My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Well, if the Goodreads dates are to be believed, this book took me exactly a year to read. Some of that reflects the fact that it is a collection of essays of varying quality and interest. Some of that reflects that I still tend to read on my Kindle more when I'm traveling, so Kindle books get read in spurts rather than steadily. And some of that reflects that the life and work of John Milton, whatever their many redeeming qualities, rarely qualify as light reading.
I picked this book up after my most recent rereading of Paradise Lost, because I'd been struck by three things I hadn't much noticed on my previous readings, and I wanted to see what others had to say about them. The first was Milton's portrayal of Eve, and the way he seemed to lurch between an almost proto-feminism and rote affirmations of male superiority. The second was that the fallen angels in Hell give a set of speeches justifying their rebellion that frankly seem to echo the kinds of arguments that the anti-royal side in the English Civil War would have used, and given that Milton was on the anti-royal side, that seemed worthy of comment. The third thing was the curious amount of space and detail that Milton devotes to explaining that yes, angels have sex. If Milton were a modern science-fiction writer, I might have passed that off as a gratuitous bit of world building detail, but I was pretty sure that the archangelic shagging was there to prove a doctrinal point, but that I wasn't sufficiently deeply steeped in Milton's worldview to have any idea what it was.
Anyway, given that this book wasn't titled Everything Wendy Wanted to Know about Paradise Lost, there was a lot of stuff in this book that didn't directly relate to these topics, but was still interesting. Milton is a pretty complex figure. He was a passionate defender of free speech who worked as a government censor and a Christian of a rather puritanical bent who was surprisingly forward thinking on subjects like sex and divorce. There's lots here that I'd like to explore in more detail - thankfully, the book has an excellent bibliography that I'll probably be mining for reading matter for years.
Directly addressing some of the things I noticed about Paradise Lost, Diane K. McColley has an excellent essay in this book entitled "Milton and the sexes", in which she makes the case that Milton was remarkable in his portrayal of women as both rational beings and as people who were not entirely defined by their domestic roles. (I did find her a little too eager to excuse any residual sexism by claiming that Milton was just portraying men and women as having their own separate but equally worthy spheres. Such arguments never seem to fully take into account that the men's sphere gets all the attention paid to it.)
Dennis Danielson thoroughly addresses the angelic sex question. It gets a little theologically complex, but basically Milton was both rejecting the idea of strict dualism between body and spirit and the prevalent notion that sex was either the cause of or the result of Adam and Eve's fall. If sex is something that Adam and Eve can enjoy in Paradise, then unfallen angels have to be able to enjoy it too.
The book doesn't directly address the question of why so many of the demons in Paradise Lost sound like they might be cribbing arguments from Milton and his political allies. However, there's a lot of discussion of the rather ambivalent portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, and one essayist makes a comment that I thought was particularly illuminating: that Milton's villains (both Satan in Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained and Delilah in Samson Agonistes) are villains almost precisely because they have virtue without faith. The type of evil that Milton is most interested in is that which deploys cleverness, courage, and skill to unworthy ends.
In conclusion, I should note that my reading of this book prompted a very interesting New Year's Eve party conversation that has in turn spawned a very active Google+ thread. So it's currently riding very high in the social and cultural capital rankings.
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