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Some Versions of Paradise

ISSUE:  Spring 1987
Paradise Preserved: Recreations of Eden in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England. By Max Schultz. Cambridge. $39.50.
Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century. By Dustin Griffin. Cambridge. $29.95.

Nearly all mythologies, the anthropologists tell us, contain some story of a Golden Age, a primal state of virtue, order, and simplicity in which mankind began and to which—if he exercises all those virtues—he may return. In our own culture references to Eden abound, from the literal paradises of millennarians to the more fanciful and attenuated metaphoric uses of the idea by everyone from landscape gardeners to social theorists. In the Renaissance philosophy teachers like Thomas Wilson and Thomas Spencer promised that study of their logic textbooks would (as Spencer wrote in 1628) “heal the wound received in our reason by Adams fall.” In the 18th century, Lord Bolingbroke persuaded many, including Alexander Pope, that paradise on earth might be regained if only England could be guided by an ideal political leader, a “patriot king”: then, wrote Bolingbroke, “a new people will seem to arise” and “innumerable metamorphoses, like those which poets feign, will happen in very deed.” (Meanwhile, literary critics such as John Dennis promised similar results from a moral reformation of poetry.) Bolingbroke, of course, was not a Christian, much as he called upon the language of his religious heritage. In the same way, non- and anti-Christian visionaries of the 19th century proclaim the return of Eden through the reorganization of labor—a paradisical workers’ state in which the human spirit will be set free so that every man may become an Aristotle (Marx) and even nature itself will be transfigured, so that, in one account, the seas will run not with water but with beer (Fourier).

The history of such notions is in part the history of Utopian dreaming, such as Frank Manuel and others have recounted well. In a venturesome survey of poetry, novel-writing, painting, landscape gardening, urban design, and interior decoration, Max Schultz attempts a history of British efforts to recapture Eden through art from about 1720 to 1890. Beginning with the 18th-century “gardening lords” who oversaw the creation of such masterpieces as Stowe and Stourhead, proceeding to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 (an “urban hortus conclusus” cluttered inside like a rooming-house from Dickens), and concluding with Whistler’s Peacock Room (a Tennysonian Palace of Art in the form of a dining room, constructed 1876—77 and now in the Freer Gallery in Washington), Schultz finds a single historical trend guiding all the arts: “the gradual westernizing and urbanizing of a new paradise . . .in its cultural metamorphosis from natural garden to civilized metropolis to decorative abstraction.” Along the way, as paradise moves inward and finally, in aestheticized form, leaves nature behind altogether, we hear of Blake and Samuel Palmer, Coleridge and Thomas Bewick, Wordsworth and Constable, Turner, Rossetti and Aubrey Beardsley.

Schultz’s project is immense, and so we cannot be surprised that he only partially succeeds. Finding Edenic reference at work every time an artist idealizes nature, Schultz can exclude no major work of art from his purview; but no one can master all of these materials, so that most of Paradise Preserved—particularly its discussions of the 18th century— simply reviews current wisdom on particular artists. And of course there is the problem of looking only at the arts (so that we don’t hear about Bolingbroke or Dennis, Marx or St. Simon). Recreating Eden is not a specifically aesthetic project, and treating it as such cripples historical explanation. Separating off the arts too easily leads, for instance, to vague gesturing toward broad cultural trends (Schultz writes of Blake’s relation to his predecessors: “In short, the age was calling forth new sensibilities, nurtured contradictorily by revolutionary ardor and fin de siècle pessimism, democratic winds and humanitarian sympathies, industrial disruption and Naturphilosophie”). And separating off the arts results all too predictably in a history whose overall shape exactly parallels the most commonly accepted account of the development of general art theory from Augustan mimesis (imitation of external nature) through Romantic expressivism to late Victorian notions of artistic autonomy and art for art’s sake.

