Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Milton: Eve's Female Charm

Courtly Lovers
Under the Tree of Knowledge
Albrecht Dürer, "Adam and Eve" (1507)
(Image from Wikipedia)

As readers will already know, I've been floundering around like a fish out of water, flipping from one place to another in my search for a topic that I can turn into an article on Milton before the semester begins, and I think that I've finally found a topic that I can do quickly.

I've been discussing some variations on the interpretation of the Fall as Adam's heroic act of noble self-sacrifice, and I've noted that I read Milton as critiquing this view. I had intended to look either for Milton's sources or at his influence, but given my limited time, I'm going to focus almost solely upon the argument internal to Paradise Lost, albeit with some discussion of the courtly love tradition.

My basic idea is that Milton presents Adam's fall in terms of a courtly lover's experience, which begins by lovingly overpraising the lady's beauty but ends in basely lusting for the lady's body, a transition from the spiritual to the carnal that the Romance tradition knew so well (and sometimes even celebrated).

I've only just begun, so here's what I've written thus far:
In his discourse with Raphael, Adam admits to a weakness that he has felt since discovering Eve:
. . . here passion first I felt,
Commotion strange, in all enjoyments else
Superiour and unmov'd, here onely weake
Against the charm of Beauties powerful glance. (PL 8.530-3)
From the context, PL 8.508-33, Adam reveals that precisely his reason, his mind itself, is subjected to beauty's charming capacity to engender passion.

Adam quickly emphasizes that he 'understands' that he himself, made directly in God's image, is superior in the mind (8.541ff):
. . . yet when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in her self compleat, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, Wisdom in discourse with her
Looses discount'nanc't, and like folly shewes;
Authority and Reason on her waite,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness thir seat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard Angelic plac't. (PL 8.546-59)
Adam praises Eve in language that recalls that of courtly love, for he places Eve above himself in subjecting his "Authority and Reason" (8.554) to her. Moreover, he confesses that Eve's own "Greatness of mind and nobleness" (8.557) serve to "create an awe / About her" (8.558-9) that inverts male hierarchy and confirms him as her overawed servant, and he openly wonders if "Nature faild" to leave him strong enough to resist the lovely charm of the woman.

Adam is in love. And he both idealizes and idolizes his beloved. Raphael is less than pleased, and "with contracted brow" (8.560), he begins to warn Adam:
Accuse not Nature, she hath don her part;
Do thou but thine, and be not diffident
Of Wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou
Dismiss not her, when most thou needst her nigh,
By attributing overmuch to things
Less excellent, as thou thy self perceav'st.
For what admir'st thou, what transports thee so,
An outside? fair no doubt, and worthy well
Thy cherishing, thy honouring, and thy love,
Not thy subjection: (PL 8.561-70)
Raphael's words constitute a critique of the courtly love tradition, which has often elsewhere been criticized for its tendency to idolize the beloved lady.
I then segue into a riff from Don Quixote that some readers would instantly recognize but that I'd prefer to leave out for now. This is enough for today.

Now, I'm off to prepare breakfast for my own dear lady, the toast of Seoul...

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At 7:20 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Undoubtedly, the stance is true, but does Milton use "language that recalls that of courtly love"? Adam describes a tendency that is praised in courtly love, yet avoids any image from that tradition: light, dark, heat, cold, ice,fire, spring, life etc. Poetically, it is dead (from the view-point of Amor). Yet,Adam speaks exactly in the tradition of Amor at 515-520, a passage that echoes the strange, woodland procession in "Il Penseroso" which is an anti-erotic, hermetical masque. Confronted with Raphael/Hermes/Maia's son, the hermeneutic angel, Adam is speaking a very odd language.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps Adam speaks so neutrally because he is analyzing his feelings and is an unfallen individual.

The problem lies in elevating Eve to a position of awe (9.558-9), which leaves Adam open to the sin of idolatry, for awe is appropriate as a response to God's holiness, not as a reaction to a human being.

Courtly love tended to idolize women but also to bring them down to earth in that they were 'worshipped' for their 'divine' qualities but then loved in a very physical, even adulterous manner.

I realize that I'd need to support these statements, but for that, I'd need more time. Perhaps if I find them for my article...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:57 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

To play devil's advocate, I wonder if there is something more complex at work? Yes, at 8.558-9, Adam describes Eve in terms of "awe". And Raphael develops that in his correction at l.577, "So awful". That description carries notable kingly overtones that readers in Milton's time must have picked up immediately--the awe that comes from monarchical power. Raphael's whole discourse, as often noted, is about kingship and order, about a power sharing that exists through deserved respect--as in a Commonwealth. As a Neo-Platonist, which the Puritan Milton of PL still was, placing the female above the male was not automatically wrong. Finding awe in woman, as Plato did in the Symposium with Diotima, as Dante did in Beatrice, as Spenser did in Una, as Milton did (in Eikonaklastes) by
upholding Queen Truth, could be sanctioned. If we read with just theological spectacles, could we be making an over-simplification about Milton's view of Amor? Just a question.

At 5:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, this is a complex question, but Milton seems to me to be insisting on male superiority even in prelapsarian Eden, but I'll have to deal with this issue in the course of my article.

In the Garden, of course, there was an equality of freedom, and Adam could not order Eve but only appeal to her reason -- or so Milton argues.

Jeffery Hodges

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