The Bible runs in the marrow of the literature of early modern England, in a culture that felt itself to have newly minted access to the scriptures, both through the vernacular translations of the Bible—most potently in the Geneva (1560) and Authorized Version (1611), but equally in the Latin that constituted the basis of early modern education, and increasingly Greek and Hebrew. The Reformation was as much about the habits and styles of reading the Bible as about the plain fact of the language in which it was rendered, and across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a great deal of vernacular literature owed both its subject matter and its habits to its engagement with the Bible. The period saw an unprecedented swell in the uses to which the Bible was put and the constituency of readers who felt invested in its interpretation. It was a text that might, as Philip Sidney put it, “imitate the unconceivable excellencies of God” in its poetics, or that, according to Gerrard Winstanley, could “threaten misery to rich men, bidding them howl and weep” in its politics (Sidney, 1999, p. 345; Winstanley, 2009, p. 504). This latter rendering of the Bible’s radicalism is testament to its potency as a common point of reference across both elite and nonelite cultures: that the early modern scriptures, in a culture whose literacy and whose biblical literacy was unparalleled, were a key source of thought, not only “religious,” diffuse as that is, but moral, political, and philosophical (Hill, 1993; Shuger, 1994).

While allusion to the biblical is ubiquitous and can be found woven deep in the fabric of early modern literature—whether in Shakespeare and Spenser, or its diffuse presence in the religious lyric of Herbert or Donne—this essay will restrict itself to the works that immerse themselves, albeit always in transformative fashion, in the Bible, its stories, and its language (Hamlin, 2013; Kaske, 2000; Lewalski, 1979; Marx, 2000). The lodestone and high point of biblical literature are, no doubt, John Milton’s poetic works, Paradise Lost (1667), Samson Agonistes, and Paradise Regained (1671), works of unrivaled and sublime sweep that epitomize a culture swamped in the biblical but also tend to render invisible the vast quantities of poetic or meditative attention to the Bible in writings that are now little read.

One of the most admired of works in the English Renaissance was French—Guillaume de Saluste, Sieur du Bartas’s Divine Weeks (1578 and 1584), a work that paraphrased much of the Old Testament, the “week” of the creation and the long “week” of all Judean history, the kings, captivities, and the providential interventions. The popularity of this text and its translation into English by Joshua Sylvester (1598, 1604) is all the more strange in a work that is sometimes seen, in modern critical eyes, as virtually unreadable, but it has a claim to being the most popular poem of the era, extensively quoted and widely admired. Its rendering of biblical events is unabashedly lurid and amplifies the spare biblical prose into something approaching melodrama. In the Syrian siege of Samaria (2 Kgs 6:28–29), famine is the most brutal enemy. When one woman complains to King Joram that her neighbor has not kept the cannibalistic promise to slaughter her child after they agreed to eat each other’s in turn, the description involves both bouncy baby, close-ups of dripping chins, and descriptions of prolonged gourmandizing on the flesh:

I, and my Neighbour desperately agreed,Jointly to eate, successively, our seed;Our owne deer Children: and (O luck-les Lot!)Mine first of all, is destin’d to the Pot …I taste him first, I first the feast begin,His blood (my blood) runs round about my Chin,My Childe returns, re-breeding in my Womb;And of my Flesh my Flesh is shamefull Tomb: …But she, she layes it in, she greedy plyes-it,And all night long she sits to gourmandize-it.

( [1611], pp. 610–611)

This fastidious epicureanism in the midst of the city siege borders on but is not comic. Du Bartas immerses his readers in the every tumultuous emotion, even prophetic fury and godly outrage to be mined from the pages of the Old Testament. He remains on the literary landscape primarily as a footnote to Milton—his first “Week,” narrating Genesis 1–3, a source for much of the era’s interest in the creation. But his influence was far greater. His Divine Weeks rendered its scriptures both sensational and political and became a model for how biblical paraphrase might serve intertwined devotional and political purposes. Paraphrase of the Bible—whether individual stories, whole books, the commandments, or the Lord’s Prayer—involved amplification and digression, to multiple ends. At times, the neglect of such para-scriptural work can be ascribed to its not being the most compelling prose or poetry, but it is also the case that we fail to register how electric an issue the interpretation of a biblical moment might be. A correlate of this neglect in our literary memory is the occlusion of much women’s writing.

