Ecocritical Milton

Leah Marcus, Vanderbilt University

During the heyday of second-wave feminism, Milton was reviled as a “bogey” by women scholars who were trying to extricate themselves from the crippling burden of patriarchy.[i] More recently, with the increasing popularity of ecocritical approaches to literature, Milton has fared rather better: his Eve is characterized as a proto-ecologist and Milton himself is hailed as a precursor of modern environmentalism and its solicitude for the wellbeing for Gaia, Mother Earth.  The biblical book of Genesis, with its two contradictory versions of the creation story, offers two contrasting accounts of the relationship between the original humans and the natural world. The first version, traditionally termed the Priestly or P-text, emphasizes human dominion over nature: God blesses the first man and woman and tells them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28, King James version).   The second version, traditionally termed the Yahwist or J-text, emphasizes human responsibility for nature:  God creates Adam and places him in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and keep it,” suggesting that human use of plants and animals is not based so much on sovereignty as on service (Genesis 2:15).  In Comus, Milton famously puts an argument for human exploitation of nature in the mouth of the demonic enchanter himself, who argues that Nature would not have “pour[ed] her bounties forth / With such a full and unwithdrawing hand, / Covering the earth with odours, fruits, and flocks” were it not to “please and sate the curious taste” of her human masters.[ii] To which the Lady responds with her own counter-argument that emphasizes human responsibility and conservation of Nature:
           . . . she good cateress

            Means her provision only to the good

            That live according to her sober laws.
            And holy dictate of spare Temperance:
            If every just man that now pines with want
            Had but a moderate and beseeming share
            Of that which lewdly-pamper’d Luxury
            Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
            Nature’s full blessings would be well dispens’t
            In unsuperfluous even proportion . . .   (lines 764-73)
We could summarize, reductively, by saying that Comus’ philosophy of exploiting Nature’s bounty is based upon the Genesis P-text and the Lady’s argument for the regulation of consumption derives from the J-text, with its emphasis on human responsibility rather than sovereignty.  In Paradise Lost as well, as Diane McColley has shown, Milton fairly consistently takes the more benevolent, custodial view of the proper human attitude towards the natural world.[iii]

              In this talk I would like to ask some questions about Paradise Lost that ecocritical Miltonists have left unanswered, or at least not answered satisfactorily.  Like the Bible, Milton’s account of Creation and the Fall in Paradise Lost often gives two or more contradictory accounts of the same set of events; indeed, though Miltonists have expended much effort in attempting to resolve the contradictions, it is perhaps more fruitful to interpret them as an extension of the biblical style of narrative, which creates amplitude and complexity by coming at a set of events or problems from multiple, even mutually exclusive, points of view. The divergent narratives that interest me particularly are those that describe the impact of the Fall on Nature.  By what mechanism is the Fall of Adam and Eve transferred to the natural world as a whole?

In Book 10, the poet describes the Fall of the natural world as a cumbersome process of dismantling by which God perceives Adam and Eve’s disobedience from on high and comes down to Eden to sentence them to death, pain in childbirth, and harsh toil amidst “Thorns” and “Thistles” (10.203). In judgment upon their crime, God allows Satan and his minions to infect the world with Discord, Sin, and hungry Death, who is eager to feast on his first mortals.  God also sends down his angels to throw the created universe out of alignment so that temperatures become extreme and the earth is wracked with storms and noxious influences: “The Sun / Had first his precept so to move, so shine, / As might affect the Earth with cold and heat / Scarce tolerable.” The moon and planets were thrown out of synchronicity; the winds were taught to blast and the earth tilted on its axis: “Some say he bid his Angels turn askance / The Poles of Earth twice ten degrees and more / From the Sun’s Axle;” and so the account of cosmic mischief goes on (10.651-719). According to this narrative, which we will call the “judgmentalist” version of the Fall of nature, the act of plucking the apple does not in itself unleash cosmic discord; the destruction of nature is rather God’s punishment for that crime and is engineered by God himself and his angels.

