Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost. .
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xii + 265 pp. index. illus. bibl. $64.95. ISBN: 0-521-64359-7.
This is an important book, full of new scholarly information and cherished ideas. Karen Edwards' close readings of passages from Paradise Lost are clearly informed by years of research and teaching. The book is beautifully written, too, with fresh ideas vividly expressed on every page.
For many years, Milton was considered knowledgeable about the cosmological theories of his day but indifferent to advances in natural philosophy and empirical studies of living things. Most critics accepted Kester Svendsen's argument that Milton subscribed to the old emblematic biology that regarded plants and animals as moral signs inscribed in the Book of Nature. Recently, however, such noted Miltonists as Stephen Fallon and John Rogers have reopened the question of the relationship between Milton's work and natural philosophy. Karen Edwards charts new critical territory by arguing that Milton was not only conversant with seventeenth-century studies of nature but found in them new possibilities for moral signification. She demonstrates that Milton offers a new reading of the Book of Nature and its inhabitants, from Leviathan to the tiniest insects. Milton, she contends, uses the old emblematic biology with "sly humor" and a sense of its "unreliability," while introducing the interpretative possibilities of natural philosophy with "excitement, wit, and creative relish" (10). It is the thesis of her book that Milton writes in the mode of the experimentalists of mid-seventeenth-century England: the interpretive riches of his epic derive from a remarkable blend of "experimental philosophy and experimental devotion" forged into a new version of Paradise (70).
Edwards does not argue that Milton simply rejects the old learning, but rather that he accommodates it to the new, fusing the traditional and the modern in Raphael's narrative of creation (bk. 7). According to Edwards, Milton incorporates the signifying potential of the old or the new models of nature. Like Eve, and like his contemporaries Boyle and Browne and Evelyn, Milton consistently asks, "What may this mean?" Adam and Eve, from the first moment of their being, are "experimental readers" of themselves and their world, who must constantly test and retest their interpretations (69). The same challenge is imposed on the reader of Paradise Lost. Karen Edwards offers persuasive new readings of even the most familiar passages of the poem (the Leviathan simile, the catalogue of creatures, Satan praying to the Tree). Especially exciting are her interpretations of book four and book seven. Edwards argues that the Book of Nature, like the Bible, should be read "experimentally," and in ways both comprehensive and m eticulous she shows how Milton's experimental reading "implicitly questions prevailing arrangements of the animal kingdom," showing how new dynamic relationships in nature replace the static hierarchy of the earlier interpretive scheme. This argument has the effect of introducing scientific energy into the metaphorical patterns (in/out, up/down, circularity/division, etc.) explicated by such earlier critics as Jackson Cope and Isabel MacCaffrey.
Edwards prevents any reader from accepting a simple dichotomy between a moral emblematic view and a secular experimentalist view of nature. She persuasively shows how Milton and his contemporaries sought and found sacred meaning in the new natural philosophy. My only reservation is that Edwards' readings seem to suggest that Milton's treatment of the old and new models of nature is constant throughout the poem. I would argue for a more dynamic relationship, changing as Adam and Eve change. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve can read according to the new model: the natural world has meaning in and of itself. It is no accident that Raphael introduces emblematic creatures into his narrative but does not make explicit the moral meanings that would have been familiar to Milton's readers (and that are frequently stipulated in the footnotes of modern editions). The one exception is Raphael's suggestion that the emmet will "perhaps" become a political emblem in the "hereafter" of Milton's fallen audience. Adam and Eve rea d the Book of Nature as a sign of God, not as a text designed to increase their self-knowledge. Emblematic biology becomes important only for fallen readers, who inevitably bring their personal needs to the narrative, and for Adam and Eve after their fall, when they begin to understand how to read natural history and human history as texts for their moral instruction. Yet the goal for them, as for Milton and his readers, is to escape from the constraints of self-oriented reading and to recognize the new scientific reading as a return to the original meaning of the Book of Nature, in its otherness, as a sign of its Creator.
I admire this book and benefited from reading it. It not only belongs on the shelf of every Miltonist but also has much to offer anyone who is interested in seventeenth-century science and literature.
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|Author:||Van Den Berg, Sara|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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