|TITLE:||'Adventurous song' or 'presumptuous folly': The Problem of 'utterance' in John Milton's Paradise Lost and Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder|
|SOURCE:||The Seventeenth Century 21 no2 304-14 Aut 2006|
The five cantos that Lucy Hutchinson allowed into print in 1679 under the title Order and Disorder: or, the World Made and Undone invite comparison with John Milton's Paradise Lost, which had been published twelve years before. As its modern editor suggests, there is much to be gained by setting the longer, unfinished text of Hutchinson's verse redaction of Genesis 'in dialogue' with the more famous epic, but for present purposes there are reasons for confining discussion to the poem that was made public in 1679.(FN1) That the author herself regarded this group of cantos as a unified and self-contained entity is indicated by a line that leads into the peroration of Canto 5: 'With these most certain truths let's wind up all' (5: 675). And although they order their common biblical material very differently, both poets bring their narratives of the Creation and Fall to a close with the event related in the last two verses of Genesis, Chapter 3:
23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
In Hutchinson's version, Adam and Eve are excluded by a 'guard' of cherubim, 'Who waved a flaming sword before the door / Through which the wretches must return no more' (5: 303-4), and the first man and woman pause with 'sorrow-drown6d eyes' (5: 427) to 'look back on Paradise, late lost' and begin to come to terms with the fact that the 'joys' and 'frail delights' of the garden 'were not permanent' (5: 555-60). In her ensuing reflections on the significance of this moment, the seventeenth-century narrator acknowledges that there is nothing reprehensible in honest grief: 'Natural tears there are which in due bound / Do not the soul with sinful sorrow drown' (5: 657-8).
Milton uses the same two words to make the same point, but embeds them within his narrative so that they become part of the imagined experience of Adam and Eve:
They looking back, all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms: Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon. (12: 641-5)(FN2)
The contrast between Milton's description of the 'natural tears' shed by the fallen pair and Hutchinson's moral justification of 'natural tears' as a human response to sorrow in this world is typical of the different literary approaches taken by these two writers towards their biblical source. And, indeed, the final reason for focusing on the 1679 text of Order and Disorder is that the particular aspect of Hutchinson's treatment of Genesis that will be set 'in dialogue' with Paradise Lost plays little part in the rest of her poem. Before the problem of 'utterance' in both works is broached, however, something must be said about Hutchinson's attitude to authorship.
In an appeal 'To My Children' at the beginning of her Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, she takes two different stances towards her own practice as a biographer: the first is a polemically puritan justification of the style she has adopted for this 'monument' to her late husband, which sets a 'naked, undressed narrative, speaking the simple truth of him' against the 'flattering commendations' of 'hired preachers'; the second is a regret that the 'resplendent body of light' generated by his exemplary life and death 'will, through my apprehension and expression, shine as under a very thick cloud, which will obscure much of their lustre'.(FN3) The distinction between 'apprehension and expression' may be compared with a similar distinction made by Milton in The Reason of Church Government (1642), when he covenanted 'with any knowing reader' the future accomplishment of a national epic that was not 'to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge'.(FN4) The degree of authorial confidence may be markedly different, but both writers recognise that the achievement of their purposes depends upon a combination of intellectual abilities and artistic gifts -- apprehension and expression, knowledge and utterance.
