Drawn Like One of His Enlightenment Girls
Milton’s perspective on the relative value of men and women can only be defended in the most relativistic of terms. Much like the rather intolerant strain of tolerationism which Miltonic thought espoused, the feminist theorising in which Milton engaged was neither liberal nor enlightened in any sense approaching a modern conception of either those words. Milton's gender conclusions are only ever laudable in their historical context - even then merely when matched with the most heinous offenders of the time. His Eve is raised from her ‘secondary’ status only to be thrust back into it, along with the entirety of her descendants. His Dalila is prodded, ridiculed and cast into the public as an unclean offender of ‘natural hierarchy’ and personal interests take primacy when writing in favour of women as a way to achieve his objective of divorce. Conclusions cannot, however, pretend to be capable of wholly accurate summarisations of that which they are book-ending and the same is true of those Milton produced. In the weave of Genesis 1 and 2 that Milton effects throughout Paradise Lost, a subtle iconoclasm is sown throughout the pages, presenting a dissenting line to which the feminist critics of the last century have clung. His Dalila is allowed independent argument and the chance to demonstrate Samson's hypocrisy while some of the poetry and elegies he scribed to the ‘bookish’ women in his life demonstrate a genuine respect for the intellectual capacity of the fairer sex.
Samson Argonistes has a contested composition date. Some claim that the mood of violence which hung around the 1640s as a misty cloak chimes with the poem’s spirited brutality, citing its odd metre and occasional, spotty rhyme as proof of an immature Milton. Others believe that it is a piece boiled in the spite of the Restoration; a bitter tale of cathartic revenge. Either way, its chief antagonist is not the Philistines who end slaughtered but Dalila - a woman whose significance as a symbol of all that was considered ‘dangerous’ in a woman had been expanded and underlined throughout the medieval and renaissance periods. She was the female Judas, a temptress Spenser used as demonstrator of the ‘wondrous power’ of which women were possessed - ‘to captive men and make them all the world reject.’.
The Dalila of Milton’s tragedy, as Sharon Achinstein says, not only belongs to ‘all these traditions,’ but is also ‘a woman pitted against a man on the battleground of marriage within seventeenth century debates over the roles of men and women.’ It is a tragedy whose biblical protagonist is cast as emasculated wreck - denigrated eye sockets representing castration and cut locks realising his fall from God. Samson decries his wife, claiming that it was that he had ‘yielded... unlocked her all [his] heart,’ which had resulted in his becoming, in his ‘effeminacy,’ her ‘bond slave.’ The chorus joins their biblical hero in bemoaning the nature of women and their endless mendacity. Though ‘seeming at first all heavenly,’ they claim, ‘once joined’ the woman proves ‘a thorn... a cleaving mischief, in his way to virtue / Adverse and turbulent.’ Samson’s later repudiation of Dalila’s attempted justification sets out a very particular definition of the marriage bond. ‘Being once a wife,’ he tells his ex-partner, she is not under the protection of ‘Parents and country,’ but that of his own. By working in the interests of her country and her god, Dagon, she has betrayed the marital bond and emasculated the husband. The established hierarchy has been upended and Samson’s male identity is challenged.
Samson does not attempt to absolve himself of blame as Adam had done in Paradise Lost - in fact much of the tragedy’s first steps are spent in pace with a series of soliloquies by the protagonist which make clear his shouldering of his part in his failure. ‘She was not the prime cause, but I myself who ... gave up my fort... to a woman.’ He goes on to describe her as a frightening opponent on a warpath with subjugation in mind. ‘With blandished parleys, feminine assaults... tongue-batteries,’ she subdues him. He is made a passive victim - womanly, it is his ‘effeminacy’ which has ‘held [him] yoked.’ Dalila is a betraying temptress who has quite literally shorn her husband of both his masculinity and his God. Yet Dalila is given as extended an opportunity to make herself the tragic hero as is her spousal adversary. Via rhetorical measures, Dalila attempts first to recall Samson’s affections to her before realising the endeavour’s being sisyphean and retreating to a boasting of the heroism which her betrayal has figured; presenting the perspective of her own people, among whom she is to be treated a hero. She ‘shall be named among the famousest of women, sung at solemn festivals, who to save / [her] country from a fierce destroyer, chose / Above the faith of wedlock-bands, [her] tomb / With odours visited and annual flowers.’ Empson lauds this as ‘one of the noblest speeches in Milton,’ and certainly it is a powerful statement of personal liberty and one which carries the exact same reasoning as that behind Samson’s own heroism. Though the Chorus is shortly to land a thousand stinging cuts upon Dalila’s person, dehumanising her, a modern audience is far more capable of detecting the hypocrisy which sees her derided and Samson treated with reverence while their justifications both crux on an identical clutch. Less mired in religious dogma, we can see with greater clarity the evidence Milton left in favour of his ‘antagonist’. Even if, as Achinstein says, it is true that ‘Milton did intend Dalila to be a liar, a temptress,’ he certainly also allowed her the space to argue her case. From the text, it is clear that in a world which does not make the automatic, dogmatic presumption that God is the only God and any statement to the contrary is either inflammatory to the point of lynchable heresy or, like Delila, risible to an extent that makes its issuer either stark raving or highly pitiable, Dalila is as justified in her actions as is Samson. Samson’s genocidal rampage is, in fact, entirely indefensible if we remove the religious ‘grounds’ upon which both he and Milton believes is found ample justification for the mass-murder of pseudo-innocents. Milton’s tragic heroes could be women, too.