However, Milton’s narrative shows several signs of uneasiness with this explanation.  For one thing, his account is hedged with the repeated preface “Some say”:  “Some say he bid his Angels turn askance / The Poles“; “Some say the Sun / Was bid turn Reins from th’ Equinoctial Road . . . to bring in change / Of seasons” (10. 668-78). It is almost as though Milton’s heart is not quite in this account of the Fall of nature, impressive though it is as epic poetry. The grand dismantling is deliberately unwieldy and curiously hesitant – almost a parody of its own vast cosmic scale and its repeated assertions of causality that seem, like Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to”protest too much.”  Even in the midst of his account, Milton hints at another explanation for the Fall of nature, one in which the natural world is not thrown out of kilter by the mechanical intervention of angels but deviates of its own accord.  Did the angels “bid” the Sun to change his route, or did the Sun swerve of its (or should we say “his”) own free will?  Milton asserts the former in the passage quoted above, with the hedging caveat “Some say,” but a few lines later he also suggests the latter:  “At that tasted Fruit / The Sun, as from Thyestean Banquet turn’d / His course intended” (10.687-89). By this second account, the Sun changed course as a direct aversion reaction to Adam and Eve’s tasting of the “Fruit” without any need for angelic persuasion. He deviated from his usual path out of revulsion against an act of eating that Milton calls a “Thyestean Banquet” – the horrific banquet in which, according to Greek mythology, King Thyestes unknowingly ate the flesh of his own slaughtered sons. This second account attributes independent agency to the Sun and also a capacity for moral judgment: he perceives Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit as a form of unintended cannibalism in that they, like Thyestes, are devouring their own posterity by subjecting their future offspring to the effects of their transgression.  The Sun is not an inert body whose path must be readjusted by angelic mechanics, but a sentient being who swerves from evil of his own volition.  This second account, I would suggest, shows us a different Milton -- the vitalist Milton -- peeking through the cumbersome narrative of causal explanations for the Fall of nature that he offers almost by rote in Paradise Lost but doesn’t quite believe in.  As scholars like Stephen Fallon and John Rogers have documented in ample detail, Paradise Lost is infused with animist or vitalist materialism: a natural philosophy quite popular in mid-seventeenth-century England that held that spirit is a refined form of matter, that all creation partakes of spirit in varying degrees, and that all created beings therefore have free will, the ability to perceive and make moral choices and to exert material agency.[iv] 

Let us go back a few steps to the moment in Paradise Lost that so disconcerted the Sun, the moment of Adam and Eve’s violation of the Tree of Knowledge. One of the things that makes Milton of particular interest to ecocritics is that at many points in Paradise Lost he appears, like the modern ecological movement generally, to place the blame for the destruction of natural perfection and harmony squarely and directly on harmful human intervention in the natural world.  When Eve plucks the fatal apple in Book 9, we are immediately told that an animated “Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat / Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe, / That all was lost” (9.782-4). The severing of fruit from tree inflicts an actual blow on the Earth, to which Nature offers an immediate, sympathetic response that unleashes a process by which her “Works” gradually recede from their previous perfection.   When Eve again violates the Tree of Knowledge to give Adam a piece of its fruit, Earth and Nature respond more intensely:
Earth trembl’d from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,
Sky low’r’d, and muttering Thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completing of the mortal Sin
Original . . . . (9.1001-4)
Here Earth’s reaction, as Richard DuRocher Has pointed out, is specifically described as a birth pang – the painful undoing of the joyous “birth” of the Earth described in Book 7 (7. 276-82 and ff). [v] Interestingly, this time Nature groans and weeps, generating the first thunderstorm – a breach in the sky -- out of her immediate sympathetic response to the breach in the Earth.  In these passages the fall of the natural world is not a set of interventions ordered by God and engineered by angels, but described in vitalist materialist terms: the act of Adam and Eve initiates a wave of sympathetic deterioration by which the Earth and Nature respond incrementally to the humans’ initial transgression. The physical act of picking the forbidden fruit sets in motion a chain of events by which the earth and nature fall out of equilibrium as a direct consequence of the initial violation of the Tree of Knowledge. So, as we have seen, the Sun swerves from his intended course out of horror at Adam and Eve’s transgression.  In the vitalist version of the Fall of nature, human beings directly bring it about; in what we earlier labeled the judgmentalist version, they bring it about only indirectly, through the intervention of God and his angels. Which account are we to believe? Like the P- and J-texts in Genesis, the two versions of the fall of nature coexist in uneasy suspension in Paradise Lost, seemingly mutually contradictory, yet both contributing to a wider view of the cataclysmic process of the fall and both somehow true despite the fact that they exclude each other.

