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diacritics 30.2 (2000) 88-112

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Milton's Aesthetics Of Eating

Denise Gigante

It is not a little curious that, with the exception of Ben Jonson (and he did not speak gravely about it so often), the poet in our own country who has written with the greatest gusto on the subject of eating is Milton. He omits none of the pleasures of the palate, great or small. In his Latin poems, when young, he speaks of the pears and chestnuts which he used to roast at the fire with his friend Diodati. Junkets and other "country-messes" are not forgotten in his "Allegro." The simple Temptation in the Wilderness, "Command that these stones be made bread" (which was quite sufficient for a hunger that had fasted "forty days"), is turned, in Paradise Regained, with more poetry than propriety, into the set out of a great feast, containing every delicacy in and out of season. The very "names" of the viands, he says, were "exquisite." And in Paradise Lost, Eve is not only described as being skilful in paradisaical cookery ("tempering dulcet creams"), but the angel Raphael is invited to dinner, and helped by his entertainers to a series of tid-bits and contrasted relishes--
Taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.

--Leigh Hunt, "Eating Songs"

The title of an old play gives us a direct taste and surmise of its inwards, as the first lines of the Paradise Lost smack of the great Poem.

--John Keats, "On 'Retribution, or the Chieftain's Daughter'"

That Milton's Romantic readers should invoke the "taste" of his epic poetry suggests an awareness beyond the anecdotal. For as this essay will show, Milton complicates the category of physiological taste in such a manner as to form the ground for the possibility of aesthetic taste, which emerges as a distinct discourse in the early years of the eighteenth century. This is not to say that Milton is the only source for this dubious meaning-in-transition. But precisely how, prior to the interventions of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and the entire tradition of post-Miltonic theorists of taste, is one to read Adam's darkly sardonic postlapsarian remark: "Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste . . . And Palate call judicious" [PL IX.1017-20]? Critics have observed Milton's "ruthless and relentless pressure on 'taste,'" the fact that the word and its variants appear thirty times in Book IX of Paradise Lost alone [Ricks 69]. What I would like to suggest is that just as Milton is a seminal figure for the eighteenth-century aesthetic preoccupation with the sublime, 1 he is theoretically situated at the origins of the more generic thing called taste as well. [End Page 88]

Of course Milton himself was aware of the epistemological implications of taste, whereby the Latin sapere can mean both "to taste" and "to know." 2 The fruit whose "mortal taste" was the source of all our woe did, after all, grow on the tree of knowledge, knowingly described by Satan as "precious of all Trees / In Paradise, of operation blest / To Sapience" [PL I.2, IX.795-97]. So too, when Adam calls Eve "exact of taste," he adds "of Sapience no small part" [PL IX.1018]. Throughout Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton plays with the epistemological connotation of taste, incorporating it even into the 1671 companion piece of the latter, Samson Agonistes, whose blind hero declares, "The way to know were not to see but taste" [1091]. At the time Milton was writing, however, taste was philosophically connected not only to knowledge and pleasure, but to morality as well. At the origins of the British empirical discourse of taste, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, inheriting this link between epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, inquires: "Will it not be found . . . that what is beautiful is . . . true; and what is at once both beautiful and true is, of consequence, agreeable and good?" [2: 268-69]. For Milton as for Shaftesbury, the beautiful was the true was the good, and access to these ideals was bound up with the philosophic complexity...