Women’s remit and license to write religious poetry has sometimes been taken to characterize the nonpublic limits of their activity. Though in some ways this may be accurate, it also seriously misrepresents the biblical in early modern culture and the intrinsically public set of meanings that accrued around a text known so intimately. A large number of women wrote biblical paraphrases, or Psalm translations, that both deploy and constitute cumulatively the culture’s shared discursive language: among them the most compelling are Aemilia Lanyer, Anne Southwell, Mary Roper, and Mary Sidney (see, e.g., Hamlin, 2004; Narveson, 2012; Osherow, 2009). That several of these remain in, or have only recently been transcribed from, manuscript tells us less than it might about their public nature in a culture that, right through the seventeenth century, continued to value scribal and secretary “publication” as much as print.

This is not to say that female interpretation goes uncontested in a culture whose passing and deep-seated misogyny is strong. Anne Southwell, in her Decalogue Poetry (transcribed, ca. 1626), anticipating objections to her interpretative paraphrases, likens her writing to the act of godly female assassins Jael (Judg 4 and 5) and Judith, who by violence and stealth—the one with a nail through the temple and the second a beheading, both with a whiff of seductress—destroy the nation’s Canaanite and Assyrian enemies, figured by Southwell as ignorance and interpretative timidity, an unwillingness to pursue knowledge “as farre as finite dust may know”:

& now mee thinkes I heare some wizzard sayHow dares this foolish woman bee soe bold?Ask Jahells nayle that Siseraes head did stay& Judiths sword that made her hot love coldHee that enabled them, enables mee.Yf thou seeke knowledge hee’l enable theeHow cloudye is that soule that will not seekeTo know as farre as finite dust may knowe.

(Southwell, Folger Miscellany MS V.b.198, stanza 24, 2005, p. 67)

Female authors are also ready to utilize print. The popular quasi-scriptural literature of Du Bartas might be paired with Anne Dowriche, whose long and fiery poem The French History (1589) is a tale of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacres in 1572. This event was the key reference point for Protestantism’s conception of itself as besieged not just by the spiritual but the military forces of Catholicism-as-Antichrist, an identification so frequent and familiar in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that it almost loses its taint of vitriol.

Dowriche’s poem is a phenomenal work of biblical transposition and is as politically engaged as anything produced in the era, certainly giving the lie to any suggestion that female writers were reluctant to engage in political writing (on Dowriche, see Matchinske, 2009, pp. 20–44). This is a substantial historical-political work, albeit historical in the early modern typological sense, whereby sacred history and sacred war reiterates and is the template for all subsequent history and battle. The poem opens with the narrator coming upon a weeping exile from the massacre, lost and bewildered in the forest, wailing for France and wailing for Judah, countries left as wilderness for failing in their providential duties to ensure the proper and nonidolatrous worship of God:

Why was the Lord with Saul so wrath and full of ireIn sparing Agag and the beasts the people did desire?For he had now accursed both Agag and his landCommanding Saul without remorse to kill them out of hand.

(The French History, 1589, ll. 51–54)

In this biblical tale (1 Sam 15), Agag, the Amalekite king, is spared in what might be an act of clemency or an act of greed by King Saul, who in so doing has transgressed Samuel’s instruction to destroy the enemies wholly. France, in not following through its nascent reformation, reiterates the formative Old Testament crimes, Saul’s failure of zeal: “For thou with Juda land has done thy God great wrong / To serve and set up other gods to run a-whoring long” (ll. 67–68). The narrator goes on to tell the street-by-street outrages in the city, all the text bounding back and forth between France and Israel, figured in Foxean manner as martyr to Catholic rage. In one passage, the soon-to-be martyr Annas Burgeus runs through a set of scriptural totemic objects by which Judah defended itself against its range of enemies:

This is the blessed ark that came to Edom’s hall,For which the Lord has blessing sent on him, his house and all.This is the dusty book which good Hilkiah found,Which read before the King did give a sweet and silver sound.This is the angel which to Gideon did appear,This is the dew upon the fleece, which set him void of fear.This is the sword that made blind Balaam’s ass to speak.This is the flame the prophet forced his silence forth to break.

