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So much hangs on crucial references by John Milton to "converse" and "conversation" in the prose and Paradise Lost that the terms, when freshly reassessed, afford unique insight into the vexing issue of Milton's very individualized views on women, marriage, and divorce. Lightly and with utmost seriousness, early and late, Milton plays on the words and their cognates,(1) with meanings ranging from the sacred to the sensual allowing him to give revisionist interpretations to the relationship of husband and wife. Even the casual reader (if Milton has such) is aware that the terms recur hauntingly, almost obsessively, and for Milton they are more than Puritan euphemisms for sexual intercourse; and they suggest not only harmonious discourse but its opposite. The importance of dialectic in certain Renaissance writers has been recognized by, among others, W. Scott Blanchard who analyzes the "negative dialectic" of Lorenzo Valla's portrayal of himself as a "singular intellectual surrounded by a world full of enemies" (170). For Milton, even more than for Valla, opposition in the public and private world is a source of strength--there is reason in the positive dialectics of history and sexual relationships. Marriage as trial by what is contrary was familiar territory for Milton, and the "sweet Converse" of marriage evolved as a temporal dialectic--not a truce or the reconciliation of opposites--with the end to be ultimate spiritual synthesis. In ways neglected by criticism that still require close examination, Milton finds in conversation a punning arena where he can associate his views on women and marriage with ontological questions of divine love and with larger metaphors of language and speech.

How Milton uses "conversation" as the objective correlative between the physical-sensual world and the divine will be the central focus of this study, and in particular how the harmony between men and women embodies that between the Father and the Son in heaven (Sewell, Kelley, Patrides, Summers, Pecheux). When Adam sees the fallen Eve, the sexual implications of "Converse" are obvious in his cry: "How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join'd ...?" (9.909-10)(2) But Milton always sees the theomorphic in the relation of the sexes and marriage as "the neerest resemblance of our union with Christ" (Tetrachordon 2.682); and "if man be the image of God, which consists in holiness, ... woman ought in the same respect to be the image and companion of man, in such wise to be as the church is beloved of Christ" (591,606). John Shawcross observes that the "metaphor of human union to express that divine union ... has been little examined in literary works such as Milton's, ... "and the "psychodynamic propensities of this metaphor are major avenues of literary investigation" (33, 34). I believe that for Milton, conversation is the metaphor of that "metaphor of human union" and as such is most fully realized in Paradise Lost.

While Milton may be of "two minds" on the subject of women, he gives remarkable representation to the cohesive nature of "converse" and "conversation" in the divorce tracts and years later in the graceful exchanges of Eve and Adam. The purposes of all "true" conversation between the sexes, pre- or postlapsarian, are the same as for marriage itself: to solace and overcome loneliness (Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce 2.235, 328; Paradise Lost 8.415-51), to produce progeny in a human parallel to God the Creator (Paradise Lost 4.736-49, 8.427-33), to reflect the mystical union of Father and Son, and to anticipate that of Christ with His Bride the Church (Lycidas 176, Pecheux).

Among other things, the epic is itself a great dialectical construct of delicately counterbalanced demonic pseudo-conversations of fallen angels, heavenly "seeming" conversations actually manifesting the paradoxical expressive silence in the substantive union of the transcendent persons of a single God, and true conversations on earth among separate and limited mortal and immortal beings having a natural desire and a need for genuine discourse. In Hell and throughout the created universe outbursts of demonic oratory and dissembling misrepresentation divide being from being, whereas in Heaven perfect communion unites Father and Son in singular Godhead; and in Eden true "conversations" with subtle shadings spiritually conjoin the virtuous figures. Milton saw trial by what is contrary as the way to truth and higher states of being (Areopagitica, The Reason of Church Government, Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Comus, Paradise Lost); and conversation, especially in marriage, is a unique form of that dialectic. Only in the holy, ineffable silence of Heaven is there true synthesis; and the human verbal dialectic, with its spiritual resonance, stands like a microcosm of the epic's grand scale dialectics in which the harmonious silence and creative purity of the Word stand in opposition to the discordant bombast and destructive lies of Satan. Like an aspect of the felix culpa, the playing out of these cosmic "verbal" oppositions leads finally to a synthesis beyond words--the "unexpressive nuptial Song"--in Heaven (Lycidas 176).

Before the fall, the conversation of Adam and Eve is a true expression of intellect, spirit, and body, without manipulation or disguise, of a married couple with separate identities. This conversation is in harmony with transcendent Godhead and with nature, manifests an intellectual "grasp" of the essences of created nature, is directed toward the good, and is engaged in for the mutual understanding, pleasure, and benefit of the parties. It is a creative act producing higher states of mind and spirit on the abstract level, and progeny on the physical, and while conversation leads to degrees of intellectual, spiritual, and bodily union, it allows each of the First Parents to retain individual identity. Yet strikingly, as passage after passage in the divorce tracts makes clear, such conversation is not only possible but central to the good postlapsarian marriage. Milton learned the hard way that compatibility of mind, body, and spirit is linked inextricably to conversation in all its meanings.

