Milton's Coy Eve: Paradise Lost
and Renaissance Love Poetry

William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden

The various tradition of the love lyric is among the distinctive contributions of the Renaissance to our literary culture. In no subsequent period will love be the dominant preoccupation of lyric poetry, or would-be poets feel compelled, as a public demonstration of their seriousness, to animate the conventions of literary love. Few Renaissance careers, on the other hand, are without some episode of Petrarchism; and the long arc of that tradition, from the sequences of frustrated or ideal love to the Ovidian consummations of the seventeenth century, comes down on the work of Milton.

Love in the 1645 Poems is in certain obvious ways subordinate to the theme of male friendship. Yet if Milton's Italian diva was not, after all, such an inspiration, his brief Petrarchan fever signals the future— another of the youthful possibilities reworked triumphantly in Paradise Lost, the first and last epic since the Odyssey able to render its love story both genuine and positively heroic. The epic centers in a marriage. Its explorations of cosmic space and time invariably return to this proving ground. Satan, God, Christ, angels, freedom, pleasure, work, the Fall, death, grace, inspiration, redemption: everything in this lofty poem gets placed in the history of Adam and Eve's "wedded love." In the end its entire wisdom has been assimilated in their clasped hands, again together on the guided quest for a new bower.

Critics have recognized that Milton uses the narrative positions opened to him during the course of his "great Argument" to evoke

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From ELH 53, no. 1 (Spring 1986) © 1986 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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