Comparison of Milton and More

Utopia Everlasting and Paradise Lost: Nature, Work, and Intellect

Plush gardens, rich vegetation, succulent fruits–for the unaware Christian, John Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost (1667) shapes the biblical understanding of paradise.  To the more learned individual, however, Milton’s description is highly politicized, the components of his Eden significant, and upon noticing the weighted nature of Eden, the reader begins to wonder what components were prioritized in previous accounts of an earthly paradise.  Thomas More composed Utopia in 1516, and a parallel analysis of Paradise Lost and Utopia, specifically Book II, reveals similar elements that are used to communicate different ideologies. I will focus my comparison on three aspects: 1) the physical landscape; 2) the role of work; 3) the role of intellect and reason. Interestingly, though written 100 years apart, the two accounts have a similar emphasis on nature, work, and intellect, but one that speaks uniquely to its audience.  

            Both More and Milton create for their paradises a beautiful and compelling landscape.  More’s Utopia takes the form of a crescent-shaped island, complete with a broad bay that “is never rough, but quite and smooth instead” (Greenblatt 598). The island houses fifty-four cities, “all spacious and magnificent, identical in language, customs, institutions and laws,” and “every city has enough ground assigned to it so that at least twelve miles of farm land are available in every direction, though where the cities are farther apart, they have much more land” (599).  So while Utopia is highly populated, More still emphasizes the empty space and excess land; much like a pastoral, the peaceful, rural scene is idealized.  Similarly, Milton’s descriptions of Eden resemble the pastoral. Like Utopia, Eden is spacious, “stretch[ing] her line/From Auran eastward to the royal tow’rs/Of great Seleucia” (Greenblatt 2007). Furthermore, whereas More uses a serene sea to create a sense of peace, Milton uses vegetation, “trees of noblest kind . . . blooming ambrosial fruit/Of vegetable gold,” fed by a “fresh fountain,” “sapphire fount,” “orient pearl and sands of gold,” and resulting in “nature bounteous/Poured forth profuse on hill and dale and plain” (Greenblatt 2007, 2008).  In both Eden and Utopia, the landscape is not only beautiful, but also peaceful, and in these descriptions of peace there is no mention of humanity, just nature; paradise is peaceful, therefore, because it is removed from human tampering and ensuing chaos.

The accounts differ, however, in how far removed chaos is or is not. For More, Utopia is surrounded by harbors and coasts that are “rugged by nature,” resulting in an island “so well fortified that a few defenders could beat off the attack of a strong force” (Greenblatt 599).  Utopia, then, is suspended in this state of peace, harbored from any sort of attack.  This differs sharply from Eden, with its “close and precarious proximity of good and evil” (Loewenstein 85).  Whereas Utopia is protected from evil, Satan’s serpentine entrance into the garden shows that good and evil can, at least temporarily, exist simultaneously in Milton’s paradise. The significance is not in their co-existence but rather in the fragility of Eden’s peace. David Loewenstein says it best in his critique of Paradise Lost when he writes, “Despite the garden’s natural protections, . . . the furtive and voyeuristic Satan easily gets into it: he is compared to a wolf invading God’s sheepfold . . . reminding us how vulnerable and fragile this delightful place or locus amoenus is as we begin to share his view of its beauty and abundant pleasures” (85).  Nature completes Utopia’s protection from invasion, but for Milton, even nature cannot keep evil from entering Paradise. In Utopia, peace is guaranteed; in Eden, The Fall is inevitable.

The pastoral elements to both Utopia and Paradise Lost provide inviting settings, but settings that do not keep characters idle; instead, both works communicate activity as an important part of paradise.  In More’s society, “agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exception.” Furthermore, “every person (and this includes women as well as men) learns a second trade, beside agriculture” (Greenblatt 603). Clearly, living in a utopia brings with it the requirement of work.  A similar standard exists in Eden, where Adam and Eve “also need to work, beginning early in the day, pruning the growing plants and tending the flowers, herbs, and fruits” (Loewenstein 84).  While both More and Milton emphasize the importance and necessity of work, there seems to be a distinct difference in the role of this emphasis. Milton communicates that for Adam and Eve it is a task, an assignment, so in Paradise Lost, working the garden shows Adam and Eve’s dominion over nature, but in Utopia work seems to fulfill an innate need of the people; according to Milton, work is for the garden, but according to More, work is for the people, “so that no one sits around in idleness” (Greenblatt 603). Milton and More, then, both communicate the importance of work, but this emphasis plays very different roles.

