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  • Writing Epic in the Aftermath of Civil War:Paradise Lost, the Aeneid, and the Politics of Contemporary History

What are the implications of thinking about Milton and Virgil together as post–civil war epic poets? After all, this is not the usual way of comparing and contrasting the two poets. Rather, in attempting to assess the Virgilian features of Paradise Lost, critics usually observe the self-conscious way Milton shapes his poetic career after Virgil's by moving from lesser genres to writing his great epic; or they examine the texture of allusions, literary similes, verbal formulations, imitations, and stress the twelve-book Virgilian structure of the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost as evidence that Milton is criticizing and reclaiming the Virgilian tradition for his own purposes.1 For instance, David Quint's Inside "Paradise Lost" offers an eloquent example of a study that, in the midst of illuminating the rich textual layers and structural patterns of the poem, illuminates Virgilian allusions, similes, analogies, echoes, and models in Paradise Lost.2 In this essay, however, I consider the [End Page 165] two poets from a very different perspective, one that focuses less on the intertextuality of allusion or imitation. I wish to explore a crucial but little studied parallel between the poets: the significance of Virgil and Milton as writers who lived through traumatic periods of civil war and political upheaval and yet chose, later in their careers, to compose epics that treat more or less obliquely the politics of contemporary history by writing primarily about the distant, mythic past. Although the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are both written in the aftermath of civil war, scholarship examining Milton's poem in relation to Virgil's has yet to consider the two poems from this perspective.3

One reason for this has to do with the methodology of comparative and intertextual criticism, especially scholarship aiming to illuminate the complexities of the epic tradition from antiquity to the early modern period. This intertextual scholarship has tended to focus primarily on revealing textual allusions, echoes, and literary techniques and models, and on considering the ways early modern epics, including Milton's, revise or subvert the conventions and martial heroic values of epics that precede them.4 And where such intertextual scholarship addresses politics or matters of imperial ideology, it tends not to focus on the pressures of contemporary historical contexts that shape epic poems, including making comparisons between the political upheavals and civil conflicts that shaped epics like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, prompting their authors to focus primarily on legendary history rather than on the more recent political events of their times. Yet there is no reason why comparative, intertextual criticism, whether of the epic tradition or other kinds of poetry, should not broaden its methodological perspective so that it also engages with questions or issues that take comparative analysis beyond the intertextuality of allusion and imitation. That is one of my aims as I explore the political and creative implications of Paradise Lost and the Aeneid as epics written in the recent aftermath of civil war. The result, I hope, will be (1) to provide a fresh explanation for some of the resourceful ways Milton's post–civil war epic responded to Virgil's handling of history and politics, and (2) to explain why Milton's [End Page 166] poem, by following and revising Virgil's strategy for addressing contemporary and recent history, was able to appeal early on to an ideologically diverse readership and soon achieve a unique cultural authority.

Virgil and Milton as Post–Civil War Epic Poets

We need, consequently, to rethink the relation of Paradise Lost to the Aeneid when it comes to politics and the upheavals of civil war and the creative strategies their poets employ to engage with contemporary and recent history. In The Reason of Church-Government (1642)—published when England was on edge, as religious and political tensions were escalating, but before civil war itself broke out5—Milton allowed himself to digress from the immediate pressures of polemical controversy and reflect on his literary ambitions as an aspiring national poet, highlighting the Aeneid as one of the chief ancient epic models he would attempt to follow in eventually writing his own epic poem in English.6 However, years later, in the aftermath of the bloodshed of the English civil wars and during the early Restoration, when Milton mostly composed and completed his Paradise Lost, Virgil's epic, I suggest, also took on different political and historical implications as a major model for his poem. Like Paradise Lost, the Aeneid was composed in the immediate aftermath of civil war and its author's experience of living through decades of political turmoil and instability. Indeed, I want to propose that it is because the Aeneid was preceded so immediately by civil wars, political rivalry, and the collapse of republican Rome that Milton, later in his career, found Virgil's poem—which reimagines an earlier period of mythic history—an important model for his own attempt, beginning in the late Interregnum, to revise the epic and retell the origins of a mythic past rather than primarily and directly reimagine contemporary events.

Written in the aftermath of civil wars and revolution and mostly composed in years of political transition before and after the restoration of monarchy, Paradise Lost continues to engage creatively [End Page 167] and provocatively, yet indirectly, with the politics and religious conflicts of the recent past and contemporary history. Despite its concern with spiritual interiority, it remains, as critics have increasingly argued, a polemically and politically engaged poem rather than one that withdraws completely from politics into faith.7 However, if Milton's post–civil war epic evokes contemporary political history at all, it does so implicitly and covertly so that his political concerns remain present in his mythic narrative.8 As a post–civil war poet who engages with past and present Roman history, Virgil, despite his different political sensibility and allegiances, offered Milton an important ancient model in this regard: the Aeneid, forged in the aftermath of civil wars and political turmoil, enabled Milton to find a creative solution to the challenge of engaging imaginatively with the politics of contemporary history, while writing less directly about it.

There were of course early modern debates over epics treating past or present history: Tasso recommends for epic a more distant historical subject (since it allows more freedom to invent),9 while in the Lusíadas Luís de Camões chooses to reimagine the daring exploits of recent Portuguese colonial and maritime history more than the heroic deeds of the legendary past. My point, however, is that we need to pay more attention to the distinct challenge facing both Virgil and Milton as epic poets: finding a strategy for writing epic and engaging with politics immediately after a period of civil wars and during a period of major political transition. Virgil provided Milton with the most significant ancient model of an epic poet confronting this political and literary challenge.

By the time Virgil began writing the Aeneid in 29 BC, the republican cause in Rome was defeated and the "time of universal peace," the Pax Romana, was only two years away; by contrast, as Milton was in the process of composing Paradise Lost, the Stuart Restoration became increasingly likely and the dream of an enduring English republic lost. In The Readie and Easie Way Milton could still challenge his contemporaries to think of England as "another Rome in the west," reminding them of the great "shame" they would bring upon themselves if they embraced [End Page 168] returning kingship—analogous to another Augustan Rome with King Charles II as a Restoration Augustus—and gave up on the idea of "a potent and flourishing Republic" (OM 6:485).10 As Milton surely knew, when he published the second edition of The Readie and Easie Way in April 1660, the "impetuos" rush toward the restoration of monarchy could not be checked and his "misguided" countrymen and women (OM 6:523) would not take, as he put it at the end of Eikonoklastes (1649), the "good guidance to bethink themselves, and recover" (OM 6:424); although the Restoration occurred in May 1660 without further civil war and violence, it also brought no Pax Anglicana or Pax Britannica, as Milton himself foresaw.

Historically, then, there are both striking parallels and contrasts between the careers of Virgil and Milton in terms of civil war and major political change: the Roman republic was completely subverted by 30 BC,11 just before Virgil began writing his great epic; in Milton's case, the Interregnum was close to its end and the commonwealth collapsing as he was already writing his epic and as he yearned to see England recover its republican identity. Both Virgil and Milton began writing (or dictating, in Milton's case) their epics approximately two years before the start of a new political age: the age of Augustus, a period of imperial restoration, in the case of the former poet; and the Restoration, in the case of the latter. One can also stress a crucial difference between Virgil and Milton, even as both writers convey, in their own ways, the human cost of civil strife and warfare that preceded the new political climates in which they continued to compose their poems. Virgil embraced the Pax Romana of Augustus, however much the Aeneid captures the tragic loss, hard work, sacrifices, and violence required to achieve it, thereby signaling (at the very least) some ambivalence on Virgil's part about the political history of his own day. The republican Milton hated the "new slaverie" that the Restoration would almost surely bring (Readie and Easie Way, OM 6:485); and, as he was working on Paradise Lost, he reminded his contemporaries of the great sacrifices the English people had made during the preceding turbulent decades, though in this case as a reason for refusing [End Page 169] to condone a triumphal royalist return to London. In The Readie and Easie Way he reminded them of the "long labours" of years of bitter civil war, including "the blood of so many thousand faithfull and valiant English men" spilled during the recent civil wars, as he lamented the retreat from the "the good Old Cause" (OM 6:481, 485, 521). Still, however we judge their political differences while noting some parallels between the two epic poets, Virgil, writing his Aeneid in the aftermath of civil war, offered Milton a model of how to engage as a poet with the politics of recent or contemporary history, while imaginatively retelling the remote, mythic origins of the present.

