By Catherine Nicholson
Katie Kadue: Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton
Timothy M. Harrison: Coming To: Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England
Nicholas McDowell: Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton
Joe Moshenska: Making Darkness Light: A Life of John Milton
Of the many liberties John Milton took in writing Paradise Lost, his 1667 epic poem on Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, the most delightful and underrated are his efforts to imagine daily life in Paradise before the Fall. Compared to the risks he takes elsewhere in the poem—recasting the devil as its charismatic antihero, scripting conversations between God the Father and his only begotten Son, staging war in heaven, describing angelic sex, and playing fast and loose with the logic of allusion so as to make himself the founding author of the entire Western literary tradition—the domestic details of prelapsarian existence can appear merely charming, inventive flourishes on the scenic backdrop to the grand conflicts between good and evil. In the long, relatively uneventful middle of the poem, after Satan has hatched his demonic plot but before he’s worked out the crucial business with the snake, Adam and Eve occupy themselves with an array of activities: talking, eating and drinking, strolling and stargazing, sleeping, dreaming, bickering and flirting, playing with the animals, tending the roses, socializing with angels, and passing whole days in the unexpectedly interesting business of innocence.
For innocence was interesting; this is a central plank in Milton’s campaign to “justify the ways of God to men,” and a significant innovation on his biblical source material. In the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, the eating of the forbidden fruit is more or less the first thing we see Adam and Eve do. (Adam, it’s true, also names the animals, but that’s before Eve arrives on the scene.) All the Bible says of the pair’s life together before the Fall is, as the 1611 King James Version puts it, that “they were both naked…and were not ashamed.” Life in the scriptural Paradise is defined by negation—no clothing, no shame—which makes the immediate effects of the Fall seem at least somewhat advantageous: “The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge leaues together, and made themselues aprons.”
That homely detail, the stitching of the fig-leaf aprons, marks the birth of guilt and shame, but—in the Bible, at least—it also marks the birth of resourcefulness, wit, craft, creativity, scientific invention, self-ornamentation, and all the rest of human culture. Not so in Paradise Lost. At the end of book 9, Milton’s new-fallen couple also sew aprons out of fig leaves, but the poet makes sure we know that they do so badly, “with what skill they had.”
The sting of the aside is the implied contrast with what’s come before, in the poem’s leisurely middle books. For as we trail the as yet innocent Adam and Eve about the garden in books 4 to 9, we witness all manner of skill: the first man and woman make dinner, small talk, jokes, scientific inquiries, culinary experiments, and philosophical arguments; they pray; they even make love. And they do it all, the poet insists, better than it’s been done since. Better, too, in some cases, than they themselves had done it before. The most fascinating and theologically knotty aspect of Milton’s unfallen world is that it allows innocence to coexist with improvement: Adam and Eve are made perfect—“sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” in God’s preemptively defensive construction—but they are not thereby denied the pleasures of learning and growth, without which, Milton seems to believe, Paradise would be no paradise at all.
A wonderfully concrete example of this self-development occurs in book 5, when Adam glimpses the angel Raphael approaching and urges Eve to prepare a feast: “But go with speed,/And what thy stores contain, bring forth and pour/Abundance, fit to honor and receive/Our heavenly stranger.” Eve readily assents, but reminds her husband, with a touch of fond condescension, that life in a world without winter, want, or decay makes food storage optional:
Adam, earth’s hallowed mold,
Of God inspired, small store will serve where store
All seasons ripe for use hangs on the stalk,
Save what by frugal storing firmness gains
To nourish, and superfluous moist consumes.
As Katie Kadue points out in Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton, a wonderful book on early modern writers and the kitchen arts, Eve’s independent forays into drying and preserving the fruits of Eden yield a counterintuitive understanding of perfection itself, not as a fixed state from which one must not swerve but as a dynamic process of trial, innocent error, and gradual improvement.
