For some time now, I’ve planned to post about some recently released Milton-related music. Former Husker Dü drummer Grant Hart’s new album The Argument, based on Paradise Lost and an unpublished William S. Burroughs’ science fiction story Lost Paradise, releases on 22 July. On 15 July, Darren Hayman and the Short Parliament released Bugbears, interpretations of English Civil War and seventeenth-century folk songs. But since I’m writing a chapter about John Dryden’s rhyming opera The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man and his critiques of Paradise Lost, it seems fitting to preface my reviews of recent adaptations of Milton’s epic with a little thought about this earliest.
Dryden probably finished writing The State of Innocence in late 1673 (perhaps as a wedding gift to Mary of Modena and the Duke of York), and it apparently circulated heavily in manuscript before it was printed 1677. The opera was certainly the result of the visit Aubrey reports Dryden made to blind poet when he got wry permission to “tag his points.” Such tags were the little metal tips people of fashion were putting on their tassels. Milton (and later Marvell’s) reduction of Dryden’s rhyming effort to mere ornament is fitting. From its dedication to Mary onward, Dryden’s adaptation is singularly concerned with external show rather than intrinsic worth.
“Like those who have survey’d the Moon by Glasses, I can only tell of a new and shining World above us, but not relate the Riches and Glories of the Place. ‘Tis therefore that I have already wav’d the Subject of Your Greatness, to resign myself to the Contemplation of what is more peculiarly Yours. Greatness is indeed communicated to some few of both Sexes; but Beauty is confin’d to a more narow compass: ‘Tis only in Your Sex, ’tis not shar’d by many, and its Supreme Perfection is in You alone.”
Dryden’s hyperbolic praise of Mary’s beauty seems to anticipate Adam’s idolatry of Eve. He tells Mary:
“You have subverted (may I dare to accuse you of it) even our Fundamental Laws; and Reign absolute over the hearts of a stubborn and Free-born people tenacious almost to madness of their Liberty.”
In Dryden’s formulation, Mary’s person is “a Paradise,” her “Soul a Cherubin within to guard it.” Curious that her soul is subservient to her physical beauty. At one point he proposes to turn to the qualities of Mary’s mind, but admits he is unable to do so. “I can proceed no farther than your Beauty,” he confesses.
Dryden’s inability to move beyond outward ornament is indicative of the content of the Opera.
Missing in Dryden’s adaptation is the inner machinery of Milton’s epic. In The State of Innocence, the war in heaven happens offstage prior to the opening of the first scene and is never revisited. We get no insight into the causes of Satan’s rebellion. No exaltation. No Sin and Death. No Abdiel. Most importantly, there is no reference to the Son and the operation of grace. After the Fall, there is mention of penitence aplenty, but the opera is curiously graceless.
Dryden only attempts to engage Milton’s theodicy and replicate some of the inwardness of Paradise Lost when Raphael comes to warn Adam. Here, Raphael is curiously both more effective and more troubling than in Milton’s corresponding moment. Dryden’s angel tells Adam about Lucifer’s manipulation of Eve’s dream the night before, something he omits in Milton. But instead of relating the nature and consequences of Lucifer’s disobedience, Raphael engages Adam in a futile argument about free will. The conclusion of this discussion leaves Adam (and most readers) more puzzled than ever about the nature of free will and God. After the angelic delegation leaves, Adam complains:
Since Angels fell, whose strength was more than mine,
‘Twould show more grace my frailty to confine.
Fore-knowing the success, to leave me free,
Excuses him, and yet supports not me.
This Raphael has offered no practical examples such as Satan’s rebellion and Abdiel’s obedience. More than ever, Adam seems predestined to fall.
More indicative of Dryden’s focus on the outward rather than inward is Adam and Eve’s relationship in the opera. Where in Milton, Adam had tried valiantly to explain companionate marriage to Raphael (surely the worst marriage counsellor in literature), in Dryden’s version Adam’s attitude toward Eve reinforces the angel’s worst fears.
In Paradise Lost, Adam admits to Raphael that despite his knowledge of Eve’s secondary creation, she seems so perfect that he often forgets himself and considers her superior:
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in her self compleat, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, Wisdom in discourse with her
Looses discount’nanc’t, and like folly shewes;
Authority and Reason on her waite,
As one intended first, not after made.
Raphael replies with “contracted brow” that Adam should not be so overpowered by Eve’s seductive powers and by the pleasures of sex. Adam is quick to correct Raphael’s misapprehension:
half abash’t Adam repli’d.
Neither her out-side formd so fair, nor aught
In procreation common to all kindes
(Though higher of the genial Bed by far,
And with mysterious reverence I deem)
So much delights me as those graceful acts,
Those thousand decencies that daily flow
From all her words and actions mixt with Love
And sweet compliance, which declare unfeign’d
Union of Mind, or in us both one Soule;
Harmonie to behold in wedded pair
More grateful then harmonious sound to the eare.
Milton’s Adam could be correcting Dryden’s superficial praise of Mary here. He is quick to explain to Raphael that it is not only Eve’s “outward show” that he values. This Adam perceives things “inward” in himself and Eve, a depth that Raphael (and maybe Dryden) seems unable to fathom.
Much has been written about Dryden’s Eve. She is more vain than Milton’s, confessing to Adam that she accepts him as a pale substitute for her own image in the fountain: “I, next myself, admire and love thee best.”
Adam is similarly less complex. In Milton, he’s watched Eve’s creation and recognizes that she is part of him. He knows that they have, in a sense, been separated and seek reunion. In Dryden’s version, Adam reacts to her beauty in a manner recalling Dryden’s dedication:
Made to command, thus freely I obey,
And at thy feet the whole Creation lay.
Pity that love they beauty does beget:
What more I shall desire, I know not yet.
First let us lock’d in close embraces be;
Thence I, perhaps, may teach my self, and thee.
Adam’s haste to figure out sex resembles more the pair’s lustful sex after the fall in Paradise Lost than Milton’s lovely description of the first night in the bower. Indeed, Dryden’s Eve suggests that she can do no better than give Adam sexual pleasure (of which he is apparently capable of more than she is).
Heav’n from whence Love (our greatest Blessing came)
Can give no more, but still to be the same.
Thou more of pleasure may’st with me partake;
I more of pride, because thy bliss I make.
Both Dryden’s Adam and Eve suggest that they have achieved the height of happiness in love and sex. Unlike Milton’s innovative paradise where there is the possibility of ascension over time and through the right contemplation of creation, Dryden’s paradise is static. Outward show is all and all there is.
If this is disappointing, it is because we want Dryden’s adaptation to be more true to Milton’s creation. Like those disappointed with the movie adaptation of World War Z, we miss the subtlety, depth, and even frustrations of Milton’s epic when we read Dryden’s opera. It is telling, however, that throughout the Restoration Dryden’s was the more popular publication. Nathaniel Lee tells Dryden why:
To the dead Bard, your fame a little owes,
His was the Golden Ore which you refin’d.
He first beheld the beauteous rustic Maid,
And to a place of strength the prize convey’d;
You took her thence: to Court this Virgin brought
Drest her with gemms, new weav’d her hard spun thought
And softest language, sweetest manners taught.
However unsuccessful an adaptation we may consider The State of Innocence, Dryden successfully dressed up Milton’s creation, tagged points and all, and made it appropriate for the Stuart court. One can find no better description for it than Adam’s early (and importantly revised) description of Eve. It is:
in outward shew
Elaborate, of inward less exact.
-David A. Harper 21 July 13