When this epic poem was deemed relevant to one’s life and culture by that sliver of the population which over the generations subsequent to its composition had successively interested themselves in such things; in poetry and in culture and in Christian things; all of which things and their sliver of followers these days are it appears to me to be entering a Dark Age; the poem Paradise Lost had always in every generation been a divider of opinion; an almost polar divider of opinion.
In an age like our present in which Milton has very few readers who like to read, and go back to him and reread, him for pleasure and instruction, as opposed to doggedly ploughing through him in an act of ploughing through a syllabus; Milton represents poetry which for the most part lies beyond passe; is antiquated; is dead; and thoroughly dusty; even to most of those prominent and interested in and earning livelihoods from employment or engagement in the literary arts.
Milton’s tercentenary of birth was celebrated in 2008, during which several events and readings and so on were organised, broadcast, discussed; and thereafter occured in 2009 or shortly before, a general placing of him back on the shelf, somewhere out of the way in a place not likely to be reached for again very soon.
Such a poem as is Paradise Lost belongs for many of us on the same shelf as Joyce’s later works; and with Proust’s and a few other top drawer ‘classics’ which are recognised as such but which rarely actually get to be read. Their inordinate lengths is a part of the problem for most of us in an age wherein few but salaried academics having time and mental fredom and space sufficient to spend in reading them complete. There is also a problem of the amount of sheer effort required in giving this class of literary works sufficient energy, engagement, and applied consistent concentration, so as for us to try to get a fair crack at what they are and what they are saying and what they stand for.
A third barrier, and maybe most especial to Milton in Paradise Lost is the language as used in the poem. Of course Joyce uses language at times almost as a private plaything, and at others as a plaything which only a select few might be capable of entering into with him; those with enough reading and learning under their belts to be able to open the locks on Joyce’s meanings. Proust is less difficult language wise, but like Spenser in The Faerie Queene Proust enjoys taking his time making his points and he relishes every byway and back alley of discussion as routes by which he gets to his destinations.
Thus with Spenser and with Proust it is primarily a matter of us having the paitence and the freedom from other concerns to be able to coast and amble along with either of them so as to put in sufficient days of reading.
Milton is akin to Joyce in that both more or less created a metalanguage for themselves and their works; a metalanguage which is based upon and one has access to it via their contemporaneous everday English laguages of the times. Again as with Joyce, Milton requires a lot of prior reading of other classics so as for a person to have half a chance of making a fist of reading their works. But Milton’s required pre-reading is in the classical clasics; what the Oxbridge people call Greats; that is; in ancient Greek and Roman literatures. Joyce requires these also but also much also of what has accrued to the English canon since Chaucer wrote; plus a whole lot more of scattered paraphernalia of facts.
Milton also requires us to have some fairly good reading knowledge of the Bible; after all his theme is of The Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden and it would be very strange if not very difficult to write such an epic poem without using Biblical allusions and references in its composition.
All of these authors Proust, Spenser, Joyce and Milton were extremely learned authors and each leant towards the academic theoretical side of things rather than them being practically engaged in physical things during their lives. They were ‘bookish’ and perhaps lived their lives a great deal via their being ‘bookish’.
Milton’s metalanguage is known often by the name of The Grand Style. It embraces items and flourishes of style which are to be found in Homer and in Virgil, and thus are so far in the Epic tradition of poetry. Such things are the panoply of literary alusions to the adventures of the ancient gods, as well as usage of the descriptive device known as the epic simile; and also there are the initial statement of the subject and the invocation of the muse in opening lines of Paradise Lost, which recall Homer’s ‘Sing Heavenly Muse of the Achilles wrath, which brought pains thousandfold upon the Achaians..etc’.
Milton’s style also and importantly involved him creating a language of a form suitable for carrying an epic subject in English; a language thus removed from everyday life and one which was lofty, uplifting, and stately, so as to maintain that momentous aura of great things going on; indeed of the greatest things going on. Thus Milton opens by stating his subject and invoking his muse:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden , till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse,
Here in the first six lines is all his subject.
The Grand Style carries some involved and lengthy sentences of verse which wind and progress rather like the serpent in the Garden; and just as snakes are held often to carry hypnotic and mesmerising qualities, so too Milton’s sentence length and discursive syntax with its woven meanings also with some patience, perseverance, practice and immersion carry a reader along as if carried on the flow of a mighty river or to keep to our origninal figure, as if saddled on the back of a slowly winding snake.