Indeed, Milton’s ambiguity about the cause of the fall of nature is based on a famous scriptural crux.  According to Romans 8:19-22, the natural world, like fallen humanity, labors in hope of deliverance from its abject condition.  The King James version of this much-disputed text reads,

19  For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

20  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21  Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

Verse 20 is a celebrated crux in that it leaves ambiguous the identity of the “he” who has subjected the creatures of the earth: is it God, who has punished the natural world for Adam and Eve’s transgression, as implied in the King James Version cited here, where “in hope” is linked to “who hath subjected the same”? Or is it human beings – Adam and Eve or perhaps, according to a few interpreters, Satan – who have caused the Earth to groan in travail? If the “he” of the verse is capitalized, as it is in some versions of the bible, we will assume that the actor is God.  Conversely, if the comma after “in hope” is moved two words earlier to “the same,” as it is in some translations of the Bible, the message of the passage is altered significantly and humans rather than God become responsible for the subjection of the creatures. In the English Standard Version, for example, “in hope” belongs with the succeeding verse: “20  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21  that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”  Paradise Lost echoes Romans’ language suggesting the pains of childbirth to express the throes of the natural world in its newly fallen condition. The English Standard Version actually translates the Greek koine of verse 22 as “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”[vi]  Milton also echoes the ambiguity of the “he” in verse 20, sometimes describing the fall of the world as brought about by God and sometimes attributing it directly to human intervention, Earth felt the pangs of the fall “by reason of him [of whom? God? Adam?] who hath subjected the same.”

Our poet’s interest in vitalism has been at the forefront of Milton studies in recent years, but there has arguably been insufficient conversation between critics interested in seventeenth-century vitalism and those interested in twenty-first-century ecocriticism.  Most recent ecocritics of Milton do not even cite vitalist accounts like Stephen M. Fallon’s in Milton among the Philosophers:  Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England and John Rogers’ The Matter of Revolution:  Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton.  The aim of this talk is to bring ecocritics and historians of seventeenth-century vitalist philosophy into closer conversation with each other. Modern ecocritics have performed a wonderful service in making Milton almost trendy again, after many decades of eclipse, but they sometimes risk turning Milton into our contemporary in terms of environmentalist thought by downplaying the degree to which his ideas in Paradise Lost are rooted in the controversies of his own time.  Critics like Fallon and Rogers who situate Milton in terms of seventeenth-century science and philosophy have opened Paradise Lost to a whole new world of exciting ideas but have chosen not to engage fully with the implications of Milton’s vitalism for modern environmentalism, perhaps out of fear that they would distort his work by making him appear more contemporary than he is.  By now, I would submit, ecocritical views of Milton have achieved sufficient intellectual traction that they need to incorporate seventeenth-century vitalism into their accounts of Paradise Lost.

What is the mechanism by which Eve’s plucking of the forbidden fruit causes a wound to Earth?  One of the most interesting recent accounts of the Fall of nature in Paradise Lost has been that of the ecocritic Ken Hiltner, who describes the wound as an uprooting.  He interprets the Fall of Eve as consisting in her arrogant attempt “to pull away from the earth.”  Up until the point of the Fall, Eve has served as the “genius” of Eden – its resident protector and ordering principle.  When Satan convinces her that she should be aspiring higher, she plucks the forbidden fruit in order to lift herself from her earthbound condition to “knowledge,” – whatever that may be.  According to Hiltner, the wound suffered by the Earth is not “caused by something striking at the Earth, like a fist or spear, but instead something struck from the Earth – humanity.” When Eve “uproots” herself, “[l]ike some great tree which had simply reached too high for its roots in the Earth to support it,” she falls and “tears a massive open wound in the earth.”  For Hiltner, it is this direct connection between Eve’s transgression and the wounding of Earth that qualifies Milton as an environmentalist in modern terms:  “With this extraordinary – though entirely plausible – interpretation of the biblical Fall, Milton delivers Christianity to the fold of environmentalists who hold that our own foolish acts have brought ecological devastation to the Earth.”  But Hiltner goes further than that, suggesting that for Milton, this uprooting constitutes the ur-transgression of our first parents -- what theologians might characterize as original sin, “[t]his foolish uprooting of ourselves from our place on Earth was the pivotal human act – and the source of our current sorrow.”[vii]   In Hiltner’s view, every subsequent human violation of the Earth and its well-being is a repetition of the fall of Adam and Eve, a confirmation of our continued “wound” of separation from a necessary, organic connection to the Earth.

