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“Uninterrupted Joy, Unrivalled Love”: Reading *Paradise Lost* Through Affective Prayer


Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan call scholars to consider “the ways in which other intellectual and creative frameworks [beyond humoralism], such as religious and philosophical belief … shaped cultural beliefs about emotional experience” in early modern Europe. I identify Augustine Poulain’s “affective prayer” as one such framework of emotion and use it as a critical theory through which to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Affective prayer is “an affectionate remembrance of God” where the precant, rather than focusing on the words or steps of a set prayer, focuses on their emotions for God. I do not aim to suggest that Paradise Lost is a literary analogue for the spiritual experience of affective prayer. Rather, each section of my essay considers Paradise Lost through one aspect of affective prayer, asking to what extent the experience of reading Milton’s text is similar to the experience of practising affective prayer. The basis of many similarities between Paradise Lost and affective prayer is Poulain’s emphasis on repetition. Repetition abounds in Milton’s narrative style, particularly in Book 3, which is riddled with repetitive rhetorical devices such as alliteration, chiasmus, and epistrophe. I argue that this shared aspect of repetition highlights that both affective prayer and Book 3 of Paradise Lost provide an opportunity to enjoy rather than seek truth, to engage in a practice for a prolonged time, to move from a “garden” of others’ guidance into the “forest” of their own thoughts, and to put forth effort when distractions threaten their concentration.
In 1534, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Peter Faber founded the Society of Jesus, which to this day thrives as the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests. For the Jesuits, “feeling played a crucial role in religious meditation” (Tallon 118). So, it is necessary to consider Jesuit spiritual practices when answering Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan’s call to consider “the ways in which other intellectual and creative frameworks [beyond humoralism], such as religious and philosophical belief … shaped cultural beliefs about emotional experience” in early modern Europe (5). One exploration of emotion in Jesuit spirituality is from Augustine Poulain, S. J., a nineteenth-century Jesuit theologian who wrote a description of “affective prayer.” I use Poulain’s description as a critical theory through which to examine the affective experience of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. By using the lens of a Catholic priest to approach the work of a Protestant writer, I do not mean to make any claims about the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism in the Reformation or Catholic Revival era. I do not, for example, argue that Milton’s representation of spirituality is surprisingly similar to Poulain’s, despite the distinction between their Christian denominations. Rather, particularly in choosing Poulain as a nineteenth-century Jesuit who wrote centuries after Milton, I am meditating on how scholars can bring any aspect of any religious tradition to bear on Paradise Lost. My focus rests more on the experience and practice of reading Paradise Lost than on understanding Milton’s intentions in writing it.
Each paragraph of my essay considers Paradise Lost through one aspect of affective prayer, asking to what extent the experience of reading Milton’s text is similar to the experience of practising affective prayer. I do not aim to suggest that the poem is a literary analogue for the spiritual experience of affective prayer. Rather, I analyze affective prayer and Paradise Lost alongside each other to clarify the boundaries of both. The basis of many similarities between Paradise Lost and affective prayer is Poulain’s emphasis on repetition. Repetition abounds in Milton’s narrative style, particularly in Book 3, which is riddled with repetitive rhetorical devices such as alliteration, chiasmus, and epistrophe.
Book 3 of Paradise Lost stands out in its similarity to affective prayer because, after spending the first two sections of the poem plotting with Satan in Hell, Milton’s reader is introduced to two Persons of the trinitarian God, the Father and the Son. An awareness of God’s presence is necessary for affective prayer, which is “an affectionate remembrance of God … a meditation upon the presence of God” (Poulain 589). Poulain contrasts affective prayer to rote or written prayer, in which the precant, the person practising the prayer, recites words or follows steps that others have laid out (588). One obvious example of rote prayer is the Our Father, a set of words that Jesus taught to His disciples and which Christians still pray (Word on Fire Bible, Matt. 6:9-13). Rather than focusing on words or steps, the precant of affective prayer focuses on their emotions for God. 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 (Poulain 586).
The simplified intellect necessary for affective prayer is evident when “there is a thought or a sentiment that returns incessantly and easily (although with little or no development)” (Poulain 586). This thought is not continuous but rather appears in “a slow sequence of single glances upon one and the same object” (Poulain 586). Stanley Fish, comparing the Father’s measured statements of fact to Satan’s captivating rhetoric in Paradise Lost, makes a similar argument for simplicity, although he does not use the same terms as Poulain. He suggests that a “watchful Christian” knows to doubt Satan’s rhetoric as pandering to subversive instincts and clouding judgement; they know that they should instead take pleasure in the “bareness and clarity” of the Father’s seemingly non-affective speeches (Fish 61-2). In other words, “God’s presentation is determinedly non-affective, although it certainly does not give that impression” (Fish 62). As I see it, the Father's words give the impression of affectiveness because of their repetitiousness, which bears a similarity to Poulain's prayer form.
