Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost
Reading with Pictures
Reading with Pictures
Joseph Addison, the early eighteenth century critic, in a discussion in The Spectator (1712) which was frequently republished in editions of Milton’s poetry, wrote of Milton that
As his Genius was wonderfully turned to the Sublime, his Subject is the noblest that could have entered into the Thoughts of Man. Every thing that is truly great and astonishing, has a place in it. The whole System of the intellectual World; the Chaos and the Creation; Heaven and Earth and Hell; enter into the constitution of his Poem.… By Greatness I do not only mean the Bulk of any single Object, but the largeness of a whole View, considered as one entire Piece. Such are the Prospects of an open Champaign Country, a vast uncultivated Desert, huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipices, or a wide Expanse of Waters, where we are not only struck with the Novelty or Beauty of the Sight, but with that rude kind of Magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of Nature Our Imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to graspe at any thing that is too big for its Capacity.17
This account, which has the effect of placing the human, whether as a component of the scene or its spectator, in subordinated opposition to the powers of the non-human, is elaborated through the eighteenth century and finds a variety of artistic exemplifications.18 Westall’s and Martin’s illustrations of Milton both demonstrate both two principal lines of development in the art of the sublime and the continuous presence for over a century of Milton as the preeminent poet of the sublime.
Two representations of Satan will serve to locate the first principal contrast I wish to make. They are, respectively, Westall’s illustration of Satan and Beelzebub, from Book 1 (Fig.2), and Martin’s of Satan enthroned in Pandemonium, from Book 2 (Fig.1). Just one glance demonstrates immediately how different in conception the illustrations are - the two features which they have in common are Satan’s upraised arm and an enveloping darkness, with the figure of Satan only strongly lit. The differences can be located analytically through terms used to distinguish two modes of the sublime: the material (or physical or technological) sublime, to which Martin’s picture can be referred, and the psychic or subjective sublime, applicable to Westall’s. In his discussion of these terms, Martin Meisel shows how Charles Lamb’s description of Martin’s paintings as examples of the material sublime was not intended as a compliment but to associate his style of painting with the theatrical, as the creation of sublime effects by spectacular, mechanical means. Meisel affirms that ‘the charge against Martin that he was trapped in the material made no sense to most of his huge nineteenth-century audience, for whom he was an “ideal” painter whose greatest work served precisely to demonstrate the vanity of the material and of all earthly pomp and pride.’19 As with the other strongly contrasted judgments on Martin already quoted, the issue is clearly not whether a painting achieves sublimity but how the spectator’s experience is framed or controlled. The Council of the fallen angels, with Satan enthroned at its centre, is a place evocative of enormous power; as Milton describes it by contrast with the achievements of human magnificence.
Nor great Alcairo such magnificence
Equall’d in all their glories, to enshrine
Belus or Serapis their Gods, or seat
Their Kings, when Eqypt with Assyria strove
In wealth and luxury. (1.717-22)
The measure of power in this description, as throughout the last hundred lines of Book 1, is material scale - in architectural mass and volume, speed of construction, and the ‘Throng numberless’ of the attendant angels - and technologically implemented creative and intellectual energy, which includes the invention of artificial light. The image is one of corporate order and focus; while Satan is placed in the position of unchallenged eminence, it is our ability to convert the small space of the page into an imagined space of
All illustrations in this article are from the Rare English Collection, Special Printed Collections, Alexander Turnbull Library, and are used with permission. Works by John Martin are mezzotints from John Milton, The Paradise Lost (London, 1825).