For Hiltner, we will note, there is no such thing as a felix culpa.  He interprets Paradise Lost as moving from place to space: Adam and Eve are forced out of Eden and into an uncertain future in which they have no defined place to call home; they can recover from the effects of the fall only by somehow managing to re-root themselves in a new place, but that place cannot possibly be Eden. Hiltner shows no interest in Milton’s internalization of the idea of Eden, as the Archangel Michael exhorts Adam in a much-celebrated passage at the end of the epic:
                                                                      . . . only add
                            Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
                            Add Virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
                            By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
                            Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
                            To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
                            A paradise within thee, happier far. (12.581-87)
Hiltner’s emphasis on the wound of the Earth is designed to raise the environmental consciousness of his readers, but his view of Milton is stuck in the perception of loss.  The most we humans can hope for is to feel the wounding of Earth as our own wound. “Because the Earth’s sorrow at losing her connection with humanity is portrayed anthromorphically as childbirth, the birth of each human child is going to be, in some sense, a reenactment of the events of the Fall . . . a reminder of the wound we share with the Earth, so that we might renew the bond we had with the Earth by recalling that we still share the same wound” (Hiltner, p. 50; see also Theis, pp. 67-68).  For Milton, by contrast, the Fall is reparable. If people gradually refine themselves, gradually raise themselves out of their despair at their loss of a sympathetic connection with Earth and internalize the virtues that are within their power, they can not only eventually re-attain Eden, “for then the Earth / Shall all be Paradise, far happier place / Than this of Eden,” (12.463-5), but they can also attain a “paradise within thee, happier far.”

              In Paradise Lost, the loss of Eden, like so many other elements of the epic, is recounted in two versions, one vitalist and the other “judgmentalist.”  According to the vitalist account, Adam and Eve expel themselves from Eden by eating the forbidden fruit.  Or otherwise put, upon their action, Eden in effect expels them – as we have seen, the sun deviates in horror from his path, the Earth weeps, etc. Their plucking of the forbidden fruit is a breach of sympathy that motivates a corresponding breach on the part of other creatures and is immediately visible in their altered perceptions of their surroundings after the act of eating and in their alienation from each other. According to Milton’s second, “judgmentalist,” account of the loss of Eden, which emphasizes God’s punishment as a set of divine interventions, the loss of Eden is physical removal from the garden at the behest of God. The archangel Michael, brandishing the fiery “Sword of God,” and Cherubim with “dreadful Faces” and “fiery Arms” herd Adam and Eve out of their lost home (12.633-43).  Hiltner’s account closely resembles the vitalist version in that he interprets the loss of Eden as based in a loss of sympathy between humans and Earth, but the fact that he sees the rupture as irreparable suggests that he interprets the fall in mechanistic materialist terms that are alien to the freedom of will that is fundamental to seventeenth-century vitalist thought.  Hiltner’s interpretation of the loss of Eden is closer to the spirit of Milton’s “judgmentalist” account in Paradise Lost in that he describes a process of physical separation that cannot be undone:  we are trapped in our recognition of the ways we have wounded the Earth.  Other ecocritics are less extreme.  McColley succinctly states that by the end of the epic, Milton has taught us that “we cannot return to Eden, but we can make Edenic choices.” Theis goes considerably further, terming Paradise Lost a “literary work of environmental reclamation.”[viii]  Despite the many dark moments of human history as described in Books 11 and 12, Milton insists on a human future in which, with proper application of will, the descendants of Adam and Even can gradually repair the ruins of the fall, the damage they have caused to the Earth, and even regain Eden or a “far happier place.”  Place does not yield to space, but eventually returns, after the vagaries of human history, to place.

