Babel and Empire in Paradise Lost

By Jack Lynch

Presented at "Contextualizing the Renaissance," Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, Binghamton University, 22 October 1994.

Epic's generic association with the foundation of empire stretches back to Aeneas's foundation of Rome. So powerful is the Aeneid's influence that David Quint, in a recent exploration of the relationship between epic and empire, finds "the defining tradition of Western epic" to be the "Virgilian tradition of imperial dominance."1 But with the Renaissance comes a significant development in the history of imperial epic, for the imperial site moves to the New World and takes on a mode not military but mercantile. Rome of course remained a source of imperial symbolism throughout the Renaissance, but was no longer a sufficient model for the realities of empire-building: empire was now commercial, extending not only across continents but across oceans, and its maintenance demanded not only legions but merchant fleets. Tasso and Cam es extend the encomiastic "Virgilian tradition" to this new world of commercial empires.

This is the world in which Milton turned to epic. Acutely conscious of the generic conventions he took over, Milton knew the imperial implications of epic when he wrote Paradise Lost. But for all the attention given to Milton's involvement in Civil War politics, his political position in the world of the nascent overseas commercial empires has so far received scant attention.2 But though Milton's thoughts on empire have drawn little critical attention, there are at least suggestions of the redefined imperial world throughout the poem, and considering a number of passages in their historical context shows that Milton's epic did not in fact relinquish its concern with empire. Paradise Lost uses the Tower of Babel episode in book XII as a critique of the new empires, a critique linking colonial expansion to some of the first acts of tyrannical pride in sacred history.

Milton borrows from Josephus Flavius3 to equate the archetypal tyrant Nimrod with the constructor of Babel, and the name Nimrod, in his association with an allegorized Babel, is used to excoriate European monarchs, as in Eikonoklastes: Milton exhorts kings "not to build Babel (which was Nimrods work the first King, and the beginning of his Kingdom was Babel) but to destroy it, especially that spiritual Babel."4 But why Babel, the site of the confusion of tongues? Tyranny is of course pervasive in Milton's works,5 but the specific association of tyranny and language deserves attention. The seventeenth-century contexts of Babel, the site of the intersection of tyranny and language, suggest some directions for exploring empire in Paradise Lost.

Milton's notion of the origin of language is consistent with the biblical account of a single language given by God before Babel. After the confusion of tongues, unmediated access to this divinely given language is lost, for the confusion is a type of the Fall: it marks the lapse from the noumenal to the phenomenal world. The seventeenth century can without exaggeration be called obsessed with this linguistic fall at Babel. Though the discovery of a common Indo-European language awaited the work of Sir William Jones in 1786, Renaissance scholars were searching for an Adamic tongue in the connections among the European languages, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Brian Walton's Herculean 1657 polyglot Bible in six large folios is perhaps the most impressive, but far from the only, scholarly agon with the consequences of Babel,6 with texts in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, and Ethiopic. A typical discourse on the confusion of tongues from 16297 not merely discusses the effects of Babel, it visually re-enacts the consequences of the scattering on every page in a macaronic gallimaufry of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Ethiopic, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian. Sometimes one sentence mixes several languages in as many alphabets: an olio of Roman, Greek, Hebrew, and Fraktur.

The New World raised new questions and complicated the picture considerably. The unprecedented Renaissance encounter with the linguistic other demanded careful consideration of the previously unknown languages. Some went so far as to argue the American natives were of a different species from Europeans altogether, that they did not use language at all and therefore had not participated in the confusion.8 Even Milton sarcastically suggests American languages are only a step above gibberish when he speaks of English legal jargon: "sermo nescio quis, Americanus credo, aut ne humanus quidem."9 But most regarded American languages not as a refutation of the biblical account but as a test, even a proof of the Tower's effects. Babel was a convenient solution to the problem of the diversity of tongues, as its frequent invocation in early grammars of American Indian languages testifies.10