A less blinkered historical approach—and selection of evidence—would surely have produced a different story. Let us merely consider two examples Schultz omits (examples suggested by his neglect, in discussing landscape gardening, of the houses and working estates to which those gardens were attached). In 1719, Daniel Defoe told a story of paradise regained by an individual soul through the process of religious conversion. Robinson Crusoe, hardened in what he calls his “original sin” (a “wandering inclination”), washes up on a wilderness “Island of Despair.” Consumed by fear, Crusoe at first stays close to shore; only after storm and sickness have precipitated his conversion does he explore his island’s mountainous uplands. Just at that moment, as a reward from providence, he discovers hidden in a mountain valley a delicious garden, rich in Biblically named fruits whose abundance requires no laborious tending. Defoe carefully shapes the scene to recall Eden, here as the externalization of and reward for inward spiritual rebirth. Nearby Crusoe builds his “country house,” and from this point on he begins to collect his servants and to style himself “lord of the manor”; from this point, his island becomes a kind of do-it-yourself spiritual Pemberley.

How can we explain what Defoe has done, and relate it to the story Schultz tells? Defoe devotes little attention to the physical details of Crusoe’s garden: in this novel, “nature” is always fallen nature, requiring displacement by grace. Here as in nearly all early 18th-century literature, particularized landscape description serves a localized emblematic function. Crusoe’s garden is important precisely as his true “estate”—as the locus of disciplined labor, physical and spiritual (the first an emblem of the second), first individual and then social. What Defoe has done is in part to mix, in prose narrative, the 17th-century forms of religious georgic and country-house poetry. In doing so he has bequeathed to the novel a device that will sustain it for 250 years, in Jane Austen’s Pemberley, Forster’s Howard’s End, Evelyn Waugh’s King’s Thursday, even Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. It is the Eden of georgic rather than pastoral, related among the visual arts not to Stowe or Stourhead so much as to much older devotional forms of art.

To take a second example: 32 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, Thomas Hardy tells a very different story in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The fraudulent Alec D’Urberville’s country place, aptly named The Slopes, its new red brick and forced roses in stark contrast to the ancient greenery around it, is a fallen bower (what Schultz calls a “tainted garden”). But if we wish to relate Hardy’s tale to Defoe’s, we must note—as Hardy is at pains to remind us—that The Slopes is merely a garden, not a farm: not Pemberley but suburbia. (As land severed from productive use and unnaturally given artistic form, The Slopes seems an instance— paradoxically—of Schultz’ late Victorian aestheticized Eden.) But more generally, we must understand Hardy’s special commitments in creating the gardens with which he fills Tess. All of them—from Blakemore Vale, where Tess is born but never at home, to Salisbury Plain, where she begins to feel at home but is taken away to be hanged—are fallen gardens: in all of them “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings.” And unlike Defoe, who gives Crusoe only the most shadowy historical identity, Hardy not only locates Tess concretely in time but makes her a representative of the ancient family of D’Urberville. Hardy gives Tess her lineage, and makes all her gardens fallen ones, because he means to identify history itself—both natural and human—with the Fall; as he explains in his Autobiography, our biological and psychological being has evolved beyond the capacity to yield us happiness. And through a subtle association of motion with change and finally with history, Hardy makes Tess a wayfarer whose every change of place embodies a further unwitting declension from a paradise irretrievably lost. (As Tony Tanner once put it in discussing Tess, only what moves can crash.)

What kind of history would it be which could take us from Crusoe’s garden to Tess? First of all, no narrowly literary history could do so: we would need to hear as much about Christianity and social structure, history and evolution as about the novels themselves. Nor will descriptive accounts of their gardens help; their functions differ too radically. Continuities of course exist, such as use—differing use—of the ideal country estate. But unless history is to be mere collage, we must build our account upon precisely these differences of function, genre, and period—upon the ways particular devices change as they participate in different generic contexts (georgic or mock-heroic or novel) and as genres themselves change through periods (Augustan or Victorian novel). And of course we need to find appropriate ways to relate all these in the different arts.

Where Schultz is ambitious and expansive, Dustin Griffin is all caution. Regaining Paradise treats only one period, the Augustan age; only one source of literary reference, Milton; and only one of the arts, literature (mainly poetry). And Griffin is acutely conscious of genre—so much so that early on he writes, “We do not yet know enough about literary history to explain why certain genres rise or fall in popularity, or exactly why a given poet adopts or avoids a given genre.” Given such extreme caution, we might be surprised that Griffin attempts literary history at all; in fact he does so only in a very limited way. Regaining Paradise is not, as its title suggests, a history of Edenic reference, or even of uses of Milton’s version of the story; only one chapter, and that not the longest or best in the book, attempts this task. Instead, Griffin has set out to explode a particular view of literary history—and of Milton’s place in it—that has gained wide currency in our time: the theory, devised 25 years ago by Walter Jackson Bate and since elaborated by Harold Bloom and his followers, of “the burden of the past.”