              Seventeenth-century vitalists had varying theories as to how Adam and Eve brought about the fall of Nature.  The Digger Gerard Winstanley suggested that Adam and Eve gradually poisoned the earth through their bodily eliminations: “The poison of mans unrighteous body dunging the earth, filled the grasse and herbs with strong unsavory spirits, that flowed from him.”  When Adam and Eve died and were buried, they “corrupted the whole creation, fire, water, earth, and aire, and still as the branches of [their] body went to the earth, the creation was more and more corrupted.”[ix]  Another theory comes from vitalist medicine of the period:  according to Francis Glisson’s important treatise on rickets, De rachitude (1651), vital spirit is distributed about the natural world as it is within the human organism.  If one being “laboring under some private Disease” disturbs the equilibrium of the whole, then the other beings react with a kind of irritability and distemper in the same way that tissues within the body do (see Rogers, pp. 104-119).  This account is much closer to Milton’s in Paradise Lost, in that there, as in medical treatises like Glisson’s, the response to the original irritant is imagined as immediate rather than gradual, as in the case of Winstanley’s slowly poisoned earth. For Milton, however, we can theorize that the original contaminant was not “some private Disease,” in the sense of an illness that is communicated to other tissues, but rather the dis-ease of absence.  For vitalists, God is infused through all creation.  All the material universe was created out of himself, and evil is not an opposing principle to the divine but rather the absence of God.  According to Milton’s vitalist understanding, we can speculate, the fruit of the tree of knowledge is lethal because alone among the fruits of the garden, it implies/constitutes an absence.  When Adam and Eve ate the apple they took into themselves, unknowingly, the absence of God and it was that absence that manifested itself in their loss of innocence and the decay of nature.   Milton says cryptically that they “knew not eating Death” (9.792) and, as we have seen, compares the fruit to Thyestes’ cannibalistic banquet, in which he eats his own progeny, his own future.  This hypothesized absence at the root of the fall is akin to Hiltner’s treelike uprooting from the Earth except that the direst limit of the suffering it sets in motion is not the lack of Earth but the lack of God.

Elsewhere in the epic, Milton discusses a gradual process of refinement through which all created things eventually refine themselves to a more spiritual state on the vitalist matter-spirit continuum:
                                          Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
                                          Proportion’d to each kind.  So from the root
                                          Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
                                          More aery, last the bright consummate flow’r
                                          Spirits odorous breathes: flow’rs and their fruit
                                          Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublim’d
                                             To vital Spirits aspire . . .            (5.479-84)
So, to continue our revision of Hiltner’s reading of the fall of Nature, if human beings were originally severed from their natural home by Adam and Eve’s deracination from Earth, Milton offers a remedy.  According to the vitalist current in Paradise Lost, by which all creation exists in a state of mutual involvement and sympathy, as one element of the network improves it also enables the improvement of others. The Son of God serves humans, in Milton’s view, as an example of human perfectibility.  By restoring themselves by degrees, humans motivate a gradual improvement in nature by which the Fall is gradually mitigated and eventually undone:  “for then the Earth / Shall all be Paradise, far happier place / Than this of Eden, and far happier days.” 

Ecocritics like Hiltner would probably contend that Milton’s vitalist belief in the perfectibility of humanity is out of place in their work in that it deflects attention from the immediate twenty-first-century predicament of the damaged Earth and the need for passionate human intervention to save her.  But if they read Milton in the full seventeenth-century context of his vitalism, they will discover a writer who does not merely describe the human race’s wrenching alienation from Earth, but also proposes a remedy that is quite compatible with modern efforts to decrease pollution though it operates by radically different and (to us) impossibly utopian means.  For Milton in his most optimistic vitalist mode of thought, a human “paradise within” could, over time and without mechanical intervention, regenerate paradise in the world outside. If natural things have volition and react sympathetically to their environments, then the world can right itself through the same waves of empathy that caused it to degenerate from its first perfection. As humans gradually regenerate themselves, they enable the regeneration of Earth and the natural world.

              We moderns are likely to find the vitalist Milton so attractive that we may wonder why he overlaid the vitalist mode of explanation in his epic with other, less liberating forms of causality by which God imposes his will upon the world and human and natural freedom are hedged about by divine interventions that have for many readers made God tyrannical and unsympathetic – more Hobbesian determinist than author of human liberty. On the most basic level, of course, epic as a genre inherited from Homer and Virgil requires splendid, heroic action.  The quiet simmering of vitalist sympathy, by which massive changes can happen without drama and almost imperceptibly, would be difficult to invest with sufficient epic scope and grandeur. Arguably, Milton needed the more traditional, highly dramatic overlay of stories, of divine action in the world, of war in heaven and the defeat of demons in battle, of Michael’s banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, to make Paradise Lost generically recognizable as a rival to Virgil, Homer, or even Ariosto and Tasso. Then too, as we have already suggested, there is biblical sanction for Milton’s narrative style: in Milton’s epic, as in many scriptural stories, the text achieves complexity and amplitude by generating multiple, self-contradictory narratives of the same events. As Stephen Fallon has acutely noted, in Paradise Lost Hobbesian mechanist determinism is specifically associated with the fallen angels.  Satan and his infernal crew perceive themselves as unfree, as hedged about by “fate inevitable” (2.197), and fail to understand that their feelings of mental imprisonment are self-generated.  In falling away from God they become more grossly corporeal, less spiritually refined:  “In turning from spirit to matter they migrate towards the pole at which Hobbes found all reality,” and choose more and more “to inhabit a dead, Hobbesian universe” (Fallon, pp. 209-10).  The vitalist underlayment of Paradise Lost, however, percolates along without them.  The self-perception of unfreedom is a measure of distance and alienation from God and nature.