Language leads us to naming, the correlation of words and things. The importance of language in Milton's epic can hardly be overstated. And naming is often a means of dominion,11 as in the first act of naming in which man asserts his dominion over the beasts. In Paradise Lost this hierarchalizing function of naming is clear:

all the Earth
To thee and to thy Race I give; as Lords
Possess it. ... Each Bird and Beast behold
After their kinds; I bring them to receive
From thee thir Names, and pay thee fealty
With low subjection. (VIII.338-45)
This biblical lesson was often taken to heart among early modern empire-builders. "Subjection" can arise from the imposition of words on things, and since language is a tool for domination, the linguistic element in any imperial effort has been often noted.12 Aeneas's empire, for example, can be founded only after his forces achieve ascendancy over the "barbarian" enemy:
Rang'd on the Line oppos'd, Antonius brings
Barbarian Aids, and Troops of Eastern Kings;
Th' Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of Tongues discordant, and a mingled War.13
Language's potential as an imperial tool was a recurring theme even at the beginning of Europe's mercantile empires, as when in 1492 Antonio de Nebrija tells Queen Isabella that "siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio."14 The dramatic locus classicus for the encounter of Europeans with Americans and their languages is of course Prospero's encounter with Caliban.15 Aphra Behn provides another example of the hegemonic imposition of Western names on others in the new American commercial empire:
The Christians never buy any Slaves but they give 'em some Name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr. Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Cæsar.16
Both language and empire are then recurring concerns, and they meet at Babel, for Nimrod is no local tyrant, but the builder of an "Empire tyrannous."17 Walter Raleigh makes Nimrod's connection to colonial empire explicit:
After Noah came downe out of the Arke hee planted a Vineyard, and became a Husbandman: whose businesse was to dresse and manure the earth; and not to range over so many parts of the world, ... where hee should (if the tradition be sound) haue left certaine Colonies. ... For Noah, who was Father of all those Nations, ... would neuer have permitted his children and issues to haue vndertaken that vnbeleeuing presumptuous work of Babel.18
From the top of the Tower we can survey the "many parts of the world" ripe for colonization. It may be mere coincidence that John Lightfoote chose the term "new world" to describe the world after Babel -- "Sem ... standeth in the front of the Genealogy of the new world"19 -- but it may also suggest that the Americas were tacitly part of many seventeenth-century discussions of the confusion of tongues.

Another clue comes in the illustrations of the Tower.20 An important development in Babel's iconography brings to light the link between language and Nimrod's tyranny. The change comes late in the sixteenth century: whereas in medieval depictions the Tower is without exception landlocked (fig. 1), it is often later juxtaposed with harbors and seagoing ships, symbols of the new bourgeois empires (figs. 2 and 3).21 One illustration goes even further, showing two women in the foreground, both naked, one sporting a headdress of feathers, tokens usually reserved for Americans and other savages on whose barbarous tongues some civilization must be imposed (fig. 4). In the iconographic tradition, empire was never far from Babel.

Milton's attitude toward this new mercantile empire and his sympathy toward the victims of linguistic imperialism are complicated. Little can be gained from Royalist or Parliamentarian political affiliations, for attitudes toward colonization do not divide neatly along partisan lines.22 Milton uses Babel as a political tool in Eikonoklastes, likening Charles to Nimrod, but an anonymous Restoration poem on Babel turns the tables by figuring Cromwell as the rebel, and lamenting that England "insensibly decay[ed]" from its "Imperial Sway" after Cromwell brought about a metaphorical confusion of tongues.23

The Renaissance empire, as suggested above, differs from the classical empire, and this difference perhaps explains critics' inattention to the new imperial symbols. We are familiar with emperors, but in the new empire we must look for a new political force, the bourgeois merchant, who appears in Paradise Lost in an infernal simile:

As when far off at Sea a Fleet descri'd
Hangs in the Clouds, by Equinoctal Winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the Isles
Of Ternate and Tidore, whence Merchants bring
Thir spicy Drugs: they on the Trading Flood
Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape
Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole. So seem'd
Far off the flying Fiend. (II.637-443)
Quint discusses this inversion of Tasso's celebration of imperial expansion,24 figuring this bourgeois tyranny as the inverted image of monarchical tyranny in a three-level class structure. There the nobility "found their traditional role and their identity undermined both from below, in competition with a newly powerful mercantile bourgeoisie, and from above, as their role and identity were absorbed as instruments into the war machinery of modern absolute monarchy."25

Milton's aversion to mercantile imperialism is perhaps partly class-based, as Quint implies, but this alone does not explain his banishment of commercial empire to Hell. His concern goes further: these merchants are not merely bourgeois on the move, but the agents of a new tyranny, a tyranny no less egregious than Nimrod's. The only difference is that they do not achieve imperial control only through military legions: dominion in the New World is commercial and linguistic.

