Organic Food - Paradise Lost – An Epic Poem (3) – by John Milton
February 14, 2017
John Milton lived through a most tumultuous period in English history. He saw in his youth the procession of events and tensions which led to The English Civil War breaking out; the king versus parliament; the Anglican hierarchy against The Puritan non-conformists; know more commonly as Roundheads versus Cavaliers.
Milton himself sided with the non-conformist parliamentarian Puritans; and he was for much of the middle of his life engaged in writing polemics, propaganda, and erudite argument in the Puritan cause; not only during the Civil War itself but in the years in which England was ruled by Oliver Cromwell leader of the victors of the war; the Puritans.
Milton at one time and for many years held a belief that there was a strong possibility of the endtimes occurring during his lifetime. He was a man absolutely dedicated to God and to the faith in God he held; to an extent that he felt himself ‘plucked out’ and ‘separated’ from the common men as one through whom God had chosen to work.
This series of facts set the context for a succinct elaboration on Milton’s astonishing strengths as an epic poet; and on his glaring weaknesses as a man among men.
One can hardly conceive Paradise Lost having been written by anyone other than a person who had but recently considered himself to be alive during the time of ‘the eye of the cyclone’ in the universal metaphysics of existence; and to have considered but lately that he was witnessing millennial events unfolding in his lifetime as the years had progressed.
Paradise Lost is perhaps an epic poem which is the fruit of Milton’s growing realisation of disappointment in his hopes and wishes that a ground was being laid in his lifetime and with the aid of his efforts for The Kingdom of God to be ushered in as the age of The New Jerusalem.
Later in his life, in fact in his final major work, he more clearly and obviously used his great poetic gift to express his matured and near final thoughts on his greatly-disappointed millennial hopes. Samson Agonistes is a dramatic poem which tells the story of Samson, as a captive of the Philistines, and who with one final and fatal great endeavour overcomes his enemies (who are aslo the enemies of the God of the Hebrews) and by way of doing this his own death occurs. Precursor to and almost an early draft of a Wagnerian-type immolation drama. More later.
Samson is blind, as he is in the biblical story at this time, and Milton also by this time had worn out his eyesight in the service of his political and religious allies. Samson also is labouring under great suffering until his death; because like Milton, his great hopes for Israel, as he had been predicted to fulfil them, had not (yet) been realised, and instead he was captive, in chains, and servile to his enemies’ hands. Milton was never himself captive, maybe a few days, but for his favour of the parliamentary cause, upon the English monarch’s Restoration to the English crown, which occurred soon after Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate ended upon his death, Milton received no precise and denominated civil rebuke or punishments from the once-again ascendant Royalists.
Yet Milton certainly must have felt himself ‘in thrall’ to the strangely now-victorious monarchist party; and upon the collapse of his and his Puritan party’s secular (and religious) hopes for England. He was in many powerful circles now considered a persona non grata. He retired himself to a private life so as to live out his remaining days; and in this period Paradist Lost; Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes all appeared first in print.
Unlike the single person in the English canon of literature who is able to surpass him, Milton is ever-present in his works as a partaker; not only in his first person soliloquies in Paradise Lost but the ‘flavour’ of him and of his outlook is everywhere. Whereas Shakespeare is famously almost wholly anonymous as a person or a personality in his dramas and poems; as if he were able to merely just ‘become’ the persons and feelings he writes of.
Milton is less shape-shifting;his style is more consciously ‘educative’, putting forward abstruse arguments of theology and also his own experiences and thoughts and feelings he bore whilst composing the epic. Milton is everywhere in his works.
Milton’s style of English in Paradise Lost is also spectacularly different to perhaps an other thing in English before or since. Samuel Johnson had accused that generation of poets previous to Milton’s of ‘ransacking nature and art for illustrations’; and Milton might be said to have ‘ransacked’ whole libraries of obscure knowledge as well as whole dead languages in order for him to be able to express his narrative in the language in which he felt most desirable for it to be told.
Many Latin and less so Greek words he ‘naturalised’ into English often for the first time. He also coined many new variants of current English words. Shakespeare had also coined a great aray of new English word variants. At this time the English language was not as rigidly fixed as it was to become two or three centuries after; and poets took liberties with their words; the rule seeming to be, ‘if its meaning is self-evidently intuitable, then it’s OK to use’.
‘Vasty’ is Shakespeare’s; as is the verb to ‘out-Herod’; ‘star-y-pointing’ is Milton’s; ‘safeliest’ is Donne’s; and their works a filled with neoligistic innovations pushing the boundaries of comprehension further.
Not only Latin and Greek words and new-coined English variants were Milton’s tools; but in composing Paradise Lost he also created a syntax, an order of words as parts of speech, which owed something to Latin syntax, but yet it had an effect in English which elevated and distanced and made stately their expression; in a manner which was most appropriate to his great biblical theme of Eden and after. As Milton wrote in a lyric poem of his commemorating the death of a friend and fellow poet: ‘He knew himself to build the lofty rhyme’.
Now it is perhaps this composite and newly-created English style made specifically by Milton for writing Paradise Lost which is one of the greatest make or break aspects of the poem for most of its readers; especially at first encounters of it. There is no doubt it presents any new-coming reader to it with a considerable challenge. As one who is an Olympian contestant, say a long distance runner, and one is called upon to bid for a medal at an Olympics venue like Dubai where hottest temperatures are some of the greatest on the surface of the planet; or say in Nepal where the air comparatively is rarefied to that say in London or California; one goes to the venue some months, perhaps a year or more before the event, and one trains there hard so as to acclimatise oneself.