In both works, an aversion to idleness translates to a pursuit of education. More’s Utopians are “tireless . . . in intellectual pursuits,” studying “music, dialectic, arithmetic, and geometry,” and spending “their leisure time in reading” (614, 621).  Furthermore, all Utopians have free access to education, “a remarkable idea given that at the time of Utopia’s publication the vast majority of the population in England could neither read nor write” (Halpin 304).  For More, education is of utmost importance, and, according to David Halpin, the context surrounding More “indicates clearly that More was very committed to a particular version of the education process” (304).  In other words, surrounded by the abundance of Renaissance ideas, More’s educational ideal differed from previous ways of teaching. This perhaps explains why his Utopians “had never so much as heard about a single one of those philosophers whose names are so celebrated in our part of the world,” nor had they “discovered even of one those elaborate rules . . . or inventions of our modern logicians” (Greenblatt 614).  More promotes education but in an entirely different way, with a polite nod to the classics while also postulating that other areas of study, especially when done through individual experience, are as important as philosophy and logic.

Milton, on the contrary, elevates reason as the ideal, not by putting Adam and Eve through rigorous bouts of schooling but, rather, by creating a dichotomy of reason and desire.  Where desire triumphs, reason has failed, and for “those who restrain Desire . . . Reason usurps its place and governs” (Blake, qtd. in Saurat 175).  Or, in other words, The Fall occurs when reason is replaced by desire.  As the ideal, reason symbolizes Christ, and according to David Saurat in “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry,” “We have seen that Chris is, in truth, Reason triumphing over Desire . . . Thus Christ is ‘Reason,’ but not through allegory: he is truly the reasonable part of each believer, each man being part of God” (175, 6).  In Paradise Lost, reason is from God, of God, and accordingly combats desire, making it the ideal.  Milton is not focused on widespread education, like More, but he makes logic and reason top priorities by giving them such significance in the spiritual realm. Furthermore, by placing logic within humanity, Milton also elevates individual experience.

Paradise Lost and Utopia are very dissimilar works, providing bookends for the 16th and 17th century in British literature. Despite their differences, the presentation of paradise is rife with similarities, and it is interesting to see how the two works mirror each other in that they both elevate nature, work, and education. In their including these three elements as fundamental parts of paradise, More and Milton communicate cultural ideals, like the importance of the pastoral, the aversion to idleness, and the affluence of Renaissance learning and ideas. These similarities, though, are only surface deep, for behind the initial elevation the works are unique in the ultimate message they are communicating. For More, education for all is beneficial for society; for Milton, reason is divine. For More, work is healthy and helpful; for Milton, it is a human responsibility. For More, once gained, utopia is everlasting; for Milton, paradise is fragile and ultimately lost.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.

Halpin, David. “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More.” British Journal of Education Studies 49.3 (2001): 299-315. JSTOR. Web. 16 July 2013.

Loewenstein, David. Milton: Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Saurat, David. “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry in Milton’s Work.” Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries. Ed. James Thorpe. New York: Collier Books, 1950. 169-77. Print.

 

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Metaphysical versus Cavalier

 

M.H. Abrams defines metaphysical poets as “a group of seventeenth-century poets who, whether or not directly influenced by Donne, employ . . . the terminology and abstruse arguments of the medieval Scholastic philosophers” (215). First labeled by Dryden in Discourse Concerning Satire (1693), Donne was the forerunner in the metaphysical movement because his poetry opposed the traditions of Elizabethan poetry, especially verse like Spenser’s.  Whereas previous poetry was characterized by a “rich mellifluousness and [an] idealized view of human nature,” Donne’s poems are instead marked by an appreciation of truth seeking, “epitomizing that point brilliantly in the image of Truth on a craggy hill, very difficult to climb” (Abrams 216, Greenblatt 1371).