              In the interest of ironing out contradictions in the ontology of Paradise Lost, Fallon goes to great pains to argue that Milton’s allegorical figures of Sin and Death -- which appear to violate the vitalist philosophy underlying the epic by showing evil as an active, independent force -- are more appropriately defined as lack, as the absence of good:  “Sin and Death are not merely morally evil characters but rather embodiments of metaphysical evil . . . not additional beings in a monist universe, but the privation of being itself” (Fallon, p. 183).  Fallon may be correct that Sin and Death are essentially non-beings, defined by lack; the characterization works particularly well for the shadowy figure of Death, who “shape had none” until he was given shape by the beings he consumed (2.667).  But Fallon goes on to argue that the demonic duo are “in body” because they are “’accidents in in a substance,’ and that substance is Satan and his devils” (Fallon, p. 185).  As Fallon notes, the monstrous birth and copulations of Sin and Death “do not occur after Satan’s tempting speech and before the War in Heaven, but over the same time,” offering, therefore, alternative versions of the Fall of the angels, so that “These alternative visions cannot occupy the same ontological space.” (p. 185).  Unlike our earlier examples, in this case the two competing narratives both contain “judgmentalist” elements. The underlying event, in vitalist terms, is Lucifer’s and the rest of the rebellious angels’ self-expulsion from Heaven, which they with their newly determinist mindsets perceive as ejection.  Here and elsewhere, we can avoid unrewarding critical gymnastics if we simply accept that Paradise Lost characteristically proceeds on multiple ontological planes, creating amplitude and complexity but not necessarily reducing to a single coherent account.

Similarly, John Rogers has argued that Milton’s concept of “dregs” in his depiction of Chaos deconstructs the vitalist universe of the epic by suggesting that, contrary to mainstream vitalist thought, there is a sludge at the bottom of the continuum between matter and spirit that is impervious to the spiritualization of divine influence, despite its ostensibly divine origin. In Milton’s account of the Creation, chaos infused with divine spirit is the generative source of all created things, producing the natural world through its own material power to unfold and order itself:  “once the abyss has been impregnated with a self-activating divina virtus, the effective control over generation devolves in the now self-generating matter of chaos.” Milton’s more elaborate account of the six days’ work in Book 7 “dutifully” repeats the language of Genesis in describing the creation of plants and animals successively by divine fiat, but this is a “judgmentalist” overlay based on traditional accounts of God’s paternal authority; Milton’s underlying vitalist account of creation portrays Chaos, once activated, as producing the world of its own free will; the Earth, paradoxically, gives birth to itself (Rogers, pp. 114-15).  However, as Rogers notes, in Book 2 of Paradise Lost, Chaos is portrayed not as divinely embodied animate matter but as constantly warring atoms allied with the inert matter of Hobbesian mechanistic philosophy:  “The personified Chaos that Satan encounters in Book Two is rebellious and anarchic, and the particulate matter of chaos itself bears none of the seeds of the virtuous, rational self-determination that Milton’s theology would seem to demand” (Rogers, p. 130).  Rogers interprets this contradiction in the portrayal of the nature of Chaos as registering Milton’s political disappointment, as he modulated from the vitalist optimisim of mid-century to a later pessimism about the lumpish human “dregs” in England’s political landscape who refused to interact with the spiritual animation and mutual sympathy necessary for the creation of a successful democracy (Rogers, pp. 103-43).  But if we recall Fallon’s observation that the appearance of voluntarism recedes in Paradise Lost as we travel down Milton’s continuum from the most refined spirit down to the heaviest matter, we can speculate that the anarchic, apparently warring Chaos of Book 2 is, in vitalist terms, a formerly healthy, vibrant potential network in the throes of a new dis-ease – its encounter with the relative deadness and vacancy of the fallen Lucifer. Later on in Book 10, Milton describes Sin and Death as spreading their bane through the universe:  “the blasted Stars lookt wan, / And Planets, Planaet-strook, real Eclipse / Then suffer’d” (10. 411-13). The universe recoils from the vacancy of Sin and Death as we earlier saw the Sun recoiling from the self-destructive action of Adam and Eve. Similarly, in Book 2 Chaos assumes an appearance of Hobbesian atomism as it reacts with aversion to Satan’s precipitous descent down the scale of being from the freedom of an angelic spirit to the self-adoption of dead mechanistic determinism.