When Hutchinson dedicated a manuscript of her English version of the De rerum natura of Lucretius to the Earl of Anglesey in 1675, she found herself in something of a dilemma. She had undertaken the translation of this particular work -- notorious for its materialistic explanation of the origin of the world as a chance concourse of atoms -- some years earlier, and it had now become a source of embarrassment to the widow of a puritan saint.(FN5) Anxious for any future reader to know that she had repudiated the erroneous views of Lucretius when her 'judgement grew riper' and her mind became 'fixt in more profitable contemplations', she begs her noble patron not to let the translated text circulate independently of her recantation:
So I beseech your Lordship to reward my obedience, by indulging me the further honor to preserve, wherever your Lordship shall dispose this booke, this record with it, that I abhorre all the Atheismes and impieties in it, and translated it only out of youthfull curiositie, to understand things I heard so much discourse of at second hand, but without the least inclination to propagate any of the wicked and pernitious doctrines in it.(FN6)
She insists that the more she contemplated God's providential management of the world he had created, the more shame she felt at being praised 'for understanding this crabbed poet' and the more she became convinced of 'the insufficiency of humane reason (how greate an Idoll soever it is now become among the gowne-men) to arrive to any pure and simple Truth'.(FN7) It seems likely that the inception of a series of verse 'meditations' on the early chapters of the Book of Genesis goes back to the period in the mid-1670s when the erstwhile translator ofDe rerum natura was taking steps to distance herself from the materialistic speculations about the origins of the physical universe that had begun to trouble her puritan conscience.(FN8)
When she came to write a prose preface for the publication of Order and Disorder in 1679, she introduced her poem as a personal exorcism of the 'foolish fancies' that she had once permitted to occupy her 'brain':
These meditations were not at first designed for public view, but fixed upon to reclaim a busy roving thought from wandering in the pernicious and perplexed maze of human inventions; where into the vain curiosity of youth had drawn me to consider and translate the account some old poets and philosophers give of the original of things.(FN9)
Reiterating the views that she had developed in the epistle to Anglesey, she sets 'that revelation God gives of himself and his operations in his Word' against the 'defective traditions' of 'human wit and wisdom' and resolves 'never to search after any knowledge of him and his productions, but what he himself hath given forth'. She is not only scornful of all those who value the 'figments of their own brains' above 'what is written' in the Scriptures but also warns more specifically against 'the study of vain, foolish, atheistical poesy'.(FN10)
The literary problem posed by the common subject matter of Order and Disorder and Paradise Lost can now be approached more directly. As far as the content of her narrative is concerned, Lucy Hutchinson disclaims any knowledge of 'God and his works' beyond what she 'learnt out of his own word'; and while she defends the use of 'numbers' in descanting upon biblical material, she eschews 'fancy', 'elevations of style' and 'charms of language', preferring to 'breath forth grace cordially than words artificially' and trembling 'to think of turning Scripture into a romance'. The puritan aesthetic set out in her preface is grounded in a strict sense of intellectual and linguistic integrity. 'I have not studied to utter anything that I have not really taken in', she declares; and the only trustworthy source of what can be 'taken in' with regard to the origin of the created universe is the Bible.(FN11)
Both she and Milton open their Genesis poems by confronting this twofold challenge of authorship, formulated by each of them elsewhere as 'apprehension and expression', 'utterance and knowledge'. But the attitudes they adopt towards it are in striking contrast and influence the ways in which they subsequently conduct their narratives. Once he has announced the central theme of his epic -- 'man's first disobedience' (I: 1) -- Milton assumes the role of prophet, calling upon the same 'heavenly muse' that had inspired Moses (the supposed author of Genesis), 'who first taught the chosen seed, / In the beginning how the heavens and earth / Rose out of chaos' (I: 8-10). Secure in his superiority to the classical poets by virtue of his Christian faith and argument, he seeks inspiration not from the stream on mount Helicon where the pagan Muses dwelt, but from 'Siloa's brook' that flowed beside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem:
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. (I: 12-16)
The seventeenth-century successor to Moses, as God's messenger to the English people, then appeals for the two gifts of 'knowledge' and 'utterance' that had been granted to Isaiah and other chosen vessels of divine truth down the ages:
And chiefly thou O Spirit, that dost prefer Before all temples the upright heart and pure, Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss And madest it pregnant: what in me is dark Illumine, what is low raise and support; That to the highth of this great argument I may assert eternal providence, And justify the ways of God to men. (1: 17-26)
Milton's opening gambit is to foreground the song of the 'heavenly muse' and delay until line 12 any reference to himself as the inadequate human medium who needs to be aided, instructed, illumined, raised and supported in order to perform his task. The first lines of Hutchinson's poem, on the contrary, present the reader straight away with a human aspiration -- 'My ravished soul a pious ardour fires / To sing those mystic wonders it admires' (1:1-2) -- a project which is shown to be impeded by the personal limitations of the speaker. And when the idea of divine assistance is belatedly introduced, it is hedged about with conditionals and subjunctives, in sharp contrast to the boldly imperative and indicative verbs that dominate Milton's text:
In these outgoings would I sing his praise,
But my weak sense with the too glorious rays
Is struck with such confusion that I find
Only the world's first Chaos in my mind,
Where light and beauty lie wrapped up in seed
And cannot be from the dark prison freed
Except that Power by whom the world was made
My soul in her imperfect strugglings aid,
Her rude conceptions into forms dispose,
And words impart which may those forms disclose. (1: 21-30)
The direct appeal for 'celestial fire' to give poetic effect to her 'pious ardour' does not envisage, let alone lay claim to, any extension of knowledge beyond that already vouchsafed in the scriptures and the created universe itself:
O thou eternal spring of glory, whence All other streams derive their excellence, From whose love issues every good desire, Quicken my dull earth with celestial fire, And let the sacred theme that is my choice Give utterance and music to my voice, Singing the works by which thou art revealed. (1: 31-7)
A second request for divine aid by Milton, following the invocation to light at the beginning of Book III, is prompted by the fact of his physical blindness, which has cut him off completely from 'nature's works', that secondary 'book of knowledge' in which God's ways can be read:
So much the rather thou celestial light Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell Of things invisible to mortal sight. (III: 51-5)
Once again the two dimensions of the religious poet's enterprise -- 'apprehension and expression', 'utterance and knowledge' -- are brought together, this time in the simple formula 'see and tell'. But there is a radical difference between this call for privileged access to mysteries that are not available to merely human powers of sight and insight and Hutchinson's less 'adventurous' requests for the 'rude conceptions' struggling for definition within her soul to be clarified (disposed 'into forms') and for the expressive gifts of 'utterance and music' to be granted to her 'voice', so that she can communicate in 'numbers' the truths already revealed in God's 'works'. She wants an enhancement of her natural gifts of mind and tongue; Milton expects his mind to be supernaturally irradiated by inner light, so that he can 'see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight'.
