Rosamund Paice

‘Sound Theology: Serious Punning in Paradise Lost’


Within decades of Paradise Lost’s publication, Joseph Addison presented punning’s untranslatability as a sign of its inferiority to wit. Puns had become deeply unfashionable, and Milton’s punning was punished by a widespread refusal to engage with it. Milton’s puns, however, are deeply serious. Founded in analogies, etymologies, and homophones, they highlight the capabilities and deficiencies of verbal transmission—the possibilities of enlightenment as well as the inevitability of misuse, misinterpretation, and ultimately the Fall. Such punning functions intertextually, suggesting Milton’s desire to encode higher truths than those found in a merely linear reading.

My paper argues that a key network of words and analogies express—sound, even—critical aspects of Milton’s arianism. God as sun and Eye of the World, the Son/sun, and the relation between the sun/sol and the soul, were familiar analogies. Milton’s use of the word ‘sole’, however, expands and redevelops them. In this, he depends on sole’s dual roots—both sõlus (Latin: alone/only) and sollus (Old Latin: whole/entire). To be sole in both of its etymological senses, alone whilst absolute, is a state of which God alone is capable in Paradise Lost: when Satan longs for the whole glory (‘the glorie sole’) he becomes alone (‘sole fugitive’).

This paper, then, underscores the importance to Milton’s epic of the sounds as well as the senses of English words. The result is a pseudotranslation of the Muse’s song that resists translation. Milton, I contend, wrote Paradise Lost not simply ‘justify the ways of God to men’, but to justify the ways of God to English-speaking men.


Dr Rosamund Paice has held lectureships at the University of Manchester, Lancaster University, the University of Portsmouth, and Northumbria University. She is Secretary for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (UK and Ireland) and has recently started work on a study of lost gardens in mid-seventeenth-century literature. She has published several essays on Milton, and her book on Milton’s Loves is currently under review for publication. She has also published on William Blake and Shakespeare.

The International John Bunyan Society

A society dedicated to the study of the life and times of John Bunyan (1628-1688)