(The French History, ll. 591–598)

Dowriche is undoubtedly a learned poet, but what to most twenty-first-century readers are obscure references are anything but obscure to her contemporaries, and increasingly, over the course of the seventeenth century, it becomes the natural language of political reference—familiar in sermons, tracts, and devotional work, as well as in literary renderings of the scriptures.

Among the recently discovered and published texts is Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder, which retells the Old Testament with a distinctly republican inflection. The work was attributed to her in David Norbrook’s 2001 edition of the poem. Its opening five cantos (published in 1679, but attributed to her brother, Sir Allen Apsley) constitute the story of the Creation, Fall, and expulsion, and the preface explains her writing the epic as “a strong antidote against all the poison of human wit and wisdom that I had been dabbling withal,” this being her translation of Lucretius, whose atheist epic she had rendered into English in the late 1650s. Order and Disorder, however, serves various purposes, not least its extensive and intertwined politics of state and politics of marriage:

And every burden is made light by loveYet golden fetters, soft-lined yokes, still beThough gentler curbs, but curbs of liberty,As well as harsh tyrant’s iron yoke;More sorely galling them whom they provokeTo loathe their bondage and despise the ruleOf an unmanly fickle, forward fool.


Hutchinson’s subtlety of biblical referencing in her thick marginalia is worth noting. The quotation begins with a side-reference to Genesis 29:20, Jacob’s seven-year service, or servitude, to Laban, to win Rachel, though the latter tricks him into seven years more, but the passage moves on to note 1 Samuel 25:25 alongside its “unmanly fickle, forward fool,” which reference is to “this man of Belial,” which had become a widely used point of shorthand for Cavaliers and Royalty. This is King Charles, and like Milton, Hutchinson is bracingly unrepentant (Norbrook, introduction to Hutchinson, 2001; Scott-Baumann, 2011).

Order and Disorder’s later cantos, 6–20, were not published alongside the earlier part in her lifetime but take the reader on, through a sacred history of Genesis, always ready to transpose its biblical moment to contemporary politics. The receding waters of the deluge, out of which mountains arise, are figured as the rising of a royalist swamp-creature in “Restoration”:

Yet as a prince who, long in prison bound,Comes squalid forth at first, untrimmed, uncrowned:So rose the mountains from th’imprisoning floodTheir faces slimed, their standards dropping mud …Again looked down on the sunk realm where theySo long space late captive and vanquished lay.But curb, fair hills, O curb your growing pride:He who above your covering clouds doth ride,Whose pity drew you from your low estate,When you insult will cast down your proud height.


Transposing Noah’s “Restoration” of the land into what royalists took to be the unmitigated celebration of the monarchy, Hutchinson makes the very land menacing, the “squalid” princes risen from it like Miltonic devils from their vanquished state, but warned that as mountains are toppled and leveled (Isa 2:12–19), for all their apparent stability, so monarchy is liable to the same destructive lash of providence. Such typological agility produces thoroughly impressive invective. The Bible, in a culture that was as at home in the Old as in the New Testament, allowed its readers to dip deep into its redolent and resonant anger to voice what could hardly otherwise be articulated.

