More on Hair, But This Time on Biblical, Seventeenth-Century Hair

Jasper Milvain buys the Saturday edition of the Guardian, and has very kindly forwarded to me a discussion of hair that appeared there yesterday, and which was curiously suppressed from the online edition. John Mullan was reviewing Alastair Fowler’s new edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Here’s Mullan:

“So if the longer notes at first appear digressive, they return you to the poem convinced that the editorial digression showed you the very by-ways of Milton’s imagination. Take the long paragraph of Fowler’s small print excited by Milton’s first description of Adam and Eve’s hairstyles — of Adam’s “hyacinthine locks” and Eve’s “wanton ringlets”. We start with Saint Paul’s strictures on when women should cover their hair, then wander through a mini-essay on the significance of hair in epic poetry, a parenthesis on Milton’s own hairstyle and hair-colouring, suggestive examples of the depiction of women’s hair in 17th-century painting and some speculation about Milton’s “special sexual interest in hair”. You might think this is like listening to an engagingly eccentric professor, free-associating, in the library of his mind, yet soon the clinching references to the ways the poem fixes on Eve’s “golden tresses” convince you otherwise. Her “dishevelled” hair signifies what is both lovely and vulnerable about here, and the poet is as fascinated as the devil who gazes at her from his hiding place.”

Here’s what Fowler wrote in the 1971 edition of his book (I think I’ve got a later edition at home, so I’ll post any of Fowler’s subsequent thoughts on hair before too long):

“iv.301-8. The hair-length proper for each sex follows directly from the statement of their hierarchic relation; for, according to St Paul, ‘a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man: for her hair is given her for a covering’ (1 Cor. xi 7, 15; cp. the A. V. marginal glass on 10, which explains the covering is a ‘sign that she is under the power of her husband’). hyacinthine locks] When Athene ‘shed grace about his head and shoulders’, Odysseus’ hair flower ‘like the hyacinth flower’ (Homer, Od. vi 231). If a colour were implied, it might be either blue, the colour of the hyacinth flower or gem (i.e., the sapphire; cp. l. 237n), or just possibly tawny (the hyacinth of heraldry, near to the colour of M.’s own hair), or black (Eustathius’ gloss on the Homeric passage) or very dark brown (Suidas’ gloss); in fact, almost any colour at all. But it is just as likely that a shape is meant (the idealized treatment accorded to hair in antique sculpture?), or an allusion to the beautiful youth Hyacinthus, beloved of Apollo but doomed to die. The elaborateness of the present passage lends some support to the theory that M. had a special sexual interest in hair. (In this connection cp. 496f, Lycidas 69, 175.)”

And here’s John Milton, Paradise Lost, iv.300-311:

“His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule; and hyacinthine locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
She as a veil down to her slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.”

2 thoughts on “More on Hair, But This Time on Biblical, Seventeenth-Century Hair”

  1. Alistair Fowler is a delightful human being..very learned.He used to teach at The University of Virginia, and I once heared him address the C.S. Lewis society there.

  2. This stuff about Milton and hair was a regular feature of tutorials with the beloved Tony Nuttall at New College.

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