As a metaphor, "conversation" in marriage reassociates Milton's notoriously fractured sensibility--the material and immaterial unite; but in other ways not fully explored by commentators, "conversation" connects Milton with the "ordinary" world and emerging "popular" seventeenth-century concerns. From an examination of certain neglected works and unpublished manuscripts on manners, social and religious duty, it is clear that "conversation" between the sexes was beginning to be recognized as a practical accomplishment especially in relation to the intelligence and expressiveness of women. In highly valuing "converse," Milton shares with these writers a respect for woman's intelligence but adds the profound assumption of spiritual equivalence in his nuanced analogy of sex and marriage to Godhead (Paradise Lost 8.600-05; Complete Prose Works II. 239-52). For Milton to cherish such converse is more than a sexist's compliment to a complement.

It is also an answer to those critics who give literal meaning to argument ad hominem. Milton has long been an easy and sometimes just target on the vexed topics of women and marriage--damned on the one hand for holding the "conventional" male attitude that woman is inferior and created as a solace to man; damned on the other for praising woman as capable of mutual discourse but in a manner that anticipates eighteenth-century sentimental characterizations of intelligent women; and castigated on all hands for presenting only a male perspective on Adam, Eve, and marriage--though very few of his contemporaries did otherwise than write from the male point of view.(3) That there are really "two Miltons"--the one, rigid, conservative, and "historically conditioned"; the other, exploratory, open, and imaginative has also been acknowledged by some commentators.(4) This dual posture in regard to woman as a "speaking" partner is roughly parallel to Milton's depictions of Ptolemaic or Copernican astronomy (VIII. 15-38; 66-168), or the descriptions of the "artificial" and the "natural" garden in Paradise Lost (4.205-85; 5.136-43, 211-19), where the poet gives to and takes ammunition from both sides of an argument. Narrow assertions on the role of women--or the Controversy, as it was called--are often in close proximity to other more open, generous assessments (Paradise Lost 8.540-43; 565-75), and Milton argues more than once for the rule of the wife if she be the wiser, "for that were something reasonable" (Complete Prose Works II. 324, 589). Indeed, the case can be made on artistic and moral grounds that at his greatest, Milton remains irritatingly, brilliantly of two minds and that his strength as a poet and human being may lie, at least in part, in this "weakness."

"Apart" from his unhappy first marriage, Milton appears to have had personal experiences that refreshed his high expectations of women, their intelligence, and skill with words. In Sonnet IX, he mines the Old and New Testaments to commend an unnamed youthful lady's wisdom in laboring up the "Hill of Heav'nly Truth" (2-4). Using "right reason," she has chosen the better part, as did Ruth (Ruth 1.14), Mary, sister of Martha (Luke 10.38-42), and Eve before the Fall in book eight. Like the wise virgins who await the bridegroom (Matthew 26.6), she will join with the "feastful friends" and pass to bliss (13-15). In Sonnet X, Milton similarly commends the "right reason" of Lady Margaret Ley as reflected in her eulogy for her "eloquent" father: "So, well your words his noble virtues praise / That all both judge you to relate them true / And to possess them, Honor'd Margaret" (12-14).

A very different attitude toward woman as a "speaking help" (Complete Prose Works II. 251) is documented by Suzanne Hull in her annotated bibliography Chaste, Silent, and Obedient, English books for Women 1475-1640 and Antonia Fraser in The Weaker Vessel who trace a male-dictated silence imposed upon women from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century--a silence justified by reference to the writings of St. Paul and many of the Church Fathers. Milton often stands as an exception to this anti-feminist tradition, but he is not alone--from Chaucer to Shakespeare, vivid female characters speak their minds. Castiglione and Cappelanus praise intelligent, verbal women as do lesser known Continental writers whose books in translation were beginning to enjoy great popularity in England. For example, Peter La Primaudaye and Jacques DuBoscq place conversation at the forefront of female skills emphasizing the sometimes superior reason of women while advocating the education, reading, and mental exercise necessary for intelligent discourse. La Primaudaye finds that women "oftentimes" display a "more excellent spirit than men;" they are "quicker," and "may have gone beyond many Philosophers"(470, 73). By 1658, La Primaudaye's The French Academy was the second most popular book in England (Shindler v).

While remembering one's place in expressing independent thought was probably always more a matter of class and economic status than gender, it is also apparent on the basis of fuller examination of these texts and other neglected manuscripts that women were being sincerely respected for intellectual capacities and given a strong "voice." Along with chastity and obedience, silence is not exclusively a female virtue.(5) On the subject of silence, men were reminded that sometimes one tongue was too much for even a man. Richard Braitwaite writes: "May your Speech Gentlemen bee so seasoned, as it may relish of discretion; rather learne the art of silence" (13). La Primaudaye and DuBoscq share a similar opinion on the value of male silence, as does an English priest in The Mirror of Patience and Resignation, who is so self-effacing as to be anonymous.

In 1638 and 1639, two books for women by Jacques DuBoscq were translated into English; and in 1692, the translation of his The Complete Woman was reissued under the title The Excellent Woman as an answer to critics who had attacked his generous and sympathetic attitude toward women in the earlier edition, particularly his failure to distinguish between the sexes on matters of education, conversation, and decorum, and his sharp judgments on the social reasons why women's intellectual scope and worldly accomplishments are limited. DuBoscq's response faults men for giving poor educations to their daughters and for encouraging false values by assigning trivial, unchallenging tasks: "Why might they not learn Physick and Chirugery, as well as Cookery ... [or] why may not they learn Languages as well as we? Whenever they set well about it, they commonly do it better than we can" (v, vi). DuBoscq devotes early chapters in both editions to conversation and the strenuous reading necessary to make it lively; and he, like Milton, is against silence in a woman (47). DuBoscq's The Accomplish'd Woman (1638; translated into English 1656), stresses many of these points while bearing a title that echoes like a commonplace in Milton's phrase, "Accomplish'd Eve" (4.660).