Mary Powell had fled the arms of her husband mere months after her marriage to Milton - departing London for her natal town. Milton was subsequently motivated to undertake research in the field of divorce. The tracts published as fruits of his abandonment-inspired labour take up the case for a new concept of marriage with primacy placed in companionship. Milton, composing to an austerely puritan audience, claims that to have made ‘such carefull provision against the impediment of carnal performance, and to have had no care about the unconversing inability of minde,’ is not only negative to those joined in matrimony, but also ungrounded in scripture - an assertion he founds on a cast-iron biblical exegesis. If this tract seems a convenient attempt at ‘rectifying’ canon law when it suits, it is because that is exactly what it is. Questioning whether or not Milton’s true belief was that ‘marriage should be founded on mutual affection and intellectual compatibility,’ as both Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns claim it was, one finds a question-marked shaped lacuna in the period stretching from 1642-43. Campbell and Corns go on to claim that the tract should ‘not be regarded as a window into Milton’s own sexuality or his relationship with Mary.’ The rationale provided does not convince - there has been no evidence procured to demonstrate any interest or thought in the field of divorce prior to his sudden abandonment. Certainly, it appears clear that the motivation which sprung into Milton’s breast had been born of personal hurt. A motivating factor is merely the left book-end to the conclusion's right, however, and if private end was the objective, heartfelt sentiment between the beginning and end is not precluded by either.
There was a sundry list of ‘bookish women’ whose company ‘Milton seems to have sought,’ claim Campbell and Corns. These were educated types whose conversation Milton was much inclined to. One such among these was Catherine Thomason, the wife of his close friend George Thomason. Her death in 1446 precipitated his composition of a sonnet eulogising the late woman; praising her faith and admiring her for her ‘good works’. Upon the death of his second wife, Katherine, Milton composed yet another sonnet to his ‘late espoused saint,’ and the melancholic heartbreak is as delicate as the erotic reverie expressed with extreme decorum. In both these instances he is extolling the virtues of specific women for whom he had more than a healthy serving of respect. If we read Discipline and Doctrine with Catherine Thomason in mind, the pro-feminist Milton is more easily descried. Where a sulking Milton nursing darkened Mary Powell in his heart could only ever have composed a lemon-bitter revenge tract, the Milton whose time was spent in the company and admiration of such women as Catherine Thomason is very likely to have been expressing a genuine sentiment. Milton could see that his female friends were living, thinking and worthy of veneration.
Equally, the stricture of the earliest chapters of Genesis which sets man over woman defined every aspect of seventeenth century life - Gordon Schochet and Rachel Weil even observing that this gendered doctrine was used as basis for the dominion a king held over his people. The era’s most common anti-feminist tacks are pinned to the wall by Milton in Book 10 of Paradise Lost as a spiteful Adam spews a series of arguments which typify the day’s misogynist polemicists as he attempts to justify the subjugation which the Son (and Milton) have dictated Eve must place herself beneath. Eve is the ‘last creation,’ and a ‘defect/Of nature.’ She is aligned with the serpent; charged with mendacity, sexual manipulation and inherent narcissism. Adam’s language, as pointed out by Shannon Miller in her book ‘Engendering the Fall,’ appears as though directly ripped from the popular anti-feminist tract of a Mr. Swetnam. Fashioned from a rib, women are ‘crooked by nature,’ since the rib is ‘a crooked thing good for nothing else.’ Adam declares Eve’s secondary nature by mimicking Swetnam. Chiming thr misogynist, women are nothing but ‘a Rib/ Crooked by nature.’ As befits Milton’s own precepts, Eve submits herself to Adam’s attack and attempts to place all blame on herself. She becomes the docile Griselda - permitting both herself and all who shall follow to enter the yoke of masculine superiority. ‘Humble,’ she falls at Adam’s feet and is ‘submissive’ in her distress. She is but a rib, a secondary creation. She is, she is bullied into believing, beholden to Adam and thus her sin was committed twice - once against Adam and once against God. Adam is only guilty on a count of the latter. If he is one step removed from divinity, she is two.
