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Milton and the Idea of the Fall


John Milton produced the most magnificent poetic account ever written of the biblical Fall of man in Paradise Lost (1667). William Poole presents a comprehensive analysis of the origin, evolution, and contemporary debate on the Fall, and the way seventeenth-century authors, particularly Milton, represented it. Poole first examines the range and depth of early modern thought on the subject, then explains and evaluates the basis of the idea and the intellectual and theological controversies it inspired from early ...

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John Milton produced the most magnificent poetic account ever written of the biblical Fall of man in Paradise Lost (1667). William Poole presents a comprehensive analysis of the origin, evolution, and contemporary debate on the Fall, and the way seventeenth-century authors, particularly Milton, represented it. Poole first examines the range and depth of early modern thought on the subject, then explains and evaluates the basis of the idea and the intellectual and theological controversies it inspired from early Christian times to Milton's own century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"thoroughly researched and well-written book"
-Neil Forsyth

"Milton and the Idea of the Fall does the exciting and important work of historically contextualizing Milton's thinking about the Fall."
-Amy Dunham Stackhouse, Iona College, Renaissance Quarterly

"Poole has wonderful background material on offer and he serves it up with vigor and wit."
-Eugene D. Hill, Mount Holyoke College, American and English Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521120166
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/24/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

William Poole is a Tutorial Fellow in English at New College, Oxford.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
052184763X - Milton and the Idea of the Fall - By William Poole


[I]f I have spoken any thing, or shall hereafter speake in this Pamphlet vnaduisedly, illiterately, without good order or methode; acknowledge (I beseeche thee) the generall punishment of whole mankinde, which more especially discouers it selfe in my weaknesse, the confusion of tongues. I am confounded, I am confounded, poore silly wretch that I am, I am confounded, and my minde is distracted, my tongue is confounded, and my whole nature corrupted . . .1

This - slightly disingenuous - apology for bad prose was written in 1616 by the future bishop of Gloucester and crypto-Catholic, Godfrey Goodman, some way into his stout quarto on the effects of original sin, The Fall of Man; or, the Corruption of Nature. Goodman here pauses in his general narration of woe to lament his own inarticulacy, tracing this first to 'the confusion of tongues' that took place at Babel, but, behind that, with his 'whole nature corrupted', to the Fall of man itself, the primal transgression of Adam and Eve in Eden as recorded in Genesis 2-3. Goodman thus adds to his catalogue of human ills not merely the conviction that man's linguistic capacity has become crippled - his ability to describe accurately, and then subsequently to report such descriptions to others - but also the corruption of his very physical and moral fabric. Indeed, Goodman's tract, as its full title indicates, extended the effects of the Fall from the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of his environment - the Fall has altered external reality itself.

I forget my selfe, I forget my selfe, for, speaking of mans corruption, I am so far entangled, that I cannot easily release my selfe; being corrupted as wel as others, me thinkes whatsoeuer I see, whatsoeuer I heare, all things seeme to sound corruption.2

Not only perception ('my minde') and description ('my tongue'), but also the objects of such perception and description had become ineluctably compromised.

Goodman, though, offered a narrative of continual decline, something that the Fall had inaugurated but not concluded: this first great shock had been followed by a series of aftershocks from the confusio linguarum and the Flood down to the present age. Had not of recent years the telescope revealed blemishes in the moon, and had not the first new star appeared in the supposedly changeless heavens back in 1572? Worse, are there not now more females than males engendered?3

Others held the theologically neater position that the original Fall was bad enough, and no further decline was necessary. Henry Vaughan, in his poem 'Corruption', for instance, wrote of Adam's crime: 'He drew the Curse upon the world, and Crakt / The whole frame with his Fall.'4 John Milton said something similar in 'At a solemn musick', in which, under his musical metaphor, he implicates 'all creatures' in not only the effects but also the cause of the Fall:

. . . till disproportion'd sin

Jarr'd against natures chime, and with harsh din

Broke the fair musick that all creatures made

To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway'd

In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood

In first obedience, and their state of good.5

This was a neater position because it conformed to St Paul's contrast between the Fall of the first and the Atonement of the second Adam: 'For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive' (1 Corinthians 15:22). And without the first Adam, what need of a second?