cosmic proportions which completes the effect of enormous power. Just to focus on the figure of Satan could not produce that effect; to place him and his throne on a globe which itself evokes a world (even an imitation of the earth within the sphere of the fixed stars)20 associates him with power without making him its sole source. Because this scene is not in itself a scene of catastrophe, with the moral framing which that context provides, but one of intellectual and technological achievement, it makes visible and apprehensible the awesomeness of material power as such and its exercise in the pursuit of corporate goals. The constraint on the engraving’s implications is introduced through its title, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, and through the moral commentary which is provided by the opening lines of Book 2; but even if the eminence is ‘bad’ and the imagery of wealth and regal power ‘Barbaric’, it is also a scene of exaltation. In contrast to the scenes of the defeat of the rebel angels, which emphasize the dispersal of their force and their attempt to take control in heaven by showing them falling through turbulent and alien space or being tossed by huge waves in an enormous cavern (as Milton describes them, ‘Angel Forms, who lay intranc’d/Thick as Autumnal Leaves/In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades/High overarch’t embow’r;’ (1.301-304), the entirely constructed space of Pandemonium signifies the successful imposition of intellectual
Works credited to Richard Westall are engravings designed by Richard Westall, from John Milton, The Poetical Works (London, 1794-97).
and societal order on inorganic nature. Martin follows his source here just as he does in his portrayal of heaven, bringing together the description in Book 3 of angelic joy – ‘where the river of Bliss through midst of Heav’n/Rolls o’er Elysian Flow’rs her amber stream’ (3.358-59) - with the naming of heaven’s architect, who falls to become the architect of Pandemonium – ‘his hand was known/In Heav’n by many a Tow’red structure high .... Men call’d him Mulciber’ (1.732-740) - and the description at the end of Book 2 of heaven’s ‘Opal Tow’rs and Battlements adorned/Of living Sapphire’(2.1049-50). When Milton thinks of society, he thinks architecturally, just as Martin does; Addison’s grandeur, manifested in the largeness of the whole view’, is achieved not only by the ‘rude kind of magnificence’ of natural objects but by built environments, mathematically ordered and technologically constructed.
By linking Martin’s pictures to the theatre pejoratively through the term ‘material sublime’, Lamb was adopting a position on representation which was central to much of the literary painting and book illustration which took its subject from plays and is exemplified by Richard Westall’s approach to painting a scene from Shakespeare, which is described in a report quoted by Altick: Westall ‘told Farington in 1806 that “he had never seen the Character of Falstaff exhibited on the stage, and should not be induced to it unless tempted by a very extraordinary account given of someone who may attempt it. At present”, noted Farington, “he has in His imagination the Character personified & is not willing to interrupt that idea by an imperfect representation very different from it”’.21
he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a Tow’r; his form had not yet lost
All her Original brightness ... his face
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Brows
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge. (1.589-604)
Such an image locates power in the individual, the sense of awe and grandeur being produced in the spectator/reader by the absolute dominance of the angelic/human form over the space which barely contains it. It is as though there is no middle ground between nothingness and transcendence; in the rhetorical conception of the body, which renders it the means by which the mind impresses itself on material reality and reveals its moral character, the shape taken by the body itself is in conformity with a moral concept, that of heroism, and not nature.
