Through All The Forms and Faces of Things: The Crude Pagan and the Christian Poet

Milton probably read more Ovid than Virgil.

“Not with so much labor, as in the Fables,” Milton said, “is Ceres said to have sought her daughter Proserpina as it is my habit day and night to seek for this idea of the beautiful…through all the forms and faces of things…”

This search for the idea of the beautiful might have started for Milton when he was just twelve years old, reading and imitating poets like Ovid at St. Paul’s School in London. Milton would go on to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses multiple times (even as he composed Paradise Lost) in the Latin throughout his life. Ovid was probably Milton’s favorite poet and we can see his deep love for the ancient in the highly imitative Latin poems he wrote between 1625-1629.

Some critics have suggested that around thirty, Milton grew a greater affection for Virgil than for Ovid. Not so. Even into his old age, Milton saw in the version of Orpheus as found in Metamorphoses X-XI a kind of himself. This was the Orpheus that dies. Ovid, of course, also compared himself to Orpheus and no doubt Milton felt a kindredness with Ovid.

Ovid was a sensuous poet, a poet that dealt and traded in concrete images and physicality. The poetry of Metamorphoses is nothing if not sensuous. In his 1644 essay Of Education, Milton said poetry was by definition ‘simple, sensuous, and passionate.’ It was the sensuous, passionate poet that inspired Milton when he needed details and specificity in his poetry.

Milton used Ovid. But Milton did not just use Ovid when composing Paradise Lost—he adapted, digested, subsumed. There are direct references to the Metamorphoses all over the place (e.g. V.377, IX.393-396, XI.8-14).

Many critics have focused on the obvious dialog between Milton and Virgil. They’re both epic poets, right? Although Milton is certainly writing in the same tradition as Virgil, he did that writing through the lens and techniques of Ovid. This only makes sense.

Both Milton and Ovid hunted for an idea of the beautiful ‘through all the forms and faces of things.’ For Ovid this might have been nothing more than the pleasure and immortality that sublime poetry confers on its maker. For Milton, this was the triune God. We will look at places where, by referencing Ovid, Milton recreates, rereads, and even critiques the assumptions or morals in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Echo and Narcissus

Anyone with a particle of classical knowledge should know that Milton recreated the story of Echo and Narcissus in Book IV of Paradise Lost. He has Eve looking in the pool (460-67), just as Narcissus did in Book III.457-60 of Metamorphoses.

As I bent down to look, just opposite

A shape within the watery gleam appeared, / Bending to look on me.

Compared with:

cumque ego porrexi tibi bracchia, porrigis ultro;

cum risi, adrides…

When I have reached out my arms to you, you also reach out yours. When I have smiled, you smile back.

A bit further into the passage (467-73), he translates specific words from the Metamorphoses (III.433-36): ‘manetque’ becomes ‘stays’, ‘umbra’ is ‘shadow’, and ‘imaginis’ is ‘image’. To show just how closely Milton read the Latin: line 469 (“With thee it came and goes”) is an imitation of the original Latin tenses “tecum venitque, manetque” (Met. III.435).

Yet, the conclusion of the story cannot be the same as Ovid’s. Even though later educators would use Metamorphoses as a set of moral tales (something Milton got a bit of at St. Paul’s), Ovid probably just wanted to be funny—a rather dark, sardonic comedian. Milton, on the other hand, wanted to show how Eve was not Narcissus.

Eve in her prelapsarian state does not heed the call of her own beauty. Why? Instead of Echo taunting Narcissus, God teaches Eve. Milton makes this replacement clear by repeating the Ovidian structure “quod…quod” and “tecum…tecum” with “What thou…What there thou.”


Milton’s reason for using Ovid is not always as clear as that—even if he directly references stories from the Metamorphoses.

Led on the eternal Spring. Not that fair field

Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flowers,

Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis

Was gathered—which cost Ceres all that pain

To seek her through the world…

Here, Milton compares Paradise to the field of Enna that Proserpina found herself wandering in, plucking flowers. Milton does not compare Paradise to Enna just because they are similar. C.S. Lewis saw the deeper meaning to the reference:

In both these places the young and the beautiful while

gathering flowers was ravished by a dark power…

Milton connects Enna with Paradise and, therefore, connects Proserpina with Eve. When we find Eve in Book IX.430-432 plucking flowers as Proserpina did, we fear for her! Here, Ovid likely has in mind Dante’s reading of Proserpina. When the character Dante finds Matelda plucking flowers on the top of Mount Purgatory, he says, “You make me recall where and what was Proserpina at the time when her mother lost her, and she the spring.” (Pur. XXVIII.49-51)

A critic I read pointed out that the most Ovidian element here is the association of plucking flowers and rape. These two things are literally related in the Latin by the word rapta. There is a direct translation of what is lost in IV.268: perpetuum ver est (Met. V.391). Eve, like Proserpina, lost the eternal spring of Paradise and innocent sexuality, because she, like Proserpina, was raped. You have to wonder if Milton is arguing by this similarity the innocence of Eve in the Fall.