              Satan at one points refers to himself and the other fallen angels as self-generated, “self-begot, self-rais’d / By our own quick’ning power” (5.860-61) – an assertion that has a curiously vitalist ring to it (see Rogers, p. 122).  But he and the other fallen angels portrays themselves much more typically as hedged about by fate and divine prohibition, “enthralled to Force or Chance” (2.551), heroic victims of unjust patriarchal oppression. It should not surprise us that in imagining their relationship to nature Lucifer and his cohort pass the victimization down the line to the natural world, taking the Genesis P-text’s and Comus’s view that the Earth and her fecundity exist to be mastered and exploited. In keeping with their determinist mindset, the fallen angels are despoilers of the natural world, and modern ecocritics have found it noteworthy that Paradise Lost associates depredation of the environment with demonic influence.  The presence of Lucifer is associated with noxious air, fire, and belching smoke – the debased remnants of his heavenly status as a bearer of light. Even before the fallen angels make it to Earth, Mammon’s crew rape the ground of Hell by digging in her bowels for precious minerals and building materials; in doing so, they inaugurate the practice of mining, by which humans later performed a version of incestuous rape upon the Earth, violating her inner parts for valuables: taught by Mammon, humans “Ransack’d the Centre, and with impious hands / Rifl’d the bowels of thir mother Earth / For Treasures better hid” (1.686-88).[x] Many of the technologies that we now associate with the pollution of air and water were initially devised in hell: the refining of metals, deforestation of mountains, creating technologies of death.  Milton tells us that the landscape of Hell was, in “judgmentalist” terms, “A Universe of death, which God by curse / Created evil, for evil only good / Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds, / Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things” (2.622-5).  But the vitalist version of Hell’s bleak landscape would associate it with the state of mind of its inhabitants: their extreme turning from God forces Nature, “perverse,” to turn away from them.  As Satan later states, after he has escaped the landscape of Hell, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide . . . .” (4.75-78). To us, the idea of Satan’s “mind forged manacles” may sound rather Blakean.  But it would be more accurate to suggest that the Romantic poets got their ideas of cosmic animism and individual self-imprisonment at least in part from seventeenth-century vitalists like Milton.

              Recent ecocritics have made significant claims for Milton as a proto-environmentalist.  Nick Pici, writing in College Literature, has suggested that

One might even speculate that Milton, had he lived today, would have developed a deep and solemn concern for the world’s current environmental crises and could probably have done much in the way of writing to help protect the environment and in affirming those increasingly elusive yet deeply felt connections between humans, nature, and the spiritual realms.  Of the Rights of Nature – that certainly has the ring of a potential Miltonian prose tract.[xi]
Milton as a more successful Al Gore?  Perhaps. If he wanted to reach an audience as proportionately large as that of his First and Second Defenses in the 1650s, he would probably have been required to substitute English for Latin and YouTube videos for prose, however eloquent. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine that teaching Paradise Lost from an ecocritical perspective could well succeed in the classroom. Bringing students into contact with the vitalist Milton may distract them from the “judgmentalist” Milton that many of them find difficult to admire in Paradise Lost.  But even as we acknowledge the existence of an “ecocritical Milton,” we need also to acknowledge the distance between our culture and his, between our ways of understanding “felt connections between humans, nature, and the spiritual realms,” to requote Pici, and the tenets of seventeenth-century vitalism.  For Milton, mechanistic materialism was demonic – a symptom of Satanic self-alienation from the natural world and its highly spiritualized web of beings vibrating in mutual sympathy.  For us, mechanistic materialism has become one of the underpinnings of modern science and engineering, the very science and engineering we try to use to improve the environment.  Ecocritics who wish to challenge twenty-first-century scientific discourse as a viable avenue for environmental recovery may well want to go back to vitalism, at least as a model for what we now call a “climax ecosystem” --  a very diverse, complex grouping of natural things living in a relatively stable balance with each other and with their non-living environment.  But modern environmentalists are unlikely to find Milton’s prescription for human virtue a sufficient catalyst to restore the Earth – unless, that is, they accept Milton’s complex notions of causality, by which something that appears from an outside perspective to be determined can from the inside turn out to be voluntarism. Milton’s vitalism is in any case of sufficient interest that it is worth recovering for its own sake, not only as a talking point for twenty-first-century environmentalist critics.  What a wonderful dream of harmony and salutary mutual dependence! What an amazing way of imagining ecological balance! We need to learn much more about how vitalist philosophy functioned for its adherents in its own time, even as we acknowledge its limitations as a philosophy that we can now credibly imagine as saving the Earth.  