No this is analogous to getting to grips with Milton and his English style in Paradise Lost; he is not for faint hearts. And just as the gold or even the silver or bronze is a great attainment and a great effort to obtain; so one might compare the reward of getting to know Milton better than he is known generally nowadays. Just as the athlete is halfway there before she travels out to Dubai or Nepal; and she only has to do her best to replicate her normal fluency and form, but under more demanding conditions of environment; so any person with some facility in reading English is able to attempt a similar acclimatisation on Milton’s verse. It is without doubt English; but not as one knows it.
Here is a strung string of words like a necklace of brilliants hung around a person’s neck; so that as the person turns the lights clash and flash on and off its stones showing an array of varied colours glints and intensities. Try yourselves out at Miltonic comprehension:
“ Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring To set himself in Glory above his Peers, He trusted to have equal'd the most High, If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim Against the Throne and Monarchy of God Rais'dimpious War in Heav'n and Battel proud With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie With hideous ruine and combustion down To bottomless perdition, there to dwell In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire, Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.
This citation comprises a single sentence of verse. Forget the funny spelling; just read the words as they sound spelt. Note the capital letters on the nouns; which are the names of things; and how once you have subsumed this oddity to yourself it is an added aid to your interpreting of meaning. Each ‘thing’ capitalised signposts some information about whereabouts one has come from, and is at now, and where one is heading next in the verse.
Notice how we say the word ‘the’ in day to day usage. We say ‘th’’ for ‘the cat’ but ‘thee’ when we say ‘the other way’. Milton takes care of this difference for us; more signposts: thus ‘th’ infernal Serpent’. ‘th’’ is shorter said than ‘thee’; thus ‘th’’ is able in Milton to be conflated with its following word, so that say ‘th’infernal’ is one word; and counts as three syllables of the line of verse not four; and the same number of syllables as in the word ‘infernal’.
Notice the stresses of the voice on the words of the first line. ‘he’ - the serpent, is spoken emphasised because Milton is pointing at this ‘he’ so as to alert you to this ‘he’’s ‘guile’ and ‘envy’ (both of which nasty words carry heavy stresses to be emphasised as well). Read this single sentence passage out loud and you begin to see how Milton seems almost to have heard it in his mind as he was writing it down.
(A short anecdote here. I knew an academic professor who had a friend he told me and when this friend was driving his daughters to school he would have them read aloud to him from Paradise Lost from the rear of his car. Now Milton himself had daughters; and when he had gone blind and lost his sight he is said to have had his daughters read to him from Latin and Greek books in his library. Now the story goes on to demonise Milton a little by say that he never taught his daughters Latin and Greek; only how to pronounce these languages; so that they read to him but did not know what they were reading to him.
This story is suspect I believe; because Milton has received for many years a bad press regarding his treatment of women. Maybe this tendency began when and because he treats of The Fall in Paradise Lost and he treats of the subject in such a way as to show Eve, ‘The Mother of Mankind’ to be the first of the created couple to succumb to The Serpent's guile and envy and so to eat of the apple of the Tree of Knowledge which act ‘brought death into the world and all our woe’. Adam eats of the apple thereafter and he eats of it because he feels unable to face life without his companion Eve, whom he fears wil now be separated by God from him. Adam’s sin in part then is a sin of uxoriousness.
Having Eve as the prime mover in the temptation scene in The Fall is biblical; no more no less. Nothing short of him tampering with his Divine source could have prevented Milton from addressing his narrative in this way. Milton also had a disastrous first marriage. His first wife was back at her mother’s home within weeks of their marriage. I know little detail. I do know that he married again another woman during his blindness, and that she died and he was heartbroken. So much so as to have written this melting and powerfully moving Sonnet about her:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave, Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave, Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint. Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint Purification in the old Law did save, And such as yet once more I trust to have Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint, Came vested all in white, pure as her mind; Her face was veil'd, yet to my fancied sight Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd So clear as in no face with more delight. But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd, I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night. The imputation that Milton was misogynistic is not easily substantiated.)
Let’s go back a bit to the earlier citation. Try to get the flow of the language into your stride, and the interleaving of meanings as it goes on meandering throughout the long sentence. Its effect is cumulative and also it has a fluency which carries a reader along with it as it goes. The effect is a piling-up of sensations, sights, images, feelings, descriptions, thought, as the story is unpacked further and further in the lines. Note the final line ‘Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms’.It has no questionmark but it may be taken as a final flourish to the long winding serpent-like sentence, by us adding one questionmark to it; thus posing to us rhetorically as readers; dare we? There follows a natural pause – the sentence ended – space for our thoughts on ‘who durst’ indeed?
There is much more to be said, pages, reams, on even only this short one sentence extract from Paradise Lost. I hope my pretty minimal explications have shown you some small insight into the great treasury of meaning and its the application to these words from Shakespeare’s which he placed in the mouth of his Hamlet:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
Milton’s riches are perhaps dear bought; but I do not believe so; because their gloriousness is like as St Augustine describes humility: ‘endless’.
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