The crucial words in my last sentence are perhaps ‘with some patience, practice, perseverance and immersion’. Shakespeare himself in his final play The Tempest insists several times in the character of Prospero on emphasising that nothing of value comes easily; and indeed that good items which come too easily are never valued by their possesors at their true rate:
this swift business
I must uneasymake, lest too light winning
make the prize light
Just as Lewis Carroll parodied learning the Classics (Greats) in these words:
I went to the Classical master, though. He was an old crab, he was.”
“I never went to him,” the Mock Turtle said with a sigh. “He taught Laughing and Grief,
Learning the classics (which I have never wholly mastered by a long way) does seem from my attempts at learning dead languages to be something one either laughs or cries at doing; and this is because the prize being so difficult to attain it is by no means left unvalued no matter how little one is able to assume of it.
So, then, someone of our times with any serious aim of staying in there with it and getting familiar with Milton’s epic wil need a good edition of Milton’s works so as for her/him to be able to unravel the mysteries of the classical allusions and divine the host of (albeit very interesting and absorbing) arcane knowledge with which it is packed to the gunwhales.
Over the passage of time since the poem was composed much arcane knowledge has accumulated on top of that which was in Milton’s day even to his contemporaries somewhat obtuse; and this accumulation includes the commentaries and editions through which the poem has run in the course of 3 centuries and the explications of the poem these make.
Now to the subject of Milton’s work dividing quite oppositely into two parties most of his readers. I believe it’s more complicated than: you either love him or loathe him. The scripture saying: where your treasure is; there will your heart be also; might be worth using as a starting point from whereabouts to begin unpacking the opposition, and almost animosity, between the two parties of readers.
Clearly to appreciate Paradise Lost it helps for a reader to be religious; ideally Christian; but not necessarily to be a literalist or a fundamentalist believer in Christ. Just to be aware of and familiar with the storyline beforehand to reading it, by way of one’s Biblical knowledge, helps a lot in the literal understanding of the storyline. To be a person who feels s/he holds a stake in being Christian and therefore in what is to be expanded and expounded to her/him in the poem, supplies of course some preformatted emotional engagement.
It is worth a note here that ancient readers of/listeners-to Homer’s Illiad and Oddysey, and of Virgil’s Aeneid, the most important of the epic poems which Milton took as reehand models for his own, would have known well beforehand the stories to be narrated and to be detailed in these epics and usually would have been thoroughly familiar with them. Milton’s anticipated audience also was similarly familiar with the Bible story at his epic’s core; and with the poem’s surrounding and supporting theological, classical and biblical narratives. Most of such an audience one can take for granted were emotionally and spiritually interested in the poem’s story of The Fall and in the subsequent Redemption of Man it discusses in the Person of Christ. Thus Milton chose as the ancients chose; a theme which was of vital concern and knowledge to every reader of the times.
In the present age we are not able to count on the spiritual commitment of any audience for Paradise Lost; we are not able to count on the background biblical knowledge being present with them; and certainly the absence of an understanding of classical stories, myths, and allusions etc might be taken today as being given. In the same way as The Illiad and The Oddysey and The Aeneid all present to us today as being fairly steep learning curves for us to begin to get to grips with in any measure; so also today, and because of the accidents which have occurred as history since Milton wrote, many, maybe most of us are at first at a loss about the storyline and its biblical alusions and implications etc for us. Hence if all this this is true about us, then most of us have forefetied our once generally available potential for emotional pre-engagement and also for overmuch literal pre-engagement too.
So: Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads to Salvation; as is for us today the road for getting us into a position in which we might enjoy and learn to love Paradise Lost. The Jacobean English language has moved on enormously; The Grand Style of Milton’s is to us at first sight seemingly impervious; the subject matter; its classical and Hebraic elements; the narrative and the inovations to the English language which Milton brought to his task; all present hurdles to us; yet there is something else which is less obvious.
In the main since the influence of The Enlightement of the 18th century began to be felt in Britain; around about 1750 onwards in the arts; at a time when Deism began to be a popular watering-down and acceptable brew of the stronger ale of Christianity; after, as said Voltaire, Descartes had: Cut the throat of poetry; and at a time when the Auld Lichts of the Scottish Kirk were being challenged and sometimes ridiculed by The New Lichts and by the rascally freethinkers emerging at Edinburgh; at this time Christianity as a serious creed first began to face actual serious threats to its continuance; at this time arose a species of literary and social critic and their criticism, which approached Paradise Lost with what we today would possibly recognise to be a modern outlook.
William Blake was famous for saying in 1790 that: Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it. Robert Burns in 1788 wrote: I have bought a pocket Milton which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments – the dauntless magnanimity; the intrepid, unyielding independence; the desperate daring, and the noble defiance of hardship, in that great Personage. Satan.