In Eve’s realization that, as Kadue writes, some things “become firmer, and thus more properly themselves, when they are preserved, so that they are improved only insofar as they are saved,” there may be the germ of the paradoxical Christian doctrine of the felix culpa, or happy fall, which urges that salvation in Christ is more fortunate and more blessed—happier in both senses—than the continuation of unfallen existence would have been. It’s a claim Milton embraces at the end of his poem, when the angel Michael tells Adam that through prayer, penitence, virtue, and God’s grace, he and his offspring may come to possess “a paradise within thee, happier far.” But there is also in Eve’s domestic labors a hint of how things might have been otherwise—how human knowledge, thinking, and experience, as well as the human diet, might have gained in richness and savor over unfallen time.
The idea that Eden was a place of discovery from the start is also the motivating insight of Timothy M. Harrison’s Coming To: Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England. Before Milton’s time, Harrison argues, “consciousness” was a moral faculty, interchangeable with what God in book 3 of Paradise Lost calls “my umpire conscience,” “place[d] within” fallen humanity “as a guide.” But in works like René Descartes’s Meditationes (1641) and Principia philosophiae (1644), the Latin conscientia took on new meaning, suggesting, as Harrison writes, “whatever was present to mind.” For Descartes, this sense of mental presence—of oneself as a “thinking thing”—becomes the ground of epistemological confidence; what one thinks may be right or wrong, but the feeling of thinking itself is impervious to doubt: cogito, ergo sum.
It’s a deliberately reductive formula, but as Harrison points out, it puts a new premium on self-awareness: “If any thought is to count as thought, it must be accompanied by consciousness.” And as Descartes’s interlocutors quickly realized, that requirement made a brief but crucial expanse of human existence, from the infusion of the soul in utero to birth, at once foundational and wholly inaccessible to philosophy. It’s for this reason, Harrison argues, that seventeenth-century philosophy needed poetry: to confect persuasive accounts of what it feels like to become a human being. And that, as much as any theological effort to justify the ways of God to men, is what he sees as the work of Paradise Lost.
Once again, the unfallen Adam and Eve play the starring roles. Eve’s recounting to Adam of her earliest memories in book 4 and Adam’s recounting of his to Raphael in book 8 form a narrative diptych of what Eve suggestively calls “unexperienced thought”—thinking in its purest and most primal form. Predictably, the two stories diverge on gendered lines: the newly created Adam promptly begins reasoning his way toward the necessary existence of God:
Straight toward Heaven my wondering eyes I turned,
And gazed awhile the ample sky, till raised
By quick instinctive motion up I sprung….
“Thou sun,” said I, “fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of myself; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power preeminent;
Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live
And feel that I am happier than I know.”
When Eve awakens to existence, she possesses the same quick, questioning native intelligence as Adam, but finds a fit object for contemplation and praise faster and closer to home:
That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of Heaven. I thither went
With unexperienced thought and laid me down
On the green bank to look into the clear
Smooth lake that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me; I started back;
It started back. But pleased I soon returned;
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.
Critics have made much of the contrast between Adam’s heaven-directed eye and Eve’s downward, self-delighted gaze, but the meaning of that difference isn’t altogether obvious in the poem’s prelapsarian world. For if Eve is Narcissus-like in her fascination with her own image, she is also Godlike in that respect—or, as Milton’s nonchronological narrative design teases us to think, perhaps God is Eve-like.
By concentrating on the significance each story has in the unfallen world, Harrison avoids having to rehearse the hackneyed question of how much we ought to worry about Eve’s self-absorption or Adam’s self-esteem; what interests him instead is how Milton depicts, in fine linguistic detail, the dawning of an individual sense of being in the world. The pleating of self-awareness registered in the reflexive syntax of Adam’s “I found me laid” and Eve’s “I…found myself reposed”; the perceptual gains and losses incurred by the advance of understanding (Eve soon learns to see the lake as a lake and not “another sky,” just as she learns to see her reflection as a watery image and not an ideal companion); the gradual layering of narrative form on the raw material of experience, tantalizingly implicit in Eve’s use of the word “oft,” an adverb that suggestively extends the timeline of prelapsarian existence to encompass the development of habits, and a sense of oneself as a creature of them; the inchoate theory of mind embedded in Adam’s request that Eden’s animal inhabitants “tell, if ye saw, how came I thus”: again and again, Milton’s—and Harrison’s—minute attention to the fashioning of each blank verse line pays off in startling insights into the texture of what Milton’s contemporaries were just beginning to call consciousness.
