Friday, January 22, 2010

Paradise Lost 1

The first thing one is likely to notice about this poem is the speed and energy of Milton's verse.  In two long sentences, one of 16 lines and another of 10 lines,  Milton tells us what he's going to talk about—the "fruit" of that tree whose "taste" brought not only death into this world but the entire history of human life from its origin to the moment when Jesus ends it upon his return; and, since he is about to do something that no other writer has ever done before, i.e. write a poem about how we got where we are which not only explains how we got where are, but justifies the ways of the god who took such violent exception to what might seem to be a trivial thing, a taste merely of some arbitrarily forbidden fruit of some arbitrarily chosen tree, he needs and asks for divine assistance. That, roughly, is the substance of Milton's first paragraph.

The second paragraph, begins by evading the question that I have, impertinently perhaps, but relevantly, inserted into my paraphrase of Milton's opening invocation. The question that Milton wants to ask is not why God set up his trap in the first place but why did we—or rather our "Grand Parents"—fall into it? "Who first seduc'd them to that foul revolt?" demands the poet, sternly. ("Foul revolt"? That seems a bit strong. All Eve wanted to do was have a taste.) That short question requires a long answer  which will go on for another 48 lines until finally the "infernal serpent" who started it all is named: Satan. In those 48 lines, we are shown God's first act of creation: not light, but darkness—darkness visible, Hell. That, it seems, is what the "vast abyss" is "pregnant" with (lines 21-2). Well, it makes makes sense: if Satan is to be punished for his ambition by being

Hurld headlong flaming from th'Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition . . .

there has to be some sort of place (for 3D space does not yet exist in "the vast abyss") for him to be hurled into, and time has only just begun to tick) . Bottomless perdition is not a place but a condition. In the following lines space and time are being energetically created while hell is being industriously excavated out of. . . nothingness: hideous ruin and combustion follow him all the way 'down' and await him 'there.'

Nine times the space that measures Day and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reverv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n
As from the Center thrice to the utmost Pole.

What does Satan—as yet unnamed—'see'? Huge affliction and dismay, sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades. Hell is a work in progress, created out of . . . language itself?

Whatever you may think about all this as poetry, I hope you will join me in admiring the energy of Milton's verse. Where does that energy come from? It comes from the coiled tensions of Milton's syntax, from questions that elicit answers, from verbs with surprising subjects and objects, from clauses that seem at first disconnected from verbs only to connect in ways you could not have predicted. It is like the energy of a spring coming uncoiled—or a serpent.

Where is Milton in all this? How does he know these things, which do not derive from any biblical text? Is he making it up? Yes, obviously, but he can't say so. "Sing heavenly muse," he says, asking for the same sources of inspiration that were available to Moses ("That Shepherd who first taught the chosen Seed in the beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth rose out of Chaos . . .") But that was God, was it not? There were already too many nuts running around claiming to know the will of God, which is quite expressly not Milton's object: Milton is a secular poet with a philosophical purpose; not, like Calvin, to tell us how we ought to live, but to explain the nature and origin of sin; and do it in a dramatic and fundamentally secular poem about the human condition. And the first thing he has to, if he is to get this poem moving, is to authenticate his source which is not Moses or the book of Genesis but something that only a 17th century puritan could have come up with: a puritan Spirit, whom the poet addresses formally as "Thou," who prefers "Before all Temples th'upright heart and pure." You have to admire the way Milton deftly transforms the heavenly muse of line 6 into something like the inner light. He will address that same spirit as Urania, later, at the beginning of Book 7:

Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil dayes,
On evil dayes though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

1 comment:

  1. You raise an excellent point, Piers: Why did God set up this trap? Milton does not pursue the issue, but obviously, the first sinner in the story is God, who led Adam and Eve into temptation.
    But if we look at eating from the Tree of Knowledge as a blessing, as I do, then it wasn't a trap but rather an opportunity. Learning knowledge about one thing leads to learning about others. Everything is conencted. Knowing good from evil is knowing that the world is a complicated place and that Good may come down to choosing the lesser of two evils. And understanding this complexity leads to the discovery of science, agriculture (the sweat of one's brow), medicine, and space travel. Division of labor turns out not to be a punishment but a divine tool. Marx, to be sure, wanted to undo division of labor and introduce a world where we would raise cattle in the morning and criticize literature after dinner, but then, Marx expected all science to be discovered during the Capitalist era, thus enabling the world to move on to the final stage of Communism.
    Milton never seemed to grasp (unless I have misunderstood him) the greatness of knowledge, and the unbreakable link between learning about morality and learning about science.