Saturday, April 13, 2019

John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained

Introduction

Opening Passages: From Paradise Lost:

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 loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th'Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme. (p. 5)

From Paradise Regained:

I who erewhile the happy Garden sung,
By one man's disobedience lost, now sing
Recover'd Paradise to all mankind,
By one man's firm obedience fully tri'd
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil'd
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls't,
And Eden rais'd in the waste Wilderness.
    Thou Spirit who ledd'st this glorious Eremite
Into the Desert, his Victorious Field
Against the Spiritual Foe, and brought'st him thence
By proof the undoubted Son of God, inspire,
As thou art wont, my prompted Son else mute,
And bear through heighth or depth of nature's bounds
With prosperous wing full-summ'd to tell of deeds
Above Heroic, though in secret done,
And unrecorded left through many an Age,
Worthy t'have not remain'd so long unsung. (p. 303)

Summary: Reading both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, it is completely astonishing that the poems were written entirely by dictation, but this is perhaps the root of some of the excellence on the poem. The poetic effects of the poem are not, as poetic effects often are today, written for the page; they are written for the voice, the story-telling itself, and this makes the work excel as a narrative poem. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis notes that Milton manages to achieve the continuity of thought, the constant movement from one thing to another, that an epic needs by avoiding simple sentences. Practically every sentence Milton writes is a monstrously complex sentence. And yet, Lewis points out, the sentences are all crafted in such a way that you don't need to worry that much about syntax -- just follow it through, and you get the right ideas in the right order without having to worry about sentence structure. Except for, possibly, Michael's prophetic recounting of the after-history in Books XI and XII, the story never really lags, but at the same time you get a sense of an immense sweep of things that nonetheless is rich with detail.

Satan falls through pride, of course, but I think the Son in Paradise Regained is right in a comment that he makes that part of Satan's problem is that he lacks gratitude, which seems to be the immediate effect flowing from his pride. Everything Satan has is something that has been given to him by the Father, but every time he opens his mouth, he is in a sense convincing himself that he has no need to be grateful for any of it -- if anything, he is an injured party because he is being denied more. There seems, in other words, a flow from pride to ingratitude to deceit. Satan's biggest whopper of a lie is when he tries to claim, despite the fact that the circumstances show it to be impossible, that he and the other angels may, for all anyone knows, be self-caused, or else just necessary parts of the cosmos, and this is quite clearly an attempt to avoid conceding that he might owe anything to God.

Perhaps the best parts of Paradise Lost are the meeting of the demons in Pandemonium and Eve's decline after eating the fruit. Both show an extraordinary subtlety in psychological rendering. When Satan gives his first speech, his obvious concern is to maintain his preeminence among the demons; his argument, in fact, is that it is important for the rest to give him absolute power so that all the demons can be free and equal. But Satan is at the same time pulling the strings to make it look like the demons really do need him to be ruler. He lets the demons discuss what they think should happen, and then, when the timing is right, through his toady Beelzebub gives his own plan in glowing terms that leads the devils to vote for it. Now that they've voted for it, however, he steps in himself and describes it in terrifying terms, and asks for a volunteer; and, of course, when no volunteer steps forward, does so himself, characterizing it as the benevolent act of a conscientious leader, thus consolidating his leadership over them all. It is masterfully done -- the father of lies has manipulated the demons themselves, giving them all of the symbolism of equals with equal vote while arranging it all in such a way that they vote for exactly what he wants, and in such a way that they all have to recognize him as ruler.

When Eve eats the fruit, she enjoys it more than any other fruit she's had, but the narrator notes that it's hard to say whether it really was or was just in her head. That is to say, her pleasure in the sin consists in part of convincing herself that it is pleasant. Having eaten it, one of her first thoughts is how much superior it can make her to others, which, of course, for her primarily means Adam. She actually wonders whether she should even let Adam know what she has done, since Adam might eat the fruit too, and if she's eaten it but he hasn't, she will be wiser than he is, which she needs in order to be free because "inferior who is free?" (p. 217). But then a horrible thought occurs to her -- what if she does in fact die as God has said? Then Adam will go on and marry another Eve, and she'll be forgotten. So, she decides, if she is going to die, she has to make sure that Adam will die, too, and really, of course, she is doing it because she loves him.

It's interesting that Milton chooses the Temptation of Christ to be the central event of Paradise Regained. One reason may be that he sees himself as writing about things that are "Above Heroic"; the tragedy of Adam and Eve is that they ultimately fail to be more than heroic in the sense needed for an epic. Christ, on the other hand, does rise to the super-heroic by refusing all of Satan's temptations; the heroic is not good enough for Christ. Thus we have contrasting temptations, Eve's and Christ's, and the latter, by not succombing in the wilderness lives as Adam and Eve were supposed to live in the Garden. That Milton thinks the contrasting parallel is quite strong seems suggested by the endings of the poems. Paradise Lost's ending is one of the best endings in literature:

They looking back, all th'Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fiery Arms;
Some natural tears they dropp'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (pp. 298-299)

Looking back in sorrow at the joys of Paradise, now guarded by fierce angels, they take their solitary and uncertain path into the World. The ending of Paradise Regained seems to recall at least the image of that, turning it around:

Thus they the Son of God our Saviour meek
Sung Victor, and from Heavenly Feast refresht
Brought on his way with joy; hee unobserv'd
Home to his Mother's house private return'd. (p. 357)

The Son of God returns in a kind of solitude as well; but he comes from angels giving a paradisial feast and hymning his victory with joy -- his way is not an uncertain way, but has been established by his repudiation of Satan as a certain one.

Favorite Passages: From Paradise Lost:

The Sixth, and of Creation last arose
With Ev'ning Harps and Matin, when God said,
'Let th'Earth bring forth Soul living in her kind,
Castle and Creeping things, and Beast of th'Earth,
Each in their kind.' The Earth obey'd, and straight
Op'ning her fertile Womb teem'd at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfect forms,
Limb'd and full grown: out of the ground uprose
As from his LAir the wild Beast where he wons
In Forest wild, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk'd:
The Cattle in the Fields and Meadows green:
Those rare and solitary, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Hers upsprung.
The grassy Clods now Calv'd, now half appear'd
The Tawny Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,
And Rampant shakes his Brinded main; the Ounce,
the Libbard, and the Tiger, as the Mole
Rising, the crumbl'd Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarce from his mould
Behemoth biggest born of Earth upheav'd
His vastness: Fleec't the Flocks and bleating rose,
As Plants: ambiguous between Sea and Land
The River Horse and scaly Crocodile. (pp. 171-172)

From Paradise Regained (Book III):

But if there be in glory aught of good,
It may by means far different be attain'd
Without ambition, war, or violence;
By deeds of peace, by wisdom eminent,
By patience, temperance; I mention still
Him whom thy wrongs with Saintly patience borne,
Made famous in a Land and times obscure;
Who names not now with honour patient Job?
Poor Socrates (who next more memorable?)
By what he taught and suffer'd for so doing,
For truth's sake suffering death unjust, lives now
Equal in fame to proudest Conquerors. (p. 331)

Recommendation: Both Highly Recommended.

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John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained, Ricks, ed. Signet (New York: 2001).

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