A Devil of a Coincidence: Study on Milton and Gower

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Virginia Tech


The seventeenth-century epic poem Paradise Lost is one of the most widely studied texts in all of literary history. The work, written by John Milton, depicts Satan's fall from Heaven and subsequent deeds on Earth and in Hell. One of the more remarkable and, often, most overlooked scenes in the story involves the distinctive personification of Sin and Death. Milton depicts Sin as the daughter of Satan, with no mention of a mother, born through a process of spontaneous generation. Satan then becomes so captivated by his daughter's wickedness that he forces himself upon her, causing Sin to bear a son, Death. This illustration is striking, especially given that it also appears in the opening pages of the fourteenth-century Mirour de l'Omme (c. 1376) by John Gower. In both Milton and Gower's poems, Satan, Sin, and Death are personified as having this familial, incestuous relationship which ultimately creates the world's evils. Their depictions are not merely reminiscent of one another, but rather, often match up in nearly identical fashions. John S. P. Tatlock was the among the first to notice these similarities, but was also quick to express his hesitance to say with any sort of assurance that Milton had read Gower: "Since only one manuscript of the Mirour is known, and that was never published until seven years ago [1899], the chance is infinitesimal that Milton ever heard of the poem. But that his and Gower's sources are ultimately the same seems to me highly probable." Yet to date, no studies have been conducted to determine which shared sources could possibly lead Milton and Gower to construct such similar personifications of Sin and Death. Indeed, John Fisher notes that currently "the influence of the Mirour upon Paradise Lost remains an open question." It is upon this open question that I now attempt to help fill this century-old void in literary research



John Milton, Mirror of Mankind, John Gower, Paradise Lost