In response to “‘Uninterrupted Joy, Unrivalled Love’: Reading Paradise Lost Through Affective Prayer” by Shelby Haber.
When I first encountered Paradise Lost as a young, bright-eyed undergraduate, I was only beginning to reckon with my own relationship to the Abrahamic God. Raised Jewish and having spent nearly my entire adolescence in Orthodox Sunday school, I grew up learning of the creation myths—read sins—of mankind. Here was the malevolent Lord of the Old Testament raging against his people: expelling Adam and Eve from the garden, condemning Isaac to sacrifice, admonishing Moses as he beholds the Promised Land and yet is forbidden to cross the Jordan River. God was angry, and I was angry with him for what I saw as a series of injudicious tests and punishments. Some years later, in a course on John Milton, I wrote a technical, if not somewhat trite, essay on Paradise Lost, rather than dare to broach loftier questions, such as the poem’s complex representation of fury both directed toward and emanating from the divine.
Had I felt as though Shelby Haber’s mode of analysis were available to me, I may not have been so hesitant. I welcome the author’s use of affective prayer as a lens through which to read Paradise Lost: it is a refreshing and audacious method of engagement. It rediscovers in Paradise Lost one of what Maggie Kilgour has called “the pleasures of reading” (1) Milton, looking to the text as an affective artefact in addition to an intellectual one. That said, I want to outline some of the limitations of Haber’s analysis in choosing to focus her discussion primarily on Book 3. Taking up her invitation to seek out a “plethora of possible ‘templates’ and ‘scripts’ of emotion,” (51) this short response looks forward to how the poem contains a number of affective registers that move well beyond an exaltation of God.
Arguably, Book 3 is the most religiously conservative of all the books of Paradise Lost. God, pictured on his throne in Heaven, watches Satan ascend earthbound from Hell. The all-knowing Father foretells of Satan’s perversion of mankind, recuses himself of responsibility, and states his ultimate intention to grant grace to humanity. The Son praises the Father for his benevolence before offering himself as humanity’s salvation: “Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life” (3.236). A not-so-reluctant Father accepts and exults his Son’s sacrifice, proclaiming him “universal King” (3.317) and rewarding him with the glory of Heaven. Cue angel chorus.
It is a mesmeric book, not in the least for dramatizing a vantage of the Genesis story that, prior to Milton, was scarcely broached in lyric; but Paradise Lost is long, and the speaker is irregular in their sympathies. One does not have to venture much further into the text to see how extensively the affective register of the poem shifts. Having just breached the gap between Hell and Earth, Book 4 begins with Satan sitting atop a peak in the Niphates range. Below him sits Eden, that “happy rural seat” (4.247). Unable to look upon it without unbridled anger
horror and doubt distract His troubl'd thoughts, and from the bottom stirr The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell One step no more then from himself can fly By change of place. (4.18-23)
Such a passage fits well the criteria of affective prayer that Haber offers: it is rhythmic and repetitive, replete with alliteration, chiasmus, and epistrophe. In it, the speaker recognizes the omnipresence of God and God’s judgement upon Satan as well as offering Satan’s response to his expulsion from Heaven. This passage leads into one of the poem’s most famous: Satan, recognizing the error of his ways, proclaims himself
miserable! which way shall I flie Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire? Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell; And in the lowest deep a lower deep Still threatning to devour me opens wide, To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n. (4.73-8)
Spoken now from the archfiend’s mouth, this passage too seems to accord with Haber’s definition. Beginning on an enjambed question, the first line initially appears to offer the possibility for redemption that the following line forecloses. The repetition of “infinite” ironizes Satan’s choice, between “wrauth” or “despaire,” despite the affective singularity of either recourse. The repetition of “Hell” and a “lowest deep” leading only to a “lower deep” seem to preclude the opportunity for Satan to amend his errors. In an inversion of the epistrophic “Hell” of the above quotation, here a second locale is introduced in its place: “a Heav’n” to which Satan will never return again.
Haber states, quoting the Jesuit theologian Augustine Poulain, that “affective prayer has its ultimate goal in simplifying the will and intellect of the precant in order to leave ‘more room for sentiments of love, praise, gratitude, respect, submission, [and] contrition’ for and towards God” (46). If we look to Book 3, this could not be truer. But Paradise Lost contains much more raw emotion than the lofty idealism of the Father and Son’s dialogue. Satan’s immediate response in Book 4 is not of love or respect but unmitigated anger directed both at himself and an apparently receding God. His “distain” and “dread of shame” (4.82)—an internal rhyme—forbid him from expressing pity or remorse and thus refuse the possibility of his redemption. Satan’s counter-exultations complicate Haber’s notion of affective prayer as leading to “an affectionate remembrance of God” (45). The base anger and confused frustration of Book 4 offer a counterweight to the feigned propriety of Book 3, where the Son is upheld for his sacrifice and is made “Head Supream” of all the realms of Heaven. Quite differently, Satan condemns himself to “Supream / In miserie” and the joys of perverse ambition against his creator (4.91-92).
Affect has an effect: on the ways we read and what we take from those readings. It is also, as the contrasting cases of books 3 and 4 show, a deeply personal and particular kind of response, influenced as much by the text as the reader who engages with it. And yet, for affect to persist as a worthwhile reading strategy it must be applied judiciously and thoroughly. This means, as Haber rightly points out, welcoming affective readings of the poem from diverse perspectives, not the least of which should look to characters such as Satan who arguably stand opposed to affective prayer. Part of the majesty of Paradise Lost is in its presentation of the wide spectrum of earthly and heavenly emotions, from the Father’s muted tones of mourning to the belligerent anger of Satan raving against his self-made perversions. While I recognize that charting the affective breadth of a work as complex and verbose as Paradise Lost is a monumental (and potentially unfair) task to ask of any one critic, it is equally limiting to look at any one part as representative of the whole.
Haber, Shelby. “‘Uninterrupted Joy, Unrivalled Love’: Reading Paradise Lost Through Affective Prayer.” Caret, vol. 1, no. 2, 2023, pp. 45-51. https://www.caretjournal.ca/post/uninterrupted-joy-unrivalled-love-reading-paradise-lost-through-affective-prayer. Accessed 3 May 2023.
Kilgour, Maggie. “The Pleasure of Milton.” Milton Studies, vol. 63, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-10.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 2007. Edited by Barbara K. Lewalski, Blackwell, 2009.