When it comes to titles, few are more wonderful than Anthony Gibson's A woman's woorth, defended against all the men in the world. Prooving them to be more perfect, excellent and absolute in all vertuous actions, then any man of what qualitie soever. Written by one that hath heard much, seen much, but knows a great deal more. While the book--a translation probably from the French--is an obvious parody of the flattery often bestowed upon female patrons and relies on examples ad absurdum to counterbalance Medieval and Renaissance anti-feminine diatribes, it is still an amazing read because the male writer sustains--even if only as a tour de force--an entire book praising women in all areas of achievement. The author turns to the ancients for support, and his deadpan scholarly zeal in satiric enterprise seems to have convinced the writer himself (2-8). On the subject of eloquence, he declares that women are more capable of debating cases and of exercising the imaginative faculty, both said to be the "happiest functions of the soule" (4). Women also have "greater wisdome in their speech" because they are not so choleric as men; then the "scholar" offers proof from history to demonstrate that women engaged in great conversations (19, 20). It may be too much to suggest that Milton knew of Gibson's translation, but the title reverberates in Adam's bitter speech: "Thus it shall befall / Him who to worth in Woman overtrusting / Lets her Will rule" (Paradise Lost 9.1182-84). And while undermining parodic humor or the foolishness of "overtrusting," Milton nevertheless allows for trusting. Something was in the air.

From the number of editions and translations of such books published in England, I think it is reasonable to consider that all or some of the six women who at various times were around the poet--women whose possible points of view need to be considered without unduly quick or superficial "stereotyping"--might well have heard of or even owned and read from books favorable to their sex.

That side of Milton which is liberal and prophetic in areas from civil liberties and astronomy to garden design also embraces the growing "common" appreciation of women as intellectual speaking partners. But while Milton is unique in linking the converse of marriage to Godhead and audacious in reinterpreting Scripture and civil law, he is also attentive to new currents, writings, and phrases from the popular culture. In the midst of personal turmoil--and with occasional lurches into hierarchical postures--Milton refuses to codify the past and experiments with original ideas about a new kind of woman and about conversation with her.

Of course Milton needed original ideas: to the usual Puritan burden of rationalizing sex, he had to justify divorce by breaking with the "crabbed textuists" of his day. His approach is complex, ingenious, and consistent. By emphasizing a "meet and happy conversation" as the "chiefest and noblest end of marriage" (Complete Prose Works II. 246), he identifies himself with an emerging popular theme while forcefully arguing his conviction that incompatibility of mind and soul, not adultery, is the basis for divorce. The urgent, almost peculiar iteration of "converse" and "conversation" is consistent with Milton's emphasis on reason, freedom, and trial by what is contrary. A positive temporal dialectic is possible only with an "intimate and speaking help, a ready and reviving associate" (Complete Prose Works II. 251). Again and again in the divorce tracts, Milton asserts that the failure of conversation is the essence of a bad marriage--and its daily reality (Complete Prose Works II. 235, 239, 246, 248, 250-52). To escape the death-in-life trap of being "unreasonably yoked" with a "mute and spiritless mate" where each is "more alone than before" (Complete Prose Works II. 251,326), Milton performs dexterous hermeneutical gerrymandering between the Old and New Testaments. He boldly reinterprets the burning which St. Paul grudgingly allowed might be relieved through marriage (1 Corinthians 7.9) and asserts that to the solitude and silence inherent in a bad marriage will be added a "burning lesse to be contain'd then that which is fleshly." This "rationall burning," or "intelligible flame" is originally Solomon's fire--" `stronger than death,' and `many waters cannot quench'"(Complete Prose Works II. 251)--and becomes, according to Milton's typological discordia concors, St. Paul's fire. The name of "Love" is given to this burning which is "pure" and desires to join itself in "conjugall fellowship to a fit conversing soul"(Complete Prose Works II. 251). If the "intelligible flame," this "unfeign'd / Union of Mind, or in us both one Soul" (Paradise Lost 8.603, 604) is irresistible in paradise before the fall--it is more so after because the soul in terminating lust "hath obtained nothing of what it desires" and "needfully seeks" which is a "meet and happy conversation" not sex (Complete Prose Works II. 239, 35, 46, 51, 52). In Paradise Lost intercourse and propagation coyly play in the arguments for a mate (8.419-25), but it is primarily "Collateral love, and dearest amity" (426) and "conversation with his like" (418, 19) that Adam seeks, a creature like him in reason and spirit. In the divorce tracts it is obsessively, the "unconversing inability of minde" (248) or the "mind to all other due conversation inaccessible" that renders "matrimony uselesse and almost liveles" (250). He defines the hopeless failure of marriage as "a perpetuall nullity of love and contentment, a solitude, and dead vacation of all acceptable conversing" (331), and "any unfitness of the body" is more easily borne than when the "minde hangs off in an unclosing disproportion" (246, 326). With breathtaking ease, this Miltonic marriage of true minds takes for granted the intelligence and "speaking soul" of a woman; she is not the object of male lust, nor a possession, and she is not expected to be silent. Milton almost casually assumes equivalent rational and spiritual powers in both partners as prerequisites for the "free and lightsom, ... apt and cheerfull conversation" that God intends as the "remedy of our loneliness" (Complete Prose Works II. 246, 248, 273).

