The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton

By John Rogers | Go to book overview

5
Milton and the Mysterious Terms of History

But when mankinde once sees, that his teacher and ruler is within him; then what need is there of a teacher and ruler without; they will easily cast off their burden.

-- GERRARD WINSTANLEY, Fire in the Bush (1650)

As it threads through the wandering mazes of free will and providence, Paradise Lost broods continually on the problem of agency, both human and divine. In establishing the nearly autonomous origins of Creation in chaos, Milton opened his poem to the political resonances of the dialectical relation of an often self-governing matter to the imposing power of divine will. But the epic's shift in emphasis after Book Eight from the natural philosophical question of creation to the more explicitly theological question of sin and punishment inhibits the daring poetics of vitalist agency that Milton explored earlier in the poem. In the depiction of the origins and consequences of the Fall, the later books of the epic seem to lack the glimpses into the radical organizational politics of the Vitalist Moment with which Milton charged the accounts of Creation. The deliberate vagueness concerning the politically urgent problem of the agents of change, and of punishment, is nowhere more self-consciously expressed than in the portrayal of the Father's determination to exercise justice on the figure most instrumental to the Fall: "yet God at last / To Satan first in sin his doom appli'd, / Though in mysterious terms, judg'd as then best" ( 10.171-73). The terms of the transformation Satan will undergo, in his spectacular Ovidian metamorphosis from fallen angel to serpent and his projected defeat by the Son, are unquestionably mysterious: we are left merely to speculate about the mechanics of God's application of Satan's doom, about God's causal role in this strange alteration, and about the relation of this curiously ad hoc execution of poetic justice, "judg'd as then best," to the workings of "Eternal Providence." Like all the changes after the Fall in Paradise Lost, Satan's punishment is represented explicitly as an act of justice; his doom constitutes a single instance in the judicial process that is always coincidental in Milton's justifiable universe with

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