Comparisons between Paradise Lost and Greek and Latin epic poetry form a great tradition of Milton criticism: ever since Samuel Barrow’s In Paradisum Amissum prefixed to the 1674 edition of Milton’s poem, 1 every age has produced its special versions of “Milton and X” where X could variously stand for Homer, Vergil, or any other classical epic author. Ovid has also been present on this list from the beginning: eighteenth-century editors noted Ovidian echoes and allusions in Paradise Lost, and in more recent times several monographs and studies have been published on Milton’s indebtedness to the Latin poet.2 Mandy Green’s Milton’s Ovidian Eve, the first book-length contribution to the subject in the new millennium, is very much in line with recent and earlier scholarship on Milton and the classics in venturing beyond mere parallels and/or contrasts between the ancients and the modern poet, and concentrating on the special appropriation of Ovid (especially the Metamorphoses) in Paradise Lost. Further, Green’s dominant focus on the character of Eve ensures that her book is not just another retelling of some new version of an old tale; as the reproduction of Botticelli’s evocative “Venus pudica” on the front cover subtly suggests, a close look at the function of Ovidian traces in Milton’s Eve will necessarily entail the revision of “the bigger picture”, in this case, Ovid’s general influence on Milton.
Indeed, what is at stake in Green’s book is not merely the extent of Milton’s indebtedness to Ovid in the formation of Eve’s character, but rather the general problem of how allusions to the classics function in Paradise Lost. In the consideration of Milton’s use of the classics it is often tempting to be swayed by the poet’s tendency, in some of the most memorable passages (e.g. the invocations, the mythological similes, etc), to dismiss virtually all his (ancient and modern) predecessors in the promotion of his “not less but more heroic” project of theodicy.3 As a plethora of criticism testifies, however, such explicitly combative (and doubtlessly impressive) moments in Milton’s poetry represent only a fraction of the range of the poet’s allusions to the classics. Indeed, the really intriguing instances of Milton’s engagement with the ancients come in unexpected places: for example, in the description of Chaos, in Raphael’s narrative about the War in Heaven and the Creation, or in the character of Eve. Concerning this last example, it is now a critical commonplace that Paradise Lost contains an Eviad, that is, after the Fall Eve rises to prominence as epic heroine in a manner unprecedented in classical literature (16). Green’s extended argument provides evidence for this radical revision of traditional epic roles: the “Ovidian frame of reference” in descriptions of Eve both before and after the fall plays a major part in the process through which “Milton unsettles preconditioned responses and converts this familiar story into a tale of the unexpected” (18).
Green’s book is closely argued: between the Introduction providing a general theoretical framework and the Afterword about Ovid’s and Milton’s “poetic afterlives” seven chapters are allotted to seven different Ovidian allusions connected with Eve. Starting from the “Narcissus narrative” in Book IV and ending up with the narrator’s comparison of Adam and Eve to Deucalion and Pyrrha after the fall in Book XI, these chapters demonstrate how Milton’s allusions to the Metamorphoses are themselves metamorphic: the originally loosely connected Ovidian tales are drawn into an intricate network as they contribute to the history of the first human pair. As Green successfully shows, this undercurrent of Ovidian motifs provides a number of significant perspectives to parallel, offset, complement, call into question, or even subvert the Miltonic narrative. It is intriguing to discover, for example, how through allusion to the Ovidian story of Daphne in the account of Adam and Eve’s first encounter in Paradise “the poem gestures towards repressed alternatives” (62). Or, to cite another example, Green convincingly argues in Chapter 5 (in many ways the central chapter in the book) that Milton’s allusion to Metamorphoses XIV (Pomona’s wedding of the vine and the elm) presents an “emblematic picture” of the first marriage (127) with significant hints about the hierarchy of genders in the prelapsarian condition. It is impossible here to recount all of Green’s arguments in their complexity, but even these random examples suffice to illustrate that the author’s discussion of Ovidian motifs in Paradise Lost is constantly bound up with some of the most contentious topics in contemporary Milton criticism. Consequently, although the book is centered on Eve, the author often calls attention to parallels and contrasts with other important characters in Milton’s epic, most notably the allegorical figure of Sin, but also the Son whose “soft” and “feminine” qualities clearly evoke Eve’s (Ovid inspired) softness: “this correlation”, Green argues, “prepares us for the bold poetic equation of their redemptive agency” (197).
As the author is well aware, this intense encounter between ancient and modern in Milton’s text necessarily influences interpretations of the original Ovidian narrative: “[o]ne reads Ovid differently after Milton” (210n). Still, Milton’s Ovidian Eve caters more for students of English literature or comparativists than classicists. One of the great virtues of Green’s approach is that beside the direct comparison of Paradise Lost and the Metamorphoses she regularly takes into consideration sixteenth and seventeenth century translations of Ovid (e.g. Sandys’ or Golding’s versions), thus allowing for a more generous conception of the early modern reception of the classics. It is exactly because of this ample perspective, however, that readers might miss extended discussion of the Elizabethan epyllia, the Ovidian erotic narratives of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; it would certainly be interesting to know whether these popular pieces (e.g. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander or Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis) had any influence on Milton’s reception of Ovid. Apart from this slight reservation, however, Green’s book can only be praised for illuminating an important and hitherto largely neglected allusive pattern in Paradise Lost.
1. Barrow finishes his poem applying Propertius’ praise of the Aeneid to Paradise Lost : “Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Graii / […] Haec quicunque leget tantum cecinisse putabit / Maeonidem ranas, Virgilium culices.” in John Milton, Paradise Lost 2nd rev. ed. by Alastair Fowler (Harlow: Longman, 2007), p. 52.
2. The most well-known of these are: Davis Harding, Milton and the Renaissance Ovid (Urbana: University of Illionois Press, 1946) and Richard DuRocher, Milton and Ovid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).
3. See, for example, the invocations to Books I, III, and especially to Book IX where Milton talks about his “argument / Not less but more heroic than” the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Odyssey (lines 14-19).