Although Martin is associated typically with the cataclysmic, his representations of heaven and the female by themselves are expressive or beauty rather than sublimity. It is the figure of Sin rather than Eve in both Martin’s and Westall’s illustrations which achieves sublimity, the former employing spectacular effects of space and structure, and the latter foregrounding bodily form, both beautiful and horrific. Westall does not attempt a representation of heaven, but Martin includes two in his illustrations to Paradise Lost While the light radiating through the landscape and cityscape of heaven may achieve the effect of sublimity, it is another illustration of the vast pouring of light down the huge stair from heaven’s gate into the gloom of chaos, observed by the tiny figure of Satan, which fully achieves this effect.22
Martin's illustration of Eve seeing her reflection in the pool (Fig.4) is consistent with his overall conception of the relation of the human to the conditions, powers, and qualities of the world which provides the temporal theatre for human being and action. The human figure is placed at the very centre of the spectator's attention, being distinguished both by standing erect (in Milton's account she 'laid me down/On the green bank' (4.457-58)) and appearing to be infused with the light that fills the space behind her. But Eve is also an instance of the qualities which are otherwise
manifested by the deep recession of the enclosing valley; the rich diversity of tree forms, making visible the import of Milton's later description of trees in the garden of Eden as the 'stateliest Covert, Cedar, Pine and Palm' (9.435); and the calm dissolving of the whole scene into light in the distance and into the sky. The overall impression created by this picture, consistent with its being an instance of the beautiful rather than the sublime, is that of serenity, a quality which can derive from 'the translation of temporal events into the spatial realm of imagery ... the coexistence of things in space enables us to see them in their wholeness, to put them in relation to others, and to organize them in systems’. 23
It is this quality of serenity which Eve evokes in her account to Adam of her first moment of consciousness:
That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awak't and found myself repos'd
Under a shade on flow'rs, much wond'ring where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issu'd from a Cave and spread
Into a liquid Plain, then stood unmov'd
Pure as th'expanse of Heav'n; (4.449-56)
The effect of Martin's illustration is to link Eve, nature, and heaven in a representation of purity; her moment of delayed self-discovery through seeing her reflection in the pool as another with whom she exchanges 'answering looks/of sympathy and love' (4.464-66) is taken to confirm this circuit between Eve and created nature rather than to enforce an original psychic separateness or difference which Milton attributes to Eve through this episode. 24
Eve's association with flowers as that part of organic nature which is most distinctively like herself is made the principal element in Westall's illustration of a later incident in the poem, the moment when Eve has separated from Adam and is about to encounter Satan (Fig. 3). Just as Martin can be interpreted to represent Eve in an attitude of surprised pleasure, with all the threatening implications of her self- recognition suppressed, so Westall achieves an impression of serene beauty by presenting Eve as she experiences herself and as she was created to be:
Veil'd in a cloud of Fragrance, where she stood,
Half spi'd, so thick the Roses blushing round
About her glowed, oft stooping to support
Each Flow'r of slender stalk, whose head though gay
Carnation, Purple, Azure, or spekt with Gold,
Hung drooping unsustain'd, them she upstays
Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,
... her Heav'nly form
Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
Her graceful Innocence ...
Milton frames our perception of Eve at this moment in the poem (9.417-62) both through Satan's hidden observation and through the extensive description of floral beauty, his invoking the reader's knowledge of the great gardens of antiquity, and his contrast between the degraded character of city life and the pastoral or rural world in which 'each thing met conceives delight'. The illustration works to suppress any knowledge of the presence of Satan, something which is difficult to overlook when reading the poem, even though the effect of Milton's description on this reader is very like the effect of Eve on Satan as Milton describes it: 'overaw'd ... abstracted stood'. Instead, it follows the lead of the pastoral simile, which carries the reader through a list of rural and natural objects which give delight to the highest pleasure, which is given by the chance encounter with a 'fair Virgin' who 'in her look sums all Delight'. Westall's conception of the scene, equally foregrounding Eve's form and those of the flowers, with the most intense light on her and the flowers covering her body, fully captures the effect and sentiment of delight and purified pleasure which Milton’s writing works in such an elaborated and focused way to associate with Eve in the reader's perception of her.
3. The Expulsion
The Expulsion from Paradise, which marks the beginning of history and the definitive separation of the human from our origin in a world of perfected nature unsupplemented by technology, also marks allegorically another historical moment, that of colonisation. In this section, I want to speculate on the translation of this event, particularly in its representation by John Martin, to New Zealand.
