“Lucifer” has just reminded me: I was due to revisit John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I’d gone through it in college, but it was a rushed read, part of a course that also expected us to inhale, in a few months, half of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I recall “Beowulf,” John Keats’ “Endymion,” William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” all got some prominence. That sort of diet fattens, but fatness and good digestion are not necessarily concurrent.
Which is to say, I do not remember particularly enjoying “Paradise Lost,” as much as scavenging for the essay-ready “quotable bits,” which luckily were plentiful.
And upon revisiting, the surprise: aside from the quotable bits, I’m STILL lukewarm about it.
It’s obviously a dissenting opinion. Look how apologetic I get right away:
The STORY is amazing. This is Biblical fan-fiction that, blasphemous as it may sound, outdoes its source. It is simply the ultimate epic about good and evil, fuller, deeper, more poetic… More INSPIRED, so to speak. Milton spins out his 12 books of blank verse out out of the first three chapters of Genesis, stray Biblical allusions, peripheral angel lore, gnostic and medieval folklore. When he can’t find enough philosophical material in centuries of ecclesiastical commentary, he expands his religious universe to include folk legends and Greco-Roman allusions. When even that fails to feed his all-consuming genius, he simply MAKES THINGS UP. That takes chutzpah: it is very easy for irreverent post-deist modernity to expand upon and remix Biblical tales, but Milton was a fierce believer, one who must have had carved in his heart the closing words of the King James Bible:
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.
And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
Why then, is it ok when Milton “adds unto these things”? Because if Dante could add upon Virgil, and Virgil could add upon Homer, those were role models enough. Also, he’s inflamed by the vision that illuminated everything in his blindness: when he’s inventing n0n-Scriptural events, he fully believes in them too. He is literally an ORIGINAL believer, originating his own religion through his poetry. The writing of “Paradise Lost” was an earnest religious ritual, a ritual half-Christian and half-pagan. If there is some contradiction or hypocrisy in Milton’s praying for the help of a Greek Goddess to sustain him through the tale of monotheistic zealousness, Milton never noticed. Fanaticism is its own cognitive dissonance.
That’s the good.
The bad ( for me) is that I can’t escape the feeling that our insistence on the majesty of “Paradise Lost”‘ has two dubious causes. First, that the English writers bowed to it in Imperial pride because in its absence, the English language is bereft of a great epic. “Beowulf” is barely English; “The Faerie Queen” is incomplete; there’s too many fart jokes in Chaucer.
The second source of its appeal lies on some cheesy proto-Heavy Metal fixations. Forget Gustave Dore; “Paradise Lost” should have been illustrated by the dude who does Jim Steinman / Meatloaf album covers.
As for Milton’s language, it has the effect of any dazzling fireworks; too much of it, and it turns into eye-straining monotony. The grandiloquent pomposity grates on me. I know, I know, if you can’t be grandiloquently pompous about the Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil, what CAN you be grandiloquently pompous about? But Milton gets too proud-fully, sinfully excited by the overwrought iron work of his own verse, which is fit to decorate the infernal gates. And the thing it’s not as distant from the cosmic ponderousness of Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer as people would like to think.
If Milton loses to Dante in appeal, the reason is simple: Dante knew that when you’re putting the reader through hell, you gotta throw in a couple of jokes.
There IS one ironic joke in “Paradise Lost,” the one any modern critic and reader immediately confronts, but I do not think Milton was as conscious of it as we elect to think he was. That uncomfortable irony, of course, is that Satan is the goddamned hero, (er, no pun intended.) Satan is brave, noble, Achillean. His cursed heel is, of course, his unwillingness to be a slave in Heaven. “Better to reign in Hell! They may take away his soul, but they can not take away his freedom!” He comes out looking a LOT better than the tyrannical, paranoid, wrathful King Lear of the Heavenly throne.
Even the title suggests this epic is written from Satan’s perspective; it’s not called “Paradise Cleansed of Traitors.” I agree with William Blake that Milton was not aware of his slant: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Here’s a further irony:
Milton decried grand churches and opulent temples, whose gateways opened to idolatry. Still he wrote a grand temple in verse, and set many memorable idols around the iconostasis. Satan; Beelzebub; Belial; Moloch; the horrible Sin and Death; the copulating Adam and Eve; even sword-swinging Michael… they are all much more arresting than the irascible Father by the altar, threatening to annihilate Creation at the slightest provocation, or the bashful Son tugging at his sleeve, trying to keep the old man from losing his mind again and again. Not only does Milton fail to justify God’s ways to man: he even fails to justify God’s ways to his Son, who seems as mortified by Dad’s uncool behavior as the average teenager caught with the parental units at the mall.
Robert Burns: “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, the noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.”
John Milton: the accidental Satanist.
RATING: Ugh. I feel absurd saying “Paradise Lost” is not a MASTERPIECE!!! How about this? It’s a masterpiece AND a devilish chore.
Thought it might be fitting to go out on 8 glorious minutes of Meatloaf: