Reposting from 2008 in honor of PoetryDayUK 2013
John Milton would turn 400 years old today, if we lived in a Doctor Who universe and Doctor/Donna could take us to a planet where the 17th century is still thriving.
This pillar of English literature, this oceanic talent of the English language, is generally unheralded today, like Dryden, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, even Samuel Johnson, although Adam Gopnik is shining a little light his way in a recent New Yorker essay about his love/loss of Mrs. Thrale.
The Puritan is not entirely forgotten: Cambridge has put together a site with lots of lectures, exhibits, and music for the Milton Quatercentenary.
The academic rogue Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar himself, has been tracking the birthday celebrations in his NY Times blog, bestowing some new life to the epic in the comments. When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, one of his acolytes, Walter Benn Michaels, was visiting for a semester. I took his literary theory class, where I entered the heady if sterile world of reader response criticism. My friends and I were positively giddy when Fish spoke at a conference at Brooklyn College and we went and sat in the front row.
166 people are now debating whether a new “translation” of the poem Paradise Lost into prose by Dennis Danielson is PL for Dummies, or an insightful way to help readers through the dense syntax. The verdict is about even.
The subject of PL is no less than how the human race came to live in a world of pain. It amplifies the idea from the Bible that God made a perfect world, and then man and woman, but their disobedience got them thrown out and we have all been coping with the pain and torments of life outside of Paradise ever since. As an epic it has a loftier goal than the “I gotta get home” of the Odyssey or the “here’s what happened in the war” of the Iliad. The concept of original sin is a creation myth to some, faith-based fact to others. I find debating questions like this uninteresting: we will all learn the truth when we die. I can wait.
“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 the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . . .”
Besides, there is so much more going on in the epic. Milton’s depiction of the “reasonable” beguiling Satan is a surprise to many. The Puritan’s intellect behind the characters of God, St. Michael, Satan, Moloch, Mammon, Beelzebub, Belial, Adam, and Eve is staggering.
The Mother of All Mistakes
Ah, Eve. I did well in Benn Michaels's theory class, which allowed me to take graduate English classes as a junior. And that is how I found myself in a small class with the intimidating Catharine Stimpson. First day she asks the 10 of us, “what literary depiction has done the most harm to women?” I suggested “Milton’s depiction of Eve.” Yes, she said, and on she went with a feminist analysis of PL. But I actually see it differently.
Milton does enormous justice to the complexity of the Fall. Satan’s own envies, torments, and desires to corrupt God’s new creations, man and woman, is seductive reading itself.
Adam, on the other hand, whines a lot, particularly in Book 10. He’s blaming everyone:
"O why did God,
Creator wise, that peopl’d highest Heav’n
With Spirits Masculine, create at last
This novelty on Earth, this fair defect
Of Nature, and not fill the World at once
With Men as Angels without Feminine
Or find some other way to generate
He goes on for pages like this. It’s pretty harsh toward Eve and women and our role in procreation, but to my ear it’s whining. But this is an interpretation from the vantage point of a modern woman. Dean Stimpson is right: centuries of pain was caused by Milton’s vision of women as the cause of the loss of Paradise.
I, however, feel no gender guilt at all. Eve was conned by a professional—-and not just a professional, but the incarnation of evil. She thought she would be enlightened, and by that light, love God all the more. Who knew that the primacy of “obedience” was the be all and end all? Kind of a Catch 22 there, since knowing, knowledge, is what was being withheld in Paradise.
As for Adam, if he had stayed at her side, or at least in shouting distance, and protected her, she would not have been vulnerable to the con-Devil. And, he could have said “no” when she offered the forbidden fruit. Suck it up, Adam. The fault lies not in Eve, but in yourself.
And this is all relevant, Why?
Why would anyone care about Paradise Lost almost 400 years after it was published?
One of the comments on Fish’s blog raises the relevancy question:
“I am too distraught at the moment trying to understand what drives young men on the other side of the earth to murder scores of people they don’t know, and too confused by the disintegration of the world financial order, to concern myself about some dense and irrelevant old poem. Pardon me for visualizing here with disdain your mussed up grey hair community of commenters, content in all their elbow patch tweed jacket and nondescript brown shoe erudition.”
To which another answers:
That Milton wrote “a great poem describing as best he could just why humans start wars and torture people and form tyrannies to slaughter innocent people in other countries and enslave whole continents in the name of religion and civilization who overcomes.”
It is an epic of big, eternal ideas. And it has much to teach us all about this English language that we glibly wield, right from the opening ambiguity, with that teasing verbal venn diagram.
“And justify the ways of God to man”— What does Milton mean here? Is it:
(Justify the ways of God) to man
(Justify) the ways of God to man
Two VERY different ideas.
But my favorite is the last line of the epic, as Adam and Eve leave Eden:
“They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
through Eden took their solitary way.”
“Their solitary” way. A beautiful oxymoron. Solitary cannot be plural. Yet it is. They are alone, because they are separated from God, but man and woman have each other. Now we’re off to the races. And once that “greater Man” hits the scene, well, it’s the beginning of Christmas, among other things . . .