In her preliminary invocation to the 'eternal spring of glory', Hutchinson goes on to set limits to the kinds of truth that she seeks to convey with clarity and verbal grace:
What dark Eternity hath kept concealed From mortals' apprehensions, what hath been Before the race of time did first begin, It were presumptuous folly to inquire. Let not my thoughts beyond their bounds aspire. (1: 38-42)
Or is there a note of disapproval rather than self-admonition in that last line -- 'Let not my thoughts beyond their bounds aspire' -- directed at the 'presumptuous folly' of the blind seer who was not content to confine his imagination to the bare outline of the story found in Genesis and who ventured into the realms of 'dark Eternity' to tell of 'things invisible to mortal sight'?(FN12) Was the poet who stuck rigidly to the day-by-day chronology of the Scriptures in the narrative sections of her own work shocked by the audacity of an 'adventurous song' that plunges its readers into 'the deep tract of hell' (I: 28) for two whole books and then transports them into the presence of the God who 'is light, / And never but in unapproachèd light / Dwelt from eternity' (III: 3-5)? When she approaches the subject of the Creator, she asserts the impossibility of stretching 'frail human thought unto the height / Of the great God, immense and infinite' and is critical of any attempt to look directly at the deity who shrouds himself 'in dazzling glory' (1: 50-8). Just as the 'high-embodied glory' of the sun -- too strong an object 'for weak mortal sight' -- can only be apprehended in reflections, 'So in God's visible productions we / What is invisible in some sort see' (1: 61-6). Reason will lead us from the consideration of 'each created thing' to the notion of 'a first self-moving Power', which is 'th'original / Of being, life, and motion' (1: 67-78). If we want to know more, however, there is only one reliable source of information and we must be satisfied with what it reveals. Flights of philosophical speculation will merely lead us away from the truth into the realms of illusion:
let's waive Platonic dreams
Of worlds made in Idea, fitter themes
For poets' fancies than the reverent view
Of contemplation, fixed on what is true
And only certain, kept upon record
In the Creator's own revealèd Word,
Which, when it taught us how our world was made,
Wrapped up th'invisible in mystic shade. (1: 173-80)
Freed by his doctrine of 'inward' illumination from such a strict reliance upon the biblical 'record' of the Creation and Fall, Milton 'sees' (or invents) vividly dramatic episodes, complete with elaborate speeches for devils and angels and extended dialogues between Adam and Eve, based on the slightest of hints in the books of Genesis or Revelation.(FN13) When questions about the inhabitants of heaven and hell arise in the course of her story, Hutchinson refuses to stray from the narrow path she has prescribed for herself. An enquiry into the origin of angels begins with reservations about the capacity of 'narrow thoughts' to reach beyond what is revealed in 'sacred writ' and is quickly aborted: 'But leave we looking through the veil, nor pry / Too long on things wrapped up in mystery' (1: 291-2). Having arrived at the sixth day, she does imagine a council in heaven before the climactic event of the creation of humankind. But in contrast to Milton's elaborate scenes of consultation in heaven and hell, presided over by 'the almighty Father from above', where he sits 'High throned above all height' (III: 56-8), and by Satan, 'High on a throne of royal state' (II: 1), the episode in Canto 3 of Order and Disorder does not venture beyond the details provided in a single verse in the first chapter of Genesis:
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Except in the curiously literal conceit of 'a sacred council' held among the three 'persons' of the triune godhead, a conceit justified by the first person plural pronouns employed by God in Genesis, Hutchinson's version does little more than paraphrase the biblical text:
Now was the glorious universe complete And everything in beauteous order set, When God, about to make the king of all, Did in himself a sacred council call; Not that he needed to deliberate, But pleased t'allow solemnity and state To wait upon that noble creature's birth For whom he had designed both heaven and earth: 'Let us', said God, 'with sovereign power endued, Make man after our own similitude, Let him our sacred impressed image bear, Ruling o'er all the earth and sea and air'. (3: 1-12)
And when she comes to the origin of evil, she treads warily around the material that Milton exploited in order to dramatise the rebellious rising in 'the north' (V: 755) of heaven and to populate his hell with a host of familiar fallen angels, who were later 'known to men by various names, / And various idols through the heathen world' (I: 374-5). Hutchinson will have no truck with 'gross poetic fables' (4: 49) or 'foolish impious tales' (4: 57) about the pagan gods, and although pressure from the extended drama of the first two books of Paradise Lost can be felt in places behind her flirtation with the topic of the Fall of the Angels, she pulls her narrative up short just as it is gathering momentum:
Some new-made angels thus, not more sublime In nature than transcending in their crime, Quitting th'eternal fountain of their light, Became the first-born sons of woe and night, Princes of darkness and the sad abyss, Which now their curs6d place and portion is, Where they no more must see God's glorious face Nor ever taste of his refreshing grace, But in the fire of his fierce anger dwell, Which though it burns, enlightens not their hell. But circumstances that we cannot know Of their rebellion and their overthrow We will not dare t'invent. (4: 33-45)
Closer scrutiny of Hutchinson's mode of 'utterance' in this passage, however, reveals that she has already abandoned story-telling for the kind of authorial reflection that distinguishes her use of the phrase 'natural tears' from Milton's in the treatment of mankind's expulsion from paradise. The shift from narrative to commentary is effected in the change of tense from the preterite 'became' in line 36, which relates the fall of the rebel angels into hell, by way of 'now' in line 38, to the present tense verbs of lines 38-42, which reflect upon the spiritual condition in which the devils still, find themselves. Hutchinson can 'tell' no more of the 'rebellion' and 'overthrow' of Satan -- events which occupy part of Book V and the whole of Book VI in Paradise Lost -- because she will not 'dare', as Milton does, to supplement her meagre scriptural sources with 'invented' matter.
Similar caution, combined with contempt for 'th'apelike art of man', informs her description of the Garden of Eden. The 'Licentious pens or pencils' of human artists 'never can, / With all th'essays of all-presuming wit, / Or form or feign aught that approaches it' (3: 145-8); and since 'no certain word nor sign' about the 'disposition of the walks and bowers' has been vouchsafed in the Scriptures, we 'dare not' derive our descriptive details 'from men's inventive brains' (3: 156-8). The effect is in striking contrast to the virtuoso performance in Book IV of Paradise Lost, in which Milton raises doubts about the expressive capabilities of poetry -- 'if art could tell' (IV: 236) -- only to brush them aside and draw frankly upon literary tradition for his elaborate depiction of the landscapes surrounding this 'happy rural seat of various view' (IV: 247), until he interrupts the flow of images with the wonderfully equivocal comment, 'Hesperian fables true, / If true, here only' (IV: 250-1).
If Milton's joyfully acknowledged debt to the 'inventive brains' of previous writers was included in Hutchinson's general rebuke to the 'all-presuming wit' with which men misused their 'apelike art' of imitation in this passage, his own readiness to 'invent' material in his treatment of Adam and Eve may have provoked her more directly. In the retrospective account of the creation of human beings, which Adam imparts to Raphael in order to prolong their after-dinner conversation in Book VIII, the first man relates how he complained to his Maker that he had no-one of his own kind to share the pleasures of paradise with. After teasing him gently, God granted his request and created Eve out of his rib, to be 'Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self, / Thy wish exactly to thy heart's desire' (VIII: 450-1). When she reaches the same point in her strictly chronological rendering of events in Genesis, the author of Order and Disorder appears to cast a disapproving glance at Milton's willingness to supplement his narrative with non-scriptural episodes:
Whether he begged a mate it is not known.
Likely his want might send him to the spring;
For God, who freely gives us everything,
Mercy endears by instilling the desire,
And granting that which humbly we require.