Before and after the fall this joining of "conjugal minds" is so burningly intense because Milton ultimately relates it to that of Christ for his bride the Church and in doing so escalates human love to a metaphor for the love of Christ for the Church and the Father for the Son (Lycidas 176 and Hughes' note 125; also Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Hughes' note 67, 709; and Complete Prose Works II. 251). In De Doctrina Christiana, Milton interprets "our conversation being in heaven" (Philippians 3.20, 21) as meaning first, civitas or the final dwelling place of the redeemed, and also, as the transformation or conversion of "our vile body" to a form like Christ's glorious body (Columbia Milton XV. 227) in preparation for the marriage and consummation in Heaven--a communion beyond words and song as well.(6) This theomorphic element in the relation of the sexes goes beyond metaphor and becomes mystical. In such a context, the almost incantatory repetition of "conversation" as integral to marriage argues for woman's unique role in Milton's teleology--a role ultimately as mysterious and honorable as its divine archetype: the "union of Pure with Pure / Desiring" (8.627-28), which is the apex of heavenly love and the goal toward which Adam, Eve, and their offspring move. This transcendent level of spiritual communion underlies Milton's emphasis on compatibility giving him the highest theological reasons for marriage and--simultaneously--for divorce with conversation central to this sui generis interpretation.

With good reason Milton never uses the words "conversation" or "converse" in the Heaven of Paradise Lost and relates directly to his complex understanding of these terms in relation to the sexes. The transcendent nature of divine expression is given full and necessarily paradoxical treatment by Milton in book three (135-40; 170-72, and 266-68). In the epic's Heaven the Father and Son engage in what appears to be conversation, but they are perforce characters in a literary epic. They are in fact depicted in their natures as two divine persons in One Transcendent and Infinite Divine Being. Godhead, with the Son paradoxically "substantially expressed" in the Father, respectively manifests Justice and Love in a single being transcending all others. All expression by Godhood is a product of this paradoxical unity and so, as passages in the epic confirm, lies beyond conceptions of dialectic, discourse, or conversation held by mortal beings or even by the inspired epic narrator.

In the absence of conversation in the Heaven of Paradise Lost, Milton artfully explores wordlessness and the Word. At the greatest theological moment in the epic, after offering himself for man's redemption, the Son reveals an eloquence which "here ended, but his meek aspect / Silent yet spake, and breath'd immortal love / To mortal men" (3.266-68). In a blur of things visible and invisible, infinitely desirable but inexpressive, Milton writes that, "the Son of God was seen / Most glorious, in him all his Father shone / Substantially express'd" (3.138-40). Christopher Ricks notes how in this same passage the "ineffable is truly spoken" in Milton's brilliant use of "which" to refer to "`Love without end, and without measure Grace'--Christ uttered all that." (70) There is no "conversation" in heaven because there is no division, no trial by--or with--what is contrary; the Word, love and truth are one, or as the Father declares, "Oh thou / My sole complacence!" (3.275-76) "who art alone / My Word, my wisdome, and effectual might, /All hast thou spok'n as my thoughts are" (3.170-72). Only in heaven is the Word one.(7)

From the loftiest communion between the Father and the Son in heaven to the lowest bombast between Satan and the fallen angels, and the variations of human discourse in between, Milton observes a scale of communication that goes beyond the rules of rhetoric. The Word is ontologically and metaphorically the beginning; and, in the case of marriage, The Word is also the teleological end of "converse." In Paradise Lost, the "Word"--and its attendant imagery of authorship, conversation, and silence--emerges as an epically extended metaphysical conceit: Adam refers to the Father as "Author of the Universe" (8.360); Eve calls Adam "My Author and Disposer" (4.635); and in book three God describes the First Couple as "Authors to themselves" (122), suggesting powers of creativity and control that reflect the deity's.(8) God and Adam loftily banter "converse," "complacence," and "conversation" (8.412-33) like an echo of Milton's ontological arguments for the creation of woman in the divorce tracts. Adam assumes that God needs no "Social communication" or can, if He chooses, raise creatures to high states of "Union and Communion" (429, 31). But the Word as primal procreative power belongs only to God, and Adam knows that he "by conversing cannot these [beasts] erect / From prone, nor in thir ways complacence find" (432-33; see also Hughes' note 372). Behind the eloquent, playful gravity of the "repartee" there is divine purpose. The seeming contrarieties exercise Adam's reason, lead to new insights--and to the creation of woman. The epic punning on "converse" simultaneously dramatizes the difference between complacence in heaven and solitude on earth while also suggesting divine acts of creation, rational communication, and human sexuality (383-92)--that all this derives from the Word (405-10; 415-33) is metaphysical wit on a Miltonic level.

