Milton's Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination.
According to the astrologer William Lilly, angels spoke "like the Irish, much in the Throat"; the angels that visited Ann Bathurst demonstrated a keen interest in clothes (109). To judge from the data Joad Raymond has gathered, early modem interactions with angels were as various and unpredictable as interactions between people. Yet it would be a mistake, Raymond warns, to think of angels as "humans with wings"; angels served specialized functions in post-Reformation England (183, 224). Alongside firsthand accounts of angelic visitations, Raymond surveys educated Protestant opinion on matters ranging from angelic nourishment to guardian angels, calling attention to continuities as well as departures from patristic and scholastic sources. For informational purposes alone, then, the book is an indispensable resource, but its most important contribution is argumentative. It is Raymond's contention that angels were not merely a residual presence in early modem England; far from weakening belief in angels, reformed doctrine and the rise of experimental science revitalized angelology. Invoked in discussions of optical instruments, angels were also central to Protestant theories of representation. Readers of Paradise Lost know that Milton associates angelic and telescopic vision and that he depends on an angel to narrate heavenly events and to articulate the principle of accommodation through which those events can be understood; Milton's Angels seeks to explain why.
The book is divided into three sections: the first guides the reader through Protestant angelology and human-angel interactions, which proliferated during the 1640s and 1650s; the second is devoted to Milton's angels; and the third takes up their afterlife.
Reformers famously downgraded the importance of angels, most dramatically by doing away with their intercessory powers. Regarded as fellow creatures rather than objects of worship, angels were more likely to be imagined as beings with limited, if superior, perception and knowledge. Thus demoted, angelic faculties might have lost some of their fascination, but, in fact, once angelic knowledge was redefined as "experimental," speculations about angelic phenomenology acquired new importance, offering a way to think about technologically enhanced perception and the future of human knowledge more generally.
Given that reformers dismissed Catholic angel-doctrine as a pack of idolatrous fictions with no grounding in scripture, it seems fair to ask how Protestants justified such speculations. Raymond suggests that the emphasis on sola scriptura opened up new possibilities for "figurative interpretation within a literalist framework" (169). Here the analogy between angelic bodies and language is key. According to scholastic angel doctrine, angels were incorporeal and non-material; in order to appear to human beings, they had to assume illusory bodies. Raymond brilliantly argues that such "condescension" reprised the workings of allegorical language itself. By foregrounding its own fictionality, allegory emphasizes the gulf between spiritual truth and its material expressions. Protestant versions of accommodation suggest a very different model of representation, in which the affinity between literary images and the reality they purport to describe permits transcendental truths to be conveyed to human understanding "without distortion or misrepresentation" (164). If Protestant speculations about the nature of angelic bodies unsettled the dichotomy between spirit and matter, the close association between angels and accommodation unsettled the distinction between truth and fiction.
The importance of this argument for understanding Milton's epic is clear. As generations of readers have been delighted to discover, Milton's angels are as substantial as they are chatty; they eat, digest, make love, and even sleep. Although readers of Raphael's account of the war in heaven often have difficulty deciding when they are being presented with a simile and when they are being presented with a literal description, Raymond suggests that their confusion stems from a false choice. The doctrine of accommodation that Raphael articulates challenges us to abandon the harsh and crude binary between truth and fiction--or, more precisely, between novelistic realism and allegory. It asks that we accept a kind of "realism that is not novelistic" (425n21).
Raymond's impatience with dualisms extends to the supposed tension in Milton's poetry between poetry and theology, imagination and doctrine. In his view, critics have systematically undervalued the prophetic element of Milton's verse by locating it within an exclusively poetic tradition. The Milton who donned the mantle of a Tiresias to overgo his epic predecessors is "an uninspired literary Milton, a Milton who lives in a hall of textual mirrors," not the historical Milton who "lived during the apogee of English prophecy" (200, 196). With a few famous exceptions, Milton did not traffic in allegory or fiction; he sought to impart a divinely inspired (if approximate) vision of "a hitherto undisclosed reality," and he deserves to be placed alongside other prophets of the period (191). In arguing for a prophetic Milton, Raymond makes an inspiring case for literature as a language of inquiry, even a medium for the production of knowledge.
The book's final section contrasts Milton's literary theory with one predicated on a stable opposition between fiction and truth; here the crucial case study is Dryden's adaptation of Milton's epic. The preface to The State of Innocence explains that "the Text accommodates itself to vulgar apprehension, in giving Angels the likeness of beautiful young men"; far from describing a means to approach heavenly truth, accommodation here describes the author's effort to adapt to a common misperception (337). For Dryden, angels make ideal material for literature because their unknowability frees the author to manufacture the most pleasing images he can invent. Few of us would choose Dryden's adaptation over its original; as Raymond suggests, it is time that critical approaches to Milton's poem reflected that preference.
University of California, Berkeley
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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