If it is the case that much female poetry has, until recent decades, barely been read, the same might also be said of much poetry by men that is biblical in its idiom. Such poetry is characterized, however, as much by its diversity as its uniform nature—if sometimes the life of Christ might render its subject into devotional and meditational purposes, at other times the same stories can engage with the politics of Protestant apocalyptic isolationism. Among the annals of such largely unread poetry, we might note Giles Fletcher, Christ’s Victory and Triumph (1610); Nathaniel Richard, The Celestial Publican (1630); and Daniel Cudmore, Euchodia (1657); while the numerous uses to which Old Testament stories were put include Francis Quarles, Divine Poems (1633); Edmund Elys, Divine Poems (1659); Edmund Waller, Divine Poems (1685); and John Smith, The history of Joseph, or, A divine poem (1677). Though some of these have an occasional purchase on the literary memory, they remain largely unfamiliar alongside works that in their time were much admired, such as Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (1656), a neoclassical, unfinished rendering of the trials of David into a quasi-epic framework. Among the biblical poetry that has enjoyed a stronger and longer purchase on the literary imagination, it is often the case that its biblicism has been treated as peripheral or incidental, though the anachronism of this is stark.

Milton’s Samson Agonistes is one of the most perplexing and beautiful of seventeenth-century poems, but it is, to use Yeats’s enigmatic phrase for an Ireland born in violence, a terrible beauty. The Samson of Judges 13–16 is himself mysterious, his violence simultaneously elemental and petty, rescued exegetically from his brutality by Christological transposition. The logic by which a figure from the Hebrew scriptures has his “meaning” in the New Testament—and it is a logic deeply ingrained in early modern thought—is also at work in the way that an Old Testament figure can be typologically sprung and set to work to fathom seventeenth-century events. Milton’s Samson is, however, quite different from the biblical, his story condensing the few verses in which the captured Samson, blinded and bound, awaits a fate that he will foil with his suicide mission. This Samson in his tragic grandeur is as much a defeated Aeschylean hero as an Israelite. The parallels with Milton himself—blindness, defeatedness, and deadly stubborn defiance—are hard to resist, though a good deal of critical muscle has been exerted in refuting the association. The most convincing argument in this respect is the claim, by Joseph Wittreich and others, that the era more typically attributed negative qualities to the biblical Samson. This is only partially true, however (Serjeantson, 2009; Wittreich, 1986). Few if any commentators would doubt that he was a type of Christ, and many admired his brutal efficiency in repeatedly liberating Israel.

His loss and his agony—the term “agonistes” encompasses both exertion of spirit and (as Milton’s nephew, Edward Phillips, glossed cognates of the word) a feast and game, or “to play the chamption” (New World of English Words [1658], sig. B1v.)—are figured in the sensory deprivation in which this most physically brutal of characters experiences his intricate and delicate pain. Bodies such as his are not expected to feel so finely and suffer so exquisitely. Samson experiences a synesthesia of sounds, smells, and the touch of sun on worn limbs, as alternatives to the loss of delicate sight:

… if it be true That light is in the soul,She all in every part; why was the sightTo such a tender ball as the eye confined?So obvious and so easy to be quenched.

(Samson Agonistes, ll. 91–94)

Samson encounters, in the course of this static tragedy, a chorus of Israelites, whose lament for the loss of their former warrior leader hardly pierces his consciousness (“I hear the sound of words, their sense the air / dissolves unjointed ere it reach my ear”; ll. 176–177), and the poem moves through personal and national loss, his judgeship in ruins, and his father Manoa’s lament for the waste of greatness and God’s unfathomable ways, which can, as the chorus adds, “with hand so various” destroy every greatness in an instant (ll. 670–671).

If this Samson is a figure bordering on self-pity, however, his vigor, his temper, and his sheer contrarious verve returns in his next encounters. First is Dalila, whose protestations, whose apology, and whose measured reasoning receive only his devastating scorn as well as that of the chorus: “who is this, what thing of sea or land? / female of sex it seems, / That so bedecked, ornate and gay, / Comes this way sailing / Like a stately ship / of Tarsus” (ll. 710–715). Until convinced that Samson will hear nothing of what she says, she resolves to enjoy such reputation as the Philistines will bestow upon her and take upon herself the role of Jael, the female warrior, defiant about her part in Samson’s downfall. Next comes the invented figure of Harapha, a giant who only regrets he did not get to fight Samson when he was at full strength, to which boast Samson returns in full fighting mode that, blind or not, he would fight him still.