On Milton's scale of communications, the unfallen angels move as amphibians between the spiritual and the material. They have ratified exchanges with God and each other; and on earth angels speak with humankind to their mutual delight and sometimes in ways that make converse itself a transforming act. Conversation between males had long been recognized as a high form of human expression from the Greeks through the Italian academies of Milton's day, but the dialogue in book eight goes beyond such precedents.(9) For example, Adam discovers that the discourse of Raphael is sweeter "to my ear" than the "sweet repast" of the Garden which "though pleasant, ... thy words with Grace Divine / Imbu'd bring to thir sweetness no satiety" (8.211-16). The answering praise from Raphael--"Speaking or mute all comeliness and grace / Attends thee, and each word, each motion forms" (8.221-22)--leads Adam to "Desire with thee still longer to converse"(252); and in that conversing, Adam becomes a master storyteller, sensitive to his listener, readier for society, and more self-wise (253 ff.). As with the angels in Comus who tell of things "that no gross ear can hear, / Till oft converse with heav'nly habitants" reaches the mind, "And turns it by degrees to the soul's essence, / Till all be made immortal" (459-64), there is the assumption that angels presently enjoy a higher state of being, but they speak with graceful decorous condescension and with the assurance of eventual equivalence for humankind all suggested in the word "converse." Even when angelic knowledge is limited in Paradise Lost, and Raphael and Michael instruct, warn, or rebuke--divine authority shines in every word (8.66-178). The intent of the unfallen angels is to speak the truth responsibly, meaningfully, and with compassion.

IN dire contrast is the fallen angels' failure of communication in hell and elsewhere--from the ineffable to the unspeakable. In the speeches of the devils, there is a breach between appearance and inner reality. A progressive "devolution" in demonic speech leads to divisiveness and isolation as the epic unfolds. Satan engages in manipulative oratorical "vaunting" in the presence of other devils in book one, dissembles with Beelzebub rather than openly debates to insure the outcome of the demonic conclave in book two, confesses his inner despair when alone in book three, lies to other figures including the angel Uriel and Eve in other books, and finally "devolves" in joining with the other devils in a universal hiss in book ten.

While it is a critical commonplace that the degradation of language begins with the fall of Satan (Ricks 109, Shoaf xii), it is not often noted that genuine "conversation"--as Milton uses the term--is impossible for Satan or his cohorts. Along with all the concomitant sins and rhetorical depredations that flow from pride, there is also the despair of an unbreachable solitude underlying the words of Satan and the other devils; for them speech does not communicate; it manipulates, deceives, and divides. The word "converse" is used only once in hell and then very ambiguously when Belial argues that to lie "sunk / Under yon boiling Ocean wrapt in Chains; /There to converse with everlasting groans" (2.183-85) is the punishment awaiting the angels if they make war against heaven. Only by and with groans as companions will conversing be possible--an extremity of loneliness similar to that of Satan chained on the lake of fire (1.210). As for Satan, he feels torment within from the "hateful siege of contraries" (9.120-22), and the more he talks, the more alone he becomes. Like the lacrimae rerum in every line of the Aeneid, Satan's every utterance betrays this alienation. There is much talk in hell and Eden but no "reason," mutuality, or true understanding; indeed, Satan's essential aloneness and the concomitant failure of communication become the prototype for fallen humanity, "the jangling noise of words unknown, the hideous gabble" the Babel in which "each to other calls / Not understood" (7.55-58).

Satan never talks with Eve in book IX before she eats the fruit, and the Word "conversation" is not used in these passages. In response to Satan, Eve creates garbled rehashes of his sophisms; and while he willfully debases language, she mindlessly follows suit, tormenting logic and syntax (9.817-25): the foolishness of "more equal" is lost on her, and she unconsciously degrades herself as "A thing not undesirable" (824). Point by point Eve overturns her own and Adam's earlier vision of love and the conversation of marriage. Nor does Eve correctly apprehend by reason or intuition what Satan insinuates (9.817-25). The two of them engage in a parody of the wordless understanding between the Father and the Son in heaven.

But on earth, in the Garden of Eden, conversation initiates the first marriage and survives at its heart; in fact, Eve's special reciprocity with Adam brings to life what Milton meant in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce by a "meet and happy conversation" as the "chiefest and noblest end of marriage" (Complete Prose Works II. 246). Some of the most intense passages--from Adam's request to God for a mate through the last encounter of the First Couple before the fall--are filled with references to "converse" and "conversation." By concatenating the psychological reasons for Adam's valuing Eve around conversation, Milton simultaneously reinforces the analogy to Godhead and foreshadows a unique vulnerability. Beverly Sherry observes that when Adam describes Eve as "Sole Eve, associate sole" (9.227), it is an "incantation celebrating union: before the Fall, Adam and Eve are one as the Father and Son are one," but after are "never one in that more than mortal way again" (259). Eve is created as the relief of innocent loneliness, yet the vocabulary Adam uses before her actual appearance resonates, sometimes ominously: she is a dream of what "seem'd"; "sweetness," the "spirit of love" and "amorous delight" infuse all that is fair in the world (8.471-80) and are the elements that coalesce just before the fall into "sweet Converse and Love so dearly join'd" (9.909). The erotic and the visual in this context are not just steps in conventional courtly love; they are reminders of the forlornness which is an anguishing, persistent threat to Adam and the isolating darkness which is a reality to the blind poet. Milton harkens back to his basic conviction in the divorce tracts years earlier that man is not meant to live alone or in silence.

In this passage and elsewhere, the sensual is directly related to conversation; and in treating sexual union as a good in itself, Milton goes well beyond platonizing and Christianizing carnal desire in the tradition of courtly love. He argues in Tetrachordon that erotic passion is a demonstration of "how indulgently God provided against mans lonelines" and cites the Song of Songs where even these "jolliest expressions, [these] thousand raptures ... farre on the hither side of carnall enjoyment" prefigure the spousals of the Church and Christ (Complete Prose Works II. 597). But in book eight, Raphael cautions Adam against "attributing overmuch to things / Less excellent" (566-67) asserting that Love refines
 The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat In Reason, and is
 judicious, is the scale By which to heav'ly Love thou may'st ascend.

