Inside Paradise Lost
by david quint
princeton, 344 pages, $35
Early on in Inside Paradise Lost, David Quint writes a sentence that is at once simple and, for this reader, simply terrifying: “The series begins with Virgil’s own submerged reference to Lucretius.” The series Quint has in mind is the series of allusions in Milton’s epic to the flight and fall of Icarus. Allusion is the calling to mind of something without mentioning it, and its performance presupposes that the reader or hearer will be in possession of—and indeed be possessed by—layers of sedimented knowledge. Allusion is actually quite common; in ordinary speech and conversation, we cannot do without it, for if everything mentioned were immediately glossed, a single page of text would stretch into hundreds of pages and assertion would be forever deferred.
Even allusion presuming erudition is not all that rare. In the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal, the New York Post, hardly a highbrow venue, published a piece on an investigative committee’s rough treatment of Ezra Merkin, a close Madoff associate. The headline read “Ezra Pounded.” Readers were expected not only to recognize the allusion to Ezra Pound, but (and I know some will think this a stretch) to recall Pound’s anti-Semitism and to reflect, perhaps, on the contribution Madoff’s actions might make to the resurgence of that virus.
This might seem recondite, but it is child’s play compared to the sequence Quint initiates with his sentence. The key phrase is “submerged reference.” We are to hear beneath Milton’s allusion to Virgil an allusion (not present in the Virgilian text) to Lucretius and then to remember Virgil’s ambivalence toward Lucretius’s Epicureanism. And as if that were not enough, the archeology of allusion uncovers references to Dante, Tasso, echoes of Dante in Tasso, Ovid, Elijah’s chariot, Columbus, and Ulysses. Each of the authors instanced is presumed to be aware of the multi-layered density of his text, and of course Milton is presumed to be in control of it all, as is the serious reader of Milton.
All well and good if the reader is David Quint. I have read and occasionally taught many of the Latin, Greek, and Italian texts Quint references, but, compared to him, I’m a mere tourist. Every time I engage with Paradise Lost, I have to renew my acquaintance with the sources and analogues and reestablish the multi-leveled connections that seem to appear to him the instant his eyes meet the Miltonic page. The title of his book—Inside Paradise Lost—could be read as a claim as well as an itinerary: What’s inside Paradise Lost, the accumulated knowledge of centuries, is also inside me.
I don’t mean to suggest that what is presented here is mere display. The deep explication of the role Icarus plays in the poem is in the service of a key thesis: “The myths of these highfliers who fall are further countered in Paradise Lost by the motif of poetic flight.” The poet, as represented by his narrative voice, courts the danger courted by Icarus, Phaethon, and Bellerophon—the danger of harboring and enacting an ambition (“to soar/Above the Ionian mount”) that, however fueled by good intentions, passes over into pride. The “poetic edifice” of Paradise Lost is finally not so different from the infernally created Pandaemonium: “The Satan who first lifts himself . . . off the burning lake darkly mirrors his literary creator.” Indeed, the epic is “very much about its own writing,” a writing that at every moment threatens to turn into what it purports to condemn: “Milton must summon the devils into poetic being in order to warn a reader . . . but he runs the risk of fascinating the reader with that very poetic creation.” (I have argued that this is a risk he designs as part of a program to confront the reader with the extent of his fallenness.)
What this means, Quint explains, is that the poem can become the object of idolatry, something enjoyed for itself (the definition comes from Augustine) rather than for its capacity to point beyond itself to the highest good, the “beatific vision” it cannot contain. That is why, Quint suggests, the final two books of Paradise Lost are written in a style more mundane and prosaic than the “grand style” for which the poem has traditionally been celebrated. Just as the Eden so gloriously portrayed in book 4 is dismissed by Gabriel as “this rock” in book 11, so does the poem in the end forsake its own verbal glories and descend to a “subjected plain”: “Milton’s epic depicts the relinquishing of its own imaginative plenitude and riches, the end of epic poetry itself.” The poem enacts its own renunciation (at least as something to be worshipped, as so many commentators tend to do): “The lost Paradise that could only be summoned up by poetry has been emptied out as the epic reaches its end.” As a result, readers not only exit from the poem as a formal structure, but exit—or as Quint puts it, “walk away from”—the heroic ambitions it at once describes and instantiates, and are left, as Adam and Eve are, with only “their own inner resources.” Quint asserts that the poem thus described is “not a self-consuming artifact,” but as the originator of that phrase and category, I would say it fits perfectly.
And what does Milton propose as the “inner resources” left to us? “Paradise Lost suggests that from here on love in marriage and community may be the best thing human beings can seek for themselves.” To the old question of what is the truly heroic act in Paradise Lost, Quint gives this answer: In book 10, “Paradise Lost has reached its heroic climax, which is nothing more . . . than the restoration of the marriage of Adam and Eve.” That reconciliation, Quint adds, is the model and perhaps partly the cause of another—“their reconciliation with God”—and once both are effected, the couple “escape the recursive pull of their own fallenness and . . . find their way out of a book that seems to have no exit.” The way they find is not the way of Icarian flight or poetic soaring, but the mundane way of everyday life: “They have a world all before them, but one of lower generic expectations: the gates of epic close behind them.”
I am happy to report that Quint does not engage the perennial if not perpetual controversy (around since the poem was published) about whether Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. He just assumes, correctly, that he is not. This allows him to elaborate the many parallels and doublings and reversals he discovers without worrying whether the poem’s moral structure is firmly in place. This is to say not that Quint’s Paradise Lost is static and without drama, but that the dynamism and the dramatics are tethered to a set of meanings that are always the same, even as they are deepened by the interpretive revelations that emerge from his dazzling analyses. He is no “New Miltonist,” thank God.
This leads me to a final observation about the organization of the book. It proceeds chronologically, following the order of the poem, a feature that makes it suitable for classroom use. But within that linear frame, Quint returns again and again to the same questions, delivers the same answers, and offers the same insights illuminated, as always, by learned tours through the ways and byways of the Western epic tradition. In its double structure—at once syntagmatic and paradigmatic—Quint’s reading of the poem mirrors the truth that was taught us by Geoffrey Hartman in his seminal essay “Milton’s Counterplot” (1958): Beneath and above the superficial and superficially attractive busyness of the verse’s narrative propulsion is the “divine imperturbability,” the “calm and cold radiance” that reigns always at the poem’s still center. It is one of the virtues of Quint’s book (another is the generosity of critical annotation, amounting almost to a mini variorum edition) that Paradise Lost’s still center is given a density so great that reading the poem becomes itself a heroic act; an act difficult to perform, but in its difficulty providing an experience few (if any) efforts of the human imagination are capable of provoking.
Stanley Fish is the Floerscheimer Distinguished Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law.