To be sure, Milton challenges, subverts, and radically revises the imperial epic values of Virgil's poem, although Virgil himself hardly presents them unequivocally, and he often vividly reminds us of the human costs of pursuing imperial power. Colin Burrow observes that "Paradise Lost is in many ways the most anti-Virgilian epic ever written. Conquest and imperial voyaging are consistently associated in the poem with Satanic fraudulence, and empire is always to be a divine prerogative alone."12 The account I offer here does not deny this critical relation of Paradise Lost to the imperial thrust of the Aeneid or to the martial values glorified in other ancient epics, although the relation of Milton's poem to Virgil's is, I think, too complex to characterize Paradise Lost as "the most anti-Virgilian epic ever written." In an important sense, its strategy for evoking, or addressing obliquely, the conflicts of contemporary or recent history, including civil war, in relation to the distant past owes something to Virgil, however different Virgil's dynastic values may be from Milton's politics and however much Milton associates imperial ambitions with Satan's journey of conquest to the new world.

Consequently, I hope to add something different to our understanding of the critical relation of Milton to Virgil by considering the implications of both epic poets as post–civil war writers employing creative strategies for addressing their respective recent histories of political unrest and civil war. In terms of engaging imaginatively with political history, Milton's relation to Virgil is [End Page 170] not simply one of inversion: Milton rejects and revises the imperial thrust of Virgil's epic, even as Virgil treats the process of dynastic history and the great struggle to found "the lofty walls of Rome [altae moenia Romae]" and "the Roman race" (Aeneid 1.7, 33)13 in a nuanced way, conveying their ambiguities and not only their triumphs. Yet in terms of classical epic poets deeply formed by the experience of civil war, Virgil offers Milton a significant post–civil war epic paradigm for both alluding to and writing less directly about contemporary or recent political history.

Virgil spent roughly the last ten remaining years of his life, from 29 to 19 B.C., writing the Aeneid; by 30 BC, just before Virgil began work on his poem, Mark Antony was dead and his humiliating defeat at the sea-battle of Actium in 31 BC and death in 30 BC ensured the triumph of Octavian Caesar as sole master of Rome and her territories, essentially ending the last period of republican government. The restoration of the republic, hoped for by the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar, was shattered by a new round of civil war and rivalry, and republican government had essentially been undermined before Octavian assumed uncontested power, rejecting monarchical titles though calling himself princeps civitatis (the chief or "first citizen of the state"). Born in 70 BC, Virgil lived through much of the last phase of the republic (i.e., from 79 to c. 30 BC) as its survival gave way to the ambitions of individuals seeking power for themselves.14 This was an often grim, turbulent period of Roman history: it included civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar; the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus (in 48 BC) and his assassination soon after; the dictatorship of Caesar; the murder of Caesar and Cicero (in 44 and 43 BC, respectively), followed by more political instability and civil war, including the republican defeat at Philippi (in 42 BC). Augustus closing the "gates of war," the temple of Janus, in 29 BC (referred to in Aeneid 1.294) and establishing his principate marked the end of civil strife in Italy after decades of power struggles between rival leaders, and it began a new age of political restoration. Yet while Virgil's Aeneid was profoundly shaped by the periods of military and political turmoil through which he lived, Virgil chose not to [End Page 171] write his poem directly about contemporary history, including recent civil conflict, although at points he refers or alludes to it in his legendary epic, and the telos of his mythic story points to it. Like Virgil, Milton lived through civil wars and a period of political experimentation and uncertainty, including the English republic and Protectorate governments, as well as the unraveling of the commonwealth. Although the political and religious conflicts of recent and contemporary history had a profound effect on Paradise Lost's imaginative treatment of liberty, tyranny, and servility, as well as its studies in the uses and abuses of political rhetoric, Milton too did not make contemporary history and its politics the direct subject of his great epic, even though he had innovatively employed the sonnet to do just that.15

In thinking about the two poems from this perspective, we can begin to see that Virgil provides an important model for Milton facing the challenge of writing an epic that engages more obliquely with the politics and civil conflicts of recent history. Rather than writing directly about recent and contemporary history—the civil strife, power struggles, brutality, and violence that led to founding the empire of Augustus—Virgil writes largely (though not exclusively) about the remote past, including events of the late twelfth century BC: he imaginatively recreates a much earlier period of Roman mythic history, one in which Aeneas and his fellow Trojans experience weary exile after the fall of Troy, engage in martial conflicts, and suffer tragic losses, so that we need not insist that Virgil's epic is either strongly pro- or anti-Augustan to recognize that it conveys the troubling ambiguities of dynastic history.16 Similarly, rather than writing directly about the years of civil strife, warfare, and religious conflicts that preceded and haunted the Restoration, Milton returns to the founding myth of his religious culture and imaginatively rewrites the Fall of our first parents with both its immediate and far-ranging tragic and historical consequences.

Milton writes about celestial civil war and the campaign of revenge and imperial conquest that follows the defeat of the rebel angels; yet despite Milton's depiction of holy war ideology—the [End Page 172] wrath God pours upon his enemies (inspired partly by Psalm 2) in the Son of God's routing of the rebel angels—Milton's epic never directly focuses on the recent English civil wars, and the degree to which the civil war in heaven offers specific analogies to those English military conflicts and their battles remains speculative at best.17 In this regard, Milton is closer to Virgil than to Lucan (a point I'll return to below), who wrote in the Bellum civile (or the Pharsalia, as the poem was known in the seventeenth century) about epic events and civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar transpiring more than a century before his own poem was written (c. 61–65 AD), making Lucan's poem explicitly historical with its sympathy clearly on the side of the republican cause and for the tragic figure of Pompey rather than for the sinister Caesar. Milton's great epic, by contrast, engages indirectly or obliquely with the civil war years and recent upheavals of England and the tragic relapses of the English at the Restoration, and he does so without referring to any English contemporaries besides himself. Critical efforts to identify the ambitious and cunning Satan with the political and military figure of Oliver Cromwell, moreover, have proven sketchy at best and, in my view, unpersuasive; it is hard to find convincing evidence for the association since Milton, in his revolutionary prose, never portrays Cromwell as Machiavellian, tyrannical, ambitious, hypocritical, or skillful at "saintly show," as do Lucy Hutchinson, Leveller writers (including John Lilburne), Richard Baxter, Edward Burrough, and a range of other radical or more moderate Puritan contemporaries.18 The obliqueness with which Milton's poem, like Virgil's, evokes the politics of contemporary or recent history makes any identification between Cromwell or Cromwellian hypocrisy and a politically guileful Satan more elusive—and unlikely.19

Contemporary or recent history, however, does indeed intersect with epic creativity and ambition elsewhere in Milton, not just in theory but in practice: well before the English civil wars it occurs in his militantly Protestant mini-epic, In quintum Novembris, a poem indebted to the Aeneid in which the young Milton mingles myth and recent history to commemorate the providential foiling [End Page 173] of the satanic and terrorist Gunpowder Plot to destroy "pius" James I (line 1), Parliament, and Protestant England.20 And after the civil wars it most notably occurs in the Defensio secunda (1654): there, as Milton praises and warns Cromwell, and as he recalls for a European audience the hard-won and glorious achievements of the civil wars and Interregnum, he aligns his mythmaking enterprise with the epic poet's and refers at the end to the exploits of Achilles, Ulysses, and Aeneas (YP 4:685).21 Indeed, in the Defensio secunda Milton appropriates and reinvents Virgilian notions of arduous political leadership, pietas, and trials, at the same time that Milton turns contemporary history—the trials, triumphs, and dangers facing the English nation during the 1640s and 1650s—into his literary subject matter. Like Aeneas, Cromwell has endured and will continue to endure "so many hardships and encountered so many perils"—"arduous tasks" and "trials" that "buffet [him] and shake [him]" (YP 4:673–74), even as he is divinely inspired in his righteous cause. Like Aeneas too, Cromwell has had his "piety" and innermost self thoroughly tested as he takes upon himself "the heaviest burden [onus … gravissimum]" of his people (YP 4:673).22 "Piety" thereby takes on a fresh meaning that combines a sense of Cromwell's godliness and his Virgilian pietas—his dutiful conduct toward the nation undergoing its trials as it remakes itself under the experimental republic and Protectorate. Moreover, engaged in the strenuous activity of defending the English state and its liberty during the English revolution and Interregnum, Milton himself, like Cromwell and Aeneas, claims to carry a genuine "burden" upon his shoulders (YP 4:596; CM 8:84). However, in Paradise Lost Milton shifts tactics, as contemporary history and its politics no longer comprise the main focus of his literary enterprise; there traces of contemporary history and its politics are instead detectable to discerning readers who can read between the lines of his great narrative reimagining the fall of humankind.