Only "half abash't," Adam insists that he treasures most the "Union of Mind, or in us both one Soul," and those "thousand decencies that daily flow / From all her words and actions, mixt with Love." Parenthetically yet insistently, Adam deems the "genial Bed" endowed with a "mysterious reverence" unknowable even to angels (8.600-05). Raphael's NeoPlatonic response reiterates that it is the "Union of Pure with Pure / Desiring" (627, 28) which is the high standard of transcendent love; yet Milton allows Adam to give due place to physical love and to "all her words." For the First Couple, a little lower than the angels, the ultimate aim of communion is to ascend from the earthly to the heavenly. This harmonious delight in sex but with an emphasis on mutuality of mind and soul, is what Milton means by the conversation of marriage. Solitude is overcome, and there is little distinction between the "successful" postlapsarian marriage and that in prelapsarian Eden: with converse and love, the well-matched partners are on the way to something better and infinite.

When Milton envisions such a partner in the epic character of Eve, she is very different from the recessive, silent woman of the seventeenth-century stereotype; nor is she the "new" Puritan wife who serves only as the companionate spiritual aide to her husband (Valbuena 118). Eve lists "converse" first among the pleasures that are "woman's happiest knowledge" (4.645-37); and while the two Miltons are apparent in this passage when Eve declares "God is thy Law, thou, mine," she also forgets "all time, / All seasons and thir change" (4.639-41) because of her harmony of spirit and mind with Adam. She repeats the word "sweet" like a litany in the passages that follow, and such mutuality defies conventional notions of hierarchy; if anything, Eve here displays a sense of proportion superior to Adam's in her "reasonable" and poetic grasp of their world where time and weariness are transcended, and work has its place but does not intrude on the just order of things. Adam, more earthbound and cumbered, is moved by her abstract, intellectual questioning--her curiosity as yet untainted by association with forbidden knowledge--to higher thought and eloquence (4.641-88). At this point, each partner is capable of stimulating the other to fresh associations and loftier thoughts which lead to right actions. Only after her fall when Eve dissembles and tempts Adam does their dialogue lose the force of conversation. It is the open, capacious Milton--not the stern, misogynist patriarch--who places conversation at the heart of the relationship at the very moment everything is about to change forever.

During the separation scene in book nine, prelapsarian conversation reaches its vertex (200-430). The fullest implications of individual freedom (350), choice (355), and trial by what is contrary (366) are on display, and it is the knowing reader who sees sinister foreshadowing in the tensely innocent exchanges between Adam and Eve. Their "dialectic," more than a debate but less than a quarrel, could be progressing to a higher level through the exercise of right reason and right choice (352). The fact that Eve begins no longer to cherish such conversation as she once did signals a shift in her values; for example, in a demonstration of how "almost" to fight, she tactlessly degrades to "Casual discourse" (223) the conversation which once was the "chief delight" of Adam's presence and which she now sees as a distraction to performing those domestic chores wisely avoided in four and eight. Adam's "mild answer" (225) is an echo of Christ's rebuke to Martha (Luke 10.38-42), and also a chiding reminder that" ... not to irksome toil, but to delight / He made us, and delight to Reason join'd" (3.242, 243), and that labor was not so strictly "impos'd ... as to debar us when we need / Refreshment, whether food, or talk between" (235-37). Now it is Adam who places labor in perspective and values "this sweet intercourse / Of looks and smiles," all summed up in "converse" (247). With "converse" the metaphoric hinge, Adam describes something ultimate, a "consubstantiation" in the blur of refreshment, food, talk, mind, sweet intercourse, looks, smiles, reason, and love--a pre-Fall Eucharist of body, mind, and soul. Yet at this extraordinary moment of insight into communion, Adam's values are also changing.

With a toss, he capitulates to Eve's arguments, and the "converse" he so recently believed central to marriage is easily dismissed:
 But if much converse perhaps Thee satiate, to short absence I could
 yield. For solitude sometimes is best society (247-49)

Pretending to give Adam the last word, Eve "Persisted, yet submiss, though last" reassures him that for "our trial" she has been sufficiently "forewarn'd" by "his own last reasoning words," and her "hand / Soft she withdrew" (377-86). It is revealing to compare this parting with an earlier pre-Fall scene:
 Thus talking hand in hand alone they pass'd On to thir blissful

and with the postlapsarian quarrel that ends book nine:
 Thus they in mutual accusation spent The fruitless hours, but neither
 self-condemning, And of thir vain contest appear'd no end. (1188-90)

and with the final lines of the epic, when Adam and Eve
 hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow, Through Eden took thir solitary
 way. (12.667-68)

The conversation of marriage precipitously degenerates from exquisite, intimate communion into crude, vituperative accusation. "Alone" in book four is an affirmation of the First Pair's uniqueness in all creation and an acknowledgment of their independent personal existences. After the Fall, each is truly alone, and they quarrel in strange mutual isolation. A part of what has been lost is caught as Eve, in despair and contemplating suicide, rehearses the sequence of desire--"conversing, looking, loving"--that leads irresistibly to Love's rites and would now result in a doomed race (10.989-1000). Sherry notes how tragically interrupted is the conversation of God and Man after the Fall, and how ironic the disputes between Adam and Eve in the light of Adam's fear that he would lose her "sweet converse" if he were to remain unfallen (258-61).(10)

