Thomas Ramey Watson

Perversions, Originals, and Redemptions in Paradise Lost


The main argument of Thomas Watson’s book is to highlight how John Milton accepts and adapts Augustine’s concept of signs as the means by which humankind discerns the immanence of God in the human condition. Using biblical typology as a point of departure, whereby the Hebraic scriptures are interpreted as prefigurations of the Christian New Testament, Augustine and Milton developed a sign theory or semiotics. Milton’s achievement is to dramatize this sign theory in his major poetry, especially his 12-book epic, Paradise Lost. That is to say, in the epic, Milton’s God has inscribed into his Creation the signs that humankind must properly read and interpret. Accordingly, in the epic there are instances of Adam and Eve interacting with one another, or with others (whether Raphael or Satan, for instance), rightly and wrongly. That is, the choices made by Adam and Eve are right or wrong depending upon whether they have or have not correctly discerned the will of God. One of the ironies to illustrate the implications of discernment involves Eve’s separation from Adam at the outset of Book IX in Paradise Lost. While separated from her husband, Eve notices that the male and female principles in the garden, respectively the tree and vine, are disunited; and she reunites them. But she remains oblivious of the implications of her horticulture, for she would have rapidly reunited with Adam if she had discerned how the very actions she performed signify how she should have remained alongside her spouse.

The remarkable achievement of this manuscript, however, is to explicate how “signs” are evident in the very language of the epic, how, that is, the very language is informed with significance. To my knowledge this study is innovative in its outlook and explication.

The book is effectively organized. It begins with the context and framework of Augustinian “sign theory, and Milton’s adaptation thereof. Proceeding next to accentuate the conflict between the City of God and City of Man, the book uses such schematic opposition to contrast the godhead in Paradise Lost with the satanic underworld. And the site of the contest between these two entities is Earth in Milton’s epic. The success of the book’s organization is manifested in the trajectory of Adam and Eve’s downfall, for these characters did not heed God’s signs on Earth; thereafter, however, the trajectory of their regeneration and the reconstructive aftermath of the Fall ensue. Especially important is the book’s emphasis on Adam’s dream-vision in Books XI and XII of the epic and the instruction that he receives from the Archangel Michael in reading signs.

The book develops sign theory with reference to Paradise Lost in exciting and new directions. No other study, to my knowledge, is as comprehensive and systematic and detailed in doing so. The research is extensive, the citations from secondary resources are apt, and the contributions in original thinking and interpretation are extraordinary.

Albert C. Labriola
Duquesne University

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