Reflections on Paradise Lost, Part 2

I have never had a book defeat me! Never. I have read many books where I just wanted to write the authors angry/disgruntled notes, and I have read books that I have wanted to throw out the window in disgust (poor grammar, no plot, crap-tastic charaters, totally insipid, etc), but I have never read a book that was entirely inscrutable.

Paradise Lost comes close.

But you will not defeat me, Mr. Milton! You will NOT!

One hundred lines of random activities undertaken by random groupings of demons (including one who–that?–sings beautifully, apparently) really slow down the narrative in Book II. That frustrates me. But then I came to lines 630-635:

Satan with thoughts inflamed of highest design

Puts on swift wings, and towards the gate of Hell

Explores his solitary flight; sometimes

He scours the right hand coast, sometimes the left,

Now shaves with level wing the deep, then soars

Up to the fiery concave, tow’ring high.

That’s beauty. That’s power.

The more that Milton waxed lyrical about Satan/Lucifer/the Adversary (used interchangeably in Paradise Lost, but cordoned off individually in certain mythologies–seemingly due to inexact translations), the more his biographers and critics believed that he saw Satan as a misunderstood protagonist. In fact, this seems to have been Milton’s main (tricky) idea: convince the reader to empathize with Satan–Satan wished for respect and individuality alongside a sense of belonging–and then slam said reader with condemnation. In Milton’s worldview, our desire for individuality is only a product of the Fall–Original Sin. We think that individualism is an asset–but Milton’s theory was we only think that because we are flawed. Our whole view is askew, as it were.

In Heaven, all “good” creation wishes to be part of the hegemony–the harmonious whole–under God. …Which then leads to the question: Why is God above the rest? “Because He is God” does not seem to be a complete answer as “to be good”, one has to cease being “one”; one must lose his/her individuality and contribute the whole self-ness to the greater heavenly whole.  (But then, what is this “self”?) Then, if harmony and hegemony are the ultimate goal, Why did God create Himself differently? Or is it just that Satan/Lucifer sees it that way? And how can there be individual angels (Michael, Uriel, Abdiel, etc)?

Out of the Metaphysical and Back to the Form…

Milton wrote all 11,000+ lines in blank verse–the type of poetry preferred by Marlowe and Shakespeare (in his plays, the sonnets are obviously an entirely different animal). Poetry in the later half of the 20th Century, and now into the beginning of the 21st, has taken a sharp turn away from closed forms and into Open Form. Blank verse is a type of closed form whose lines are written in iambic pentameter–with the occasional “feminine” line that has an extra, unstressed syllable at the end of the line–that was supposed to mimic speech patterns. Most people no longer speak this way on a regular basis, though I have been known to, on occasion. Open Form encompasses any poetry that refuses to follow fixed rules, thus making itself the fixed rule. [This train of thought can dizzy your brain, if you’re not careful. I shall avoid it for now.] Open Form also has encompassed the move toward more succinct phrasing and fewer digressions. [Obviously, I am no good at it.) Blank Verse encouraged the convolutions and digressions in speech, and most practitioners of this art took care not to make their poetry too round-about, with extensive, arguably extraneous clauses. They simply used artful words and were perhaps a bit liberal with adverbial phrases. Milton took the opposite tack–he seems to have made his own special art out of rearranging subjects, verbs, objects, and multiple adverbial phrases into literally incredible sentences. (Sometimes, I think it gave him perverse joy.)

Is that why Milton’s verse seems so leaden through some passages? Because–via our Puritan, adverb-loathing, literary ancestors–more recent to us than is Milton–we have developed disdain for hidden meaning, and we have lost much of the ability to discern where the subject of a sentence is going and how he is getting there? (It’s easier in Latin and other languages that use declensions to identify which word is which part of speech; English has lost much of that, sadly.) Or are we just slacking off? Are we missing something huge by ignoring Milton and writers like him?

We are missing a lot. In Book III, Milton begins with fifty of what may be some of the most beautiful, most haunting lines ever written. He seems to be writing as pseudo-Satan as Satan flies toward the realm of the newly-created Earth and addresses Light, asking why it has forsaken him. Using this invocation of celestial light, Milton addresses his blindness and the blindness of other great poets and prophets. He consoles himself by writing that he was blinded in order to let “celestial light” pervade his mind to better this story (hence, his earlier allusions to prophets). Later in Book III, when God addresses his angels and his Son (“My Word”), Milton lets it seem as though God has set humans up for failure. He watches Satan/Lucifer emerge from Hell, via Chaos, and head for Earth (our Universe), yet He does nothing to stop him. God knows that Satan will attempt to corrupt Eve and Adam out of jealousy, and He knows that Adam and Eve will succumb. Did He also know that only Jesus (variously referred to as “Messiah”, “My Word,” “the Son”) would step up and volunteer himself as a sacrifice to redeem the humans? (The angels were sure in no rush to say anything…) Who is Milton’s God, anyway? And why was Satan able to trick Uriel so easily?

To be continued later…

(Thanks for reading!)


Reflections on Paradise Lost…or, How I’ll be a Better Reader in 365 days; part 1

I love to read. In that vein, I grabbed up “book smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days” (sic) by Jane Mallison. I do not actually believe that I will magically become a “literary genius” (whatever that may be) within a year, but I thought it would be fun to read through this book, using it as my own special book-club-for-one. If I learn more nifty stuff along the way, so much the better. At any rate, the author will at least point me in the direction of some fun literature–and she provides mini-essays about the works as well, helping my retention of the facts of each book I read.

For this month, I am reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. No, I have no idea how I managed to overlook this book for so long. “Book smart” themes each month of the year toward a type of book. This month, the theme is crime and punishment. (I will read that book next, I promise.) “Wait!” you say? “There is not much about crime and punishment in Paradise Lost.” Oh, but there is. As Paradise Lost is Milton’s epic spin on the story (myth, theology, what-have-you) of “original sin”, it is also Milton’s rumination on the very concepts of crime and punishment. What is evil? What is good? Is desiring knowledge at great cost wrong? I found it hard to start reading this epic, but so far, it has been worth the effort of running down footnotes and thinking up thoughts. Milton focuses not on absolutes of good or evil but on the varying shades of grey that permeate human (and angelic and demonic) actions.

The author, Jane Mallison, recommends that first-time readers of Paradise Lost read approximately one-third of the epic poem: Books One and Two, then Books Nine and Ten, and finally, the last five lines of Book 12 (the final book), so as not to feel completely overwhelmed. Brilliant tactic–Paradise tells an outstanding story, dense with myth, pain, religious study (theology and theosophy). It raises questions about the meanings of good and evil, loss and hope. And it does so via 11,570 lines of blank verse (plus prose-form Arguments, relating background info and setting up the scenes). The waters here are deep, so it is likely best that I use an inner tube the first time through.

[More on Books One and Two, and Nine and Ten plus the last five lines of Book Twelve to follow.]