“Milton’s song of innocence is, simultaneously, a song of experience,” Harrison writes. Indeed, in contrast with the splendidly inquisitive character of the unfallen Adam and Eve, Satan’s airy dismissal of the very idea of being created—“We know no time when we were not as now,” he declares to the host of rebel angels—starts to sound less brave than boring, a telling failure of the fallen imagination. It’s an insight that resonates with Kadue’s interest in the variety and ongoingness of prelapsarian existence: there is more to the story of what came before.
The same might be said of Milton’s own life, according to two of the newest additions to the immense corpus of biographies. Miles apart in method and style, Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution, the first of a planned two-volume set, and Joe Moshenska’s Making Darkness Light are joined by a shared focus on the uneventful and protracted course of Milton’s youth. This is Milton’s age of innocence: before he was either a political revolutionary or an epic poet; before the scandal of his writings on divorce and regicide; before the civil war and the execution of Charles I; before his appointment as Cromwell’s Latin Secretary; before blindness; before the collapse of the republic and the heartbreak of the Restoration; before Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes established him in his final decade as the undisputed heir to Homer and Virgil, Dante and Tasso, Chaucer and Spenser.
The question has always been how he got there—and why it took so long. The first three decades of Milton’s life, from his birth in London’s Bread Street in 1608 to his departure for an extended tour of the Continent in 1638, were not simply calm but becalmed, marked by a peculiar intensity of ambition and aimlessness. The eve of his thirtieth birthday found him still living at home with his recently widowed father, now in the London suburb of Horton, having acquired both a BA and an MA from Cambridge but lacking any clear plan for employment, marriage, or life beyond the confines of the family home.
He wasn’t by any means idle: having decided at some point in his twenties against a career in the church—the obvious place for a man of his education and abilities—he threw himself instead into a rigorous, capacious, and seemingly boundless course of private study, devouring any ancient and modern work he could get his hands on, filling the pages of commonplace books with notes on his reading and ideas for future literary productions of his own, trying his hand at an array of English and Latin verse forms, from devotional poems to funeral elegies, sonnets, odes, and even a full-scale court masque, written for the Earl of Bridgewater. But to what imagined end?
McDowell’s Poet of Revolution is a Miltonist’s life of Milton; for him the crucial question is the one that has defined and divided Milton scholarship from the beginning, the question of politics:
How and why did John Milton, the obscure occasional poet who took an oath pledging his allegiance to the episcopal Church of England and the Stuart monarch in Cambridge in 1632, and who mainly employed himself during the 1640s as a private tutor, become the infamous defender of regicide and propagandist for the republican governments of the 1650s whose books were burned for their capacity to “lead to Rebellion, murther of Princes, and Atheism itself”?
Early lives of Milton—according to Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns, there were five accounts already in circulation by the end of the seventeenth century—treated this question as a moral diagnosis: depending on one’s own political leanings, Milton was either a born champion of human freedom or the inveterate enemy of order and decency.
In more recent times, however, Milton biographers have been divided not on the righteousness of his cause but on the duration of his commitment to it. There are those like A.S.P. Woodhouse, Christopher Hill, and Barbara Lewalski, for whom Milton is the Puritan poet par excellence, whose father’s disinheritance by his Catholic grandfather became a foundation for his political and religious radicalism—a Milton, as McDowell writes, “always already on the path to becoming a fully weaponized Puritan revolutionary.” The trouble with this view, dominant for most of the twentieth century, is that there’s very little concrete evidence for it—and in their revisionist 2008 biography, Campbell and Corns argued that it got what evidence there was entirely wrong. Their Milton was “a contented Laudian both in his personal loyalties and in his theology”—not a youthful firebrand but the reverse, a supporter of the liturgical ceremonialism and strict episcopal governance of Charles I’s archbishop, William Laud.