It has been made clear by scholastic effort, however, that Genesis’ opening is a fusion of two accounts - the priestly and Yahwist (1 and 2) - and that they are both possessed of great differences. The essays of Mary Nyquist published in the eighties attempt to demonstrate that the equality-minded priestly Genesis 1 account had its tenets identified by Milton and applied to Paradise Lost. The seventeenth century was bowing under the combined weight of tomes attacking and defending women as the societal bonds which had held them captive for so long were being reconsidered and, in some cases, untied. Milton’s feet were in multiple fields. His use of a serpentine female as an emblem of sin in Book 2 was a typical misogynist symbol in the toolbox of those protesting female inferiority and the description which accompanies our first sighting of our forebears ends with the direct assertion of sexual inequality - ‘their sex not equal seemed.’ Yet this passage is similarly confused. Its opening ascribes ‘Godlike’ height and posture, a ‘naked majesty’ which has them appear ‘lords of all.’
Eve will go on to make herself secondary by reminding all that she is ‘formed’ of nothing but Adam’s flesh. Without him, ‘her guide/ And head’ she would be but lost and ‘to no end.’ Adam fights against this prescriptive role by claiming that she is his ‘sole partner and sole part of all these joys.’ The two are at loggerheads without ever coming to blows and it is reflective of the antinomy which reigns between Genesis 1 and 2. As the conflicting ideologues fight, so wobbles the definition of the sexual difference which God has ordained must exist between Adam and Eve. When Adam is relating to the archangel Raphael in Book 8 he sustains this political dichotomy - once again resorting to the pejorative message that Eve was ‘of man / Extracted,’ while admitting in the same breath that with Eve, what he sees is ‘my self / Before me’. A belief in equality is thrust together with faith in the arbitrary hierarchy that Catherine Martin terms ‘illogical’ in her book Milton and Gender. Adam cannot adequately describe exactly where Eve falls behind himself. Though acknowledging God’s message that she is ‘of her nature, inferior in the mind,’ on approaching ‘her loveliness, so absolute she seems / And in herself complete.’ (italicisation is my own). She is ‘wisest, virtuosest, discreetest, best... one intended first, not after made...’ The choice of adjective undermines God’s prescription of a negative secondary nature to Eve. She is absolute, complete and as the second, she is perhaps finer that the first. Where Adam was collected from dirt, Eve was made of man. Raphael is quick to discount Adam’s theorisings and place the ship of gender hierarchy back on the course which God dictated it need take, of course, but that such powerful message could come from the lips of our earliest father is proof of Milton’s attachment to the message of Genesis 1 like nothing else in Paradise Lost’s canon.
William Blake famously wrote that Milton was ‘of the devil’s party’ without ever being aware. The Romantics are not a source upon which one should ever rely, but the Blakeian aphorism has captured the imaginations of every generation since - because it contains such a clear amount of truth. The gender theorising in which Paradise Lost engages has no function unless it is Milton’s belief that the conclusions of Genesis 1 are worthy of investigation. We must return to the ‘illogical’ nature which apparently governs the Polis which God has created for mankind and which Satan is very well acquainted. Upon hearing the first conversation between Adam and Eve, Satan is aware of exactly what he must do to undermine their bucolic paradise for he is only too familiar with the apparent tyranny which caused God to appoint the Son over he and his compatriots. In both of these instances of inherent structural contradiction, Satan sees a ‘fair foundation’ for exploitation. The disgust which is stirred in the bellies of any whose free will is challenged by the arbitrary execution of absolute authority promotes discord and causes rebellion.
Milton’s women were both real and created, true and false, but very rarely one-dimensional and only consigned to sorry servility in ending, never in beginning or middle. The conclusions to which Milton inevitably dragged his works all conform to the prevalent anti-feminist notions of his day, but the roads they take to get there are paved with questioning, probing and genuinely exploratory investigation. Whether Dalila’s freedom of expression, Eve’s ability to draw on Genesis 1 and the pseudo-liberty of Comus’ heroine are enough to justify Milton’s eventual decision to subjugate them to position two in the world’s hierarchy is dependent on how much one prescribes to ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’.