Among the major classical post–civil war epics, Milton had two models to work with: the legendary epic of the Aeneid and the historical epic of the Pharsalia. David Norbrook's landmark study of Lucan's reception in the seventeenth century illuminates [End Page 174] parallels between the two republican epic poets and persuasively shows how much Lucan, thanks to Thomas May's popular translation (first published in 1627), shaped republican culture and writing during the English revolution.23 Yet in one respect I wish to modify this account, at least for Paradise Lost: Lucan's epic, un-Virgilian in its politics and outlook on Roman history, may have provided a republican model for Milton, since Lucan was a tyrant-hating epic poet like Milton and may well have encouraged him to assert his republican sentiments in Paradise Lost where his political voice remains "unchang'd / To hoarse or mute," despite the poet having "fall'n on evil days … and evil tongues" and "with dangers compast round" (7.24–27). When it comes to the challenges of engaging with the politics of contemporary and very recent history, however, it is Virgil the post–civil war poet who offers Milton a closer model, although not because the two epic poets always share similar dynastic or ideological sentiments. Milton is closer to Lucan in terms of tragic republican sympathies and would likely have perceived some similarities between the Roman civil wars that resulted in Caesar's dictatorship and the English civil wars and political upheaval that were eventually followed by the collapse of godly republicanism and the restoration of Stuart monarchy. Nonetheless, Milton chooses to model his poem more closely upon Virgil's epic in terms of pursuing a strategy for engaging imaginatively and indirectly with the hostile political climate of contemporary history and for responding to that history in terms of reimagining the distant past. Lucan's epic emphasizes its historicity24—as his poem focuses on approximately two years (from early 49 BC to near the end of 48 BC) in the civil war between Caesar and the republican Pompey, kinsmen as well as fellow citizens of Rome. Lucan's historical emphasis on the furor of bitter civil war and Roman bloodshed—as he relates "how an imperial people turned their victorious right hands against their own vitals; how kindred fought against kindred"25—differs from Milton's more universal perspective in Paradise Lost, despite the poem's capacity to prompt alert readers to reflect on the political and religious conflicts of the English revolution and Restoration. [End Page 175]

In this respect—that is, in terms of how to approach the politics of contemporary or recent history in the fraught circumstances of a post–civil war world undergoing a process of political transition—the Aeneid remains the principal epic model for Milton, even more than the Pharsalia.26 Consequently, Milton's shift from a ten-book structure (the number of books in the unfinished Pharsalia) in the first edition of Paradise Lost to a twelve-book Virgilian structure in the second edition may be seen as signaling more explicitly Milton's decision to highlight Virgil as his model for writing an epic poem in the close aftermath of civil war, and to make the Virgilian idiom his own mode and means of engaging with the politics of recent and contemporary history.27 One could argue of course that Paradise Lost draws creatively upon both epics, since Lucan's poem is itself a grim rewriting of Virgil's myth of Rome's past and future,28 in order to create a new and original republican epic for early modern England that imaginatively and strategically engages with the hostile political climate of the Restoration. Still, my point is that critical work devoted to Milton's relation to Lucan's civil war epic and republican literary strategies has also diverted attention away from investigating how the Aeneid itself, composed in the aftermath of Virgil's immediate experience of living through years of civil war and political turmoil, offered Milton a particularly compelling model—and poetic strategy—for engaging creatively with contemporary politics and history.

Furthermore, the point about Milton being aligned politically with the republican Lucan as opposed to the more imperial epic poet Virgil requires more nuance. In the aftermath of the English civil wars and during the English commonwealth, Milton would not always have seen a sharp divergence between Virgil and Lucan when it comes to deriving Roman lessons about the political agency of citizens in relation to tyranny, whether practiced by kings or emperors. A striking passage Milton added to the 1658 edition of Pro populo anglicano defensio, as he is discussing ancient writers on tyranny and the expulsion of the tyrannical Roman King Tarquin, shows that Milton could read the Aeneid for more radical [End Page 176] political implications that spoke to both Virgil's age and Milton's. In this revised and enlarged edition of the first Defensio, published close to the time the poet was beginning to dictate Paradise Lost, Milton includes the story of the cruel atheistical tyrant Mezentius, an Etruscan king expelled by his own people, from book 8 of the Aeneid and gives that story his own particular interpretation:

in the eighth book of the Aeneid Virgil, who was unsurpassed in the creation of what was appropriate [summus artifex decori], meant with this tale to show Octavian Caesar, even then Rome's ruler [regnanti etiam tunc Romæ Octaviano Cæsari … ostendere], what had been the rights of kings from immemorial ages among all nations.

At last the weary citizens besiege in arms him and his house, while he rages furiously; they slay his comrades and set fire to his roof. Amid the slaughter, he slips away in flight to the Rutulian domain and gains protection from the arms of his host Turnus. Thus all Tuscany blazed with righteous rage and in open warfare claims the king for punishment [regem ad supplicium præsenti Marte reposcunt]. [Aeneid 8.489–95]

You see here that not only did the citizens, burning in their righteous wrath, seek to slay the tyrant in a sudden onslaught, nor did they merely drive him from the realm, but actually undertook a war to get him back as a fugitive exile to face trial and execution.

(YP 4:445; CM 7:324)29

Milton and Virgil both highlight the extreme cruelty of Mezentius,30 but it is Milton the pro-regicide writer who especially uses that ancient example to illustrate the justification of furious citizens judging and punishing tyrants—a point originally intended, according to Milton, for Octavian Caesar and no less relevant for Milton's European contemporaries when it comes to determining the rights of kings. It is notable, however, that Milton does not mention that later in the Aeneid Mezentius, as a major ally of Turnus, is treated with some sympathy when facing his death at the hands of a merciless, Achilles-like Aeneas. Mezentius supplicates the Trojan hero to bury him in the same tomb as his handsome son [End Page 177] (Lausus), whom Aeneas has also slain (10.900–08); the supplicating Mezentius, whose parental piety and plea receive no response, shows that war is not always reconcilable with humanity, arma with pietas (i.e., in the sense not only of duty but of justice and compassion). Yet this is neither the dimension of the ancient story nor the interpretation the republican controversialist chooses to emphasize.

As this highly selective, political reading of the story of Mezentius from the Aeneid suggests, Milton does not, when it comes to political lessons, simply or always interpret Virgil's epic as an expression of a conservative, imperial worldview. Moreover, he suggests how Virgil's treatment of the legendary past in the Aeneid had political lessons, including more radical ones, to convey to Rome's first emperor, as well as to Milton's own contemporaries when it came to the unrestrained power of kings in relation to the people. I want to consider now how Virgil and Milton, in their epics, employ the legendary past to comment more obliquely on the politics of a post–civil war present.

Writing Obliquely about Contemporary Politics

What are the larger creative and political implications of Milton following and ultimately going further than Virgil in representing more obliquely the politics of contemporary history? First of all, Virgil's decision to write about the mythic past, although with select references to and prophecies concerning contemporary history, was a shrewd political and poetic strategy. Writing primarily about contemporary or recent Roman history, including writing an epic directly about Octavian's victories after years of civil war, would have created difficulties for Virgil as he attempted to convey in a nuanced way the tragic loss and ambiguities involved in the making of imperial history and ideology. Augustus's empire was built upon the triumphs of warfare, yet much of the warfare in the Aeneid is presented negatively: from the treacherous, savage destruction of Troy and the shocking dismemberment of its king Priam, a headless trunk and a corpse without a name (related in [End Page 178] book 2), to the madness of "grim wars" (horrida bella, 7.41) and the frenzy of uncontrolled violence and civil discord unleashed in Latium in the second half of the epic, which engulfs Italy and culminates in Aeneas's vengeful, furious killing of the supplicating, wounded Turnus at the end.

A shrewder literary and political strategy, then, was to focus on the warfare of the remote legendary past. This allowed Virgil to offer a multivalent perspective on the human costs and untimely deaths—for example, Turnus's killing of Evander's son Pallas in book 10 (479–95) and the deep sadness it generates—involved in the violent creation of dynastic empire and Roman power, thereby challenging a neat polarity between war and peace and highlighting a tension between arma and pietas. Consequently, Virgil wrote primarily about the distant past, an imaginative retelling of Rome's Trojan origins that includes the many perils and sufferings endured by Aeneas and the exiled Trojans before a new civilization could be established by means of bitter war between Trojan and Italian in Italy, foreshadowing not only the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BC31 but the civil wars of Virgil's age. And insofar as Virgil wrote about the more recent past, he put it largely in the framework of the legendary past, combining in his epic remote history, near history, and mythology—a brilliant solution to the challenges he faced after living through a traumatic, protracted, and precarious period of civil conflict and political unrest. In this sense, Virgil's Aeneid provides an ancient model or strategy for composing an epic in immediate post–civil war times—a model Milton would both follow and redefine.

