Joad Raymond's exploration of early modern angelology is a fascinating, ambitious and wide-ranging work. Those expecting a straightforward and circumscribed discussion of God's messengers and their fallen counterparts in Paradise Lost will be disappointed, but it will be for their own good: the first third of the book is spent in rich and careful contextualisation of the theory and theology of these mysterious creatures, and its last two chapters trace the afterlife of such ideas in the imaginations of John Dryden and Thomas Hobbes.
Along the way, the reader is introduced to some lively characters. John Dee, Elizabeth I's favourite occult magician, spoke at length with angels; the written records of these conversations, a century on, apparently saved themselves from destruction by fire with some timely rustling. Then there was John Pordage and his household: this mid-17th-century radical held familiar commerce with many heavenly visitors over a number of years. He ate manna with them, and could tell the difference between good and bad angels by their smell - or at least that's what he said when defending himself against the inevitable charges of blasphemy.
Raymond's aim here is to demonstrate that angel doctrine did not simply disappear along with other elements of outlawed Catholic orthodoxy in the Reformation, nor did it ossify into historical superstition; he makes a persuasive and thoroughly supported argument for a continuing intellectual, imaginative engagement with the idea of angelic supervision and intervention in human lives.
Pordage's son, Samuel, was part of this spiritual menage; he went on to write a long epic poem, Mundorum Explicatio, which uses his father's visions to formulate a complex economy of creation and salvation. It was published in 1661, six years before Milton's efforts along the same lines; the possibility of influence suggestively ghosts Raymond's illuminating account.
Paradise Lost is, of course, its centre of gravity, even if the book's title claims for Milton a more monolithic position than he in fact occupies. A large proportion of Milton's great epic is voiced by angels: the events of Books V to VIII, the creation and the war in heaven, are ventriloquised through the archangel Raphael; those of Books XI and XII, the future of fallen mankind, through Michael. The argument here, and it is an interesting one, is that the poem is in important ways literal: that its angelic frame is not fictional or allegorical, but facilitates an accommodation of the word of God to the understanding of man. "The centrality of angels to the narrative of Paradise Lost," Raymond writes, "a poem told by and about angels, constitutes part of a truth claim." This is a significant insight, and the case is made with admirable robustness and clarity.
Raymond can be slightly less sure-footed when it comes to moments of close involvement with the text. His contention that Abdiel, the only angel to resist Satan's powerful demagoguery, "deceives" and tells "the first untruth" when he warns the apostate angel that "decrees/Against thee are gone forth" (without yet knowing this to be true) is based on a reading that is elaborate at best, and at worst wilful and opportunistic. This matters because if unfallen angels can lie, their natures and roles in the poem may have to be rethought. In fact, what follows is a learned and interesting discussion of rhetoric and falsehood in Milton's polemical writings; its conclusions are productive, although their premise is shaky.
The great strength of Milton's Angels is in its incisive enquiries into the 17th-century world of angelic vision and visitation; Raymond's familiarity with this sometimes wonderfully eccentric terrain makes him a deft and purposeful guide, and he draws from memoirs, sermons, poems and treatises (both theological and philosophical) a map of an almost-forgotten imaginative landscape.
Its importance for reading Paradise Lost, "the most eloquent, most intellectually daring, most learned and most sublime poem in the English language", is well demonstrated; but it is the intrinsic interest of listening to early modern men and women talking with angels that makes this such a valuable book.
Milton's Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination
By Joad Raymond
Oxford University Press 482pp, £30.00
Published 25 February 2010