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Milton and the "intelligible flame": "Sweet converse" in the poetry and prose

RenascenceFall 2000   by Demaray, Hannah Disinger

So much hangs on crucial references by John Milton to "converse" and "conversation" in the prose and Paradise Lost that the terms, when freshly reassessed, afford unique insight into the vexing issue of Milton's very individualized views on women, marriage, and divorce. Lightly and with utmost seriousness, early and late, Milton plays on the words and their cognates,1 with meanings ranging from the sacred to the sensual allowing him to give revisionist interpretations to the relationship of husband and wife. Even the casual reader (if Milton has such) is aware that the terms recur hauntingly, almost obsessively, and for Milton they are more than Puritan euphemisms for sexual intercourse; and they suggest not only harmonious discourse but its opposite. The importance of dialectic in certain Renaissance writers has been recognized by, among others, W. Scott Blanchard who analyzes the "negative dialectic" of Lorenzo Valla's portrayal of himself as a "singular intellectual surrounded by a world full of enemies" (170). For Milton, even more than for Valla, opposition in the public and private world is a source of strength-there is reason in the positive dialectics of history and sexual relationships. Marriage as trial by what is contrary was familiar territory for Milton, and the "sweet Converse" of marriage evolved as a temporal dialectic-not a truce or the reconciliation of opposites-with the end to be ultimate spiritual synthesis. In ways neglected by criticism that still require close examination, Milton finds in conversation a punning arena where he can associate his views on women and marriage with ontological questions of divine love and with larger metaphors of language and speech.

How Milton uses "conversation" as the objective correlative between the physical-sensual world and the divine will be the central focus of this study, and in particular how the harmony between men and women embodies that between the Father and the Son in heaven (Sewell, Kelley, Patrides, Summers, Pecheux). When Adam sees the fallen Eve, the sexual implications of "Converse" are obvious in his cry: "How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join'd ... ?" (9.909-10)2 But Milton always sees the theomorphic in the relation of the sexes and marriage as "the neerest resemblance of our union with Christ" (Tetrachordon 2.682); and "if man be the image of God, which consists in holiness, . . . woman ought in the same respect to be the image and companion of man, in such wise to be as the church is beloved of Christ" (591, 606). John Shawcross observes that the "metaphor of human union to express that divine union ... has been little examined in literary works such as Milton's . " and the "psychodynamic propensities of this metaphor are major avenues of literary investigation" (33, 34). I believe that for Milton, conversation is the metaphor of that "metaphor of human union" and as such is most fully realized in Paradise Lost.

While Milton may be of "two minds" on the subject of women, he gives remarkable representation to the cohesive nature of "converse" and "conversation" in the divorce tracts and years later in the graceful exchanges of Eve and Adam. The purposes of all "true" conversation between the sexes, pre- or postlapsarian, are the same as for marriage itself: to solace and overcome loneliness (Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce 2.235, 328; Paradise Lost 8.415-51), to produce progeny in a human parallel to God the Creator (Paradise Lost 4.736-49, 8.427-33), to reflect the mystical union of Father and Son, and to anticipate that of Christ with His Bride the Church (Lycidas 176, Pecheux).

Among other things, the epic is itself a great dialectical construct of delicately counterbalanced demonic pseudo-conversations of fallen angels, heavenly "seeming" conversations actually manifesting the paradoxical expressive silence in the substantive union of the transcendent persons of a single God, and true conversations on earth among separate and limited mortal and immortal beings having a natural desire and a need for genuine discourse. In Hell and throughout the created universe outbursts of demonic oratory and dissembling misrepresentation divide being from being, whereas in Heaven perfect communion unites Father and Son in singular Godhead; and in Eden true "conversations" with subtle shadings spiritually conjoin the virtuous figures. Milton saw trial by what is contrary as the way to truth and higher states of being (Areopagitica, The Reason of Church Government, Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Comus, Paradise Lost); and conversation, especially in marriage, is a unique form of that dialectic. Only in the holy, ineffable silence of Heaven is there true synthesis; and the human verbal dialectic, with its spiritual resonance, stands like a microcosm of the epic's grand scale dialectics in which the harmonious silence and creative purity of the Word stand in opposition to the discordant bombast and destructive lies of Satan. Like an aspect of the felix culpa, the playing out of these cosmic "verbal" oppositions leads finally to a synthesis beyond words-the "unexpressive nuptial Song"-in Heaven (Lycidas 176).

 

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