 

Donne also differs sharply from the cavalier poets and their “fluid, regular versification” (Abrams 216).  Perhaps the best example of this is in Ben Jonson’s “Song: To Celia,” composed of sixteen lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABCBDBEBFBGBFBGB. The repetition of the second line’s ending rhyme, along with the consistent meter—the first line consisting of eight syllables and the second line with six—which repeats until the poem’s end communicates a certain regularity that is not to be found in metaphysical poetry.  For example, Donne’s “Song” consists of three stanzas with nine lines each and a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDDD; while all three stanzas have the same rhyme and structure, their appearance on the page looks much less uniform than Jonson’s single sixteen-line stanza and repetition of lines.

 

Even more telling of Donne and Jonson’s differences is poetic content. Donne’s “Song” starts with the lines, “Go and catch a falling star,/Get with child a mandrake root,” (Greenblatt 1374).  Jonson’s “Song: To Celia” opens, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,/And I will pledge with mine;” (Greenblatt 1548).  Donne’s poem is much more abstract, with striking metaphors, and Jonson’s is much more direct.  Furthermore, the speaker in Donne’s poem is on a spiritual or emotional quest, a truth seeking of sorts, and it is difficult to separate Donne from the speaker in his poem; Donne’s emotion is almost inseparable from the emotion that leads the speaker to implore, “Tell me where all past years are,/Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,/Teach me to hear mermaids singing,/Or to keep off envy’s stinging,/And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind” (Greenblatt 1374). In contrast, Jonson seems much more interested in making the poem appear and sound formal and structured, dealing less with nuanced emotion; while Celia’s lover is distressed that he “sent thee a late rosy wreath . . . But thou thereon didst only breathe,/And sent’st it back to me,” his emotion is much less complex than that of Donne’s speaker (Greenblatt 1548). In these differences, along with aforementioned structural differences, we can see the characteristic differences between metaphysical poets and cavalier poets.

 

 

 

Works Cited:
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth: Boston. 2012.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2012.

 

 

 

Milton’s Distaste for Monarchs

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (1674) after living in England’s political and religious turmoil preceding the Restoration in 1660, and accordingly the epic is rife with pointed statements and governmental critiques. Though his stance varied slightly throughout his life, Milton’s theology and politics primarily leaned toward Puritanism, especially for the replacement of the monarchy with a free commonwealth (Roberts). Milton was, therefore, an ardent supporter of the English revolution and mourned when the crown was restored to Charles II.  In many ways, his desires for no monarchy, especially one given authority through the church, are reflected in Paradise Lost. Although his epic is an extension of a Bible story, it is much more than that, for he criticizes both God’s authority in heaven and Satan’s in hell.

Milton begins his political statements with Book 1, when, speaking of Satan, he writes “and with ambitious aim/Against the throne and monarchy of God/Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud with vain attempt” (Greenblatt 1947). While one might initially read these lines as a critique of Satan’s actions, upon further scrutiny they appear sympathetic of Satan. Perhaps Milton can relate to Satan’s attempts at a Revolution. Furthermore, the subsequent lines–“Him the Almighty Power/Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/With hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/In adamantine chains and penal fire,/Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms” (1947)–do not act as a justification of God’s booting Satan out, but rather lead the reader to feel sorry for Satan. Surely just questioning God’s omnipotence did not deserve such an agonizing fate, the reader is prompted to ponder.

Satan’s speech after his painful fall is similarly compelling. “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime/ . . . this the seat/That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom/For that celestial light? Be it so, since he/Who now is sov’reign can dispose and bid/What shall be right” (Greenblatt 1951-2). Satan appears genuinely despairing of his forced relocation, and, again, an audience is not led into fearing or disliking Satan but instead questions God’s actions. By rewriting a biblical account that typically goes unquestioned, Milton warns readers against the dangers of unlimited power. Obviously Milton isn’t literally proposing support of Satan, but he is, it seems, craftily disguising a political critique of a single monarch as ruler, especially one given so much power with the church.

