Living Texts: Interpreting Milton

By Kristin A. Pruitt; Charles W. Durham | Go to book overview

Milton, Lucretius, and “the Void Profound
of Unessential Night”

JOHN LEONARD

A. B. Chambers, writing in 1963, declared that Milton's Chaos in Paradise Lost was in one key feature wholly original: “Milton's chaos, unlike others, continues to exist, in part, even after the creation.”1 The Chaos of Hesiod, Plato, Ovid, Claudian, Du Bartas, and others was all used up. Chambers does acknowledge that “the atomists … supposed that worlds other than ours might come to be from those atoms yet remaining in space,” but he concludes: “no writer known to me maintained that chaos as such continued to exist.”2 Even if we set the atomists aside for a moment, Milton is not quite as original as Chambers supposes. Spenser's Chaos also “continues to exist”:

in the wide wombe of the world there lyes,
In hatefull darkeness and in deepe horrore,
An huge eternall Chaos, which supplyes
The substances of natures fruitfull progenyes.

(3.6.36)3

Spenser's Chaos nevertheless differs from Milton's. Spenser's Chaos lies “in the wide wombe of the world”; Milton's lies outside our universe “In the wide womb of uncreated Night” (2.150).4 Spenser's Chaos is an integral part of nature, which it continually “supplyes” with “substances.” Milton's Chaos, having made one contribution at creation, is forever after shut out.

This exclusion has implications for the much-debated question of whether Milton's Chaos is “good,” “neutral,” or “evil.” Chambers had no doubt that Chaos and Night are “malevolent.”5 Although I have more sympathy with this view than with the current orthodoxy that Chaos is good, I should say at the outset that I am unhappy with the words “good” and “evil” as they are used in this debate. They frame the argument in narrow

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