In passage after passage, Milton foreshadows that loss interweaving love, sweetness, intercourse, converse, and the specter of loneliness--all hauntingly elided in Adam's cry:
 How can I live without thee, how forgo Thy sweet Converse and Love so
 dearly join'd To live again in these wild Woods forlorn? (9.909-911)

In what must be on of the highest and saddest compliments of one person to another, Adam epitomizes the Miltonic "good" marriage. And whether in prelapsarian Eden or in seventeenth-century England, so "dearly join'd" are "sweet Converse" and "Love" that the high cost of life without them is unthinkable. Yet a kind of hope for the conversation of marriage is possible through the redemption of the Word made flesh. By converse with the right helpmeet both partners are moving through the dialectic of marriage to divine synthesis.

It is significant that Adam's "list" of unbearable losses culminates in "Love" and that Milton's last word on divorce is "charity." Consistently, in all his writings on the relations of the sexes, Milton argues for reason and charity; in fact, charity is reason so aptly applied that law and hierarchy ultimately dissolve (3.298, 336-41; 8.589-92; 7.403-04). By absorbing from the emerging "popular" culture a vocabulary and revolutionary habit of mind that praises women's intellect and the conversation of marriage, Milton is, like a good "poetic prophet," recognizing what he had long known. But it is also an earned judgment that charity, or love in its widest meaning, fuses the universe and sums up the relationship of God and man and woman. And although Adam and Eve take their "solitary way" out of Paradise in silence, their forlornness in this life may be overcome, at least intermittently, through the "cheerful conversation of man and woman"--conversation that dimly reflects and foreshadows the ineffable "conversation" in Heaven. There, in the silence and paradox of the "unexpressive nuptial Song" will be the consummation, communion, and mystery that Milton explores in the great metaphor of the Word.


(1) The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1933) lists five pages of cognates, variants, definitions, and examples (940-44); "convert" and its variants adds several more pages. Definitions relevant to this study include: social talk or exchange, sexual intercourse, intellectual discourse, an occupation with or engagement with things, a place of frequent abode. "Conversion" can mean a "change in character, nature, or form" (941). "Conversant" may mean familiarity, while "Converse" can mean "turned about, opposite, acting in reverse manner" (942).

In Milton and the Idea of Matrimony, John Halkett analyzes Milton's use of "conversation" in relation to seventeenth-century devotional works, marriage treatises, and biblical commentaries and concludes that Milton is aligned with the emerging Puritan emphasis on marriage as "companionship and society"; but is unique in his "insistent plea for the fundamental primacy of the spiritual bond in matrimony" (58-97). Halkett underplays the intellectual aspect of "conversation" in marriage.

(2) References to Milton's poetry are from The Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. by Merritt Y. Hughes. References to Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and Tetrachordon are from The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols., ed. Don M. Wolfe, et. al.; other prose is from the above or the Columbia Milton, 21 vols., Frank Allen Patterson, gen. ed..

(3) For feminist views on the hierarchical Milton, see, among others: Landy, Gilbert, Gubar, Froula, Nyquist, Ferguson, Interdonato, Belsey, Valbuena, Brittan, Dockray-Miller, and Walker.

(4) Critics advancing qualified but generally positive interpretations of Milton's attitude toward women and marriage--but without detailed discussions of "converse"--are: Lewalski, McColley, Woods, Swaim, Sherry, Friedman, J. Demaray, Revard, Patrides, Pecheux, and Halkett. Gallagher, perhaps bending over backwards to achieve balance, is stirred to polemics when he argues that Milton is not only an egalitarian, but "among the best allies the modern feminist movement can hope to find" (9); and Wittreich presents evidence from their own words that some feminists in the eighteenth century did find an ally in Milton.

Juhnke and Rose analyze a dual approach to women and marriage in Milton's writings, as do Doyle and Turner who emphasize the paradoxical implications of biblical and Church traditions. Turner discerns a divided Milton who is caught, as are many founders of Protestant exegesis, in "contradictory response to Genesis" (6). Turner finds evidence on both sides of the question of female subordination but the preponderance he believes, is for subjection (96). According to Turner, Milton regards sex and "emission in pathological terms" (198). Thus, there is a negative aspect to relations between the sexes with the poet and the reader allied in their guilt and complicity, that is, in their "capacity to share in some proportion the erotic dream of Paradise" (9).

Considering an escape from gender altogether through denial, androgyny, or transcendence are studies by Farwell and Mollenkott. Turner also finds that Milton sometimes blends and blurs functions of male and female, and there are "the seeds of a redemptive and an inspirational revaluation of the `female' throughout the poetry" (186); and Woods believes that Milton has "an original indifference to matters of gender" which she sees as "informed and complicated by cultural and biblical attitudes toward women" (30); and Belsey desires a condition with no sexual essences, "a possibility God should have considered" (67); and--in the First Century--Feltham, quoted by Hughes in notes to Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: "Questionless, a Woman with a wise soul, is the fittest Companion for Man: otherwise God would have given him a Friend rather than a Wife. A wise Wife comprehends both sexes; she is Woman for her Body, and she is man within; for her soul is like her Husbands" (707). Lehnhof doubts that genital sex actually occurs before the Fall and argues that Milton chooses not to explain "which particular regions do and do not enter into contact with one another in the course of Adam and Eve's conjugal converse." Indubitable evidence of such sexuality would, he suggests, "degrade the prelapsarian integrity of Adam and Eve out of which their very acts of intimacy arise" (80-81). Lehnhof does not recognize as part of that intimacy Milton's and Adam's consistent emphasis on the harmony of mind, spirit, and body before and after the Fall.