For his part, McDowell believes that both sides have missed the point: whatever Milton thought at various moments in his youth about predestination, liturgy, or church governance, those convictions didn’t guide his actions or shape his identity. From the age of seven to the age of twenty-four, Milton spent much of his time in the classroom, first at St. Paul’s School and then at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the vast majority of that time was devoted to the cultivation of rhetorical skill. Like every Renaissance schoolboy and university scholar, he was taught to regard persuasive utterance in prose and verse as a quasi-divine faculty, capable of swaying the hearts of princes, directing the course of empires, and tuning the music of the spheres. Rather unusually, he appears to have taken such commonplaces literally. If the young Milton believed anything, McDowell argues, it was this: that eloquence and erudition were the twin prerequisites of greatness, and that any effort expended in the cultivation of such gifts would surely be rewarded, if not in this world then in the world to come.
As McDowell reminds readers, it isn’t just Milton’s modern biographers who have been perplexed by the intensity of his commitment to this creed. In a 1633 letter to an unknown correspondent, possibly his former tutor Thomas Young, Milton labors to explain why, having received his MA in 1632, after seven years at university, he promptly returned home to read and study some more. Anxiously parrying the charge that he is squandering his time and his expensive training, “dream[ing] away my Yeares in the arms of studious retirement like Endymion with the Moone,” he rifles his bookshelf for citations in support of “tardie moving.” He finds an unlikely proof in the parable of the talents, reading Christ’s judgment against the unprofitable servant who buries his God-given gifts as a paradoxical injunction not to “take thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit.” In this against-the-grain interpretation—an early instance of his free hand with Scripture—delay is a down payment on future success. “Milton’s continued obscurity is in fact an investment,” McDowell writes, and his apparent slackness a form of good stewardship, “exemplifying ‘due and timely obedience’” to the will of God and his own poetic calling.
That simmering, nervy sense of possibility is an aspect of Milton’s sensibility to which Moshenska’s freer, almost novelistic account of the poet’s life is exceptionally well attuned. In an elegantly crafted series of meditations, each keyed to a single date and text, his Making Darkness Light tracks the stuttering progress of the poet’s career across days and decades, at home and abroad. A careful reader of other Milton biographies, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, Moshenska engages dutifully with the genre’s requisite puzzles, but he allows familiar scholarly queries about the origins of Milton’s political radicalism or the nature of his religious commitments to be joined and jostled by a host of what he calls “weirder, less respectable questions”:
What would it feel like to be divinely inspired? What would it be like to inhabit a mind capable of recalling nearly everything that it had experienced? What is it like to compose more than ten thousand lines of intricate verse while blind?
And in the first two of the book’s three parts, which concentrate on Milton’s childhood, college, and postcollege years, he turns again and again to the problem of vocation, “in its literal and etymological sense”: “What was Milton called to do and to be?”
Whatever their ostensible theme—the birth of Christ, the virtues of an aristocratic family in Wales, the untimely death of a college classmate—Milton’s youthful rhetorical and poetic productions are suffused with an inchoate sense of private purpose. Moshenska reads them brilliantly, crafting carefully researched, richly imagined scenarios for their composition and drawing out their constant preoccupation with the passing of time, especially Milton’s own. In a 1627 Latin oration at Cambridge, Milton urged his fellow undergraduates to “follow close upon the sun in all his journeys, and ask account of time itself and demand the reckoning of its eternal passage,” lest they remain all their lives “hesitat[ing], as at a cross-roads, in doubt whether to turn or what direction to choose, and unable to make any decision.” But two years later, his first major poem in English, the “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” ends with an image of patient fixity, as the infant Christ sleeps, the stars shine, and “all about the courtly stable,/Bright-harness’d Angels sit in order serviceable.” In Paradise Lost, the mature poet will champion such obedient passivity as a new and better type of heroism; here, Moshenska suggests, we see the idea in tentative draft.