Milton introduces affect-bearing repetition in the form of Book 3. After opening the Book with a question, the poem’s speaker reasons: “Since God is light, / And new but in unapproached light / Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee, / Bright effluence of bright essence increate” (Milton 3.3-6). The two “light”s at the end of lines 3 and 4 create an epistrophe, which Milton follows with the two lines split into halves by their repeated words, “dwelt” and “bright.” A little further into the Book, the speaker describes Adam and Eve “Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love, / Uninterrupted joy, unrivalled love” (Milton 3.67-8). The line break delineates line 68 as an opportunity to return to the ideas of “joy” and “love” and clarify their meanings. One other example, among many, is the Father’s words to the Son:
I will clear their senses dark,
What may suffice, and soften stony hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due.
To prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
Though but endeavoured with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut. (Milton 3.188-93)
The epistrophe of “due” in lines 190 and 191 follows on the alliteration of “suffice, and soften stony,” fostering an ambience of returning to ideas, of growing used to them, and so of being able to sit with them affectively rather than needing to think about them carefully. The above passage is a literary version of Poulain’s “slow sequence of single glances upon one and the same object” (586), where the recurring object is a word or sound. These repetitions slow the plot to give the reader the textual “room” (Poulain 586) necessary to experience the poem’s affect.
Poulain counsels that, once the precant is in this state of simplicity, they no longer seek truth and instead sit passive, ready to accept and take pleasure in the truth that God reveals to them (587). Pleasure is a part of affective prayer, but only if it is pleasure derived from God’s truth. The precant should not pray in an attempt to feel pleasure but should be open to accept the pleasure of God’s truth if He offers it to them. Of course, Milton is not God, and he cannot provide the truth that God can. But, as Maggie Kilgour argues, he can provide pleasure. Kilgour posits two forms of pleasure in Paradise Lost: that which the reader gets from reading (2) and that which “gives life meaning” for Adam and Eve in Eden (3). For both Milton’s reader and characters, “pleasure is a form of knowledge, a way of understanding and experiencing the self, world, others, and God” (Kilgour 5). The rule of pleasure as knowledge impacts the speaker’s ability to describe God in Book 3 of Paradise Lost. The Book opens with two questions in which the speaker seeks God: “May I express thee unblamed?” (Milton 3.3) and “Whose fountain who shall tell?” (Milton 3.8). Questions are not the way to enter into affective prayer. And, just as Poulain might expect, these questions have an adverse effect on the speaker’s approach to God. He complains to his Muse, “but thou / Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn” (Milton 3.22-4). The eyes “roll[ing] in vain” mirror a precant who seeks God actively and so cannot rest in enjoyment of His truth.
Milton’s reader has an opportunity to sit in the pleasure of God’s presence later in Book 3. The poem is filled with repetitive devices which reassure the reader that they do not have to seek God’s presence because the speaker is making sure that they understand the information provided to them. For example, as they praise the Son’s offer to atone for the humans’ sin, the angels remind the Father that he “much more to pity incline” (Milton 3.402). Only three lines later, they describe the Son as “much more to pity inclined” (Milton 3.405). The repetition of this phrase enables Milton’s reader to enjoy the truth of God’s pity, reminded of it again and again. This section of the Book extends to the angels’ description of the Son’s sacrifice, singing to the Father:
He [the Son] to appease thy wrath, and end the strife
Of mercy and justice in thy face discerned,
Regardless of the bliss wherein he sat
Second to thee, offered himself to die
For man’s offence. (Milton 3.406-10)
By this point in the Book, the poem’s speaker has already narrated the conversation between the Father and the Son in which they agree to give the Son to redeem the humans (Milton 3.80-271). The repetition and summarization in lines 406-10 suggest that these lines provide literary “room” (Poulain 586) for Milton’s reader to sit in the pleasure of knowing God’s pity and love for humans.
Poulain insists that this state of simplicity and passive enjoyment of truth must be prolonged. The prayer needs to take longer than is comfortable for the precant, because “[f]or a very brief space … [e]verybody can do it,” so (Poulain 587). The length of affective prayer sets it apart from simple contemplation. Length is certainly a challenge in Book 3 of Milton’s poem. The Father’s first two speeches, for example, are almost fifty lines each (Milton 3.80-134; 3.168-216). Being in God’s presence and enjoying what He says require of Milton’s reader a lengthy commitment, a lot of time spent looking at and engaging with the page. The reader’s time commitment expands beyond the Father’s speeches, of course, to the time that they give to reading all twelve Books of Paradise Lost. Michael Edson describes the process of reading Paradise Lost, particularly its allegories, in its entirety “as a temporal experience, as an unfolding of meaning over time” (199). David Ainsworth also emphasizes this temporal aspect of the poem when he describes a “fit reading” of Milton as “a continuing process, a continual struggle” (5). The time commitment that these scholars recognize in Paradise Lost stands out in Book 3 because it is juxtaposed to the momentary glances and simultaneity that characterize divine sight. Milton’s speaker explains that God sits in Heaven, “His own works and their works at once to view” (3.59, my emphasis). Not much farther into the Book, Milton reiterates that “past, present, future he [God] beholds” (Milton 3.78). The asyndeton between “past, present, future” underlines God’s experience of these times all at once. God sees everything always, unlike the reader who moves through time even as they read lines that describe God’s timelessness. The timelessness of Heaven is also evident after the Father’s first speech, when the speaker describes, “Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance filled / All Heav’n” (Milton 3.135-6). The “while” alerts the reader that the following description of the “ambrosial fragrance” and the angels’ reaction to God happens simultaneously with His speech. But, the reader is left out of this experience of simultaneity, instead needing to sit with the scene for a prolonged time, first hearing God’s words and only then receiving the description of those words’ effects. Milton again points to a simultaneity unavailable to the reader when Book 3 shifts back to Satan: “Meanwhile upon the firm opacous globe / Of this round world … / … / Satan alighted walks” (3.418-22, my emphasis). The first and second halves of Book 3 take place at the same time, but Milton narrates the events in a way that forces the reader to spend time with God and then make a transition back to Satan’s part of the story.
In a similar way, Poulain explains that the precant may transition into affective prayer from any other form of prayer. He uses the analogy of a carefully-pruned garden bordering on a wild forest. It is appropriate to start on a path in the “open garden” of set prayer methods, in which the precant use others’ words or guidance to plan their prayer time (Poulain 588). But affective prayer is the practice in which “these paths merge into woods,” woods where the precant can feel their affection for God with more freedom and enter a state more mystical than meditative (Poulain 588). Poulain points out that St. Ignatius, even after writing a set method of prayer called the Spiritual Exercises, “kept to the spirit rather than to the letter” when practising them (588). Milton’s reader has an opportunity for “developing their own readerly fitness” (Ainsworth 5) when they transition from the “garden” of Heaven—where the Father clearly and factually explains what was, is, and will be happening—to the “forest” of the last 300 lines of Book 3, where they are once again in danger of believing Satan’s sharp wit. Much like St. Ignatius, Milton’s reader in the second half of Book 3 cannot depend on the “letter” of what they heard in the first half. They were made privy to the details of God’s plans, but they have moved temporally beyond those lines of the poem. The reader is now left with the “inability to read the poem with any confidence in his [sic] responses” (Fish 3-4). The reader can only depend on the “spirit” of the first half of Book 3 to remind them of why they cannot trust Satan, no matter how charming or alluring he is.
Another result of affective prayer is “thinking of God or of His presence in a confused and general manner”—understanding the “spirit” more than the “letter,” as it were (Poulain 589). Poulain describes the precant’s imagination of God being “blurred and without details,” a more general sense of God that conjures up many different thoughts and emotions at a glance (589). While the second half of Book 3 moves away from God, giving the reader room to remember God “in a confused and general manner,” Milton’s descriptions of God and Heaven in the earlier part of the Book are much more specific than would be appropriate for affective prayer. One obvious example is the speaker’s extended description of the amaranth in the angels’ crowns:
[C]rowns inwove with amarant and gold,
Immortal amarant, a flow’r which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for man’s offence
To Heav’n removed where first it grew, there grows,
And flow’rs aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of Heav’n
Rolls o’er Elysian flow’rs her amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks inwreathed with beams. (Milton 3.352-61)
Milton here fills ten lines with an explanation of one small detail of the angels’ appearance. He expands from a description of the type of flower they are wearing into a history of where that flower grows and has grown and its role in Heavenly beauty. This literary meditation on such a fine detail does not reflect the mystical experience of affective prayer’s “general” and “blurred” (Poulain 589) conception of divinity.
No matter how practised the precant may be in sitting with the blurred generalizations of affective prayer, it “requires effort at times, especially in order to curtail distractions” (Poulain 589-90). Poulain compares the precant to a boat that is pushed forward by “the wind of [God’s] grace” blowing in its sails (590). “When the vessel’s sails are not unfurled,” Poulain analogizes, “the oars must take their place” (590). Here, Poulain frames his description in the tradition of describing the Holy Spirit, which brings grace and guidance to Christians, as a wind. This image of the Holy Spirit is most famously presented in the Gospel of John, when Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “[t]he wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Word on Fire Bible, John 3:8). Poulain’s precant experiences affective prayer as a gift from God, coming and going like the wind, not caused by their effort or will. But, they must maintain their “affectionate remembrance of God” (Poulain 589) by putting their oars into the water—that is, through their own efforts to avoid and deny distractions. One example of such a distraction is Milton’s meditation on the amaranth. That is not to say that the reader should skip over that passage. But, the time that Milton spends describing the angels’ appearance could lead to distraction from the presence of God in the poem, against which the reader or precant would have to row.