For another perspective on the "two Miltons," Shawcross turns from biblical and church tradition to the Freudian and Jungian to "uncover" in "Epitaphium Damonis" and in the letters between Milton and Diodati, a divided Milton whom Shawcross "outs" as at least latently homosexual (58, 59) and "female" in his confusion of identity (40-49), and misplaced in his first marriage because the young husband is "anally driven" (214). Nevertheless, Shawcross does not believe that Milton is a misogynist and on this point takes exception to, among others, Virginia Wolf, Sandra Gilbert, and Katherine M. Rogers (197).

(5) Silence, chastity, and obedience are not exclusively female virtues or simply the expression of anti-female attitudes that force women into passivity. Berlin writes that in redefining the domain of feminine virtues, "chastity and humility are not merely the attributes of a weak woman, but more precisely those of a good Christian" (xv).

(6) On the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father, see Sewell, Kelley, and Hunter. Patrides is illuminating on the ontology of love in relationships between the sexes (Milton and the Christian Tradition, 165-86). For more on the correspondence between Christ and Eve; God and Adam, see also: Pecheux (359-66) and Summers who points out the similarity of Eve's speech and the Redeemer's ([10.932-36; 3.236-41], 76-85).

The marriage in heaven, conversation, and the ineffable are discussed by P. E. More who finds that when the angels in Lycidas "sing" in "sweet Societies" of what is ineffable (179 and cf. Rev. 19.9) there is an overwhelming "shock of actuality" in Lycidas that goes beyond any single incident in Dante's voyage toward immortality (157). Cf. Dante's beatific vision: Commedia; Paradiso; Canto 33.55-57; 106; 121-23). Schwartz concentrates not on the Word or the "unexpressive song," but on actual song as having both the power to call creation into existence and to offer the hope to fallen man of a "better singer, `one greater man' whose song will not die" (72, 90). Milton is clearly regarded by these commentators as moving toward apotheosis.

(7) The Force of Poetry (70); see also Martz, (16-20); and Simpson (179-93). Mustazza observes that the "silent speaking of the Son's face" has clear meaning to God but not to the angels (3.272), and the Father must "explicate" (121). Hughes cites Aristotle's "demonstration of the simplicity and unity of the divine nature (unlike Adam's unity or solitary oneness in 8.425 ff., which disqualifies him for happiness) and capacity for eternal happiness in the contemplation of unchanging truth" (Nicomachean Ethics 7.14.8; 372). For other interpretations of godhead in Paradise Lost, see Empson, Waldock, Broadbent 287-98, and Peter 160-66.

8) A personal appropriation of Milton's meaning is Grossman's leap into an analysis of the self in historical context.

9) Nardo argues that the Florentine academies were a model of male companionship which appealed to Milton when his first marriage languished (209) and later inspired scenes of "debased and decadent" camaraderie between the devils in hell (220), as well as for the idealized exchanges between Raphael and Adam (220-28). Science and language were favorite topics in the Academies (228), and according to Nardo the Academies "define Masculine identity," providing a "privileged space set apart from the feminine," which is understood to be "low, material, and domestic"(213). In fact, decorum creates a distance between the angel and the man which precludes "friendship" like that implied in the Italian academies; and, unlike Lewalski who argues that Eve is not excluded for her limitations ([8.43-50], 6), Nardo does not consider the positive aspects of the presence of Eve and her importance to the discussion after she withdraws. See also Haan.

10) Swaim and Sherry see "converse" as a verbal key in books four, eight, and nine. Swaim emphasizes the sensuous, less intellectual nature of Eve's character in Milton's use of "conversing" and "sweetness," and argues that Eve's is a "sensuously apprehended cosmos" with her "vocabulary and awareness ... limited to the earthly" (131). On the contrary, here and in other passages, it can be argued that Milton uses "conversing" and "sweet" to convey a meaning that is both more sexual and more intellectual than Swaim suggests. Although Sherry does focus on the spiritual aspect of conversation and the uniqueness of the pre-fall exchanges between Adam and Eve as "stylized dialogues similar to the dialogue in heaven," they are "not real conversations in our sense, but ... emblems of harmony" (258). None too convincingly, Sherry states that after the fall, "converse as duologue gives place to monologue," and the "sheer joy in conversing, so powerfully sensed in books four and five is gone. Gone too is `celestial Colloquie sublime'" (261). By emphasizing the loss of quality in postlapsarian conversation, Sherry misses how much delight remains for Adam and Eve and for the well-matched couple as described by implication in the divorce tracts.

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Hannah Disinger Demaray, Reader at the British Library, the Cambridge University Library, and the Huntington Library, earned her M.A. at Columbia University and her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Milton Quarterly and Gardens and Culture: Six Essays in History and Aesthetics. She is currently working on a book entitled The Aesthetics of Disarray.
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Title Annotation:John Milton
Author:Demaray, Hannah Disinger
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000

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