It's now forty years since William Empson wrote Milton's God,
and as far as I know, no Miltonist or specialist in 17th-century
literature has been heard to declare resoundingly that Empson is right.
In English studies, when you think something is not merely
less-than-perfect but downright worthless, it has become customary, as
the saying is, to dismiss it, meaning that you attack it in one sentence
So Douglas Bush took care of Milton's God by saying that it
was "more Empsonic than Miltonic." William Riley Parker said that the
critics create a new Milton every generation although "sometimes one
wishes to Milton's God they wouldn't." Richard Wagenknecht said that in
Empson's book "Christianity is used as a stick to beat Milton with," and
in that single sentence, in a footnote, deals, as he imagines, with a
book 280 pages long.
Closely related to the custom of dismissing is the custom of
ignoring, which it presupposes. A scholar or critic who speaks only for
himself, who refuses to join the community of toadies, excuse me, I
meant to say the community of readers, as Stanley Fish calls them, can't
get his work published or if he can, other critics simply behave as if
it didn't exist. Do you imagine that I am the one who has been ignored,
perhaps for some very good reason? Oh, reader, how could you think such a
Thus Empson's book has been dismissed and ignored for forty years;
but not unread. A second edition was wanted within four years. It's only
in public, in their writings, that seventeenth-century scholars have
pretended to be bored with it. In the privacy of their offices, I
daresay they are quite interested, principally because of the challenge
in the last sentence: "If you praise Paradise Lost as the
neo-Christians do, what you are getting from it is evil." Get your mind
around that: evil. The neo-Christian critics are not merely making an
intellectual error, but they are helping perpetuate into the new
millenium the belief-system that expelled the Jews from Spain.
When I was at Harvard, in the 1960's, Renaissance Studies in the
English department were dominated by the ideas of Christian humanism.
The Renaissance had not been, as Jakob Burckhardt had thought, a huge
revolt against Christianity, but had blended Christianity with the lore
of Greece and Rome in a manner both morally uplifting and esthetically
pleasing. The trouble with the seventeenth century was that this
Christian humanism collapsed under the impact of Calvin's voluntarism
and Hobbes's materialism and left us all in an esthetic, moral and
philosophical wasteland. So they taught; they didn't know what to say
when Empson, in 1961, declared, "a Renaissance Christian state was a
thoroughgoing police terror."
In fact, this cult of Christian humanism was only an old idea in a
new disguise. It was the combination of Hebraism and Hellenism which
Matthew Arnold had said would save us all in the aftermath of the
collapse of Christianity which, in 1867, he imagined was in progress, an
ebb tide retreating swiftly down a pebbled beach. His metaphor was
unfortunate; tides come back, and so has Christianity.
However, the neo-Christians have not quite run away with everything.
Christopher Hill in a splendid series of books has proven that the
English Civil War was accompanied by an intellectual ferment often
tantamount to a revolt against the Christian God. Some religious
radicals of the era claimed that an elect soul was himself Christ, and
Empson has pointed out that some of Donne's expressions in his love
poems to Anne More, in which he virtually deifies himself, or both
himself and his mistress, are clearly derived from the radicals' ideas.
My thesis is that the Paradise Lost is to be read as Empson
says it is to be read, and that we ought to search for other works of
seventeenth century literature with similar properties, that is, whose
authors feel the horror of being subjected to the Christian God and who
seek either to escape from that horror or to palliate it.
First I shall show that Donne, in the days before he became a minister, was more of a libertin
than has been thought, and has the distinction of being the first, and
for centuries almost the last, poet in history to write in praise of
cunnilingus, and to recommend a special technique for it. *
Secondly I shall examine Stanley Fish's Surprised By Sin, which, in the dismissing-ignoring tradition, mentions Empson by name only once or twice, but which attempts to traverse Milton's God on every page.
Thirdly, I shall examine Fish's Self-Consuming Artifacts, a
survey of seventeenth-century literature that attempts to turn that
century of light into stygian darkness and thick clouds behind which one
sees faint glimmers of a mysticism not inimical to Christianity.
Fourthly, I shall examine Barbara Lewalski's Protestant Poetics,
which, during a vain attempt to show that metaphysical poetry had
Protestant rather than Catholic sources, tries to put an iron curtain of
Christianity around the whole century.
There shall be much more; I plan to keep it growing as long as it exists. The leitmotiv
will be that it was in spite of, not because of, Christianity that
Milton, Donne and others wrote great poetry in the seventeenth century.
* Let us pause to consider the tact and
discrimination that will be necessary to carry out this program while
dealing with attractive works of Christian art. Empson calls the
Christian god "the Torture Monster," and this is doubtless the correct
way to read God the Father in Paradise Lost. But Empson does not tell us how to read Milton's other poems:
|All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in the Torture Monster's eye.
Eye me blest Torture Monster, and square my trial
To my proportioned strength.
Fame . . .
Lives and grows aloft by those pure eyes
And perfect judgment of the Torture Monster.
All is best, though we oft doubt
What the unsearchable dispose
Of the Torture Monster brings about.
All Empson can say about the esthetic pleasure of reading Paradise Lost
is that it resembles the pleasure of looking at Benin sculpture. This
analogy will not get us far. We shall need to re-evaluate the century's
poetry and prose line by line to sort out the evil from the good.
Be it noted that I am disregarding the New Critical
prohibition against the Didactic Heresy by searching poems for
tendencies that are evil and good. But the New Criticism is in some
disarray after 80 years; the New Critics proposed to read poetry with no
reference to the life or personality of the author, but Empson himself,
one of the founders, eventually wrote a book called Using Biography.
Wittgenstein was right: ethics and esthetics are the same thing. I
never met a person who said of either Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath that
(s)he was the better person, but the worse poet.