The poem, up to these encounters, has been metrically characterized by its brokenness, its lines of half-length, a hobbling of verse, but the revived Samson, his fighting spirit returned, returns also to the energies of Miltonic iambic pentameter, a form apparently suited to martial readiness, and his grand final heave of the Philistine temple, played out offstage. Much here is para-biblical; there are frequent echoes of the Satan of Paradise Lost, and the political vocabulary of Samson’s defeat echoes closely that of the civil war and broken republic:

What is more oft in nations grown corruptAnd by their vices brought to servitudeThan to love bondage more than libertyBondage with ease than strenuous liberty

(ll. 268–271)

But for all that this is language replete with the political inflection of the 1640s, 1650s, and 1660s, it is hardly less biblical for that in an era that so readily produced transpositions, reimagining the biblical into the present, hearing its own stories in those of Israel, and interpreting the present with the hermeneutic tools it more properly used on the Bible.

Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel takes a series of events around the rebellion of King David’s son and embellishes the story with enough witty and insinuating details to have the biblical tale that runs from 2 Samuel 13–18 parallel to deadly satiric effect the affairs of late seventeenth-century England, from the Republic, through to the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, encompassing with some sympathy and devilish typology the Jebusite-Jerusalemite Catholics of England, who serve as the object of a frenzy whipped up to instigate a rebellion. The wit of the work is just how finely the parallels fall into place, from the polygamy of David’s time in the sexually riotous court of Charles, from the coincidence of two years of Ishbosheth, son of Saul’s rule, to the two years of Richard, son of Oliver Cromwell’s rule, and on to the events of Absalom himself, steered and with Machiavellian guile manipulated by Achitophel, who figures the Earl of Shaftesbury as the prime Whig mover (and chief political beneficiary) of the panic that would not subside around a Catholic plot to take over the country and the Catholic king-in-waiting, James II, whom a broad Protestant coalition wished to exclude from the throne. At times Dryden’s political language is unambiguously of its time and wearing its partisan colors:

The Good Old Cause revived a plot requires:Plots, true or false are necessary thingsTo raise up commonwealths and ruin kings

(ll. 82–84)

For long stretches, however, it is the careful exegetical work of the poem that propels it forward—it could conceivably (almost) be read as biblical paraphrase, even while it renders biblical events as precursors of the rebellion that was the Exclusion Crisis—this is a poem that could only have been read and written in a culture finely attuned to typology. The poem worked its satirical effect to the extent that contemporaries constructed numerous lists that guessed who was being satirized in which biblical character—some of which were taken from other parts of scripture and superimposed on Samuel (Dryden, 2007; see also Zwicker, 1994). However, the poem worked first because if its early modern referents required a suggestive list, its biblical source required little or no footnoting. It is safe to say that every early modern reader would both know this common stock of stories and be so grounded in the practice of typology by which biblical affairs were transposed to echo, prefigure, and explain the present that the design of the poem, with its transpositions from scripture to early modern, was more or less commonplace among Anglicans, Royalists, and after them Tories as much as Puritans, Parliamentarians, and after them Whigs. This was common currency.

The cutting wit, however, is anything but. In his discourse concerning satire, Dryden speaks of satire as an instrument of surgical assassination, the “vast difference betwixt the slovenly Butchering of a Man, and the fineness of a stroak that separates the Head from the Body, and leaves it standing in its place” (Watson, 1968). In the character of Achitophel, modeled in part on Milton’s Satan, he produces just such a surgical stroke on the Earl of Shaftesbury, the prime mover, according to Dryden, of the plot to exclude the future king. He is figured as restless, unprincipled, and causelessly malevolent (“for politicians neither love nor hate”; line 252), in his seduction of the hapless Absalom—the king’s illegitimate son, Monmouth—who is beguiled with Achitophel’s always double-edged rhetoric.

Believe me, royal youth, thy fruit must beOr gathered ripe, or rot upon the tree.

