The Blackest Grain: Milton, Gunpowder, and the Right to Bear Arms

Today, after a Senate vote on gun control, the New York Review of Books revived interest in Gary Wills’ article comparing America’s obsession with guns to the worship of Moloch. Originally posted on December 15, 2012, “Our Moloch” invokes Milton’s Paradise Lost description of Moloch “besmear’d with blood / of human sacrifice and parent’s tears” (1.392-4) to comment on the Newtown massacre and the continual sacrifice of our children to our national Moloch.

Milton clearly disapproved of Moloch. And, really, who wouldn’t? But Milton’s attitude toward guns and “gun control” deserves more examination. After all, we know that the founding fathers, and especially Jefferson, read and admired Milton. These are my preliminary thoughts on the issue, developing for a piece I’ve been pondering lately. Consider them conversation starters for now.

Milton commented on gunpowder quite a bit, beginning with his earliest poetry. In youthful Latin exercises on the Gunpowder Plot, Milton refers to gunpowder as “infernal powder” (inferni pulveris) and jokes that although the Catholics tried to send James I to heaven using it, he went on his merit instead. Instead, Milton suggests the infernal powder should be used to “blow foul monks to heaven.” In another of these poems, the gunpowder is “Tartarean fire” that would have blasted James to heaven. The early poem “On the Inventor of Gunpowder” appears instead to praise the invention:

Blind antiquity praised the son of Iapetus, who brought the heavenly torch from the sun’s chariot; but to me he will be a greater man who is believed to have taken the lurid armaments and triple thunder of Jove.

The inventor of gunpowder is “greater” than Prometheus here. In Paradise Lost, however, gunpowder and artillery are Satanic inventions during the angelic war. Satan, never one content with the surface of things, spies what he needs in the chaotic seeds of creation:

Not uninvented that, which thou aright
Believest so main to our success, I bring;
Which of us beholds the bright surface
Of this ethereous mold whereon we stand,
….as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till touched
With Heav’n’s ray, and tempered they shoot forth
So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.
These in their dark nativity the deep
Shall yield us pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hollowed engines long and round
Thick-rammed, at th’ other bore with touch of fire
Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thund’ring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and o’erwhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmed
The thunderer of his only dreaded bolt. (PL VI.470-491) 

Note the contrast to the earlier poem. Satanic artillery only mimics Jove’s bolt now: those who believe he has actually taken the thunder are mistaken. At Satan’s direction, the fallen host digs into the bowels of heaven, forging cannon and finding the “originals of nature in their crude conception” that they reduce to “blackest grain.” This invention of gunpowder is an extension of Satanic heresy as he turns the raw materials of creation against itself. While the Augustan critics found the volley of Miltonic puns accompanying Satan’s employment of artillery distasteful, we should note the impact of these flatulence jokes. They not only belittle Satan, but emphasize the ignoble birth of gunpowder and mock warfare itself. While Milton would not have equated guns with Moloch, after the Civil War he certainly found them Satanic.

Only once have I found Milton commenting directly on what we might call “gun control.” Yet the moment is all. In the spring of 1660, as England prepared for the return of monarchy and Charles II, John Milton the commonwealth man dug in, unrepentant. In what may be one of the bravest publishing acts in history, he published The Ready and Easy Way to Establish A Free Commonwealth. In it, Milton exhorts his countrymen to avoid the renewed bondage of monarchy and outlines desperate measures to save the commonwealth. When it was met with scorn and derision, he published a second edition. Here, as he contemplated the creation of a “perpetual senate” to rule the country, Milton addressed gun control:

Neither do I think a perpetual senate, especially chosen and entrusted by the people, much in this land to be feared, where the well-affected either in a standing army or in a settled militia have their arms in their own hands. (ML 1123-5)

Robert Fallon, in Captain or Colonel: The Soldier In Milton’s Life and Art, refered to this passage when stated that “Milton… always supported the rights of citizens to bear arms, as a safeguard against tyranny” (Fallon, 89 fn). But Milton’s statement in The Ready and Easy Way is carefully qualified. Much as interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution depends on that phrase “well-regulated,” Milton’s statement hinges on “well-affected.” The “well-affected” are the “right thinking,” the famous “fit though few” that Milton addresses in Paradise Lost.  Even as the death-rattle was sounding in the commonwealth’s throat, Milton had little faith in popular judgement and rule. After all, it was the people who were toasting the king’s health in the streets outside his window. At least until the education system was reformed, Milton’s “ready and easy” way to make a commonwealth work involved limiting the people’s power. Hence, that perpetual senate.

Further, not only does Milton limit the arms to the “well-affected,” but he also puts those armed citizens in “a standing army” or a “settled militia.” This does not, I think have the same ring as Fallon’s more sweeping “right of citizens to bear arms.”  In short, Milton’s concept of any right to bear arms seems limited in parallel with the curbs he proposed on popular governance.

Even with tyranny knocking at the door and his own neck being measured for the noose, Milton wasn’t about to arm every citizen. Do with that what you will.

-17 April 13


All Milton quotations, to include the English translations of the early Latin poems, are from the Modern Library (ML) edition of The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon.
Robert Fallon, Captain or Colonel: The Soldier in Milton’s Life and Art. University of Missouri Press, 1984.
Gary Wills, “Our Moloch,” The New York Review of Books, 15 December 2012. Available at:
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2 Responses to The Blackest Grain: Milton, Gunpowder, and the Right to Bear Arms

  1. lowlywise says:

    How ominous seems Moloch’s forthright declaration: “My sentence is for open war.” The “open war” in PL degenerates into a rather silly exercise. What is the point of immortal beings taking arms, since their immortality makes them proof against annihilation or any other objective of warfare? So, just as Satan had to find his vengeance in subverting humanity, Moloch (who doesn’t have an agenda like Satan’s) as one of Satan’s henchmen, would be in charge of the peculiar aspect of that vengeance through warfare. Moloch as the concept of guns by extension would include the concept of bombs, nukes, pestilence and poison like ricin. We have to learn to deal with these smoking guns before they smoke, to disarm the incendiary traits of thought and of human nature before they take form in action. Practically, this means dealing with human hurts, quite apart from how official policies may deal with them, before they can be acted out. This would include rushing to judgment or acting on hearsay. Thanks, Col. Harper, for your excellent scholarship and good ideas on this.

    • d_a_harper says:

      lowly wise – Thank you for your comment. While it is thought-provoking to consider how Milton might have limited arms to the fit though few, we also should note that he was very aware that the populace had to be educated in order for self-governance to work. This concern is evident not only in “On Education,” but in “Areopagitica” and “The Ready and Easy Way.” As you say, these issues involve dealing with human beings in all their complexities.

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