Even as it emphasizes the distant past and the mythic representation of civil strife (embodied in the destructive enmity of Juno), Virgil's Aeneid includes prophecy and history—most notably in books 1, 6, and 8—that clearly refer to the bloody conflicts, civil war, and tragic losses of his own age, as well as to the hard-won triumphs of Roman empire, universal rule, and an Augustan peace that is also precarious. Thus an extended simile of a Roman statesman subduing rebellion in book 1 (lines 148–53) evokes a period of civil unrest and violence preceding Augustus's [End Page 179] age, while Augustus Caesar is already invoked in the same book as the poem projects, via Jupiter's prophecy to Venus (1.257–96), the larger scope of dynastic history and destiny, including Roman power and empire without end (imperium sine fine), a historical process in which Aeneas is an instrument of destiny and civil war a component. In book 6 Anchises's underworld prophecy envisions "Augustus Caesar, son of a god [divi genus], who will again establish a Golden Age in Latium, in fields where Saturn once reigned" (792–94), while the shade of Aeneas's father also refers to the civil war between 49 and 45 BC, makes a strong plea for peace in Virgil's age, and, more ambiguously, envisions the shadowy figure of the young Marcellus—nephew, son-in-law, and prospective heir of Augustus—who died prematurely in 23 BC ("No youth of Ilian stock will ever raise his Latin ancestry so high in hope" [875–76], Anchises observes). Anchises thus conveys a sense of prophetic sadness, fragility, and promise unfulfilled in the midst of the prophecy of imperial renewal.32 Even Virgil's references to contemporary history—expressed in this case more obliquely through the voice of Anchises—complicate an unequivocal vision of epic and dynastic panegyric, coloring it (as the case of Marcellus's untimely death illustrates) with a tragic sensibility.33

More explicitly, the brief vignettes depicted on Aeneas's prophetic shield in book 8, moving from Romulus to Augustus or from early Roman history to Virgil's age, highlight the violence and bloodshed necessary to effect and impose dynastic order.34 Though he marvels at the scenes, Aeneas does not comprehend their meaning, including the victory of Augustus at the battle of Actium and the celebration of his triple triumph (in August 29 BC), as well as one implication of these vignettes: dynastic history dependent upon civil war may be more ambiguous than a story of unequivocal imperial glory, civilization, and the triumph of Roman order over barbarism. Some allusions to the violent turmoil of Virgil's age have disturbing implications about the politics and violence leading to the Augustan settlement. For example, the reference to Cato the Younger, a figure of justice dispensing laws to the pious, juxtaposed with Catiline the ambitious conspirator [End Page 180] and sinner (8.668–70) evokes the bitter unrest of the late Roman republic and reminds us that Cato, who represented res publica et libertas, chose suicide rather than to live under Julius Caesar's authoritarian rule. Indeed, in his acute commentary on the political and poetic challenges facing Virgil as a post–civil war epic poet, John Dryden was especially struck by the republican implications of Virgil's reference to Cato.35

Milton's Paradise Lost is more oblique about contemporary politics, civil warfare, and history than the Aeneid—despite including allusions to revolutionary and Restoration England, both in terms of political and religious conflicts, and despite depicting in its visions and narratives of postlapsarian history extended periods of tyranny, violence, idolatry, dissipation, national relapse, and servitude. The prophecies and biblical history in the last two books of Paradise Lost, much as they present Adam with a sweeping perspective on scriptural events and personages from Cain and Abel to the Apocalypse, are even less direct than the prophecies in Virgil's Aeneid when it comes to pointing to contemporary or recent events. To be sure, the depiction of the Israelites wandering in the desert evokes the English civil war years, just as Michael evokes the period of the Stuart Restoration when, for example, he implicitly suggests (without mentioning king or nation by name) Charles II as a divine judgment on the English nation for its decline from "virtue" (PL 12.90–101), or when the archangel's intensely dark narrative of post-apostolic history refers to the "heavy persecution" suffered by "all who in the worship persevere / Of Spirit and Truth" and who reject "outward Rites and specious forms" in religion (12.531–34). One hears the voice of Milton's religious radicalism in this last example, but because Milton does not mention by name any group of suffering nonconformists (e.g., Quakers or Baptists), his polemicism remains generalized enough so that his bitter, hard-hitting lines cannot be linked to any particular sect or movement.36 Moreover, if Milton's biblically inspired account of the fearless and "righteous" few confronting "a World perverse" (11.701) also evokes the poet's sense of solitary, godly heroism involved in resisting the pressures of tyranny, servility, [End Page 181] and national dissipation in his own age, including the Restoration, it does so without ever mentioning specific contemporary individuals, military conflicts, or political events. One result is that he composed an epic that, while daring and politically provocative, had the capacity to appeal not only to a "fit audience … though few" (as the solitary godly republican poet envisioned [7.31]) but ultimately to a wide ideological readership (as the poem's lavish fourth edition, published in 1688 with an ideologically broad list of subscribers, would soon make clear, a point I discuss below).

There is even reason to doubt that the provocative simile of the eclipse in book 1 (lines 594–99) seriously concerned the king's censor, as some commentators have claimed.37 This claim has depended on John Toland's observation, in his 1698 Life of Milton, that the king's censor (Thomas Tomkins) expressed concern about these lines about an eclipse perplexing monarchs "with fear of change" and "would needs suppress the whole Poem for imaginary Treason" because of them.38 An eclipse had occurred on May 29, 1630, the day of Charles II's birth, so that according to Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips, it "portended something more than ordinary, the extraordinary Passages of this Prince's Life … in great measure manifested"; Edward Chamberlayne likewise noted that it was "a sad presage as some then divined that this Princes Power should for some time be eclipsed"39 (i.e., during the Interregnum). One can see why Tomkins might have been troubled by Milton's simile, which, however, is less historically specific than the observations of Phillips and Chamberlayne. Indeed, the manuscript to book 1, kept in the Morgan Library in New York, contains on the first folio page the imprimatur of Tomkins (thereby allowing the book to be printed) and shows no sign of censorship at all.40 When it came to alluding to the politics of recent or contemporary history, Milton had mastered the poetic art of writing both provocatively and obliquely.

Yet if Paradise Lost evokes more obliquely present or recent history, it nonetheless continually provokes attentive readers to rethink issues of political liberty and servility, as well as the struggles for religious freedom; even if contemporary history is not [End Page 182] the poem's immediate subject matter, Milton's political and radical religious concerns are constantly present and interconnected.41 Satan's stirring political speeches in hell, the political debate in hell, the great rebellion and schism in heaven, the temptation of Eve in which Satan tells her God wants "to keep" humans "low and ignorant, / His worshippers" (PL 9.704–5): these, among other passages or episodes, prompt readers to reconsider, in the context of the poem's imaginative accounts of the titanic struggle between God and Satan and the Fall of humankind, the rhetoric of political power, liberty, and revolution (including ways different political languages are manipulated by a Machiavellian Satan), without Milton directly referring to the English civil wars and revolution. How we understand contemporary or recent history in relation to the political and military events depicted in Paradise Lost is consequently a matter of interpretive tact. We may also draw attention to contemporary parallels or sources or genres as a way of understanding the contemporary political resonances of the poem, including its political analysis: for example, Sharon Achinstein and Diana Treviño Benet have shown well how Milton's Parliament or council in hell evokes contemporary depictions of Parliaments in hell and the mid-seventeenth-century genre of pamphlets representing the devil-politician.42 Yet at the same time, the poem is not altogether rooted in such contemporary writings, nor are the politics and rhetoric of its demonic Parliament, which has "Lords" (1.794) but no House of Commons, based on any one recent or contemporary Parliament (despite Milton the revolutionary controversialist having repeatedly addressed or written on behalf of Parliament in its various permutations). In this respect, the poem remains more evocative than historically specific as it gives historical particulars mythic resonance. Discerning readers may learn much about the nature and uses (or abuses) of political rhetoric from studying Paradise Lost without the poem ever being too specifically tied to the events and personages of contemporary history. As John Toland observed, "the chief design" of Paradise Lost was "to display the different Effects of Liberty and Tyranny";43 yet Milton's challenge in executing this "design" involved writing in such a way that was [End Page 183] neither too heavy-handed nor direct in its political topicality or suggestiveness.