(ll. 250–251)

If this evokes momentarily the tree of Paradise by which the Miltonic Satan works his temptation, it is also proleptic of the fate of Absalom, who meets his death when he is entangled and left hanging by the hair in an oak tree (2 Sam 18:9).

The poem was followed by a rush of responses and satires playing on the same story or in the same mode of the mock-biblical by, among others, Henry Care, Christopher Ness, Elkanah Settle, Nahum Tate, and indeed, by one of the satirical victims in the poem, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (Suarez, 2007; Henry Care, Towser the Second, a bull-dog, or, A short reply to Absalon and Achitophel [1681]; Christopher Ness, A key (with the whip) to open the mystery & iniquity of the poem called, Absalom & Achitophel shewing its scurrilous reflections upon both king and kingdom [1682]; Samuel Pordage, Azaria and Hushai a poem [1682]; Elkanah Settle, Absalom Senior, or, Achitophel transpros’d a poem [1682]; Nahum Tate, The second part of Absalom and Achitophel a poem [1682]; George Villiers, Poetical reflections on a late poem entituled Absalom and Achitophel by a person of honour [1681]). Perhaps equally important is John Caryll’s Naboth’s Vineyard (1679), an antecedent to and model for Dryden’s deployment of the biblical to the present in mock-biblical and satiric fashion (Suarez, 2004).

Dryden’s biting satire has often been seen as the work of a writer who renders the Bible in a consummately “literary” and learned fashion, albeit to vindictive purposes (Reedy, 2009). But this is to underestimate the sheer familiarity of his material, evident in the ready responses from pens of every political stripe. It may be, however, that this outburst of poetic activity was more or less the endpoint of a culture whose first and primary reference was the Bible. This is not to say that the importance of the Bible lessened with the Enlightenment, but its ubiquity as a reference point did. Neither is it the case that this constitutes the onset of secularity against a world that had been previously and immemorially religious. On the contrary, the biblicism of the seventeenth century was a phenomenon unique to itself, with its confluence of mass print, a sermon culture that was both education and entertainment, rising literacy, political-scripturalism, and the typological presumptions by which history was deemed to return in providential cycles.

The eighteenth century that so admired Milton could look back to an era that “believed” the Bible in a way that it did not—not simply that the earlier period was more “literal” in its understanding, but that it was wholly at home with adopting, adapting, and amplifying the scriptural to represent its own time. Paradise Lost is both paradigmatic of an era wholly immersed in the Bible and idiosyncratic in its particular melding of theology, politics, philosophy, and mythopoetics (for important background, see Lim, 2006; Sims, 1962; Steadman, 1984). Its retelling of the story of the satanic fall and the human Fall is, it is no exaggeration to say, the single most influential work in the anglophone cultural memory of the Bible. What takes three chapters in Genesis (together with an overlay of Isaiah, Revelation, and other snippets of scripture) swells in Milton’s work to cosmic proportions, its sheer scale dizzying and its poetic energies unmatchable. An insoluble paradox of Milton’s use of the biblical is that it cohabits with what he and his era deemed “literal” interpretation. Milton cites the biblical injunction not to add a tittle or jot to the scriptural Word, and proceeds to add many thousands of lines, whose potency are such that they are often taken to be biblical.

In the long sojourn, during which Raphael visits the prelapsarian Adam and Eve, stretching across books 5–8 of the poem, the angel describes the six days of creation (7.175–640), at times braiding the biblical words into his own, but always presuming the duty to amplify, far beyond anything plainly scriptural. He expounds at length a monist ontology, tells the extrascriptural tale of Satan’s rebellion, and the war in heaven, while Adam describes his memory of hazily waking to existence. Where in Genesis “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (1:2), in Milton a nearly animate fecundity has the emergent world “with vital virtue infused, and vital warmth” producing its “womb / as yet of waters,” which:

Over all the face of EarthMain ocean flowed, not idle, but, with warmProlific humour softening all her globe,Fermented the great mother to conceive,Satiate with genial moisture;

