Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary

By Earl Miner; William Moeck et al. | Go to book overview

Excursus 7.126

KNOWLEDGE IS AS FOOD

In his “Preface” to Fables(1700), Dryden recalled that “Milton has acknowledged to me that Spenser was his original” (2.271), and Milton's editors have shown the detail in which Milton recalled his great predecessor. In discussions of the relation between those masters of rhymed stanzas and blank verse, there is one simple but important connection that should not be lost. They are the last two important English poets who conspicuously treat temperance as a heroic virtue. Among the many matters in his miscellany on Milton, John Aubrey plausibly suggests that it was also a virtue of Milton's way of life: “After [midday] dinner he used to walk 3 to 4 hours at a time (he always had a garden where he lived); went to bed about 9. Temperate, rarely drank between meals. Extreme pleasant in his conversation, and at dinner, supper, &c. but satirical” (Hughes, 1022–23). Like a vice, a virtue extends to thought as well as habit and act. It is, therefore, no wonder that Milton should have Raphael speak directly to the cognitive reaches of that virtue Spenser celebrates in the second book of The Faerie Queene:

But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less Her Temperance over Appetite, to know In measure what the mind may well contain, Oppresses else with Surfet, and soon turns Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Winde. (7.126–30)

The observation of this connection for Milton is not novel, but discussion here has the uses of reminding us of important matters and of sparing many annotations and cross-references.

It is not that Raphael's linking of food and knowledge is a matter of a single topos or allusion. By recurrence and emphasis Milton creates his own original nexus of numerous things important in the poem. A wide range of associations enables him to conceive of food as not merely physical but also intellectual and spiritual sustenance. As we observe here and in notes to lines, some versions are ultimately biblical or classical, some his own. The interest of the passage derives in part from the workings of the comparison (in simile and metaphor), in part from the way commentators have dealt with the passage, and in yet larger part with the resonances and connections with other portions of the poem.

The opening words give us a simile as premise: “Knowledge is as food.”

The unspoken, positive implication is that, like food, knowledge is necessary to life. The spoken, negative application is that the ingestion of knowledge must be governed, requiring her (“scientia” is feminine)

Temperance over Appetite. The alternatives are Temperance / Wisdom / Nourishment vs.

Surfet / Folly / Winde(Flatulence).

The interweaving of these concepts affords the possibility of a metaphorical exchange: food is as knowledge. There are two main versions of this in the poem, both of that class of things entirely obvious and difficult to put in practice. The negative involves unnecessary, excessive, or forbidden knowledge and specifically “the Fruit / Of that forbidden Tree” of the knowledge of good and evil.

That is evident. But the commentary on the passage has varied considerably. Hume did not cite line 126 but 127, “Her Temperance over Appetite.” Hume also introduced the positive version by referring to 5.639, where Raphael is also speaker, telling Adam and Eve of eating and drinking by the angels (“they”), as in this context:

They eate, they drink, and in communion sweet Quaff immortalitie and joy, secure Of surfet where full measure onely bounds Excess, before th'all bounteous King, who showrd With copious hand, rejoycing in thir joy. (5.637–41)

There are nice things here (“communion, ” “rejoycing in thir joy”). But temperance is unnecessary to unfallen angels. We observe that knowledge is not mentioned where wisdom is possessed. No later editor followed Hume in centering attention on temperance.

As might be expected, Bentley was reductive, writing of “This comparison of Knowledge in the Mind, as Food in the Body, ” complaining mightily of Milton's

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Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface 9
  • Acknowledgments 11
  • Introduction 15
  • Early Comment 31
  • Book 1 - The Rebel Angels Awaken to Hell's Flames 51
  • Book 2 - Sin Opens the Doors of Hell 97
  • Book 3 - Satan's Hypocrisy Deceives Even Uriel 135
  • Book 4 - God Creates Adam and Eve 165
  • Book 5 - Adam Rids Eve of Satan's Dream 203
  • Book 6 - The Son Expels the Rebel Angels 237
  • Book 7 - Adam and Eve Listen Intently to Raphael 269
  • Book 8 - Raphael Departs After Warning Adam 287
  • Book 9 - The Fall 305
  • Book 10 - The Son Judges and Clothes the Human Pair 335
  • Book 11 - The Vision of Cain Slaying Abel 367
  • Book 12 - The Expulsion 393
  • The Illustrations 421
  • Excursus 1.50 427
  • Excursus 2.921 435
  • Excursus 2.967 439
  • Excursus 3.19 447
  • Excursus 5.791 451
  • Excursus 6.327 457
  • Excursus 6.616 461
  • Excursus 7.126 467
  • Excursus 7.594 471
  • Excursus 8.136 479
  • Excursus 9.512 489
  • Excursus 10.425 495
  • Excursus 11.385 499
  • Excursus 12.553 501
  • Bibliography 505
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