Indeed, critical attempts to identify the politics and symbolism of heaven too literally with the politics and symbolism of Stuart monarchs—except insofar as Milton's poem revises such political symbolism and image-making in relation to the seventeenth-century contest for political authority44—tend to result in strained or unpersuasive readings of the poem's politics. And this is what allows the poem to be so adept from a political point of view: it has just enough particularity to evoke the political language, representations, and controversies of the English revolution and Restoration; yet Paradise Lost is never altogether bound nor defined by recent and contemporary history and major political actors involved in it.

Let me illustrate further what I mean when I argue that Milton's poem, written in the aftermath of civil war and decades of political turmoil, engages obliquely yet provocatively with contemporary or recent political history. The biblical narrative about Nimrod, related by Michael to Adam at the beginning of book 12, draws upon biblical history in a way that evokes the conflicts of recent seventeenth-century history and yet remains oblique enough so that Milton's polemical republicanism comes across without the poem ever becoming too topical or historically specific. In his pro-regicide and republican writings, Milton explicitly associates Nimrod, "the first that hunted after Faction" and "the first that founded Monarchy" with Charles I, since "it appears that to hunt after Faction is more properly the Kings Game" (Eikonoklastes, OM 6:350–51);45 during the English revolution, Milton's Parliamentarian and radical contemporaries likewise regularly associated Nimrod with Stuart tyranny and violence.46 Paradise Lost, however, makes the connection less explicitly than Milton's controversial prose does; Michael never specifically connects the predatory Nimrod, "A mighty Hunter" who makes "his game" "Men not Beasts" (PL 12.33, 30), with King Charles; the connection is left to the discerning reader, with enough hints provided by both Michael's description of Nimrod and Adam's response. Like [End Page 184] Stuart kings, who claimed divine-right authority, Nimrod "from Heav'n" claims "second Sovranty" (12.35); moreover, Michael's observation that "from Rebellion shall derive his name, / Though of Rebellion others he accuse" (12.36–37) evokes one of the fundamental conflicts of the civil war years depicted by Milton the controversialist. The name Nimrod, derived from the Hebrew for "we will rebel" or "let us rebel," recalls the pro-regicide Milton's depiction of Charles I as "a rebell to Law" (Eikonoklastes, OM 6:170) and as "savage and rebellious" (Defensio secunda, YP 4:634), who has simultaneously justified his "evil doings," including his "disabl[ing] and uncreat[ing] the Parlament it self," by employing "the slander of rebellion" against his political and religious opponents (Eikonoklastes, OM 6:285).

The account of Nimrod in Paradise Lost is likewise more historically suggestive than specific when Milton's Adam provides a spontaneous response to kingship and its invidious political implications on earth in future human times:

        O execrable Son so to aspireAbove his Brethren, to himself assumingAuthority usurpt, from God not giv'n:He gave us only over Beast, Fish, FowlDominion absolute; that right we holdBy his donation; but Man over menHe made not Lord; such title to himselfReserving, human left from human free.


By daring to imagine our original father's fervent response to such contested matters in the seventeenth century as absolute power and sovereignty, political servility, and the natural human urge for freedom from the dominion of earthly monarchy, Milton places his poem in the midst of debates that had fueled civil war and revolution. After all, royalist theorists of monarchy, including Sir Robert Filmer and his followers, aimed to support the legitimacy of monarchy by representing Adam, with his patriarchal authority, as the first earthly king, the origin of and justification for absolute monarchical power.47 Milton's Adam may be no political theorist (he hasn't read Milton's antimonarchical tracts nor studied early [End Page 185] modern political theory), yet he reacts strongly to the notion of earthly kingship deteriorating into tyranny and violence, as well as rebellion against God, when the story of Nimrod is related to him. In other words, the poem suggests, through Adam's spontaneous response, that earthly kingship with regard to "Man over men" (12.69) is fundamentally unnatural, whereas a theorist of monarchy like Filmer stresses that it was indeed natural.48

Adam's vehement response to the aggressive tyranny of the biblical Nimrod is therefore instinctively, rather than theoretically, republican,49 and it can be understood in terms of the poem's creative engagement in the seventeenth-century contest over political authority, as well as its imaginative yet oblique engagement with the politics of recent history. Milton's Adam recognizes—much as Locke would in his Two Treatises of Government (published in 1690)—that God's donation in Genesis 1:28 "gave Adam no Monarchical Power over those of his own Species."50 In Milton's inventive account, this is precisely what our first parent himself immediately understands as he responds to the story of the imperial, mighty Nimrod, who "Will arrogate Dominion undeserv'd / Over his brethren" as he claims "second Sovranty" (12.27–28, 35) from heaven. Here it is as though Paradise Lost, not Locke, were arguing against Filmer's representation of Adam as the original earthly king ruling with absolute power. The Nimrod episode, as Milton has freshly imagined it, is thus rich in historical suggestiveness. Yet it also dramatically exemplifies poetic writing that is simultaneously oblique and provocative in its treatment of contentious political issues.

Like Virgil in the Aeneid, but in his own unique way, Milton in Paradise Lost has thus rethought and reimagined the epic in relation to contemporary history and some of its most bitter, controversial political issues. The poem's polemical relation to Stuart politics and Restoration culture is there for discerning readers to uncover. Yet when it comes to addressing contemporary history, the poem works obliquely enough to engage readers of differing political persuasions, and this had crucial implications for its ability to achieve its impressive cultural authority during the Restoration. [End Page 186]

Paradise Lost and Post–Civil War Cultural Authority

And this brings me back to Milton and Virgil as post–civil war epic poets. Like Virgil, Milton the political poet of Paradise Lost can be both particular and oblique at the same time. Indeed, in writing about a founding myth and biblical past, Milton is overall less direct than Virgil when it comes to including moments that explicitly refer to the events, politics, and leaders (military or political) of contemporary or recent history. Ultimately, it was a poetic and political strategy that enabled Milton, who was also the pro-regicide and godly republican polemicist, to write in a double-edged way: he could remain a politically radical poet, who wrote his poem as an act of resistance, and yet write in a way that could appeal to an ideologically diverse readership; he could write as a radical religious poet who audaciously transformed the epic into a kind of poetry that could deeply challenge Restoration cultural, religious, and political values, and yet he could produce a poem that was quickly bestowed with the cultural authority of an English classic that rivaled its ancient models.51

Thus the conservative country Presbyterian, Sir John Hobart, one of the very first readers of Paradise Lost, could condemn the pro-regicide Milton as "a criminall & obsolete person" (the word "obsolete" suggesting, as Nicholas von Maltzahn notes, rebellious independency and an alliance with the sects);52 nevertheless, based on "a deliberate & repeated reading" of Milton's poem, Hobart could also appreciate that Paradise Lost was "not only above all moderne attempts in verse, but equall to any of the Antient Poets … I can say truly I never read anything more august."53 Milton's Virgilian and post–civil war strategy of treating the political conflicts of contemporary history more obliquely in Paradise Lost enabled this kind of response to its aesthetic power: a recognition of its unique and ambitious achievement as a majestic and sublime poem from a contemporary reader otherwise deeply hostile to Milton's radical politics and polemical prose.

As an unorthodox religious and republican epic, Paradise Lost could of course also appeal to a "fit audience … though few" (7.31), including radical Dissenters like Thomas Ellwood, the Quaker [End Page 187] controversialist and Milton's student who read the poem in manuscript and who very likely appreciated (as his own poems suggest) the epic's radical treatment of spiritual interiority, its strong anticlericalism and emphasis on spontaneous or "Unmeditated" (5.149) worship free from established rituals and "gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold" (1.372), and its polemical rejection of the notion of Adam as the first earthly king who legitimizes absolute power.54 The elegant folio edition of the epic in 1688 tells a more complex story about its appeal to ideologically diverse—and indeed opposed—audiences. Richly illustrated by John Baptist Medina and published by Jacob Tonson, it includes an engraved portrait of the poet and commendatory prefatory verses by Dryden who, having already condensed Milton's epic into The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man (his "opera" published six times between 1677 and 1684), now proclaims that the English Milton joined the strengths of Homer and Virgil to create a new masterpiece that rivals his ancient models: "The force of Nature cou'd no farther goe: / To make a Third, she joyned the former two."55 The promotion of Paradise Lost in its fourth edition as the work of a classic author was enabled by Milton's decision to employ in his own creative way Virgil's strategy of reimagining the distant, mythic past and thereby engaging more obliquely with the traumatic conflicts of recent history, including civil wars and (for Milton) the fraught circumstances of a post–civil war world in which the "Good Old Cause" of republican England had suffered a major defeat. This allowed the godly republican poet, whose invocations to books 7 and 9 express his acute anxieties about writing in the cold and hostile political climate of the Restoration, to secure the admiration of a politically conservative poet like Dryden and a prestigious publisher like Tonson, who in turn helped to shape and promote the reputation of the poet and his new cultural authority.56