In The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, Bate pictured an Augustan period intimidated and oppressed by the weight of past literary masterpieces, especially by Milton. Milton made it impossible for later poets like Dryden and Pope to fulfill their dream of writing an epic; he spawned inferior imitations while strangling the genius of Gray and Collins. (In Bloom’s neo-Freudian version, Milton becomes the “strong” poetic father who must symbolically be killed.) The result is that literature remains tedious and derivative until about 1760, when consciously revolutionary writers shake off the fetters of tradition and set out to create anew.

Looking back now at The Burden of the Past, we can see it as very much the product of its author and time. What passed unnoticed in 1972 now stands out: the references to the campus unrest of the late 1960’s and the attempt to sell to students the study of something so seemingly “irrelevant” as Augustan poetry by arguing that the revolutionary concerns of the 1760’s parallel those of the 1960’s. Bate, moreover (like Bloom), is essentially a Romanticist rather than a student of the Restoration and 18th century; he is finally bored by Augustan literature and projects his boredom backward to the Augustans themselves. More subtly, he projects backward a Romantic sense of the relation of poetry to other literary forms, thereby allowing himself to ignore the flood of innovation in prose forms in his picture of the post-Miltonic malaise.

Griffin’s response to Bate and Bloom proceeds not through such (nearly ad hominem) considerations, though he does suggestively link their views to earlier discussions of Milton and his influence by Eliot, Leavis, and R.D. Havens. Instead, in a series of chapters organized first by genre (including translation and adaptation), then by particular authors (Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Johnson, and Cowper), Griffin demonstrates case by case that Milton’s influence on the century that followed was liberating rather than oppressive— that Augustan writers made creative use of Milton through the new directions and opportunities his work provided. Regaining Paradise is not continuous history, and much here is familiar (though often—as in the chapter on Johnson— presented in a more balanced and useful fashion than heretofore). Griffin is at his best in treating single genres: a fine section on mock-epic reminds us how much Augustan practice owes to the comic elements in Milton’s presentation of Satan and the war in heaven, while the most original section of the book finds Milton to have invented the “evening poem” in English. Paradise Lost did not kill the English epic, Griffin suggests, but rather helped to sustain an already dying form. Especially if read in conjunction with Margaret Doody’s recent survey of Augustan literary innovation, The Daring Muse (Cambridge, 1984), Griffin succeeds in making it impossible to believe any longer in a Miltonic “burden of the past.”

In one important respect, however, Griffin—unlike Doody—does give up ground to his opposition: in his judgment about where Milton—or the Milton of Paradise Lost— falls in literary history. It was essential to Bate and Bloom’s accounts that Paradise Lost (first published in the late 1660’s, when Dryden’s career was already well under way) is not an Augustan but a Renaissance poem—that is, a great work of the previous age. Griffin himself appears to accept this judgment, even in discussing Dryden’s personal acquaintance with Milton. But all the evidence we have from the 1660’s to the 1740’s suggests that Dryden, Pope, and Thomson saw Milton as their contemporary, and thought of Paradise Lost not as a great work of a past age but of their own. It is only in the 1750’s, as writers like Joseph Warton, Thomas Gray, and Richard Hurd begin to rewrite literary history for their own polemical purposes (rejecting French models and elevating older, Italian, and more northerly traditions) that Paradise Lost begins to slip backward in literary history. The process is gradual, and at first most rejected the new judgment: Johnson, for instance, placed Milton third in his history of the poetry of his own time, the Lives of the Poets, partly as an express rebuttal to the new Warton-Gray literary history. By the Romantic period, however, the relocation of Milton is complete—and the stage set for Bate and Bloom’s misreading of the poets who in fact saw Paradise Lost as their own age’s triumph in the epic form and Milton’s version of the Eden story as peculiarly their own.


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