Walter Mantell's arrival in Wellington in 1840 on the Oriental, one of the first four New Zealand Company ships, established an early and close connection between New Zealand and the world of ideas so powerfully represented in John Martin's illustrations. Walter Mantell was a son of Gideon Mantell, the prominent geologist and paleontologist who praised Martin's abilities as a painter and included an engraving by Martin of an iguanodon as the frontispiece to his The Wonders of Geology, published in 1838. Walter sent extensive collections of geological and paleontological samples back to his father, showing a particular interest in the moa. Included in the Mantell collection in the Turnbull Library are copies of catalogues for two of Martin's paintings, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum and The Deluge, both of which were very influential and exemplified Martin's conception of the principles governing illustration of historical and literary subjects. In the catalogue to the former he writes:
The tragic fate of the two cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum is a subject which requires no embellishment from the pen of the poet or the pencil of the artist; indeed whoever considers the simple historical fact of these cities ... must soon convince himself that the most successful effort of the poet or of the artist, must fall far, very far short of the awful sublimity of the simple reality of that dreadful visitation ....
Although he has sedulously consulted every source of information within his reach, which might enable him to complete his task with strict attention to historical truth; yet, with all his research, with all the valuable and interesting illustrations he has been enabled to collect from gentlemen of high intellectual attainments, who have made accurate observations on the spot, he is fully sensible that the attempt which he now submits to inspection must require the indulgence of a candid and liberal reader. 25
His absorption in catastrophe and cataclysm is not only a moral interest. Bulwer praised his paintings for their achieving 'the most magnificent alliance of philosophy and art', and illustrations like that of the Expulsion confirm his estimation.
Martin's illustration (Fig. 6) is another instance of the material sublime and differs from Westall's (Fig. 5) in all the ways previously discussed. While they both show
Adam's and Eve's profound grief and sense of loss, this is Westall's principal concern, his illustration having the effect of Milton's description of their response to the Archangel Michael's announcement of God's judgement in Book 11:
Adam at the news
Heart-struck with chilling sorrow stood,
That all his senses bound; Eve, who unseen
Yet all had heard. with audible lament ...
'O unexpected stroke, worse than of Death!
Must I leave thee Paradise ... from thee
How shall l part, and whither wander down
Into a lower World, to this obscure
And wild, how shall we breathe in other Air
Less pure, accustom'd to immortal Fruits?' (269-85)
At this moment in the poem, Adam and Eve occupy the whole foreground, just as they do in Westall's picture. Adam is depicted by Westall as the pivotal figure, looking up to the source of judgment and exemplifying 'manly grace' while Eve's 'beauty' (4.490) is marked by her sorrow and, one might infer, by her originating the act of disobedience which has brought about their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Together, their postures and expressions register human powerlessness when faced with the overwhelming power of God; the obscurity of the scene both enforces the totality of that power and its singularity of focus on the human figures.
Although Westall's conception of the scene suggests the emptiness of the world into which Adam and Eve are expelled, it is Martin's picture which is definitively located at the final moment of the poem, in which Adam and Eve enter a plain, not otherwise described because it is their utter solitariness as the first humans and the manifestation of human society and sociability in their holding hands which are of most importance as the concluding motifs of the poem. What Martin adds is a very specific representation of the beginning of history as a moment in which the human enters a world which has already existed without them for a very long time. The scene is one of wild and fearful grandeur, making the notion that the two humans have been given dominion over nature as part of their birthright seem profoundly ambiguous. It is the dinosaurs in the middle distance who seem at home and unaware of the intrusion into their world of this new class of being and their God-given role as 'Lords [to] Possess ... all the earth' (8.338-40), and their fulfillment of that role through their bringing that space of wild nature into conformity with the imperatives of human society. 26
Another arrival on the New Zealand company's ships in l840 was William Golder. He settled in the Hutt Valley and has the distinction of being the first settler poet to be published in New Zealand. In 1867, he published an epic poem, The New Zealand Survey (Wellington, 1867), which both describes the prehistory of New Zealand and envisages its future as the completion of the universal process of civilization through literature and science. His writing shows that the paradox of the fortunate fall was repeated in the experience of colonisation as an expulsion into a wild world from a place, however unparadisal, which was known as home. It also shows that Martin's interpretation of Paradise Lost, with its concentration upon the vast spaces of the material world, the incredibly long durations and cycles of geological time, the powers and energies of organic and intellectual being, and the transformative capabilities of the human race (rather than the human individual), locates a cultural matrix which powerfully informed the British settlement of New Zealand.
