On this point, see David Loewenstein's essay in this volume.
12. J. Martin Evans, Milton's Imperial Epic: "Paradise Lost" and the Discourse of Colonialism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1996), 69.
13. See the rich account of commentary on Milton's poetic style mapped out in John Leonard, Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of "Paradise Lost," 1667–1970, vol. 1, Style and Genre (Oxford, 2013).
14. OED, "sagacious," 1 and 2a.
15. In recent examples, N. K. Sugimura, "Matter of Glorious Trial": Spiritual and Material Substance in "Paradise Lost" (New Haven, Conn., 2009), points to tensions and inconsistencies in Paradise Lost that do not resolve into a coherent metaphysics; Stephen Hequembourg, "The Poetics of Materialism in Cavendish and Milton," Studies in English Literature 54, no. 1 (2014): 173–92, argues that, rather than inconsistency, Milton restages dualism as a temptation through Satan's belief that he can create out of nothing in Paradise Lost, ultimately showing that imagination must act on preformed matter. Stephen Fallon, "The Fortunate/Unfortunate Fall and Two Varieties of Immortality in Paradise Lost," in Immortality and the Body in the Age of Milton, ed. John Rumrich and Stephen M. Fallon, [End Page xvi] (Cambridge, 2018), shows how the experience of the Fall and the embrace of human mortality make it "fortunate" in a readerly sense, even while doctrinally Milton does not hold to the fortunate Fall.
16. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to "Paradise Lost" (New York, 1961).
17. Gordon Teskey, Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 30–31.
18. Ibid., 31.
19. Ibid. [End Page xvii]