IN THE BAROQUE NEOCLASSICAL, DESPITE THE WILL TO ORDER, THINGS fall apart and the center cannot hold. Milton’s most baroque figure in Paradise Lost is Death, that amorphous excrescence whose maw devours all (and whose image adorns this book). Death is the persistent reminder of the chthonic, of the abject. All structures collapse before him, even the monuments of time. Not all of Milton’s efforts to justify the ways of God can prevail, for Death enfolds them.1 The concept of Milton’s God collapses in the fold of irony: Just as He is when He jokes about Satan’s hordes coming over the horizon, in his most crucial scene God reveals Himself as stage manager, puppet master. No co-equal, co-omniscient with the Father, the Son is manipulated to volunteer for the role the Father knows already he will accept. All of the apparent suspense is just show, state theatricality. As Michael Lieb responded to my suggestion of this irony after a talk he gave at the University of Arizona, it makes God “devious, facetious.” It reveals Milton himself as ironist who attempts to obscure the fact that not even his supreme imagination can create an Adam and an Eve—or a Satan, for that matter—without a prelapsarian fatal flaw, a macula in the immaculate. Such black, ingrained spots will not lose their tinct despite the will to the neoclassic sublime.
The most interesting and powerful writing of the Court Wits disrupts with images or purposes that disturb the surface not just of the poem or play but of the culture. There is a haunting, bizarre paganism in Cavendish’s image of the mourning woman melting ultimately into mutual ashes; in Philips’s multiple roles (personalities?) anent a ritual of self-sacrifice; in Waller’s reduction of the Fall to matter; in Etherege’s glimpse of the matter that really matters; in Dorset’s celebration of Black Bess’s earthy, class-threatening sexual jouissance; in Sedley’s juxtaposition of the mutual sexual satisfaction of pre-agricultural rustics to the macabre predacious sexual antagonisms of the rich; in Buckingham’s imperfectly displaced libertine vulnerability. The return of