Here we see being set in place the beginnings of that inversion of values which typifies present day life in The West and perhaps now or soon globally? The liberation of human thought from the vestiges of medievalism Christendom was lingering at death’s door after the English Revolution and the publication of writings of the French philosophes; and now began people to see as being the hero of the epic poem Paradise Lost, no longer The Lord Jesus, but instead his arch fiend adversary Satan. These shifts in perception remained patchy for almost a century; Dr Johnson, contemporary with Burns, praising the poem with very faint praise by saying that although it was ‘every man’s duty to read Paradist Lost’ that ‘no man ever wished Paradise Lost any longer’ – a case in which duty became onerous because the book was too hard and too lengthy.
In our day many persons who do dip into Paradise Lost dip into Book 2; just as most people who read Dante today go for The Inferno; our Hollywood movies seem to have conditioned us to want the metaphysical car chases, firefights, and super heroes over above the good but clean-cut cop?
How much Marvel and DC owe to Book 2 of Paradist Lost might make a person a good thesis subject?
Book 2 opens with Satan sprawlled defeated on the lake of burning fire upon which he fell from Heaven after having been flung ‘sheer o’er the crystal batlements’ by Archangel St Michael, and having fallen ‘all day and night’ below into that appointed place for him and his fellow rebels.
Book 2 is jam-packed with valliant speeches made by those prominent among the scattered and now attempting to rally fallen angels. Satan; Molloch; Beelzebub; all make a council of war in an attempt to find a way to carry the battle on in the war which they so recently abysmally lost against God.
Milton is at the height of his powers here and the rhetoric he places into the mouths of his villains is indeed stirring stuff: Satan lours:
Oh Myriads of immortal spirits, Oh powers
Matchless, but with the Almighty, and that strife
Was not inglorious, though the event was dire,
As this place testifies, and this dire change
Hateful to utter: but what power of mind
Foreseeing or presaging, from the depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have feared,
How such united force of gods, how such
As stood like these, could ever know repulse?
But yet here do we not have that spirit shown admirably at its height by which we call our warships HMS Revenge; and USS Destroyer and so on? Are we not being stirred deliberately here by this author Milton so as for us to realise within ourselves that we too – et in Acrcdia ego – we too are corrupted and Fallen like is this Satan and so as is he we are without Christ and given over to rebellion and to Satan’s cause? Is this not what Burns and Blake were responding to – this valour and big talk, fighting talk from a down but not out (contender?) hero?
And indeed what does this sought for act of further battle by Satan against the powers of Heaven amount to at the end of the day; how fitly does it match up to the big talk and the fighting talk of round two here I come? It is a wheedling plot to work revenge by stealth and behind the backs of Heaven do some injury to a harmless third party, mankind, and it is found by us as readers to be raised to a plan of action by the devils way of the strengths in that Fallen crew of their jealousy and dismay. Jealousy of humankind that it yet retains the favour of God whereas Satan and his crew have forefeited, have lost God’s good care. Dismay because Satan sees and knows absolutely rightly that there is no direct battle left to be had, no man-to-man round two in serious prospect with God; and instead he sees elsewhere that there is only stealth and subterfuge and becoming, and being The Father of Lies. Only this treacherous slyness is able to work any viable revenge for him and his crew?
Read only Book 2 of Paradise Lost at your peril. A little learning is a dangerous thing. Read on, read all, and get the picture whole.
Many a wise man has said, and I have believed them; that many a wise man believes in God and in His almighty power goodness, forvgiveness, mercy, grace; whereas the persons who are as yet less experienced, lless earned, less undertanding, form a body of doubters and so become agents of spiritual corrosions. So the message appears to be clear: bite the bullet and attempt some mastery of things ‘unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’
This I hope is to be only the first part of more articles from me on Paradise Lost; I leave you now with Milton’s own take on from wherebaouts came his astounding brilliance:
if answerable style I can obtaine
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor’d,
And dictates to me slumb’ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse:
Since first this Subject for Heroic Song
Pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem’d, chief maistrie to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl’d Knights
In Battels feign’d; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung; or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal’d Feast
Serv’d up in Hall with Sewers, and Seneshals;
The skill of Artifice or Office mean,
Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To Person or to Poem. Mee of these
Nor skilld nor studious, higher Argument
Remaines, sufficient of it self to raise
That name, unless an age too late, or cold
Climat, or Years damp my intended wing
Deprest, and much they may, if all be mine,
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear.
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