Commercial empire, especially in the "savage deserts of America,"26 rarely appears in Milton's works without being castigated. Nor is Milton unaware of the natives subjected to such imperial expansion, for the first appearance of New World natives subjected to this linguistic domination in Paradise Lost betrays the real nature of a name given without divine authority. Milton contrasts the "first naked Glory" in which "Columbus found th' American so girt/ With feather'd Cincture, naked else and wild"27 with the lost innocence of Adam and Eve. Columbus's first act in his encounter with the innocent linguistic other is the imposition of a new name. A century and a half later, Milton's contemporary Roger Williams discusses this naming:

Their Names are of two sorts:

First, those of the English giving: as Natives, Salvages, Indians, Wild-men, (so the Dutch call them Wilden) Abergeny men, Pagans, Barbarians, Heathen.

Secondly, their Names, which they give themselves. ... They have often asked mee, why we call them Indians Natives, &c. And understanding the reason, they will call themselues Indians, in opposition to English, &c.28

Paradise Lost draws our attention to the inadequacy and inaccuracy of these names imposed by secular imperial authority. Only a few verses before the introduction of Columbus, Milton shows us a different kind of Indian:
There soon they chose
The Figtree, not that kind for Fruit renown'd,
But such as at this day to Indians known
In Malabar or Decan spreads her Arms.29
The association of Adam and Eve with Indians, located with precise geographical references to the subcontinent, and then immediately afterwards with Americans, also indiscriminately called Indians, is no coincidence. Milton uses the proximity to draw our attention to the imperial blunder, and reminds us that the imperial imposition of names can never be more than a profane recollection of divine naming.30

With Milton's notions of empire and linguistic oppression in mind, we can look more closely at the Babel episode itself. A recurring structural device in Paradise Lost is the reverberation of an error in its consequences. The first act of defiance begets as a consequence all subsequent acts of defiance; Satan is "punisht in the shape he sinn'd."31 This dynamic is apparent in the Babel episode: in response to the confusion of tongues -- the punishment for Nimrod's tyranny -- those after Babel strive to recapture a noumenal language through the secular imposition of names. The result, however, is only further tyranny: an echo of Nimrod's "Dominion undeserv'd." The construction of Nimrod's Babel (out of the same bitumen Satan uses in Pandemonium) constitutes an effort at empire-building and concomitant linguistic self-assertion: it is the beginning of an "Empire tyrannous" in which "they cast to build/ A City and Tow'r, whose top may reach to Heav'n;/ And get themselves a name lest far disperst/ In foreign Lands thir memory be lost."32 This effort to "get themselves a name" to be preserved "in foreign Lands" is adopted nearly verbatim from the account in Genesis, but in the context of the imperial project it takes on new significance. The original linguistic presumption is re-enacted as subsequent linguistic subjection in the phenomenal world.

The imposition of names without divine sanction, as when Columbus identifies the Americans as Indians, is an act of tyrannical presumption. This profane parody of divine name-giving is an act of "secular power":

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God. (XII.515-19)
True to the poem's pattern of consequence recapitulating the conditions of violation, their attempt to compensate for the linguistic scattering re-enacts Nimrod's tyranny. The Fall is re-enacted in Nimrod's Babel; it is thence tyrannically re-enacted as "Dominion undeserv'd" over subsequent "brethren," including natives conquered as part of the imperial project. For Milton, this act of dominion is as egregious as Nimrod's. Adam says correctly that God let him name only animals, and
gave us only over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free. (XII.67-71)
This descent into imperial domination is the descent into history. The Babel episode appears at the culmination of book XII's progress from the personal to the imperial, and it is fitting that the epic concludes with a vision of empire, though one far from Virgil's grandiose nationalism and racial glory. This empire is marked instead by the fall from the unmediated divine Word. In Milton's vision, empire is built in Babel's shadow, and Babel extends its malign influence from the Old World to the New.


1. David Quint, Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (Princeton: Princeton Univ, Press, 1993), p. 8.

2. Quint's discussion of Milton's attitudes toward mercantile empire, the most thorough survey so far, appears in Epic and Empire, pp. 248-67.

