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Milton's Imperial Epic: Paradise Lost and the Discourse of Colonialism

Renaissance QuarterlySummer, 1998   by Andrew Fleck

The reevaluation of Milton's work in light of current scholarship concerned with colonial expansion has only belatedly begun, but conflicting views are already developing. The "orthodox" position argues that Milton opposed the project of empire, while an apparently small minority of scholars has begun to point to those places in his poetry and prose where Milton approves of or advocates an expansionist English empire. J. Martin Evans enters the fray from a third and, I believe, more profitable and interesting direction by recognizing that Milton does not display a consistently pro- or anti-imperialist attitude. Instead, Evans examines the colonial discourses that circulated around and through Paradise Lost as Milton wrote it. In each chapter of his study, Evans focuses on the competing attitudes about a particular aspect of European colonization.

Evans begins by exploring the European justifications for colonization and the general attitudes of those in the Old World toward those in the New. He points to several mid-century tracts which reveal English anxieties in comparing their efforts to those of the Spanish, who appeared to be more successful in converting the natives of America to Christianity than the English had been at first. Evans then discusses the various biblical justifications the English employed in their search for an alternative to the Spanish rationale for appropriating the lands of the Americans. He concludes that there were at least four competing discourses at work as Milton wrote his epic: Spain's pro-imperial justification and its critique by Spaniards like Las Casas (whose Brevissima relacion was translated by Milton's nephew in 1656, under the title Tears of the Indians), and the pro-imperial stance of some Englishmen which faced internal criticism on several fronts.

In each of the next three chapters, "The Colony," "The Colonists," and "The Colonized," Evans sets up the discursive context, then applies it to the point under consideration. True to his thesis that Milton does not display a coherent, unified colonial vision in Paradise Lost, Evans shows that at various points in the poem, depending on context and perspective, the characters appear in the roles of both colonizer and colonized. For example, Satan seems analogous to a Spanish conquistador when he sets out to displace Adam and Eve from their native habitat, while in other parts of the poem he appears as a native, whose rebellion costs him his home, just as native revolts in Virginia had served to justify the seizure of American lands and the continuation of English expansion in the New World.

Evans's final chapter, "The Narrator," compares representational strategies in Paradise Lost to those used in other English narratives of colonization. He explores the difficulties created by the two main types of narration: the firsthand account, with its tendency to become centered on the narrator's own heroic deeds, and the description based on eye witnesses' stories, which were accompanied by concerns about their reliability. Evans finds that Milton incorporates and comments on these strategies, especially in Satan's distorted colonial narrative delivered on his return to Pandemonium. This chapter also briefly takes up the interesting question of reconciling the experience of the New World with the understanding of the Old.

Evans's handling of source materials is the only part of the study which may displease some scholars. His use of books printed before or just after Milton's birth, for example, may raise a few eyebrows. Evans generally focuses on materials printed closer to the middle of the seventeenth century, however, and ultimately provides a compelling and provocative thesis which will shape future discussions of Milton's imperial epic.

ANDREW FLECK The Claremont Graduate School

COPYRIGHT 1998 The Renaissance Society of America
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
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