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  • Preface:Miltonic Poetics
  • Laura L. Knoppers

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.


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...


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