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1. THOUGHTS ON PARADISE LOST (Sept. 2002)
Before a work of art can be great it must be good, and no
work better illustrates this than Paradise Lost. The scholars have
overemphasized its learning, its scholarliness. In fact, it has much the same
accessibility as the best science fiction--- flying high, but in sight. And
much the same interest--- worlds displayed, alien beings, the fate of mankind at
stake, cosmic wars. It's this gut, this visceral, colorful, enthralling
spectacle that first hooks us to the work. Later, we can move more deeply into
its other aspects. Dante's Inferno has much this same science
fiction-like appeal, but Paradiso, for the most part, does not. It is
generally what Paradise Lost rarely is--- truly abstract.
In addition, Paradise Lost has a great story line, or rather two great story lines--- the revolt, seeming triumph, but ultimate defeat of the being Lucifer, and the seeming fall but ultimate salvation of the new race of beings Man, the two lines perfectly interwoven. Thus the work succeeds on a very simple "Let's tell the story of---" level.
It also has sensuous appeal. How sensuous our Puritan can be!
...each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Reared high their flourished heads between, and wrought
That is sensuousness of language and image. But there is, beyond that, literal sensuousness:
These, lulled by nightingales, embracing slept,
And on their naked limbs the flowery roof
The work joys in sensuous perception of reality. A sensuous Puritan! A blind man who sees all, and in dazzling color! This aspect of the poem can't be emphasized enough, for without it this work would be as arid and unreadable as all those never-read tomes by Aquinas and others moldering in library preservation.
How great the language is! There are certain works whose initial gesture opens a vast portal. We know we are suddenly there. The first few seconds of Beethoven's 9th tell us we are not here. We are there. So too Paradise Lost. From the first line
Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit
we are there. Milton immediately leaps to a higher, the highest, plane. His inspiration is so consistent and even--- it is amazing. Individual lines or pages may not jump at you. But there is immense might and sureness of flow from first to last. In a sense, the poem does not require inspiration. It does not require--- though sometimes it has--- individual bright spots that shine out and dazzle us. There is very much a sense here that all the inspiration the man needed was there beforehand, that the water was stored behind a dam, and all that was required was to open the gates to let it flow for as long as was required. How the work rolls on, inexorably, full of assurance and strength and mastery, equal to every demand!
Of course, much of the work is rhetoric.
Those whom last thou saw'st
In triumph and luxurious wealth are they
First seen in acts of prowess eminent
And great exploits, but of true virtue void...
This style could be deadly to other subjects, but Milton found exactly the right subject for it. This is a work from which all commonness must be banned. It calls for "high seriousness" as no other. Here Milton's elevated and artificial style fits. This is not the language of human beings, this poem's language, but this is not a poem pitched to man's level.
It seems to me, in fact, that Milton has here succeeded in doing something many authors have dreamt about--- inventing their own language. But in Milton it is not an empty though perhaps spectacular tour de force, but an act of appropriateness to its subject.
In a way the whole poem is one act of rhetoric, one long speech. And it is mankind's greatest act of rhetoric.
Let us also say this--- we read the work today more for its art than its message, the oppositeof Milton's intention. This book about the triumph of God we see more as the triumph of
the poet. And this leads to an interesting paradox: here is one of the most thrilling works of art I know--- and its subject is a false story and dead doctrine. Actually, I don't remotely believe anything in it apart from incidental details. It is an invented world from first to last. Far from detracting from the work this adds to it--- elevates it as accomplishment, fixes its author more solidly as the book's hero. I read it as art, as a triumph of human capacity, a capacity so great only a dream can meet its reach. Reality is too little. Religion, Christianity especially, justifies the use of full human capacity, which is why, unconsciously, it is so valued. Man is a dreaming creature, and when he is not dreaming he sours, he dries, but when he dreams he swims in his ocean. This is the supreme work of Dreaming Man, his Supreme Artifice. All linguistic art, all mentality, all emotion, is lavished on the unreal, fixing unreal steps in the emptiness to mount to a real triumph.
O terrible to eat of the Tree of Knowledge indeed! O condemn it! This by an author so obviously greedy for knowledge, for knowing, for seeking truth through learning and speculation on learning. The book gives off sparks from the depth of Milton's knowledge, and joy from the myriad bits and pieces of his mind's accumulation raised into mountains. He is the best advertisment himself for eating, for gorging, on that fruit! On the one hand, this works against the book's ostensible theme, that the author should be such a marvelous product of that sin the whole work mourns. Yet in fact it adds resonances and cross-resonances of richness to the reading.
Of course, to see Satan as the hero of the book is puerile, a thing for adolescents. Nonetheless, our sympathies must be strongly drawn at times to a being who is flawed striving against the unflawed, a being whose power is limited, who is, indeed, fundamentally powerless--- combatting onmipotence. For we too are flawed and our power is limited and fundamentally we are powerless--- so we must be drawn to a being who is more our kin than God. Satan is a being. God is a force. Satan rises, falls, moves. God is immobile, set, everywhere, nowhere, everything, nothing. Satan cannot be our hero. But at times he is very much our brother.
When you think of all the ways this poem could have failed, should have failed--- by failing to rise to its subject, by its story being set and well-known, capable of elucidation only within very narrow limits, by there not being any human beings like us in it (no, not really, not Adam and Eve in this poem), by its need to use parochial doctrine, by the fact that it's all unbelievable, really--- how amazing he pulled it off. I've read it through three times, and have read some of the individual books three or four times more--- and it's held my attention throughout every reading, almost (not quite) every line. How flat-out thrilling it proves, even in later readings. How it grips.
Is Paradise Lost greater than The Iliad or
The Odyssey? As I put the book down, with "They hand in hand, with
wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way." still ringing
in my mind, still writ in flame by angels' swords, or this single angel's pen,
the impulse is to say "Yes!" Yet The Iliad and The Odyssey had
an immense impact on me too. Of course, I am able to get the full force of
Milton's language--- to not know English is to be exiled from Paradise indeed---
while Homer's language must come to me second-hand. Even so, Homer's impact is
immense. And unlike Milton's poem, his poems are poems about Man, rooted in
reality (despite the gods), not dream. Milton-the-Artist is very much to the
fore in his work, Homer is much more in the background. His two works have much
the seeming artlessness and simplicity of Tolstoy--- artlessness and simplicity
which exist because the author's vision is so truthful and immense its best walk
to us is a simple, direct one. The author knows it. So dispatches the vision to
us without flourish.
The Iliad and The Odyssey are of Man in a way Paradise Lost can't be. As a man, I value them more. As an artist, it is Paradise Lost I value the most.
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