By Charles Matthews

Monday, February 28, 2011

1. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. i-l

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesIntroduction, by Merritt Y. Hughes
Hughes calls Paradise Lost "an epic built out of drama" -- an epic because Milton modeled its structure on that of the Iliad and Aeneid, imitating the conventions they established, but more notable for a modern reader for being "a heightened kind of drama which is too big for the stage and too rich for it in poetic perspectives around the conversations and debates that take up more room than the narrative does."

Like the classical epics, it begins in medias res, "with a plunge into the action where it has reached its third crisis" -- we don't read about the first two crises until Raphael tells Adam about them in Book V. The narrative is built on parallels: "As Satan has established his right to rule the devils by monopolizing the glory of undertaking man's destruction, so the Son of God proves his right to reign in heaven by undertaking man's redemption."

The poem also presents -- or at least for Milton's contemporaries it did -- a "theory of history." Humankind was created "to sire a race which -- as Raphael explains to Adam -- can ultimately achieve a virtually angelic nature and live at will on earth or in Heaven. When Satan wrecks that plan in Book IX, the result is the epic struggle for man's redemption in the three following books."
Paradise Lost first germinated in Milton's mind as a drama and became an epic only after years of reflection and some experience with at least partial drafts finally ended in the poem that we have... The most interesting surmise about Milton's additions to his original design is the suggestion that he added the first two books somewhere late in the process of composing his poem in order to provide it with a standard epic beginning.... The suggestion would ... almost if not quite dispose of A.J.A. Waldock's view that Milton "blundered in the earlier books by making Satan much more glorious than he ever meant to do," and then "sought somewhat belatedly to rectify his earlier errors." 
The "Satan problem" is the central one in reading Paradise Lost, leading to the Blakean assertion that Milton was "of the devil's party without knowing it" and to Shelley's identification of Satan with his own unbound Prometheus. But as Hughes reiterates, "It is only in the first two books of Paradise Lost that Satan seems heroic," although he admits that he retains some "grandeur" later in the epic until he finally dwindles into the serpent of Book X. "In the later books he becomes essentially an allegory and a kind of emblem of evil." That allegorical role is in fact introduced in Book II "when he meets his allegorical daughter Sin and his incestuously begotten grandson Death."
For over two centuries critics agreed that the step into pure allegory in Sin and Death was a blemish on the poem and an external incrustation.... Satan, Sin, and Death are now seen to be a parody of the Trinity of Heaven.
The heroic virtue that Satan most displays is courage: "we see him fighting in spite of his wounds, like Turnus or Hector, through the three days of battle in Heaven, and proving his skill by inventing artillery on the eve of the second day." But Hughes asserts that "In the battle in Heaven Satan is a much more comic than tragic figure, and he is constantly skirting comedy all the way through the poem." (Even here, I think the comic aspect of Satan makes it possible for the reader to engage a kind of imaginative sympathy for him, just as we identify with Falstaff more than with Prince Hal.)

"Probably Milton regarded the war in Heaven as both allegorical and historical.... Milton was too much a humanist and at the same time too much interested in the historical truth to be found in the Bible to be content to treat the battle in heaven as sheer allegory." The appearance of another war in heaven -- the battle between the Titans and the Olympians in Greek myth -- was for Milton "proof of a core of some kind of historical truth in the revolt of the angels." Although Byron and Shelley saw in Milton's Satan a figure of rebellion against tyranny, Milton in fact regarded Satan as "the archetypal tyrant. His reign in hell is the express antitype of the reign of the Son of God by merit in Heaven."
Walter Clyde Curry's diagram of Milton's cosmos

Milton's Heaven is a realm of light. God is a "fountain of light" so dazzling that the angels, who are themselves creatures of pure light, must see him only through a veil of cloud that surrounds him "like a radiant shrine." ... According to St. Augustine and several other Fathers of the Church, the angels were creatures made of the light that came into being on the first day of creation, when God said, "Let there be light." The Heaven which Milton's angels inhabit is a celestial incandescence that is called by a Greek name, the Empyrean, [whose] fiery substance is indestructible.... That is why Satan assures the demons that their "Empyreal substance cannot fail" (I, 117), or -- in other words -- that they are immortal, past God's power to destroy them.
Milton himself probably didn't think of hell as a physical place, but rather as "psychological and non-local," and therefore as eternal, capable of outlasting the physical universe. And as the antithesis of Heaven, which is light itself, hell must be, as he describes it, "darkness visible," an oxymoron that bothers only the literal minded (and which takes on an extra poignancy when you remember Milton's blindness).  The fallen angels are given names drawn from the pagan gods, reflecting a belief "that in ancient times the devils deceived mankind and usurped God's worship." Two of them are "popular personifications" of lechery (Belial) and avarice (Mammon).

Unlike Dante, for whom the Ptolemaic cosmology was fixed and unquestioned, Milton lived in a time of astronomical breakthroughs, so there is some tension in Paradise Lost between the old cosmology and the new.
The Ptolemaic geocentric universe
Copernican heliocentric universe
"Milton was as well aware as his enlightened contemporaries were of the inadequacy of the Ptolemaic view of the heavens, but he knew that his readers could easily visualize" the universe only in that geocentric mode. He acknowledges "the glass of Galileo," however, and "Adam puts the crucial question whether it is possible to believe that the apparent diurnal motion of the heavens is due to their revolution or to the earth's rotation.... Raphael's reply to Adam's question is non-committal." As for Milton's reaction to the increasing tension between scientific discover and religious orthodoxy, "He exalted the sciences as an enrichment of life but he subordinated them (like Socrates) to philosophy and divinity."

The chief stumbling block for modern readers, however, is the fact that "human disobedience is the theme of Paradise Lost." It has led more than one critic to assert that the poem is "a monument to dead ideas." Even sympathetic readers may be bothered by "the close resemblance of Eve's own reasoning to justify tasting the Tree of Knowledge to Milton's own reasoning against 'a fugitive and cloistered virtue' in Areopagitica." The most cogent defense of the Miltonic position is that by presuming to attain a knowledge of good and evil, humankind lost its place in the harmonious natural order. And Milton's position is that "something in a supreme way valuable was forever and needlessly lost through the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the power to know good without knowing evil."

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