Interestingly, this sympathetic portrayal of Satan does not appear to extend past the first book, and definitely not through the poem’s entirety. The shift occurs after the second book, and perhaps this is because Satan sets up his own kingdom in hell. Milton criticized God’s unchecked actions, and, similarly, he no longer sympathizes with Satan after he establishes himself as monarch of hell. Satan, “whom now transcendent glory raised/Above his fellows, with monarchal pride/Conscious of highest worth,” is acting no differently than the God of Milton’s critique in book 1 (Greenblatt 1973). Like the lines referring to God in book 1, Milton again pointedly references a monarch or monarchy, and in the rest of the epic, Milton pens Satan as cunning and fiendish, a much different approach than the tortured Satan of book 1.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is wholly political and reflects his own distaste for the English monarchy. Ultimately, Milton communicates that a single ruler takes away the rights of his or her subjects. This is shown first through his telling of God’s rejection of Satan, and the point is reenforced when Satan’s downfall does not occur with his fall from heaven but, rather, with his establishment of a monarchy in hell.

Works Cited
Roberts, Gabriel. “Milton’s Political Context.” Darkness Visible. http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/politics.html

Transforming Traditional Forms.

An integral part of 16th century British Literature is the sonnet, and two of the biggest contributors to English sonnets were Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. One cannot overlook the roles played by Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and Drayton, just a few names whose innovations made long-lasting impacts on sonnet writing, but Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey paved the way for other sonneteers.

As Renaissance humanism spread across Europe from Italy, 16th century England did not hold today’s global prominence, and English was not popular like in today’s world. Accordingly, there was much Italian influence on English writers and thinkers, and one of those influences was Petrarch, a 14th century Italian scholar, whose sonnets served as models for many 16th century poets. When Wyatt began translating Petrarch’s sonnets to English, he made a “move with momentous consequences for English poetry”; “Wyatt introduced into English the sonnet, a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a complex, intertwining rhyme scheme” (Greenblatt 647). Though Wyatt’s translations maintained Petrarch’s content, he began playing with form. Whereas a Petrarchan sonnet is characterized by an octave with the rhyme scheme abba abba followed by six lines with various rhyme schemes, Wyatt follows Petrarch’s octave with a different sestet, usually cddc ee (Greenblatt 647). Wyatt introduces the concept of playing with a poetic form, and he does something that all 16th century sonneteers strive to do: he emulates a classic while still creating his own space within the poetic realm.

The Earl of Surrey, who was friends with Wyatt and probably very familiar with his form, similarly established distance from his classical model. “Surrey established a form . . . that was used by Shakespeare and that has become known as the English sonnet” (662). This form is characterized by iambic pentameter and a rhyming quatrain and couplet of the scheme abab cdcd efef gg. He was also the first poet to write in blank verse, so in his innovations of the sonnet and poetry in general, he was ground breaking. Again, like Wyatt, Surrey used classical continental poets as models but then turned to his own skill to make changes in form, creating distance from his models.The Norton Anthology tells us that, ultimately, this was the aim of 16th century sonnet writers: “though they understood themselves to be the heirs of a powerful poetic achievement, they needed to make it seem that they were not merely following in the wake of the great Italian, or of anyone else” (Greenblatt 1002).

While there are many moments in literary history in which authors wish to throw away tradition, this period is characterized by grace and expertise. When I think of 20th century literature, both British and American, a period also recognized for its literary innovations, I sense some desperation, a reckless and sometimes bitter abandonment of tradition. In contrast, 16th century Brit Lit feels much more refined, like transforming existing structures into something more beautiful and technical rather than turning backs on convention.

Allegory and Holiness in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

According to M.H. Abrams, “an allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the ‘literal,’ or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to communicate a second, correlated order of signification” (7).  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene fits into this category because it communicates a love story, specifically the adventures of the knight Red Cross, while also relaying deeper moral and political messages. 

As Spenser’s allegory progresses, he uses very intentional language to communicate to readers his underlying message. For example, Red Cross, the poem’s protagonist, is thusly named because “on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,/The deare remembrance of his dying Lord” (Greenblatte 782). Red Cross and his quest are emblematic of a Christian’s penultimate pursuit, that of holiness. Accordingly, Red Cross faces various trials throughout book one of The Faerie Queene, trials that are physical in nature but with names that give them a parallel spiritual significance. This occurs first when Red Cross and his “lovely Ladie,” Una, happen upon the cave of bast named Errour. Una warns him, “the perill of this place I better wot then you . . . This is the wandring wood, this Errours den, A monster vile, whom God and man does hate” (Greenblatte 785). Red Cross, though, is “full of fire and greedy hardiment,” and enters the cave anyway.

If Red Cross stands for the Christian on a journey after holiness, his hubris in entering the dangerous cave despite a warning is Spenser’s way of pointing to the perils of pride. However, because Red Cross defeats Errour and her offspring, it seems that Spenser is also encouraging a sort of divine boldness. One cannot necessarily say that meeting Errour is inevitable, since Red Cross could’ve chosen not to enter the cave, but Red Cross’s success despite his pride shows that Red Cross has divine support. Spenser, then, simultaneously sets Red Cross up as a lesson and an ideal, warning his audience against pride but also teaching that when one is pursuing holiness, error–or Errour–will be overcome because of a divine backing. It is Red Cross’s human error that draws him into the cave with Errour, but he is ultimately given the strength to defeat the villain.

Another example of the moral lessons behind Spenser’s tale can be found in Canto 4, when they come upon the “sinfull house of Pride,” in which the “proud Lucifera” parades her six beasts, “sluggish Idlenesse,” “loathsome Gluttony,” “lustfull Lechery,” “greedy Avarice,” “malicious Envie,” and “cruell Wrath” (Greenblatt 817, 20, 22-25). Lucifera’s name leads the reader to associate her with Satan, and when Red Cross discovers bodies in the basement of those who did not have the power to leave the palace, it’s clear that Spenser is using this house to reveal the dangers of unholiness. This is further evidenced by the palace’s appearance, which is “full of faire windowes, and delightful bowres” but “did on so weake foundation ever sit” (Greenblatt 818). The palace is visually beautiful but with a shaky foundation, one that will not last, a lesson that is similar to biblical perspectives on material wealth. Because he represents holiness, Red Cross flees the palace.

The various trials that Red Cross and Una face during book 1 of The Faerie Queene ultimately communicate that a pursuit of holiness is not simple, but rife with distractions and temptations. Red Cross and Una are defended by a lion the entire way, representing divine help, but their journey is still a difficult one. Their decisions are not always perfect, and their knowledge is limited, but they are given the tools they need to succeed.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage, 2012.

The Significance of Sir Philip Sidney.

In his “The Defense of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sidney sets out to justify poetry to his audience, specifically Puritan Stephen Gosson, whose attack on poetry in his The School of Abuse is thought to have at least partially inspired Sidney’s defense (Greenblatt 1044). Sidney justifies poetry by arguing that it is not only the basis of all other learning, but it is also more free than all other learning, “ranging only within the zodiac of [the poet’s] own wit” (Greenblatt 1050). According to Sidney, poetry is significant because of its historical role, providing a basis for future philosophy and history, “so that truly neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments if they had not taken a great passport of poetry, which in all nations at this day where learning flourisheth not, is plain to be seen; in all which they have some feeling of poetry” (Greenblatt 1047). Sidney goes onto to cite the poet “as prophet and creator,” referencing the Roman label of vates, “which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet” (Greenblatt 1048). Sidney answers the charges against poetry and then concludes by saying:

So that since the ever-praiseworthy Poesy is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since lastly, our tongue is most fit to honor poesy, and to be honored by poesy. (Greenblatt 1082)

 

While Sidney penned his defense in order to justify poetry, his statements are more important today because of what they tell readers about the context surrounding his writing. Throughout Sidney’s writing, one finds many references to ancient Greece and Rome and various ancient poets and mythologies with which he constructs his defense. The fact that Sidney sees these classics as providing the basis for a worthy counter argument, like the one he is penning, shows their esteemed status. For Sidney and his intellectual audience, it is enough to point to poetry rooted in a classical past; for this audience, with those roots poetry receives its validation.

Furthermore, the need for this defense of poetry at all hints at the beginning of a new audience, or at least a new role for literature. Whereas it had previously been limited to the court and used for court entertainment, we see that it begins to serve a political purpose of promoting a certain agenda–in this case Stephen Gosson’s Puritan one and then an anti-Puritan one with Sidney’s reply. The way in which Sidney constructs his response, though, with his very refined language and classical cross-references, makes it clear that his audience is still primarily composed of England’s literate upperclass, composing of court and church officials. So while we see new political sophistication, with literature serving a powerful purpose, we do not yet see the widespread access to literature and the working class audience that comes with the 18th century.