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Milton and the Idea of the Fall.

William Poole. Milton and the Idea of the Fall.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xi + 240 pp. index. $80. ISBN: 0-521-84763-X.

Self-consciously correcting Stanley Fish's reader-response approach that "produced few contemporary readings of Genesis," William Poole's Milton and the Idea of the Fall locates "the dynamic, potentially dangerous Milton ... against a contemporary background of countless other dynamic, potentially dangerous projects" through an expansive and fascinating study of the ways Genesis 2 and 3 were read in seventeenth-century England (195). The book is divided into two sections: part 1 traces the historical development and connections and differences among the wide range of Christian readings of the Fall and adumbrates the cultural implications of those readings, while part 2 focuses more specifically on the development of Milton's own thoughts about the Fall throughout his career, culminating with Paradise Lost.

In the first chapter, Poole lays out the exigency for his study by relating anecdotes to show how far-reaching and varied discussion about the Fall in seventeenth-century England was. From showing how readings of the Fall influenced politics, class, gender, and gardening, Poole moves on to examine "the theological underpinning that created this environment in which the Fall and original sin were so important" (14). Poole easily traces readings of the Fall and their implications from the Church Fathers through Augustine to the Protestant reformers on the Continent and in England. In his third chapter Poole reveals that when Milton decided to write an epic about the loss of Eden, far from being politically removed, he was engaging in a raging contemporary debate. In the fourth and fifth chapters Poole focuses on the radical readings of the Fall, but points out that while the radicals differed "profoundly from what either an Anglican or Presbyterian theologian could tolerate," the radicals' "techniques of reading" do not differ in kind from more orthodox techniques (82). Each of the first five chapters proves illuminating for readers of Milton, as well as readers of seventeenth-century English history, culture, and theology.

In the sixth chapter, Poole bridges from the cultural contexts of the first five chapters into contemporary literary treatments of the Fall, as he examines how the gaps in the literary narrative of the Fall are filled in by those coming from the theological backgrounds expounded upon in the earlier chapters. Poole begins by discussing the fact that filling in the gaps was not entirely comfortable for seventeenth-century English commentators and that narrative was not necessarily the natural "rhetorical front" for filling in the gaps (96). The chapter looks at three shorter commentaries by Sir Thomas Browne, Stephen Jay, and Lucy Hutchinson and then moves to the larger literary projects of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pordage, and John Dryden. Poole's examinations of the longer works clearly have in mind their contrasts with Milton, which leads neatly into the second part of Poole's study.

As a prelude to discussion of Milton's early thoughts about the Fall in his poetry and prose, Poole briefly discusses Milton's early exposure to theology through Richard Stock, a local minister, and Alexander Gil, the head of St. Paul's. Poole's discussions of how Milton's drafts of "At a solemn musick" "record a steadily darkening sense of the effects of the Fall" and his discussion of the "drafts" of Paradise Lost in the Trinity College manuscript are particularly illuminating (128).

In the next four chapters, Poole focuses his discussion specifically on Paradise Lost, looking at the linear logic of unfallen thought compared to the circularity of fallen thought and the ways the epic is both linear and circular in its mode of justifying the ways of God to man. Poole claims that Milton's God uses a "certain circularity of phrasing when he comes to discuss the origins of disobedience" and that "Milton's Arminian insistence on free will is balanced against his rather guarded estimation of man's ability, even unfallen man's ability, to use this freedom wisely" (159). While Poole finds Milton "in general very suspicious" of radical thinking and claims that Milton did not "conscious[ly] import" these heresies into Paradise Lost, he also finds that the narrative mode itself "creates its own heresies" that parallel these external heresies (190). Milton and the Idea of the Fall does the exciting and important work of historically contextualizing Milton's thinking about the Fall.


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Author:Stackhouse, Amy Dunham
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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