‘The sacred conversations seem to me better than has ever been allowed……..The high level of abstraction: the sustained abstention from imagery, except the very simplest and least sensuous: the calm freedom from unresolved emotional expressions: all these qualities now arouse distaste in readers whose formal demands are at once narrow and sensational. But Milton’s fit audience would see the aptness of these qualities in speeches that are not intended to be merely human’
from: Longman Annotated English poets: Milton: Paradise Lost Ed. Alastair Fowler p.35 Introduction
Since time immemorial, so it seems to me, the stock criticism of Milton’s Paradise Lost has included as ‘a hanging offence’ accusations of a lack of vitality, interest, drama, and ‘realism’ in Milton’s depiction of God and of God’s speeches, and likewise concerning the Son.
And so for me to have read Alastair Fowler above on Milton and his verdict on these ‘failings’ of Milton’s has been a liberation for me and a much-belated and a much-needed vindication for Milton.
Having been liberated at once by the truth of Fowler’s words, I saw straightaway that their perspicacity opens up a great swathe of understanding of human existence for an appreciation and for a discussion, and by implication offers a mass of comment on a lack of awareness which ‘sees but does not see, and hears but does not hear’.
The key words in Alastair Fowler’s citation are ‘Milton’s fit audience’; and within these words the word ‘fit’ carries the burden of one’s attention. Because by implication within Fowler’s thoughts as laid out, we in our times, are not a fit audience for Paradise Lost.
Now this conclusion might sound obvious to most people who are interested in poetry; and were it ‘translated’ into lay terms it would seem obvious to most people per se. And further, most people per se would deem that they themselves and not Milton have the appropriate or right perspective on things. This would be then the right perspective on art, on religion, on life, on entertainment and on instruction; in fact on nearly everything which for ourselves in our current age makes up a ‘full’ life fulfilled.
To apply this outlook of modern times to Milton’s poem Paradise Lost is to say that God and the Son wherever they appear are ‘boring’ and ‘lacklustre’ and ‘without entertainment or aesthetic value’. To apply the same outlook generally across modern perceptions of God and the Son, and Heaven and all their surrounding paraphernalia as conceived in the modern mind, are dull and uninteresting abstractions which have no vital attraction of engagement for us.
So, most of us today are saying that it is Milton who is not a ‘fit artist’ and that his written descriptions of God, and the Son and of Heaven are not ‘fit’ depictions in and for our eyes. The judgement is turned on its head by us; and Milton is the agency at fault, not us.
Fowler counters this modern inversion of Milton’s position and I would say does so incontestably by him writing:
The high level of abstraction: the sustained abstention from imagery, except the very simplest and least sensuous: the calm freedom from unresolved emotional expressions: all these qualities now arouse distaste in readers whose formal demands are at once narrow and sensational.
Now interestingly Fowler contends, and I think rightly, that Milton was necessarily doomed to fail in his depictions of God, of the Son, and of Heaven. The simple fact is that unless one has the mind of God one is unable fully to realise such a consciousness in a work of art about God. And who is it among us mere humans who would tempt fate sufficiently to claim to have that insight? So, of course Milton failed, inevitably so; but Milton did make an impressive failure of his attempts.
All those presentational aspects which Fowler lists as surrounding the figure of God as he is displayed in Paradise Lost; that is – the poetry’s high-level abstraction, sustained abstention from all but simple and non-sensual imagery; and most importantly and impressively the calm freedom from unresolved emotional expressions; all these aspects of the verse in the places where God appears, and also where he talks, are I assert the fruits of Milton’s long-contemplation on and resultant deep-understanding of what makes for actual and believable portrayals of Divinity.
And this judgement of mine is by no means only in regard to a poetic or an aesthetic point of view, although it is both of these as well; it applies supremely to Milton’s solitary and individual’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ from this world to the next; that is, to how far along Milton had reached in that journey which St Peter outlines in 2 Peter 1
…………make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ
In fact the Epistles of The New Testament are littered with like exhortations with similar accompanying promises
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
The journey of a Christian is in this present life never fulfilled; never completed. It take a form of an ever-growing awareness of the blindness and insufficiency of oneself; and an admission of a consequent ever-growing acceptance and of a glad willing dependence on the word of the Lord as this has been handed down to the world. St Paul says in
1 Corinthians 2:
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?
But we have the mind of Christ.
St Paul means that the ‘mind of Christ’; is available and is a prize into which we have windows to look so as for us to be able to see something of what it is like; is our guide and compass in our lives and also assists us in what we can make out to be the mind of God.
