The Milk of the Pure Word

  • Stanley Eugene Fish


In recent years, several critics have asserted that the stylistic characteristics of the voice of Milton’s God are answerable to the idea of deity demanded by the poem and by seventeenth-century theology. Arnold Stein notes that God’s ‘language and cadence are as unsensuous as if Milton were writing a model for the Royal Society and attempting to speak purely to the understanding’, and offers as a defence the observation that ‘Poetry is human and metaphorical, and the Father’s speeches are intended to express divine Justice as if directly: to seem without seeming: to create the illusion of no illusion’.1 Jackson Cope makes more explicit Stein’s coupling of the human and the metaphorical: ‘This eye of God does not see things metaphorically, but in their essential natures. … God in his own voice can never speak metaphorically.’2 Thomas Kranidas insists on the decorum of the presentation: ‘The purity of his image of God requires the kind of rhetorical isolation, the dialectic and schematic movement of language, which strikes the reader as barer than mere simplicity.’1 And Irene Samuel points to the obvious contrast between diabolic and heavenly rhetoric: ‘The flat statement of fact, past, present, and future, the calm analysis and judgment of deeds and principles — these naturally strike the ear that has heard Satan’s ringing utterances as cold and impersonal. They should.’2 There is general agreement here as to Milton’s intention: he is trying to communicate philosophical and moral distinctions through stylistic (rhetorical) signatures. The question criticism asks quite properly is, does he succeed? Stein abstains, ‘I pass the problem of trying to judge them [God’s speeches]’3 while J. B. Broadbent replies in the negative:

The least successful contrast is between the Father’s rhetoric in Book in and Satan’s … This is not enough to mark the vast gap that the poem supposes to exist between the minds of God and Satan. The fault seems to lie in rhetoric itself. For all its elaborations as a system, it is not a flexible enough instrument for the dramatic function of distinguishing between characters.4


Formal Defence Paradise Lost Successful Contrast Divine Person Human Impression 
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  1. 1.
    George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, 1963), p. 294.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    Kranidas, The Fierce Equation (The Hague, 1965), p. 131; Paradise Lost And Its Critics, p. 102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 1.
    Cushman, Therapeia, p. 235; John Webster, The Examination of Academies (1654), p. 16.Google Scholar

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© Stanley Eugene Fish 1967

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  • Stanley Eugene Fish

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