The ethos of the present moment of The New Zealand Survey, the moment of settlement in the wilderness, is strikingly like that of Martin's illustration of the Expulsion. The view of the Tararua range is one of 'savage grandeur'(4), and the effect of the 'broken ridges, rugged with deep dells/And steep declevities' (3) is to suggest both that the mountain range is like 'the backbone of some huge/Unweildly monster petrified, o'ergrown/With vegetation' and that, within the hills, in the distance, there are 'fertile valleys, hitherto unknown,/As hid from view in lonely solitudes/Untrod by man'(4). There is only a past and a future, the present being both the record of the past and the 'wild scene' which will be progressively transformed by 'the march/Of civilization’, (5) as the future is realized.
The poem opens with a question which both defines an identity for the reader and the project of the poem:
Who may look back on unrecorded time,
And feel unawed at the momentous view;
When nothing but what is sublimely great
Unfolds itself in every phase and form?
The sublime is associated with poetry, science, and philosophy, but its perception depends upon a certain orientation or position of the self in reiation to the natural world:
So here, though clothed in Nature's vernal robes
This scene delightful, calling forth our praise,
And admiration, still, all speak of change
And revolutions buried in the past;
But which oblivion fails such things to veil,
Though such might 'scape the less enquiring eye
That doats on beauty, willing to admire!
'Tis well should we with sense of the sublime,
Endeavour information to increase
From nature and her works! (12)
This emphasis on a history of change, and on the need for deep perception and understanding which only 'th'enquiring mind' and poets, ‘Nature’s interpreters’(1) may possess, is elaborated through Cantos 2-4 in such a way that the sequence of geological stages in New Zealand's history, from total immersion in the sea through to being completely forested, parallels the main phases of the creation of the world as Milton tells it in Books 7 and 8. Central to Golder's conception is the belief that this sequence of change and revolution is guided by providence, but not in such a way that linear progress occurs. The ‘agencies’ of nature which do the work of providence do not necessarily produce comprehensible results:
Though mountains must be levelled, or the plains
Be raised to mountains, or submerged in lakes,
Or pop'lous cities be o’erthrown and sunk,
Wholesale entombed! - With dread commotions tossed
Earth must its features change, remodeled be
To best advantage, as transformed to more
Of usefulness, in time to be complete! (22-23)
This account of the cycles of change in the material world, incorporating human life and society as signified by the city, provides a pertinent reading of Martin's work, especially the scenes of catastrophe. Given Martin's commitment to historical accuracy in his paintings, they may well be motivated by much more than moral judgments about human pride. The material sublime becomes the way in which these new conceptions of the length of history, the fact of revolutionary change in nature, and the discovery of new powers able to be put to human use through new technologies, 27 are represented in the first phase of their circulation through society. It would make a significant difference to the interpretation of Martin’s pictures if Golder's conviction about even destructive change being part of a larger plan for progress were part of Martin's thinking as well.
The art of colonisation is one of realising the depictions of the fancy 28 both in writing and in the civilising of the wilderness. An example occurs towards the end of Canto 4, which is the account of the achievement of ‘native grandeur’ by the covering of 'elemental rudeness with the garb/Of vernal beauty' (33). The prospect of the Mungaroa swamp leads to various reflections, including a moment of picturesque imagining followed by a precise account of mental models according to which the landscape of New Zealand has been actually transformed:
But lo! this swamp,- as from this height ‘tis view’d
It bears the semblance of a level lawn;
Or meadow, clothed with a luxuriant sward,
Of large extent, begirt with birch clad hills,
A place attractive for sequestered life,
As from the world apart, but yet within
The reach of social fellowship, when such
Is felt desirable! Here, fancy might
Depict a scene of happiness and ease
'Mid flocks and herds, which undisturbed might graze
In rural quiet ...
