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  • The Ecology of Chaos in Paradise Lost
  • Sarah Smith

In recent years, Paradise Lost has emerged in the field of Milton studies as an environmental, ecological text: a work that forges deep ties between the earth and humans and one that casts humans not only as rulers of creation, but as stewards as well.1 These deep ties, scholars have shown, between humans and environment render the earth deeply engaged with and responsive to the epic's moral, human events. That earth "felt the wound," many have pointed out, suggests that Milton imagines the Fall not merely as a human tragedy but as one that affects the entire universe.2 Inspired by this recent critical work, which has demonstrated the close relationship between the moral and the material in the epic, I want to revisit an older critical debate, that of the moral status of chaos. In bringing chaos and ecocriticism together, I aim, to borrow the phrase of two new materialist critics, to give matter "its due."3

Paradise Lost is perhaps an unusual object for ecocritical analysis. Ecocriticism, which "takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture," Cheryll Glotfelty writes, and examines literature using an "earth-centered approach," developed in the 1960s and 1970s, long after Milton's death, in response to the [End Page 31] world's modern environmental crises.4 Moreover, Paradise Lost sits uneasily alongside an early, provocative, and influential essay in environmental criticism by Lynn White that identifies Christian anthropocentrism as the root cause of the world's modern ecological problems. According to White, Christianity "not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."5 If anthropocentrism, the attitude that human needs and concerns are paramount, has helped cause today's ecological crises, then it is not surprising that the ecocritical project has been committed to questioning and destabilizing humans' place at the center. And indeed, most ecocriticism has been marked by a commitment to "deep ecology," a philosophy that holds that the "well-being and flourishing of human and non-human Life on Earth have value in themselves … independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes."6 Second-wave ecocriticism has similarly sought to interrogate the hierarchical attitudes that place humans above the earth, but it is distinguished by its engagement with critical theory (feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial) to delineate the ways in which forms of social inequality intersect with ecological issues.7 More recently, the new materialism of Jane Bennett and the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton have advanced the ecocritical project by challenging humans' privileged place over matter.8 Ecocriticism, then, has been to a large extent committed to challenging Christian anthropocentrism, a task that does not ostensibly dovetail with Milton's deeply hierarchical rendition of Genesis.

But Ken Hiltner, Diane Kelsey McColley, Robert Watson, and others have demonstrated that although Milton wrote in an age less anxious about environmental destruction than our own, Renaissance literature can be read greenly.9 These critics have shown that questions regarding the appropriate relationship between humans and nature existed long before Darwin and the Romantic poets.10 And indeed, Paradise Lost has proven an especially rich text for green reading because, as a retelling of Genesis, it provides an opportunity to engage with White's argument that [End Page 32] Christian anthropocentrism bears some responsibility for today's environmental crisis. White's essay has faced challenges from critics such as William Leiss and Jeremy Cohen who insist that Christianity never gave humans permission for uninhibited subjugation.11 In Milton studies, Hiltner and McColley have made the case for ecocritical readings of Paradise Lost along similar lines, arguing that the epic is not anthropocentric, but instead demonstrates the duty of humans to be stewards of the earth.12 Milton's vitalist monism has been especially central in demonstrating links between human and nonhuman life, asserting the importance of stewardship, and registering environmental loss as well as possibilities for renewal.13 But, while discussion of Adam and Eve's stewardship has largely been limited to the care of plants...


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