Baucis and Philemon

While critics have had a field day with Milton’s use of Proserpina and Narcissus, few critics to my knowledge have delved into the subtle nods to Baucis and Philemon in Book V. The story of Baucis and Philemon (Met. VIII.611) is my absolute favorite myth from Metamorphoses and I intimated that Milton must have had the myth of Baucis and Philemon in mind when describing the visit of Raphael. I was thrilled to discover that a critic about thirty years ago picked up on the same thing. I want to go even farther than he did.

Both scenes—the visitation of Raphael to Adam and Eve and the hospitality shown to uninvited gods by Baucis and Philemon—are theoxenias, the entertainment of a divine guest by a mortal. In the Metamorphoses, many of the scenes are comic. Baucis and Philemon are this old couple visited by these guests who are really gods in disguise. The couple is very poor, but pious, and know it is their duty to host the guests. The audience knows that they are hosting gods and Ovid uses the stark contrast between the divine and crude to comedic effect.

The funniest scene in the myth (Met. VIII.630-38) is when Baucis and Philemon (old, dirty) are chasing this goose around their property and the gods are standing at the sidelines (hands on hips, probably) and the goose is flapping its wings and freaking out about getting cooked and the only place it decides it can hide is between the legs of Jove. As anyone familiar with Jove knows, nothing is safe that’s put between his legs—and so the goose is cooked.

More happens in the story, but not before Ovid goes through a whole grocery list of food and providing a clear image of the inside of their meager hovel. Milton keeps a lot of the Ovidian techniques in his rendition of the theoxenia. He keeps some of the humor, too. At line 308, Adam tells Eve to go get the food out of the stores. Eve replies at 321 that there aren’t any stores to go to, because they don’t need them. They live in Paradise.

This humor, importantly, does not riff on the divide between the divine and mundane like Ovid’s story does. The humor is that Adam is human and Milton does keep the mundane and homeliness found in Ovid. A lot of critics have complained (!) about lines like “No fear, lest dinner cool” (396) because they are too provincial-sounding for such a grand, epic poem. They’re totally missing the point. Not only is that line meant to be funny (can dinner cool in Paradise?), it demonstrates that Adam and Eve are ordinary humans. Milton wants to show us in the entire Book V that ordinary humans, in all their simplicities and somewhat crude concerns, dwell and dine with the divine.

Milton combines the mundane, “raised of grassy turf / their table was” (391-92), and the mystical, “all autumn piled, though spring and autumn here / Danced hand in hand” (394-95). He shows the divine meeting the human in small details like this.

Milton also shows it in the way he changes the original myth of Baucis and Philemon. Where Jove and company come disguised and uninvited, Raphael comes as himself and there is nothing unusual about this to Adam and Eve. Surely, the sacred is meant to dwell with the ordinary. There is something holy about Adam and Eve’s homeliness. There was a time when humans did once dine with angels, undisguised and unashamed. Milton shows us this by nodding back to Ovid, who also imagined the dining fellowship of the divine and the mundane.

Milton found his idea of the beautiful in Ovid.

I have attempted to show that Milton read Ovid, Milton recreated Ovid, and Milton even responded to Ovid. Why did Milton critique Ovid? Because Milton was not a pagan! His purpose was grander than any Ovid ever had. Where Ovid wanted to bring immortality to himself, Milton wanted to ‘justify the ways of god to men’ (I.26). And since they are playing the same game of images, their unshared goals forced Milton to transform Ovid to fit his end.

What makes Paradise Lost poetry is that it does not have the ambulatory motion that comes naturally with prose. It is helpful to think of Paradise Lost as a storyboard of images. The images serve as plot-points. These pictures create the motion of the narrative in the reader’s mind. That is not all the images do.

Poetic images are built with metaphors and symbols. Metaphors and symbols do more than just move the plot forward—they suggest paradoxes, allude to other works, press deeper into the mind, and can even alter the simple reading of a story without you ever knowing about it. The metaphors and symbols that Milton used to build his poetic images might have been those of Ovid first, but they are those of Milton now. Milton found his idea of the beautiful in Ovid.


DuRocher, Richard. Milton and Ovid. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Hales, John. Milton and Ovid. Modern Philology, Vol. 1, No. 1 (June, 1903), 143-144

Kilgour, Maggie. “The Perfect Image Viewing”: Poetic Creation and Ovid’s Narcissus in

“Paradise Lost”. Studies in Philology, Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), 307-339

Martindale, Charles. Paradise Metamorphosed: Ovid in Milton. Comparative Literature Journal, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Autumn, 1985), 301-333

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