This fourth edition also includes at the end a substantial list advertising an exceptionally wide range of subscribers—royalist poets, aristocrats, bishops, even Roger L'Estrange, once Milton's polemical enemy and a vitriolic opponent of toleration and dissent in the Restoration and a censor of the press.57 Clearly many of [End Page 188] these subscribers—"The Names of the Nobility and Gentry That Encourag'd, by Subscription, The Printing this Edition of Milton's Paradise Lost"58—would not have shared Milton's radical convictions in politics and religion; nor would they have sympathized with the politically charged language of his claim that Paradise Lost was an "Heroick Poem" that should be "esteem'd" for following Homer and Virgil in rejecting "the troublesome and modern bondage of Rhiming" as "the Invention of a barbarous Age."59 Paradise Lost was thus being presented as a great English classic in the epic tradition with the capacity to appeal to an ideologically diverse readership. This daring religious and political epic of early modern England had achieved something remarkable: it could speak to dissident readers in the Restoration who felt themselves "fall'n on evil days" and yet, given its more universal narrative about the tragic Fall of our first parents, it could win the admiration and endorsement of readers whose religious, political, and cultural values were very unlike—indeed, inimical to—those of the radical Protestant and revolutionary Milton.

Readers attuned to the nuances of the poem's political and religious language can find and debate the significance and extent of echoes of Milton the civil war polemicist, republican, and religious radical who, as the royalist clergyman John Beale noted to John Evelyn (in December 1669), "holds to his old Principle."60 However provocative, these historical echoes nevertheless mostly remain oblique or covertly articulated, perceptible to discerning readers of Milton's radical politics and writings: for instance, the poet evoking the debauchery of Restoration London by shifting to the present tense in book 1's catalog of demonic idolatry and presentation of Belial (497–502); or the depiction of "the lawless Tyrant" Pharaoh pursuing the Israelites as analogous to the obdurate Charles I's relation to the English people (12.173–205); or even the intuitively republican Adam, rather than the narrator himself, strongly condemning the tyranny of Nimrod as a way of evoking the violent absolutism of earthly kingship and suggesting the dangers of tyranny posed by Restoration monarchy. Consequently, moments like these, in which the mythic or biblical past provocatively [End Page 189] converges with the present, convey the poet's revolutionary politics and polemical convictions from an oblique enough angle so that they would not readily or necessarily alienate a broad range of contemporary readers, including politically conservative ones. As a post–civil war poet, Virgil especially provided a crucial ancient model for Milton as he sought to respond imaginatively and less directly to his own transformed political world haunted by recent civil wars and the bitterness of national divisions. Yet if Milton employed the strategy of representing the mythic past with intimations of more recent history, he also did so in his own distinctive way, so that his politically and religiously radical poem, inspired by "the Spirit within" (12.523), was almost immediately received—and would soon be promoted—as an English classic with a new and unique cultural authority.

David Loewenstein
Pennsylvania State University, University Park


I am grateful to a number of colleagues for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay: Thomas N. Corns and Paul Stevens, who read the essay in its most embryonic form; participants in the Southeast and Northeast Milton Seminars; Patrick Cheney for discussing its argument with me; and Laura L. Knoppers, editor of Milton Studies.

1. See, e.g., Douglas Bush, "Virgil and Milton," Classical Journal 47, no. 5 (1952): 178–82; Janette Richardson, "Virgil and Milton Once Again," Comparative Literature 14 (1962): 321–31; John S. Coolidge, "Great Things and Small: The Virgilian Progression," Comparative Literature 17 (1965): 1–16; Richard Neuse, "Milton and Spenser: The Virgilian Triad Revisited," ELH 45, no. 4 (1978): 606–39; Louis L. Martz, Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton's Poetry (New Haven, Conn., 1980), 31–59; K. W. Gransden, "The Aeneid and Paradise Lost," in Virgil and His Influence: Bimillennial Studies (Bristol, 1984), 95–116; Charles Martindale, John Milton and the Transformation of Ancient Epic (Totowa, N.J., 1986), 177–52; Barbara Pavlock, "Milton's Criticism of Classical Epic in Paradise Lost 9," in The Classical Heritage: Vergil, ed. Craig Kallendorf (New York, 1993), 291–314; Andre Verhart, "Milton on Vergil: Dido and Aeneas in Paradise Lost," English Studies 78 (1997): 111–26; David Quint, "The Virgilian Coordinates of Paradise Lost,'' Materiali e discussioni per [End Page 190] l'analisi dei testi classici 52 (2004): 177–97; Katherine Calloway, "Beyond Parody: Satan as Aeneas in Paradise Lost," Milton Quarterly 39, no. 2 (2005): 82–92; Philip Cardinale, "Satan as Aeneas: An Allusion to Virgil in Paradise Lost," Notes and Queries 50, no. 2 (2003): 183; Michael C. J. Putnam, "The Aeneid and Paradise Lost: Ends and Conclusions," Literary Imagination 8, no. 3 (2006): 387–410; Maggie Kilgour, "Satan and the Wrath of Juno," ELH 75, no. 3 (2008): 653–71; Leah Whittington, "Vergil's Nisus and the Language of Self-Sacrifice in Paradise Lost," Modern Philology 107, no. 4 (2010): 588–606.

2. David Quint, Inside "Paradise Lost": Reading the Designs of Milton's Epic (Princeton, N.J., 2014).

3. Martindale, Transformation of Ancient Epic, 140–49, discusses Virgil as a poet of time and historical process in relation to Milton; however, he does not compare the poems as post–civil war epics as I do here. David Quint comes closest to my project in Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (Princeton, N.J., 1993), when he observes about Milton's war in heaven that "Milton's imitation … finds common ideological ground with its Virgilian model in the two poets' shared experience of civil war, a state of political confusion that both equate with a threat to narratable historical meaning" (44); I discuss this "common ideological ground" from a different and more expansive perspective.

4. In addition to studies cited in notes 1 and 2, see, e.g., David P. Harding, The Club of Hercules (Urbana, Ill., 1962); Thomas Greene, The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity (New Haven, Conn., 1963); Francis C. Blessington, "Paradise Lost" and the Classical Epic (London, 1979); Barbara K. Lewalski, "Paradise Lost" and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton, N.J., 1985); Susanne Lindgren Wofford, The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of the Figure in the Epic (Stanford, Calif., 1992); Colin Burrow, Epic Romance: Homer to Milton (Oxford, 1993); William Porter, Reading the Classics and "Paradise Lost" (Lincoln, Neb., 1993).

5. On the acute political, religious, and social tensions during this period (including the collapse of the Laudian ascendency, the fragmentation of the established church, and the emergence of radical sectarianism), see David Cressy, England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640–1642 (Oxford, 2005).

6. See Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols., ed. Don M. Wolfe et al. (New Haven, Conn., 1953–82), 1:813; hereafter cited in the text as YP.

7. Samuel Coleridge suggested that in Paradise Lost Milton found it impossible to realize his aspirations "either in religion, or politics, or society" and therefore "gave up his heart to the living spirit or the light within." Coleridge, "Milton (1818)," in Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries, ed. James Thorpe (New York, 1969), 97. Blair Worden, [End Page 191] "Milton's Republicanism and the Tyranny of Heaven," in Machiavelli and Republicanism, ed. Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli (Cambridge, 1990), chap. 11 (esp. 244), has elaborated on this line of argument. Cf. numerous other critics who have illuminated, from different perspectives, the poem's political engagement and language: Mary Ann Radzinowicz, Sharon Achinstein, Thomas N. Corns, Stevie Davies, Martin Dzelzainis, Laura L. Knoppers, Barbara K. Lewalski, David Norbrook, Paul Stevens, and myself, among others. For an assessment of critical work emphasizing the poet's political engagement, as well as a discussion of the poem's radical religious politics, see David Loewenstein, "The Radical Religious Politics of Paradise Lost," in A New Companion to Milton, ed. Thomas N. Corns (Oxford, 2016), 376–90.

8. Cf. Gordon Teskey's discussion of the poem in terms of "transcendental engagement": "a diagnostic investigation of history from a mythical platform outside history," including Milton negating "his earlier engagement with present political concerns" in The Poetry of John Milton (Cambridge, Mass., 2015), 315 (for his full account, see 303–39). As will become clear from my argument about Paradise Lost, Virgil, and the politics of contemporary history in the close aftermath of civil war, I see the poem as more fully and shrewdly engaged with contemporary history and politics—but obliquely.

9. Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem (1594), trans. with notes by Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel (Oxford, 1973), 40. The debate is succinctly addressed in Barbara K. Lewalski, "Contemporary History as Literary Subject: Milton's Sonnets," Milton Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2013): 220–22. On Italian critical theory and epic poets (not only Tasso but also Matteo Maria Boiardo, Ludovico Ariosto, and Gian Giorgio Trissino) who reimagined an exemplary historical event from the past (unlike Milton), see also Teskey, Poetry of John Milton, 315.

10. The Complete Works of John Milton, vol. 6, Vernacular Regicide and Republican Writings, ed. N. H. Keeble and Nicholas McDowell (Oxford, 2013), 485; further references to this edition are cited parenthetically in my text preceded by OM. For Charles II fashioned by royalist propagandists and panegyrists (Dryden among them) as a new Augustus putting an end to the chaos of civil war and establishing an English imperium that would rival the Pax Romana, see Gregory Chaplin, "The Circling Hours: Revolution in Paradise Regain'd," in Milton and the Long Revolution, ed. Blair Hoxby and Ann Baynes Coiro (Oxford, 2016), 266–69.

11. The precise end point for the Roman republic remains a matter of some dispute. Tacitus, for example, identified the end of the republic with the deaths of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC since the republican army had been defeated (Annals 2.10); some scholars identify the end of the republic with Caesar's invasion of Italy in early [End Page 192] 49 BC, whereas others place its end point at the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC or at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. See Catherine Steel, The End of the Roman Republic, 146 to 44 BC (Edinburgh, 2013); and Harriet L. Flower's concise summary of the debate in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, ed. Flower (Cambridge, 2004), 2–3. Cf. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 2nd ed., ed. M. C. Howatson (Oxford, 1989), 495–96 (s.v. "Rome"), which gives 30 BC as the end date. It is less crucial to my argument to establish a precise end point and more important to stress the fact that Virgil lived through the collapse of the republic and the violent turmoil associated with that process.

12. Colin Burrow, "Virgils, from Dante to Milton," in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge, 1997), 87, though Burrow also comments perceptively on Paradise Lost's allusions to and imitations of Virgil (89–90). Also see Quint, Inside "Paradise Lost," 198, for a similar assertion that the Aeneid is the poem "whose glorifications of imperial power and greatness makes it the epic model that the Christian humility of Paradise Lost most insistently measures itself against and self-consciously inverts."

13. Citations from the Aeneid are taken from Virgil, 2 vols., trans. H. R. Fairclough, rev. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); I have occasionally made minor adjustments in the translations.

14. For helpful accounts, see Michael Crawford, The Roman Republic (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), esp. 124–93; Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research, trans. Henry Heilmann-Gordon (Princeton, N.J., 2010); Steel, End of the Roman Republic, 140–210.

15. On Milton's use of the sonnet to write about contemporary history, see Lewalski, "Contemporary History as Literary Subject," 220–29, as well as Janel Mueller, "The Master of Decorum: Politics as Poetry in Milton's Sonnets," Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (1987): 475–508.

16. For a helpful account of tragic elements in Virgil's epic and the history of viewing the poem in this way, see Philip Hardie, "Virgil and Tragedy," in Cambridge Companion to Virgil, chap. 20.

17. Christopher Hill, for example, tries to establish analogies between the civil war in heaven and the English civil wars and its battles: Milton and the English Revolution (1977; repr., Harmondsworth, 1979), 371–73. Although the loyal angels are called "Saints" and Satan employs cannon warfare, the analogies or parallels remain no more than conjectural. See also Quint, Epic and Empire, 44, who observes of the loyal angels, "their very dependence upon God recalls the pious ranks of Cromwell's New Model Army" (44), a point that has some merit, although the godly and well-disciplined New Model Army was crucial to the final defeat of Charles I, unlike Milton's loyal angels who cannot break the military [End Page 193] deadlock in the celestial war. See also Michael Lieb, Poetics of the Holy: A Reading of "Paradise Lost" (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981), 277–82, on holy ideology in the Bible and the English civil wars.

18. See my discussion of this matter in Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries: Religion, Politics, and Polemics in Radical Puritanism (Cambridge, 2001), 39–40, 42–43, 208–09; for Burrough and Cromwell, see The Memorable Works of a Son of Thunder … Edward Burroughs (London, 1672), 582 ("an ambitious spirit got power over [Cromwell], and betrayed him, and the Work was lost which God called him unto"). One could point as well to hostile responses to Cromwell (usurping the role of "King Jesus") from Fifth Monarchists: Loewenstein, Representing Revolution, 146–50. Cf. Defensio secunda, where Milton notes that when the state is "troubled with factions," Puritans hostile to Cromwell and other enemies ascribe their treatment "to the trickery and deceit of Cromwell" (YP 4:663).

19. The attempt to link Cromwell with the hypocritical, deceitful, and prideful Satan goes back to William Hayley, The Life of Milton, 2nd ed. (London, 1796), 131–32, and has been pursued by such modern critics as J. B. Broadbent, Christopher Hill, Blair Worden, David Armitage, and Howard Erskine-Hill: for specific references, see my Representing Revolution, 357–58n17. See also Hilary Gatti, Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton (Princeton, N.J., 2015), 156 (Milton's "placing the parliamentary experience in hell … implies a devastating judgment on the Cromwellian leadership").

20. Citations from Milton's poetry are taken from The Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (1957; repr., Indianapolis, 2003). The indebtedness of In quintum Novembris to the Aeneid is apparent not only in its depiction of the pious James but also in its use of aerial views, its dream visitations, its cave with allegorical inhabitants, and its depiction of Rumor.

21. On Milton's mythmaking in his Defensio secunda, see my essay "Milton and the Poetics of Defense," in Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton's Prose, ed. David Loewenstein and James Grantham Turner, 171–92 (Cambridge, 1990).

22. Milton's Latin is cited from The Works of John Milton, 18 vols. in 21, ed. Frank Allen Patterson et al. (New York, 1931–38), 8:226; hereafter cited in the text as CM.

23. David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic (Cambridge, 1999), chap. 10, esp. 438–67. See also Nigel Smith, Literature and Revolution (New Haven, Conn., 1994), 204, who observes that the Pharsalia replaced the Aeneid as the dominant model in the period of the English civil wars. On the impact of Lucan's epic during this period, see also Martindale, Transformation of Ancient Epic, 200–01. For Lucan's diverse impact on a wide range of literary forms in the English Renaissance and on debates [End Page 194] over the nature of freedom, see Edward Paleit, War, Liberty, and Caesar: Responses to Lucan's "Bellum Ciuile," ca. 1580–1650 (Oxford, 2013).

24. The poem's historicity is emphasized in some of the seventeenth-century title pages of May's translation: e.g., A Continuation of the Subiect of Lucan's historicall Poem on the death of Julius Cæsar (London, 1630), with additional printings in 1633, 1650, 1657; Lucans Pharsalia; or, The Civil Warres of Rome, between Pompey the great, and Julius Cæsar. An Historical Poem being till the Death of Julius Cæsar (London, 1659). On Lucan as historical poet in the political world of seventeenth-century England, see also Gerald M. MacLean, Time's Witness: Historical Representation in English Poetry, 1603–1660 (Madison, 1990), 26–44.

25. Lucan: The Civil War, trans. J. D. Duff (1928; rpt., Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 1.2–4: "populum … potentem / In sua victrici conversum viscera dextra, / Cognatasque acies."

26. In making my particular argument about Paradise Lost, the Aeneid, and the politics of contemporary history, I am not of course discounting other creative responses to Lucan in Paradise Lost: see, e.g., 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. Also see Martindale, Transformation of Ancient Epic, 206–24, on parallels between Lucan's Caesar and Milton's Satan.

27. Since The Lusiads consists of ten cantos, Milton's structural change may likewise signal his desire to shift away from the model of the Renaissance epic that makes its focus recent national and imperial history. Regarding Lucan and Milton's structural change, Teskey doubts that that the change indicates any change in Milton's republican spirit in 1674 (I agree) or that "the initial choice of ten books instead of twelve books is attributable to a republican preference for the unfinished ten-book" epic of Lucan (Teskey, Poetry of John Milton, 312).