[i]  See in particular Christine Froula’s highly influential article, “When Eve Reads Milton:  Undoing the Canonical Economy,” Critical Inquiry 10.2 (1983): 321-47.
[ii]  John Milton, Paradise Regained, The Minor Poems, and Samson Agonistes, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1937). All ssubsequent Milton quotations will be cited by line number in the text either from this volume or from John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1935).
[iii]  See Diane Kelsey McColley, “Milton’s Environmental Epic:  Creature Kinship and the Language of Paradise Lost,” in Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds., Beyond Nature Writing:  Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (Charlottesville and London:  University Press of Virginia, 2001), pp. 57-74; McColley’s “Ecology and Empire,” in Balachandra Rajan and Elizabeth Sauer, ed., Milton and the Imperial Vision (Pittsburgh:  Duquesne University Press, 1999), pp. 112-29;  Jeffrey S. Theis, “The Environmental Ethics of Paradise Lost:  Milton’s Exegesis of Genesis I-III,” Milton Studies 34 (1996): 61-81; and Todd A. Borlik, Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature: Green Pastures (London and New York:  Routledge, 2011), pp. 156-57.
[iv]  See Stephen M. Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers:  Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England (Ithaca and London:  Cornell University Press, 1991); and John Rogers The Matter of Revolution:  Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996).  I am also indebted to Catherine Gemelli Martin, The Ruins of Allegory:  Paradise Lost  and the Metamorphosis of Epic Convention (Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 1998); and William Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex:  On the Psychogenesis of Paradise Lost (Cambridge, MA and London:  Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 193-200.
[v] Richard J. DuRocher, “The Wounded Earth in Paradise Lost,” Studies in Philology 93.1 (1996): 93-115.
[vi]  Here and throughout, biblical references are cited from, April 30, 2012.  My thanks to my Vanderbilt Divinity School colleague Paul Lim, for reminding me of the passage from Romans and its pertinence to accounts of the fall of nature.  For the sometimes acrimonious early modern theological debate about its meaning, see Alan Rudrum, “’For then the Earth shall be all Paradise’:  Milton, Vaughan, and the neo-Calvinists on the Ecology of the Hereafter,” Scintilla (Usk, Wales), 4 (2000): 39-52.
[vii]  Ken Hiltner, Milton and Ecology (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 3-5.
[viii]  Cited respectively from Diane Kelsey McColley,  A Gust for Paradise: Milton’s Eden and the Visual Arts (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1993), p.   190; and Theis, “Environmental Ethics,” p. 80.  See also Theis’s “’The purlieus of heaven’:  Milton’s Eden as a Pastoral Forest,” in Ken Hiltner, ed., Renaissance Ecology:  Imagining Eden in Milton’s England (Pittsburgh:  Duquesne University Press, 2008), pp. 229-57.
[ix]  Gerard Winstanley, The Works of Gerrard Winstanley, With an Appendix of Documents Relating to the Digger Movement,  ed. George H. Sabine (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1941), pp. 114-15.   I am also indebted to John Rogers’ discussion, Matter of Revolution, pp. 150-151.
[x]  See Theis, “Environmental Ethics,” p. 76; and Michael Lieb, The Dialectics of Creation:  Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in Paradise Lost (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970), p. 118.
[xi]  Nick Pici, “Milton’s ‘Eco-Eden’:  Place and Notions of the ‘Green’ in Paradise Lost,” College Literature, 28.3 (2001): 33-50.