Howe'er it was, God saw his solitude
And gave his sentence that it was not good. (3: 312-18)
It is probable that this cautious curtailing of her freedom as a narrator led Hutchinson to adopt for her Genesis poem a genre practised by Francis Quarles during the 1620s, in which verse paraphrases of scripture generated theological or moral reveries.(FN14) This method of elaborating on the bare text of the Bible encouraged an emblematic habit of mind in Hutchinson which continually processed the concrete into the abstract and the particular into 1 the general. For example, God's division of Night from Day is taken as an emblem of that everlasting feud / 'Twixt sons of light and darkness still pursued' (1: 323-4); the flowers created on the third day become emblems 'wherein we see / How frail our human lives and beauties be' (2: 97-8); and, most strikingly, the account of Eve's creation from the rib of 'sleeping Adam' is not only a 'sweet instructive emblem' of how 'waking Providence' is active on our behalf even when 'we locked up in stupefaction lie' (3: 457-61), but also the occasion for a lengthy expatiation on the way in which the 'Gospel Church, his mystic bride' was formed by God 'from the second Adam's bleeding side' (3: 467-8). The title-page of Order and Disorder aptly sums up its method: 'Being Meditations upon the Creation and the Fall; As it is recorded in the beginning of Genesis'.
It is fundamental to the very different method of justifying 'the ways of God to men' in Paradise Lost that Raphael's response to Adam's crucial question -- 'Can we want obedience then / To him ... / Who formed us from the dust?' (V: 514-16) -- is to tell him a story which instructs the mind by engaging the imagination in the specificities of character and action. And when Adam asks for a 'full relation', Milton's surrogate story-teller is uncertain at first how to 'relate / To human sense the invisible exploits / Of warring spirits' (V: 564-6) and how to 'unfold / The secrets of another world, perhaps / Not lawful to reveal' (V: 568-70). But Milton artfully disposes of the problem of 'utterance' by making Raphael blur rather than clarify the epistemological issues:
Yet for thy good
This is dispensed, and what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By likening spiritual to corporeal forms,
As may express them best, though what if earth
Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought? (V: 570-6)
Hutchinson would no doubt have dismissed such a procedure as 'presumptuous folly', but perhaps Milton calculated that the brilliant mock-heroic 'fancies' that enliven his account of the War in Heaven would be less objectionable from the lips of an 'affable Archangel'.
University of Birmingham
Address for Correspondence
Dr Robert Wilcher, Department of English, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, United Kingdom, e-mail: email@example.com
1 Order and Disorder, ed. David Norbrook (Oxford, 2001), p. xiv. All subsequent quotations from the poem are taken from this edition, with canto and line references supplied in brackets. The manuscript edited by Norbrook breaks off in Canto 20, in the middle of the story of Jacob and Esau.
2 John Milton: The Oxford Authors, ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford, 1990). All subsequent quotations from the works of Milton are taken from this edition, with book and line references to Paradise Lost supplied in brackets.
3 Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson: Charles I's Puritan Nemesis, ed. N. H. Keeble (London, 1995), pp. 16-17.
4 John Milton, ed. Orgel and Goldberg, p. 172.
5 The modern editor dates the translation to the 1650s, when the Hutchinsons were living in retirement at Owthorpe. See Lucy Hutchinson's Translation of Lucretius: De rerum natura, ed. Hugh de Quehen (London, 1996), p. 11.
6 Ibid., 'Dedicatory Epistle', pp. 23-4.
7 Ibid., p. 26.
8 For evidence that Hutchinson was attending the conventicle of John Owen, former chaplain to Cromwell, during the 1670s and absorbing his contempt for classical philosophers, see Katherine Narveson, 'The Source for Lucy Hutchinson's On Theology', Notes and Queries, 234 (1989), 40-1. For the date of the Genesis poem, see David Norbrook, 'Lucy Hutchinson and Order and Disorder: The Manuscript Evidence,' English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, 9 (2000), 256-91:268-9,274-6.
9 Order and Disorder, ed. Norbrook, p. 3.
10 Ibid., pp. 3-4.
11 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
12 For an early assertion of Milton's influence on Order and Disorder (1679), see C. A. Moore, 'Miltoniana', Modern Philology, 24 (1926-7), 321-39: 321-4.
13 Milton did not, of course, himself invent all the extra-scriptural material in his epic poem. He was able to draw upon an extensive tradition of commentary and elaboration on the bare Genesis narrative by patristic writers (such as St Augustine, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Basil), by later exegetes and mystics (such as Hugh of St Victor and St Bernard of Clairvaux), and by poets (such as Du Bartas and Joseph Beaumont). See Sister Mary Irma Corcoran, Milton's Paradise with Reference to the Hexameral Background (Washington, 1945) and J. M. Evans, Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford, 1968).
14 During the 1620s, Quarles published Hadassa: Or, The History of Qveene Ester: With Meditations thereupon, Diuine and Morall (1621) and Job Militant: With Meditations Divine and Morall (1624), and his Divine Poems (1630, 1633) included The Historie of Samson.