The capacity to make “poetry out of…hesitation” is one Milton honed, achieving strange and haunting results—most notably in November 1637, when he was asked to contribute to a memorial volume for Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College who had drowned off the coast of Wales that August. King was twenty-five at his death, Milton about to turn twenty-nine, and in the poem he wrote for King, “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy of 193 irregularly rhymed, metrically uneven lines, time is everywhere out of joint.
It’s out of joint in the opening stanza, where the poet-narrator seems to arrive at once belatedly and prematurely, jaded and uncouth, to the conventional pastoral scene:
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Whatever the right season for mourning and myrtle berries might be, this isn’t it—but neither, in the view of many baffled readers, is it the right moment for the poet to fret over the disappointments of his own stalled career (“Alas, what boots it with uncessant care/To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade/And strictly meditate the thankless muse?”) or to summon Phoebus Apollo to offer a rousing pep talk and ringing endorsement in response. Still less is it a moment for waxing indignant over the abuses of the English clergy, as Milton does in an apocalyptic nineteen-line diatribe that interrupts the poem two thirds of the way through, delivered in the thundering voice of Saint Peter, no less.
With its cacophony of important and self-important ranters, “Lycidas” hardly has room to remember King, which made it, in Samuel Johnson’s view, a bad poem in every sense of the term: “Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new.” Moshenska disagrees: what’s new here is the daring with which Milton declines to reconcile the time scales of his own existence, the confidence in an eternal judgment and reward set alongside the uncertainties of recognition in the present, the ancient and dignified quest for poetic fame jostling with the impulse to hurl himself into more timely conflicts. What we hear in “Lycidas” are “the voices that crowded in upon him” whenever he sat down to write.
In 1638 “Lycidas” appeared in print, at the back of the memorial volume for Edward King, signed “J.M.”—the first of Milton’s poems to be published under his own name. (His youthful elegy for Shakespeare had been anonymously included in the 1632 Second Folio, and the “Masque at Ludlow Castle” anonymously printed in 1637.) That same year Milton left his father’s home and, for the first time, England, embarking on a fifteen-month tour of continental Europe. Equipped with an introductory letter from the former diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, he made his way from Paris to Rome, Naples, Florence, and finally to Geneva. He met ambassadors, scholars, poets, artists, singers, cardinals, and even the famed Galileo, then under house arrest by the Inquisition in the Florentine countryside—punished, as Milton later wrote, “for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
McDowell and Moshenska both see this trip as transformative: as in a Henry James novel, going to Europe was the beginning of the end of Milton’s age of innocence. Moshenska focuses on the seductive appeal of Italian music and culture, all of it drenched in the Catholicism Milton had been raised to loathe and mistrust. McDowell suspects that the real shock to Milton’s system came when he returned to England, in the late summer of 1639, to find the Bishops’ Wars in full swing, as Laud and his followers sought to impose greater conformity on the reform-minded church in Scotland, and an Inquisition-like apparatus of clerical surveillance and state censorship took shape frighteningly close to home. It was one thing to lament “the servile condition into which learning amongst [the Italians] was brought” by the tyranny of the Catholic clergy; it was quite another to contemplate the dampening effects of an authoritarian church on his own as yet unwritten poetic masterpieces.