Not everyone in the seventeenth century, though, was happy about narratives of decline, whether catastrophic or continual, and Goodman was answered by the Oxonian George Hakewill in 1627 with his Apologie of the Power and Providence of God.6 Hakewill replaced Goodman's pessimistic narrative with a more lenient, optimistic vision. The world, he said, was not in decline, and undue scepticism concerning man's access to external reality was likewise exaggerated. Modern poets, Hakewill declared, are as good as their ancient counterparts, and the reason why change in the heavens has only recently become visible is because finer instrumentation has been developed, not because change is something new.7

Hakewill thus restricted the consequences of the Fall to the purely human realm, locking original sin into the moral core of the individual, but out of man's other faculties, and out of the external world. In doing so, he was following Francis Bacon, who had opened his Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605) with a brusque rejection of 'the zeale and jealosie of [those] Diuines' who taxed seekers after natural knowledge with admonishments of the Fall of man, and of the vanity of human knowledge.8 The Fall, replied Bacon, affected only man's moral rectitude: it did not alter his sensory acuity or the things his senses observed. Bacon thought this a point important enough to repeat, opening the Instauratio magna (1620) with the same affirmation.9 It is not hard to see how men such as Bacon or Hakewill found it necessary to contest the point of view represented by Goodman. How could the new science feel confident about the processes it sought to observe if both these processes and their observers were irreversibly damaged?

Bacon's sentiment was much repeated throughout the century. The educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius visited England in the winter of 1641-2, at which time his influential pamphlet A Reformation of Schooles was published. He too employed Bacon's distinction, equating 'serpentine' knowledge with the wrangling of the schools, and taking issue with the strategy of blaming the impossibility of reformation in educational method on original sin, '[a]s if the feare of the Lord ought not to be an antidote against that corruption, which God hath so often pronounced to be both the beginning, and the end of wisdome'.10 In 1665 Robert Hooke prefaced his Micrographia, the first and flamboyant classic of microscopy, with the slightly dangerous sentiment:

And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their posterity, may be in part restor'd by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural knowledge . . .11

'. . . that were never yet forbidden', he hurriedly adds.

Bacon and Hakewill represent attempts to restrict but not to deny original sin. As the century progressed, however, increasingly radical voices were heard, especially throughout the revolutionary decades. These denials were usually phrased in evangelical rather than epistemological terms, but one of the arguments of this book will be that such 'radical' voices are not to be found simply in the obvious places - the pamphlets of the political radicals, the Ranters, Diggers, Seekers, Quakers, Behmenists, Muggletonians and their colourful ilk. Indeed, these 'third culture' radicals actually developed complicated and on occasion mutually incompatible theories about the Fall, and a later chapter will sort out some of these strands. More importantly, radical speculation on the Genesis narrative often emanated from socially conservative, even on occasion high-church, quarters. Throughout the 1650s, another future bishop, Jeremy Taylor, launched a punishing campaign against the doctrine of original sin, much to the horror of his fellow exiled Anglicans - and much to the glee of his Presbyterian adversaries. One of them, Nathaniel Stephens, wrote a book pointing out that there was not much difference between what Taylor was saying and the opinions of the radical Baptist and Agitator Robert Everard.

After the Restoration, scepticism concerning the traditional understanding of the Fall persisted. The ecstatic texts of Thomas Traherne, for instance, read curiously like some passages in the Quaker George Fox's Journal. Who wrote these lines?

I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me, and it was showed to me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and their virtue.12

Blunter voices were also raised from high in the aristocracy. As Rochester lay dying in 1680, he told Gilbert Burnet that original sin did not exist and that 'the first three Chapters of Genesis . . . could not be true, unless they were Parables'.13 Also in these decades various figures in the early Royal Society developed geological and palaeontological theories that at best marginalised the events in Eden, and, in the case of Hooke, hinted at the extreme antiquity of the Earth, thereby casting doubt on the scope and accuracy of the Mosaic narrative of creation. Hooke and his friends were also reading the notorious Prae-Adamitae (1655) of the Calvinist heretic Isaac La Peyrère, which hypothesised on biblical grounds that men had existed for countless aeons before Adam, and that the Bible only told of a specifically Jewish creation. As Hooke wrote in his journal in late 1675, 'To Martins and Garaways club: Ludowick, Hill, Aubery, Wild. Discoursd about Universal Character, about preadamits and of Creation.'14

The major project of this book is to investigate some of the discussions canvassed above, particularly with reference to the writings of John Milton, whose Paradise Lost is easily the most famous exploration of the causes and consequences of the matter in Eden. In order to understand the various disputes over the Fall, we need to know where these ideas came from and how they operated in contemporary English theology and literature. Goodman's pessimism reflects the inheritance from late scholastic reactionaries, and afterwards from the early Reformers, of a predominantly Augustinian theology. It was Augustine who had systematised ideas on the Fall and original sin in the patristic period, and who, following his disputes with Pelagius, bequeathed his harsh exegesis of Genesis 2-3 to Western theology. Although, after Anselm, Augustine's ideas were somewhat softened, and further so when combined with an Aristotelian anthropology, the early Reformers reinstated the father, and the Calvinism which underpinned the theological dimension of the English Reformation continued this emphasis. Consequently, the ninth and tenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 'Of original or birth sin' and 'Of free will', are more in keeping with, say, Goodman than with Hakewill, and these articles remained (and remain) unrevised.

Nevertheless, the Augustinianism of most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theologies, particularly Protestant but also Catholic, found no real answers to certain problems Augustine himself had left unresolved. Augustine's central assumption had been that a perfect God ought to create perfectly, leaving the glaring logical difficulty that perfect beings should not then have behaved as Genesis 2-3 appeared to record. Augustine had in fact pointed this problem out, concluding in the De Genesi ad litteram that God had not made man entirely sufficient to have stood. But the reason for this momentous decision remained occluded and, at this juncture, Augustine counselled that the pious should avoid further discussion. Narrative poets like Milton who disobeyed this advice were going to have to discover and develop strategies to overcome or at least to disguise the inherited problems.

It would be simplistic, however, to see the endorsed narrative of the period as one only of the universal decline of belief in the Fall and original sin. Many, if not most, groups maintained such beliefs, and after initial rejection some (for instance the Quakers after the Restoration) even redeveloped them.15 Again, La Peyrère the pre-Adamite, having wrecked the traditional reading of Genesis 1-3, nevertheless found he could not dispense with the theological importance of the first Adam and his Fall, and so was forced to create the device of 'retroimputation' of original sin backwards in time from Adam to the ancient pre-Adamite races, an idea Marin Mersenne for one found hard to digest.16

Indeed, original sin is a very difficult concept for any Christian to dismantle, as a proper demolition job leaves Christ with not all that much to do, and many, seeing that danger, turned back. As was affirmed in the academic disputations for 1624 in Cambridge University, 'the incarnation of Christ presupposes the Fall of man into sin'.17 Christ's connection to the Fall is graphically enforced by a Latin pattern-poem recorded by Abraham Fraunce in 1588:

Qu an di tri mul pa
os guis rus sti cedine uit
H san mi Chri dul la

Resolving the middle into the top and then into the bottom lines produces the sentiment 'Those whom the ill-omened serpent struck with his dire stroke / Are those whom the marvellous blood of Christ washed with its sweetness.'18 Nevertheless, the seventeenth century did witness a combination of critiques of the Genesis narrative and the doctrines raised upon it that rendered Augustinian-derived understandings of the matter in Eden increasingly problematic: the patristic scholarship of Taylor, for instance, privileging the Eastern Church fathers for anti-Augustinian purposes; the declarations of Hobbes, Spinoza and La Peyrère concerning the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and their subsequent adoption by Père Richard Simon;19 the growing conviction in some minds that the fossil record was both of organic and very ancient origin. Such critiques could be ignored, but they could not be undone.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; Part I. Fallen Culture: 1. The fall; 2. Augustinianism; 3. The quarrel over original sin 1649-1660; 4. The heterodox fall; 5. The fall in practice; Part II. Milton: 6. Towards Paradise Lost; 7. Paradise Lost I: The causality of primal wickedness; 8. Paradise Lost II: God, Eden, and man; 9. Paradise Lost III: Creation and education; 10. Paradise Lost IV: Fall and expulsion; Conclusion.

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