The oars of Poulain’s precant are comparable to the “often laborious hermeneutic process” (Ainsworth 1) that Milton places before his reader. Just as Poulain believes that God punishes a precant’s negligence “by diminishing His graces” (592), so Ainsworth argues that a Christian reader of Milton might understand that “God enables right reading to take place, but proper interpretation remains [H]is conditional gift” (3). For both Ainsworth and Poulain, humans must put forth some form of effort to be in a proper state to experience God. Milton’s speaker makes the effort of Paradise Lost obvious when he describes the difficult shift from Book 2 to Book 3:
Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,
Escaped the Stygian pool, though long detained
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th’ Orphean lyre
I sung of Chaos and eternal Night,
Taught by the Heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare. (Milton 3.13-21)
The enjambment through lines 14–18 creates a sense of breathlessness as Milton’s speaker reminds his reader of how far their “flight” (3.15) has been already. The poem’s speaker describes his work with the poem so far in the passive voice of “Taught by the Heav’nly Muse” (Milton 3.19). Milton’s use of the passive voice here is comparable to Poulain’s winds of grace, which enable the precant—the poet and the reader—to accept passively what comes to them from God or from the “Heav’nly Muse.” But, “to reascend” into Heaven, where most of Book 3 takes place, is “hard and rare” (Milton 3.20-1), requiring the poet and reader to put in effort, like Poulain’s precant steering with their oars. Kilgour puts a positive spin on this required effort, suggesting that Milton’s Eden is a place where humans can take pleasure in labour (7). The hermeneutic demands that Milton makes of his reader give the reader pleasurable work to do alongside Adam and Eve (Kilgour 7). The reader or precant can take solace in the fact that the necessity of their putting forth effort does not mean that the effort has to be painful.
Throughout his description of these various aspects of affective prayer, Poulain reiterates the fact that this form of prayer must begin with a simplified intellect; that is, an intellect that has room for “a slow sequence of single glances upon one and the same object” (586). This repetition enables the precant to experience “sentiments of love, praise, gratitude, respect, submission, [and] contrition” for and towards God (Poulain 586). In a similar way, Milton uses an abundance of repetitive rhetorical devices as he describes God for the first time in Book 3 of Paradise Lost. These repetitions do not result in a reading experience directly analogous to the experience of affective prayer. Still, the shared aspect of repetition points to the fact that both affective prayer and the third Book of Paradise Lost provide an opportunity to enjoy rather than seek truth (Poulain 587), to engage in a practice for a prolonged time (Poulain 587), to move from a “garden” of others’ guidance into the “forest” of their own thoughts (Poulain 588), and to put forth effort when distractions threaten their concentration (Poulain 590).
Of course, Meek and Sullivan explain that “emotion in this [early modern] period did not follow a single template or social script, but rather was made up of multiple intellectual traditions and literary practices” (18). My essay has explored the implications of only one of these “templates,” framing affective prayer as a “script” that Milton’s reader both follows and improvises on throughout the poem, regardless of whether or not Milton himself was aware of or subscribed to that “script.” There are a plethora of possible “templates” and “scripts” of emotion even within the Jesuit tradition, much less other religious practices and other cultural institutions such as “political performance, or rhetorical and dramaturgical style” (Meek 5). I hope that my discussion of affective prayer is also an invitation for other scholars to contemplate which frameworks of emotion inform their readings of any section of Paradise Lost.
Works Cited

Ainsworth, David. Milton and the Spiritual Reader: Reading and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. Routledge, 2008. Taylor and Francis Group E-Books, doi:10.4324/9780203926680.

Edson, Michael. “Feeling Allegory: Affect, Metaphor, and Milton’s Eighteenth-Century Reception.” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, vol. 26, 2021, pp. 178-203.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. St. Martin’s P, 1967.

Kilgour, Maggie. “The Pleasure of Milton.” Milton Studies, vol. 63, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-10. Project MUSE, Accessed 14 Feb. 2022.

Meek, Richard, and Erin Sullivan. “Introduction.” The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan, Manchester U P, 2015, pp. 1-22.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 2000. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Poulain, Augustine. “Affective Prayer: From The Graces of Interior Prayer.” The Fellowship of the Saints: An Anthology of Christian Devotional Literature, edited by Thomas S. Kepler, Abington-Cokesbury Press, 1960, pp. 585-93.

Tallon, Andrew. “Christianity.” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, edited by John Corrigan, Oxford U P, 2008, pp. 111-24.

The Word on Fire Bible. New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, Word on Fire, 2020.

Date submitted: September 28, 2022

Date accepted: January 24, 2023

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