(PL, 7.278–282)

These are lines that spill and ooze, rendering the primordial and life-giving movement of water imbued with quasi-seminal spirit. The days are narrated in turn, but with a fullness that dwarves the suggestive single verses of Genesis 1. Raphael’s creation describes an animate earth, almost Lucretian (indeed knowingly so) in its teeming and prolific coming-into-being, and in this Milton delves into one of the most complex aspects of early modern biblicism, that in the main it sought to marry its philosophy and science—its godly Aristotle and Plato as much as its godless Lucretius—into its understanding of the scriptures, supposing that any truth is at core an amplification and correlate of other truths. Milton’s sixth day presents a spillage of animals out of the earth, not brought into being at the first snap of the divine Word, but rather an unfolding of life from the innards of the world:

The earth obeyed, and straightOpening her fertile womb teemed at a birthInnumerous living creatures, perfect forms,Limbed and full growne: out of the ground up roseAs from his lair the wild beast.

(PL, 7.453–457)

This is an astonishing magnification of the divine fiat, so that in the slow unburdening of the earth’s animal treasures, from the ground broken open and womb-like, a mesmeric but also ordinary propulsion of life into being is described (see Edwards, 1999). There is an ecology as well as a philosophy of earth at work here, but always subject to the reader’s knowledge that this earth is soon to be infected and turn dismal at the Fall. Indeed Raphael’s purpose in his apparently sociable visit is wholly prompted by the darker purpose, both to forewarn (though God’s foreknowledge renders any warning moot) and, as the argument of book 5 has it, to forestall any imputation of God’s justice, to “render man inexcusable.”

If there is in this an ample magnification of the Creation story, the telling of the Fall itself is so compelling and vast that it is no exaggeration to say that the Anglo-European conception of the Fall derives as much from Milton as it does from the Bible. Though the tale has multiple sources, Rabbinic and Christian (the era discusses them in dizzying fullness; see Crowther, 2010; Philip, 1999), it is from Paradise Lost that we derive the full cunning and malice, alongside the pathos and wistfulness, of Satan disguised and disgusted as the serpent. No other work so fully renders the sublime illogic that has its two Edenic trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—as the lure by which Eve is persuaded to the act, the strange banality of the apple as the bauble of cosmic disobedience, and its transposition of minor infraction into all-consuming loss.

Added to this is the complexity of a theology that must render the unfallen Adam and Eve as both perfect and mutable, wholly sufficient and capable of falling. They are creatures born with sexual appetite and strange vanities, and while the poem depicts its full-bodied differences in gender, the patriarchal and plain misogynistic are never allowed to whitewash Eve’s independence. Though sheer theological necessity has it that Adam and Eve are created perfect, Milton complicates perfection and has it encompass much of what might seem traits of fallenness, from sexual desire to domestic tiffs about the division of labor. It is of course the case that others had explored the multi-faceted paradoxes of the Fall—Augustine and Aquinas after him are regular (if submerged) points of reference in Milton’s theology and angelology—but no writer so fully dramatized as well as theorized the story. When we imagine the condition of exile, the poor banished children of Eve, it is, whether we recognize it or not, to Milton that our cultural image first turns. Though they are deemed the father and mother of humankind, the poem ends with them as recalcitrant children—“In either hand the hastening angel caught / Our lingering parents” (12.637–638), as he leads them off to the barren plain of the world and the future:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;The world was all before them, where to chooseTheir place of rest, and providence their guide;They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,Through Eden took their solitary way.


The Bible is everywhere in the early modern era—I have not dealt with its place in prose or drama (Streete, 2012). The period is unique in the range across which the Bible was deemed operative in its politics, its science, its law, and its philosophy. Its authority was more or less universally conceded, even while the range of interpretations that surrounded it eventually, and in the aftermath of the civil war, made it appear a distinctly dangerous text, fought over as the object of the elite scholarship and as the object of the quotidian Christianity, battled over in every regard, and whose parameters were far wider than religion alone.



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Kevin Killeen