Reflections on Paradise Lost, part 4

Beginning Book 9 is Milton’s long lament regarding his fears that he will not do justice to his epic. He fears that he will die before he has finished. This epic meant everything to Milton–he knew it had the potential to be *great*–and, despite his being a true boor (and occasionally a bore) as a human, I couldn’t help feeling sad for the man. Reading the opening section, I can feel his sentiment pressing against the paper. He wanted to make a difference, and he had the ego to believe that he could. (Most writers suffer–at least a little–from this sort of egotism–else, why would we write?)

After invoking the muse and pleading for time enough to finish, Milton picks back up with Satan’s storyline. Satan circles Eden for seven days, sortying for a weakness in the defensive perimeter set up by Uriel and the Cherubim (who are fiery soldiers of God–not chubby baby-looking cherubs of contemporary Valentine’s Day schmaltz; these guys are scary). On the eighth day, Satan finds a way in.

Uriel, looking less scary:

[Self-referential aside: In this book, for the first time ever, I prayed for a footnote. I flatter myself, thinking a have a decent vocabulary. Milton’s poetry, though dense, is generally composed of words whose meanings I comprehend (sometimes used in a somewhat arbitrary grammatical fashion, but still). Then I came to “maugre”:

When Satan who late fled before the threats

Of Gabriel out of Eden, now improved

In meditated fraud and malice, bent

On man’s destruction, maugre what might hap

Of heavier on himself, fearlessness returned.

–lines 53-57

I read the word “maugre”, and I had to look at it twice. That word was so out of the norm, I don’t even think my brain could process the letters in that order. It turns out that maugre = despite. Ah. Satan feels so angry about all the prior occurrences, he flies throughout the night, plotting ways to destroy Earth and man in spite of the idea that God might really smite him this time. (That passage makes much more sense now, right?)]


Reflections on Paradise Lost, Part 3

My decision to read Paradise Lost has led me to an unpleasant observation: I am–for the moment–obsessed with John Milton. I want to know everything about his life, his times, his family…everything! It’s weird. I am displeased. I have read all the footnotes in two different editions, I’ve read all the prefatory notes in two editions. I have even read by Harold Bloom. (I am not a huge, huge fan of Harold Bloom; I think he’s a little pompous).

So Milton spends most of Books 5-8 relating Raphael’s visit to Eden and his story about how he and the rest of God’s Angels smote Satan’s Angels (not the ones in “Wild Rebels”, that blasphemy on biker movies). Then we come to the weird section of Book 8–possibly the weirdest section of the book, actually: the discussion Adam has with Raphael re: sex–sex between animals, sex between him and Eve (ergo, all humans), and (believe it or not) sex between angels. Who wanted that mental picture? I can’t say that was a thought that I had ever even considered. Ever. Ew. (Turns out, since Angels are comparatively incorporeal, they can “combine bodies” over vast distances. Wow. Tell me that doesn’t blow your mind. It seems Milton is all about “the sex”. Egad.)

Also, in these books, we read about Abdiel whom Satan courted, but who remained steadfast in his obedience to God despite ceaseless temptation and threat. The most logical explanation that I can figure: Milton identified himself with this character, as he himself felt threatened by all the religio-political fervor surrounding him. He was disillusioned by the state religion during the Reformation and subsequently heartbroken during the Restoration (of the monarchy in the person of Charles II). Other than the sex talk craziness, the angels and God also spend a lot of time warning the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden against the ever-present threat that Satan poses. (Lucifer is heart-broken and humiliated, so he had begun stalking Eve. Ick.)

At the end of Book 8, Adam gets a Peace Out from the heavenly host–perhaps Raphael was becoming highly embarrassed by Adam’s questions regarding how angels “mingle”–with Raphael reminding him to love God (lines 633-643). Adam promises to be good and remain steadfast. Much foreshadowing of the Fall-to-come.

(To be continued…)

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.]