As we go on our life journeys each of us in striving to be Christian, and in trying to fulfil the teachings and commissions Christ placed before us, to accept these tasks as joyous burdens; then as we might manage to progress we are opened up to view further into the mysteries of the ineffable Divinity of Christ and of his Father and The Spirit.
My contention in regard to John Milton ought to be obvious by now; that Milton had striven hard so as to become sufficiently accepted into the Spirit of Christ that he was able to make a convincing but ultimately failed description and depiction of Heavenly things in his epic Paradise Lost. The levels of self-discipline, self-denial, and self–surrender in Milton, to an endless humility and a fierce election to service, are in my own inexpert estimation colossal; at least when set beside my own small situation.
That Milton was able particularly to maintain a ‘calm freedom from unresolved emotional expressions’ in those areas whereabouts God’s being is displayed, seems to me to be especially commendable in him.
The editor of the Longman Edition of Paradise Lost, Alastair Fowler notes elsewhere that Milton had read a library on theology and had managed so far to assimilate it and sift among for to settle his own positions on things; and that on top of all Milton had then written this assimilated knowledge as a poetical and aesthetically astonishing work of literature. The enormity of the accomplishment is perhaps without parallel; excepting perhaps in no more than two or three other artistic endeavours in human history.
For Milton to have been able so far to penetrate what the mind of God might look like and for him yet to have displayed that poetic and religious self control so as not to allow unresolved conflicts and emotional expression of his own to enter and so mar the poetry and the theology; and thus keeping these at one; is perhaps the pinnacle of his achievement.
Coming back to us now in this current time and to our tastes which, as Fowler points up, are by comparison satisfied by ‘narrow and sensational’ delights. And yet what is one left with as occupation, engagement, and entertainment, when one is impelled to deny the possibility of the Divine; what other gratifications are there to have other than thrills and spills?
Is it wonderful that in our secular and science-fed, materialist-led civilisation we have no taste for serenity, sublimity, and high-seriousness? There are very few desires of ours, within the constricted scope and depth of our ranges of desire, which are not almost instantly fulfillable by purchase or by obtaining otherwise; so that any dedications to the longer-term, to a lifelong adventure which is seeking evermore towards a Christian ideal is not attractive to us or by many of us not even possible to be considered.
Fowler adds that many persons in Milton’s times would have understood and approved his way with portraying Divinity in his epic poem. In other words, in those days there was social and mental space available which in our times has been depleted to a small remnant of its previous extent.
And this is all loss to us here in the 21st century; and no counterbalancing gain.
On a TV show just the other day stand-up comedians were being asked to improvise on a theme ‘Things you are not likely to read in The Bible’. The first of the stands-ups to take the floor said haplessly: ‘And so it had all been a dream.’ The live audience laughed and approved and gave a considerable ovation for this comment.
(I believe in part the ovation was in acknowledgement of a burden having been lifted off their shoulders; by them being able to treat the Bible as a book of fables and dreams; and in part it was also expressing relief as well as some ‘wised-up’ nous that this audience was not one be fooled by such trumped-up nothings as the Bible stories.)
I felt a great pang of painful sadness and dismay when this event happened on my TV screen. The sense of victory in the audience was painful not only because their view is much in the ascendant here in the UK today; but more so because that view of their is held precious by their persons, who feel they have ‘come out of the cave’ of shadows into the real world of actualities by their having eschewed any belief in a Divine world or Godly presence.
What was so painful was that I felt exactly oppositely to the audience; that my having had Christ enter my life has meant I have been liberated entirely from the fly-bottle of empiricism and the mousetrap of scientific materialism; and that these people in the audience had entered willingly into these snares on a pretext (whether originating from some source of evil or not) of these their views of the world being liberational. It was as stark as chalk and cheese; the difference and the abyss which stood between them and me.
It takes little more than an amount of careful education to be able to teach such an audience some basics which when taken in and internalised show the physical world and the science based on it are not at all as sure and certain as these things are generally touted as, and accepted as, being; and by too many who ought to know better and who ought to behave better. For our education systems not to provide this basic education is at best dereliction of duty and at worse an attempt to keep in thrall a population by means of denying them the tools to see the world more fitly.
And so we come back to the keyword ‘fit’. A ‘fit audience’ for Milton remains very possible to generate in our present times; only the enslavements in the lures of ‘things’; such as ‘commodities’ and ‘sweetshop window dressings’ are binding us and blinding us from attainment of a promised and Divine freedom to love and live abundantly.
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