3. For a good discussion of Milton's use of this tradition, see Richard F. Hardin, "Milton's Nimrod," Milton Quarterly, 22 (1988), 38-44.

4. Eikonoklastes, in the Columbia Edition of the Works of John Milton, ed. Frank Allen Patterson et al., 18 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1931-38), V, 306.

5. See, for instance, the First Defense: "Nimrod, who is said to have been the first tyrant" (VII, 397), and the Animadversions, section 18: "the mercifull God above and our just Parliament will deliver us from your Ephesian beasts, your cruell Nimrods, with whom we shall be ever fearlesse to encounter" (III, 173).

6. The full title reveals the scope of the effort: Biblia sacra polyglotta: Complectentia textus originales, Hebraicum, cum Pentateucho Samaritano, Chaldaicum, Graecum: versionumque antiquarum, Samaritanae, Graecae LXXII interp., Chaldaicae, Syriacae, Arabicae, Æthiopicae, Persicae, Vulg. Lat., quicquid compari poterat: cum textuum & versionum orientalium translationibus Latinis: ex vetustissimis mss. undique conquisitis, optimisque exemplaribus impressis, summa fide collatis: quae in prioribus editionibus deerant suppleta, multa antehac inedita, de novo adjecta, omnia eo ordine disposita, ut textus cum versionibus uno intuitu conferri possint: cum apparatu, appendicibus, tabulis, variis lectionibus, annotationibus, indicibus, &c.: opus totum in sex tomos tributum (London, 1657).

8. A Discourse Concerning the Confusion of Languages at Babel: Proving It to Have Been Miraculous, from the Essential Difference Between Them ... with an Enquiry into the Primitive Language, Before that Wonderful Event (London, 1730). The argument about species was of course often used to justify slavery.

9. "I don't know what our speech is, I suppose American, or not even human." Prolusion 7, in the Columbia Edition, XII, 276.

10. See Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, or, An help to the language of the natives in that part of America called New-England (London, 1643), in Complete Writings, ed. Perry Miller, 7 vols. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), I, 83-84.

11. See John Leonard, Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

12. See Quint's Epic and Empire for a discussion of the languages of classical through Renaissance empire.

13. Dryden's translation (1697), VIII.907-10, in The Poems of Virgil in English, ed. William Frost and Vinton A. Dearing, in the California Edition of the Works of John Dryden (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

14. "Language is always a companion of empire." Gramática de la lengua Castellana (Madrid, 1492), sig. A2r.

15. Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973); Stephen Greenblatt, "Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century," in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiappelli (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), and reprinted in Greenblatt's Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990). Eric Cheyfitz questions some of Greenblatt's conclusions in The Poetics of Empire (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), especially in chapter 6, "The Empire of Poetics."

16. Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave, ed. Lore Metzger (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 40.

17. Paradise Lost, XII.32.

18. History of the World, two vols. in one (London, 1617), I, 100.

19. John Lightfoote, A Few, and New Observations upon the Booke of Genesis, the most of them certaine, the rest probable, all harmlesse, strange, and rarely heard off before (London, 1642), p. 9.

20. See Helmut Minkowski, Turm zu Babel (Freren: Luca, 1991) for an extensive catalogue of Babel illustrations.

21. The figures are reproduced from Minkowski. The juxtaposition of the Tower with harbors is particularly apparent in depictions from countries with significant investment in mercantilist colonial expansion: Dutch illustrations, for instance, include nautical scenes more often than German.

22. See David Armitage, "The Cromwellian Protectorate and the Languages of Empire," The Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 531-55, for a discussion of empire during the Interregnum.

23. The Confusion of Babel, A Poem (London, c. 1683).

24. "Milton's fiction, by recasting the events of the Lusíadas into Satan's journey, suggests that the voyages are the work of the devil" (p. 255).

25. Quint, p. 10.

26. Of Reformation, III, 50.

27. IX.1115-17.

28. Complete Writings, I, 81-83.

29. Paradise Lost, IX.1100-1103.]

30. Columbus's only other appearance in Milton's work is hardly more flattering: the Apology for Smectymnuus speaks of "this pretty prevaricator of America, the zanie of Columbus, (for so he must be till his worlds end)" (Columbia ed., XII, 294).

31. Paradise Lost, X.516-17.

32. Paradise Lost, XII.43-46.