Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Of Man's 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, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Reviewing Paradise Lost seems like a silly exercise.  It's not merely that it is a classic--so is Don Quixote, but the entertainment value of that novel is such that it seems rational to evaluate it on those terms--but that whether I enjoyed it seems ultimately beside the point of Milton's writing.  In the invocation to Book VIII, the poet-narrator asks his muse: "still govern my song, / Urania, and fit audience find, though few."  This epic is not for everyone; Milton admits as much.  It's not for the dilettante, but rather for the "fit" and "few" readers who will be receptive to its message of glory through obedience to God.  As I wrote in my review of Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin, this goes far in explaining some of the aesthetically dreary bits of Paradise Lost, of which there are many--some of it really sucks, but hey, you've got to eat your vegetables.

In any case, I did enjoy it.  Or rather, I was impressed by it.  It's the most all-encompassing work I've ever read, the most total expression of literary capability.  (Second would be Moby Dick.)  Ostensibly, it's our only notable English language epic, modeled on Homer and Vergil and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata.  But it gobbles up other genres as well: tragedy, pastoral, lyric poetry.  Here's a beautiful piece of lyric from Eve speaking to Adam about her love for him and the bliss of their existence:

With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons, and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of Morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds: pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful Evening mild; then silent Night,
With this her solemn bird, and this fair moon,
And these the gems of Heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn, when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds; nor rising sun
On this delightful land; nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew; nor fragrance after showers;
Nor grateful Evening mild; nor silent Night,
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering star-light, without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?

Paradise Lost is not frequently beautiful in the way that Shakespeare often is; in fact, it is often clunky and can even seem strained.   Milton is not particularly concerned about avoiding the awkward constructions that blank verse can force him into, but the strain often works to his advantage, I find.  It works, I think, when we're talking about the exploits of angels, demons, and God, who are ultimately meant to seem great and alien.  Here's a great description of Satan's shield and spear:

He scarce had ceased when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield,
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round,
Behind him cast. The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.
His spear--to equal which the tallest pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand--
He walked with, to support uneasy steps
Over the burning marl, not like those steps
On Heaven's azure; and the torrid clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire.

The "Tuscan artist" here is Galileo; Satan's shield looks like the moon through a telescope.  The description of the spear operates by a nifty analogy: His spear is to a mast made of the tallest pine in "Norwegian hills" as that mast is to a tiny wand.  Milton is great at describing the ineffable this way, baffling our sense of scale.

The first half of Paradise Lost have proven to be the most popular, for good reason.  They include the story of the War in Heaven (angels and demons throw mountains at each other); Satan's fall, and the construction of the terrifying city of Pandemonium in Hell; the beautiful pastoral depictions of Adam and Eve hanging out in the garden; the serpent's temptation of Eve.  The final books are a little preachy, sure, which are given over to the Archangel Michael teaching Adam about Christian providential history.  But I am also taken by the pathos of Adam's lament about the loss of God's blessing:

O fleeting joys
Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust;
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received; unable to perform
Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold
The good I sought not. To the loss of that,
Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added
The sense of endless woes?

I didn't ASK to be born!  But moreover, I think the most wonderful lines of the poem are the final ones, which depict Adam and Eve walking through the Garden one last time on their way out into the wide world, together but alone, needing each other to face a daunting new existence with bravery and mutual compassion:

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.


Brittany said...

I had a lit professor who would always start class by asking us if we liked the reading and then remind us that "liking" wasn't necessarily the point which is, I think, the difference between Average Population and Book Nerds.

I have yet to read an epic in its entirety which I feel like makes me a terrible person, so I applaud your efforts! Every summer I say I'm going to have an epic summer and read one, and every summer I don't.

Christopher said...

I just bought the Seamus Heaney Beowulf. You might try that--it's relatively short compared to other "epics." I would say the Aeneid is the most fun.

Brent Waggoner said...

The Inferno is also pretty fun, if you get a good translation (like Fagles) and skim the lists of Dante's enemies.

Brent Waggoner said...

Whoops, make that Pinsky, not Fagles.