28. For Lucan's responses, poetic and ideological, to Virgil, see Quint, Epic and Empire, 131–57.

29. I have slightly modified the translation of Milton's concluding comment in the Yale edition because the Latin suggests that the angry citizens demanded Mezentius's return to face judgment (execution)—not that they actually "dragged him back" (as the Yale translation has it). In Milton: Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis (Cambridge, 1991), 170, Dzelzainis rightly captures the 1658 addition of the example from Virgil, whereas the Columbia and Yale editions do not.

30. Milton also recalls the tyrant's cruelty in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (YP 2:327).

31. See Aeneid 10.11–14.

32. For a full discussion of the prophecy in book 6, see Denis C. Feeney, "History and Revelation in Vergil's Underworld," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, n.s., 32 (1986): 1–24. [End Page 195]

33. Critics of the poem have debated the degree to which it is optimistic or pessimistic, often recognizing that it is not straightforwardly panegyrical: see, e.g., W. R. Johnson's classic study, Darkness Visible: A Study of Virgil's "Aeneid" (Berkeley, 1976), 1–20; and R. J. Tarrant, "Poetry and Power: Virgil's Poetry in Contemporary Context," in Cambridge Companion to Virgil, 179–81 (for a concise summary of the debate). My own view is that the poem's more tragic sensibility often coexists with or exists in tension with its panegyrical perspective and that this accounts for the epic's multivalent complexity.

34. My observations are necessarily shaped by my argument about the epics of Milton and Virgil in relation to contemporary history; for a valuable account of the shield, see Philip R. Hardie, Virgil's Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford, 1986), 97–110, 346–75.

35. Dryden cites the reference at Aeneid 8.670 (secretosque pios, his dantem iura Catonem) as evidence that Virgil, following the collapse of the republic yet needing to accommodate himself to the despotic power that enabled "the Arts of Peace" to flourish under Augustus Caesar, "was still of Republick principles at Heart": see the dedication (preceding Dryden's translation) to The Works of Virgil (London, 1697), (b)r–v. Dryden also observes that "Augustus was not discontented, at least that we can find, that Cato was plac'd, by his own Poet, in Elisium" (b)r. In the dedication, Dryden comments acutely on the challenges Virgil faced in "writing his Poem in a time when the Old Form of Government was subverted, and a new one just Established by Octavius Caesar" ([(a) 4v]).

36. Cf. my discussion about crucial silences in Milton's controversial prose works when it comes to specific radical groups and sects and their leaders: David Loewenstein, "Milton among the Religious Radicals and Sects: Polemical Engagements and Silences," in Milton Studies, vol. 40, ed. Albert C. Labriola, 222–47 (Pittsburgh, 2001).

37. See, e.g., John Milton: Paradise Lost, ed. John Leonard (Harmondsworth, 2000), 304: "Charles II's censor objected to these lines—and with reason."

38. John Toland, The Life of John Milton (1698), in The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (London, 1932), 180.

39. Edward Phillips, A Chronicle of the Kings of England (London, 1665), 498; Edward Chamberlayne, Angliae notitia; or, The Present State of England (London, 1669), 182.

40. Tompkins's imprimatur is faintly if clearly visible: Paradise Lost, manuscript of book 1, Morgan Library MA 307, fol. 1v.

41. See my study of these interconnections in Loewenstein, "Radical Religious Politics."

42. Sharon Achinstein, Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (Princeton, N.J., 1994), 177–223; Diana Treviño Benet, "Hell, Satan, and the New Politician," in Literary Milton: Text, Pretext, Context, ed. Benet and Michael Lieb, 91–113 (Pittsburgh, 1994). [End Page 196]

43. Toland, Life of John Milton, 182.

44. For some of the ways Milton's poem revises Stuart political images as it engages in the seventeenth-century contest over them, see my essay, "Paradise Lost and Political Image Wars," Ben Jonson Journal 21, no. 2 (2014): 203–27.

45. See also Eikonoklastes, OM 6:422–23 (where Milton associates Nimrod with Charles I and European kings who "receive thir power not from God" but from the Beast of Rev. 17:3, 8–13); cf. Pro populo anglicano defensio, YP 4:473.

46. See, e.g., John Vicars, God in the Mount; or, Englands Remembrancer (London, 1642), 24–25; Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated (London, 1650), 14, 15; William Erbery, The Armies Defence; or, God Guarding the Camp of the Saints (London, 1648), 33 (Nimrod like "our kings" in "hunting the saints up and down all the land over"); Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London, 1658), 42, 207–08; John Cook, Monarchy no creature of Gods making (Waterford, 1651), 6; Edward Harrison, Plain Dealing; or, The Countreymans doleful Complaint … to The Statesmen of the Times (London, 1649), 8 (Nimrod "the first" to bring "men into subjection by force and violence").

47. See Robert Filmer, Patriarcha; or, The Natural Power of Kings (London, 1680): Adam's command was "as large and as ample as the Absolutist Dominion of any Monarch which hath been since the Creation" (13). Filmer's work was likely written about 1630; however, it remained unpublished until 1680: see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Filmer by Glenn Burgess. Filmer's views were likewise evident in his Necessity of the Absolute Power of All Kings (London, 1648) and Observations concerning the Originall of Government (London, 1652), the latter of which attacks Milton's notions of kingship and the people in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and the first Defensio (see 12–23).

48. God "endued not only Men, but all Creatures with a Natural Propensity to Monarchy" (Filmer, Patriarcha, 49).

49. It is at this moment in the poem especially that Adam can be described as "a natural republican," as Norbrook calls him after the Fall, though Norbrook does not discuss this passage to support his assertion (Writing the English Republic, 487). Cf. Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton (Oxford, 2000), 470, who points out that Adam here "reiterates the republican theory of Tenure."

50. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (1988; repr., Cambridge, 1994), 1.4.28 (161); see also 141–71 for Locke's detailed response to Filmer's political arguments for Adam and absolute monarchy in Patriarcha.

51. Cf. Philip Hardie's observation: "Although written from the political margins of what became the new Augustanism of the restored monarchy, Paradise Lost soon claimed a literary and cultural authority analogous to that of the Aeneid within imperial Roman culture." Hardie, [End Page 197] The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil's "Aeneid" (London, 2014), 141. Unlike Hardie (with whom I agree), I have attempted to offer a critical explanation for how Paradise Lost as a post–civil war epic, creatively drawing upon Virgil's strategies for treating legendary and more recent history, was quickly able to claim such cultural authority.

52. Nicholas von Maltzahn, "The First Reception of Paradise Lost (1667)," RES 47, no. 188 (1996): 491–92, quoting from MS Tanner 45 (Bodleian Library), fol. 240.

53. MS Tanner 45 (Bodleian Library), fol. 258 (Jan. 22, 1667/8). Cf. the anecdote from Sir George Hungerford related by Jonathan Richardson: the Caroline poet Sir John Denham coming to Parliament one morning and proclaiming to Hungerford that he was holding "Part of the Noblest Poem … ever Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age. This was Paradise Lost" (Early Lives of Milton, 295). Denham may have brought an unbound copy of the poem; see Campbell and Corns, John Milton, 350.

54. On Ellwood reading "that Excellent Poem … with the best Attention" in manuscript, see The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (London, 1714), 246. Ellwood's collection of poems, Rhapsodia (Friends Library, London MS. vol. S.80), includes an epitaph (fols. 145–47) on Milton in which Ellwood expresses his admiration for Eikonoklastes and A Defence of the People of England, as well as for Paradise Lost for rejecting the bondage of rhyme. Already by 1660 Ellwood had produced a fiery polemic against bishops and Presbyterians who persecuted Nonconformists and "the Lord's people in England" (An Alarm to the Priests; or, A Message from Heaven [London, 1660], 2). For the antiformalism of Paradise Lost, see my Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2013), 342–43.

55. Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books, 4th ed. (London, 1688). Quoting Dryden's verses on Paradise Lost, Toland observes of Milton's poem: "nor did he com much short of the correctness of Vergil," with "correctness" conveying the sense of "freedom from error or fault" (OED 1) (Early Lives of Milton, 179).

56. For a valuable account of Tonson, including his admiration for the aesthetic achievement of Milton's poem, see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Raymond N. MacKenzie.

57. Five hundred and thirty-eight names appear in alphabetical order, including the poets Dryden and Edmund Waller.

58. Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books, 4th ed., 2r.

59. Tonson retains Milton's polemical note on "The Verse," suggesting that Tonson did not view its politically charged language (which modern critics have especially noted) as offensive to readers in 1688.

60. Letter dated December 18, 1669; British Library Additional MS. 78312, fol. 119v. Beale also notes elsewhere that "great faults" in Paradise Lost include Milton's "plea for our Original right" (Dec. 24, 1670; BL Additional MS. 78313, fol. 35v). [End Page 198]

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