Such fancied pleasures, as embodied here
In all reality, would one remind
Of paradizian joys found in that vale
Where Rassless lived, in ancient story famed! (45-46)
It is Canto5 which considers the span of time marking the history of human habitation of New Zealand and which shows that the transformation of the wild to the civilized is an inclusive process, an action of the human race on nature and human nature which is contributed to in a small way by each individual. The best expression of the core ideas which recur in various combinations through the canto is to be found at the end of Canto 4:
In industry, in enterprise, and skill,-
All three with ardent energy combined,
Must rise and conquer nature's wildness, and
Upon her work far other changes bold
To bring her to subjection; thus, must mind,
As aided by pecuniary means,
Be stamped on stubborn matter, as a die
An image would impress on plastic things;
The while effecting in reality,
What fancy paints, a pleasing happy scene! (49)
These lines return attention to the scene of the expulsion and to the foreshadowed overcoming of the original loss of Paradise by the conversion into a copy of it of the wilderness beyond the gate of the Garden of Eden. Golder's anticipation of the achievement of civilisation in a transformed landscape and society is expressed near the end of the poem in terms which foreground a specific meaning for the sublime in the context of colonisation and recall the contrast between the sublime and the beautiful which is illustrated by the pictures discussed above. In Golder's view, the sublime and the sentiments associated with it are the attributes of that which is beyond the boundaries of the social; to expand the domain of the social over (wild) nature, including wild human nature, is to see
the work of bliss begun,
Appearances display a wonderous change
Upon surrounding scenes, in clearings new,
Like Melancholy's glooms transformed to smiles:
Yea smiles of promise and realities
Conjoin'd, the fruits of hardy enterpnze,
And well aimed energy ... (62-63)
17 Joseph Addison, The Spectator, edited by Donald F. Bond (Oxford, 1965), II, 141 (No. 315), III, 540 (No. 412).
18 Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime. A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England (1935: rpt. University of Michigan Press, 1962) provides a detailed history of the concept.
19 Martin Meisel, “The Material Sublime: John Martin, Byron, Turner, and the Theater”, in Images of Romanticism. Verbal and Visual Affinities, eds. Karl Kroeber and William Walling (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 212, 214.
20 Meisel, “The Material Sublime”, p. 222, proposes that the globe has its origin in Beckford’s Vathek (1786). Feaver, John Martin, p. 76, suggests Boulee's monument to Napoleon.
21 Altick, Paintings from Books, p. 219.
22 The illustrations are: Book 3.365 The Courts of God; Book 11.78 Heaven - the Rivers of Bliss; Book 3.501 Satan Viewing the Ascent to Heaven.
23 Rudolf Arnheim, 'Space as an Image of Time', in Images of Romanticism, p. 11.
24 Novak, Nature and Culture, discusses an 1835 essay by the American painter Thomas Cole, in which he 'speaks eloquently of the "purity" and "transparency" of water and isolates “the unrippled lake, which mirrors all surrounding objects" and expresses “tranquillity and peace”, and in which the most perfect, and therefore most beautifull, reflections .may be found' (p. 41). Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye. Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca and London, 1993), p. 35, notes that John Martin was an early influence on Cole.
25 John Martin, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum; with Other Pictures (London, 1822), p. 3.
26 Thomas Cole's painting of the Expulsion (ca. 1827-28) is very similar in overall conception to John Martin's, except for the centering of the painting on the portal so that a vista is provided into Eden for the spectator. Cole's painting is discussed by Miller, The Empire of the Eye, pp. 49-53, as an instance of the contrasting modes of the sublime and the beautiful.
27 See D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution (London, 1947). For his discussion of John Martin, see pp. 103-108.
28 The imagination is that faculty of the mind which records visual impressions of the objective world; the fancy is that faculty which combines those mental images in subjective relations or ideal forms.