Likely prompted by Thomas Young, Milton threw his lot in with the so-called Presbyterians, generating a stream of polemical attacks on the Laudian establishment and gathering quick notice for the ferocity of his wit. But he continued to be driven by his own peculiar and private faith in himself: as evidence, McDowell points to the strikingly odd treatise titled The Reason of Church-Government Urged Against Prelaty (1642). The first half of The Reason of Church-Government does what the title suggests, mounting a densely cited scriptural case against the Anglican bishopric as a grotesque aggrandizement of the priestly functions sanctioned in the Old and New Testaments. But at the midpoint of his argument, Milton suddenly swerves from church politics to autobiography, cataloging his early poetic achievements, boasting of the warm praise his verses elicited at the Italian academies, and assuring his reader—who certainly had not asked—of his unshaken determination to make good on his youthful promise by writing a genuine English epic,
go[ing] on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapors of wine…but by devout prayer to that eternal spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.
This, then, is the ground on which Milton stakes his “right to meddle in…matters” of church and state:
An inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labor and intent study…joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.
We need not wonder why Milton becomes a radical, McDowell and Moshenska suggest, for Milton himself tells us why: the poet made the polemicist and the writer the revolutionary. It’s an explanation that sweeps aside debates about the depth and character of Milton’s commitments to republicanism or liturgical reform or the doctrine of free will, insisting instead on the unmatched seriousness of his commitment to poetry, and to himself. In a pleasing irony, both McDowell and Moshenska root Milton’s iconoclasm in the most mainstream and orthodox of Renaissance faiths, the humanist faith in the power of language to transport and transform and make the world anew.
There is a less dignified story one might tell about Milton’s radicalization in the early 1640s: the story of his seemingly impulsive, evidently disastrous marriage to Mary Powell. Roughly half the thirty-three-year-old Milton’s age when he met and married her, Mary was the daughter of Richard Powell, an Oxfordshire landowner who had borrowed money from the poet’s father. In the first half of 1642, Milton traveled to Oxfordshire to collect the debt and returned to London a married man. Contracted on the brink of civil war—in January 1642 Charles I sent armed guards to the House of Commons to arrest five members of Parliament on charges of treason; rebuffed by the Speaker of the House, he left London and headed north, preparing for an invasion—the new marriage resulted almost immediately in its own domestic breach: within weeks of arriving in Milton’s home, an unhappy Mary went back to Oxfordshire.
She would remain there for three years. In the course of those years, her estranged husband became the leading exponent of what he termed “the doctrine and discipline of divorce.” The so-called Divorce Tracts—there were four in all—made Milton notorious, even among Presbyterians, and he reacted by withdrawing his support for their cause, embracing a more expansive and thoroughgoing libertarianism, opposed to any religious or governmental hierarchy aiming “to force our consciences that Christ set free.”
Humiliating though the motives of this transformation may have been—and it’s probably a mistake to read too much into the marital failure—it spurred Milton to produce a work for which he would still have a prominent place in the English literary canon even if Paradise Lost had never been written. Areopagitica, a 1644 pamphlet addressed to Parliament in protest of a new law increasing governmental regulation of the book trade, features, as Moshenska writes, “the most electrifying and famous prose that he ever produced.” In the pamphlet, Milton argues fiercely against censorship as tantamount to murder:
As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself…. A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
He was, in a sense, fighting for his own life: the life he had led so far, almost entirely in the company of books and their dead authors and the “life beyond life” he still hoped to achieve. In Areopagitica, he began to achieve it.
Notably, Areopagitica also contains a passage in which Milton seems to sketch the outlines of the story of the Fall, meditating for the first time in public on its importance to his own moral, political, and philosophical values. Making his case for the evils of censorship even when applied to indubitably bad books, he reasons:
It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say, of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil?… I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised & unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure.
But when he came at last to write his own version of this story, Milton allowed himself—and us—to linger in an imaginary world where none of this was yet the case: where the wisdom to choose and the freedom to experiment were exercised on an almost infinite array of blameless alternatives, limited by a single prohibition. To know good by knowing good is the privilege of the unfallen, and in the middle books of Paradise Lost, we see just how surprising, variable, and rich with potential such an existence might have been.
Catherine Nicholson is a Professor of English at Yale and the author of Reading and Not Reading The Faerie Queene: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism, and Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance.