Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Milton's Compressed Memory in Areopagitica of Spenser's Cave of Mammon

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Milton's Compressed Memory in Areopagitica of Spenser's Cave of Mammon

Article excerpt

MILTON'S BEST KNOWN REFERENCE to Spenser occurs in Areopagitica, the most familiar of his prose tracts, and it involves, or at least seems to involve, a mnemonic error. In a passage distinguished by rhetoric at its Miltonic best, the future epic poet rejects "a fugitive and cloistered virtue" in favor of the heroic trial by vice that purifies through the resistance of temptation.1 This is the same famous passage in which he describes "our sage and serious poet Spenser" as "a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas" and thereby depicts the poet he elsewhere identified as his "Original" (or model) in what some modern readers have imagined as somber hues of puritanical grey.2 Although others have tried to see Milton's valuing Spenserian teaching over the moral philosophy of the Scholastics as a preference for the imaginative and motivating powers of poetry over dry abstraction-a preference comparable to Sidney's in The Defence of Poesy-the puritanical paint job has persisted. Moreover, it has regularly been extended from Spenser to allegory per se, the most distinctive feature of Spenserian form. What better way to protect Milton's writing from contagion than to identify Spenser with allegorical moralism as opposed to Miltonic fullness and complexity, even if such identification clashes resoundingly with Milton's actual views and poetic practices?

The final deleterious effect of Milton's eloquent affirmation in Areopagitica of active engagement in a fallen world-again, an engagement resembling both Sidney's in 17he Defence and Spenser's in The Faerie Queene-has arisen from his apparently mis-remembering details of plot in the very episode of his poetic Original's epic that he cites as the culminating example of his ideal of active virtue in the life of "the true warfaring [or 'wayfaring'] Christian."3 This mis-remembrance follows immediately on Milton's praise of Spenser's practical wisdom and focuses on the virtue that is everywhere central to the good life in Milton's writing, namely temperance, which is also the focal virtue of the knightly protagonist Guyon in the second book of Spenser's epic. Characterizing the purity of a cloistered virtue as "an excremental whiteness," one merely external and actually impure, Milton invokes his Original's description of "true temperance under the person of Guyon, [whom Spenser] brings ... in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain." Of course the problem with Milton's memory here is that Guyon separates from his Palmer in the sixth canto of Book II when Phaedria takes the knight aboard her boat but leaves the Palmer behind on the shore, refusing "To ferry that old man," Guyon's sober companion, "ouer the perlous foord."4

In Book II's seventh canto, which houses the Cave of Mammon, Guyon is conspicuously without the Palmer at his side as he first engages Mammon's arguments outside the Cave and then enters it, having accepted the need to "see and know" this place for himself. The Cave is in one sense the fallen world and in another the very heart of unrighteousness- the Bible's wicked Mammon-with blood-guilty Tantalus and Pilate in its furthest depths. I have argued at length elsewhere that Guyon's actions in this canto, first outside and then inside the Cave, are reasonable, even though the whole experience is for him increasingly like a funhouse of mirrors-of distorting reflections, as when Mammon twists Guyon's arguments outside the Cave and then inside it, in a parody of the Palmer, openly assumes the role of Guyon's reason, or when Guyon washes his hands of Tantalus only next to see, with emblematic irony, the bloody hands of Pilate trying to wash themselves of their stain.3 Reasonably, of course, Guyon is "with reason pacifyde" in the Cave by his mammonic guide, the parody Palmer, and he therefore does not futilely battle the indestructible Disdain when threatened by him (vii.43). Guyon, who has explicitly disdained both Phaedria and Mammon and been disdained in turn, meets in the figure of Disdain a self-mocking inversion who "did disdayne / To be so cald, and who so did him call" (vii. …

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