Paradise Lost 1: fanfic for messed-up beginners

 

tree in flower.JPG
Unrecognised shrub in flower, Japanese Garden, Calderstones,  18 August

Congratulations to Milton’s Cottage on staging their 350 person reading aloud of Paradise Lost today, in honour of the anniversary of the first publication of  the poem 350 years ago!  A lovely occasion and event – wish I could be there! I  hope you will video some of it and get it online.

In my own celebration of that  event  I’m starting a reading  of the poem here and will continue to read it, on Sundays,  from now on. Use the search box and search for  ‘Milton’ or  ‘Paradise Lost‘.

How I’m going to do this

I’m going to paste in some lines for each week’s reading.

I’ll be pasting from the Dartmouth college site and I’ll leave the links to footnotes in so you can get to them if you want.  Try not to, in the first instance, they often don’t help with the most difficult bits but they distract you away from the text. But sometimes they are useful – today’s reading (opening 16 lines) for example, useful just to see that the poem is grown from a  dual tradition, the Bible and the Classics, and that Milton looks back to and calls on both. He’s using everything he’s got.

I want to read without history as far as possible. I’m treating the poem as a piece of literature in the first instance. History is distracting from text. Can come later. Again, there may be footnotes we really need, but we’ll try to skim along.

This is a sort of scanning exercise, want to get the lay of the land, the rough  outline of things.

I will be leaving out big chunks which I find boring.

I will sometimes spend  a post on a line I find fascinating.

Finally, I’m reading with assumption of no knowledge at all on the part of my readers (or my self). This is Paradise Lost for absolute beginners.  But I  hope some readers will be more than beginners: I’m hoping they will be like me, very messed-up beginners.  This is Milton for readers who know they need some help.

To get ready to begin

I came to Milton via Wordsworth. The two poets are connected in that Wordsworth wanted to emulate what Milton had done in Paradise Lost, and so Milton’s poem is one of the models and  creative impulses behind Wordsworth’s great poem, The Prelude.  If you  aren’t into Wordsworth – take my word for it – he’s worth reading. And his recommendation, in this case, is worth taking. I needed that recommendation because initial instinct about Milton was that I didn’t like him. I was afraid of him and feared his moral judgement and inexorability. I still do, but I have found over  thirty-five years of reading Milton that  there is much to love and be grateful for – even as he shouts me down.

The  mess I personally was in, and the additional and wider mess that we as a society are in,  is a long one – Wordsworth saw it more than 200 years ago, when he wrote ‘London 1802’.

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Ah, the missing dower of inward happiness!

I might have read Paradise Lost as part of my undergraduate degree,  but if I did, it made no impression on me at all except perhaps to set off ‘keep away’ warning bells. I don’t recall writing about it, which is often the most intense form of reading. But in the first year of my Ph.D. I began to know the poem in earnest. That three-year post-doc study, which I began in 1983, was not for me an academic exercise. I was undertaking it to build or discover for myself a way of understanding and making sense of my own real life.  I needed to work something out. I needed to know what I believed.

That sounds pretentious, and in my own defence, I can only say that I needed  this understanding, this firm ground of believing something because I didn’t have boundaries or beliefs and I was scared by that. Earlier, in my teens and early twenties, a life of no boundaries – do what you want, drink what you want, behave as you want, take whatever drugs you want –  had seemed exciting and brave and revolutionary. But now, with deaths both literal and metaphorical  behind me, and my mother, with whom I had fallen out, dying from alcoholism,  a disease of despair, I was desperate to find a way of being that would keep me alive and help me, as E.T. says, be good. George Eliot nodded me towards Wordsworth, Wordsworth gave me a shove in the direction of Milton, and here I was, face to face with these opening lines:

BOOK 1

THE ARGUMENT

This first Book proposes, first in brief, the whole Subject, Mans disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was plac’tThen touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent; who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many Legions of Angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven with all his Crew into the great Deep. Which action past over, the Poem hasts into the midst of things,presenting Satan with his Angels now fallen into Hell, describ’dhere, not in the Center (for Heaven and Earth may be suppos’d as yet not made, certainly not yet accurst) but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest call’d Chaos: Here Satan with his Angels lying on the burning Lake, thunder-struck and astonisht, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in Order and Dignity lay by him; they confer of thir miserable fall. Satan awakens all his Legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; They rise, thir Numbers, array of Battelthir chief Leaders nam’d, according to the Idols known afterwards in Canaan and the Countries adjoyning. To these Satan directs his Speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new World and new kind of Creature to be created, according to an ancient Prophesie or report in Heaven; for that Angels were long before this visible Creation, was the opinion of many ancient Fathers. To find out the truth of this Prophesie, and what to determin thereon he refers to a full Councel. What his Associates thence attempt. Pandemonium the Palace of Satan rises, suddenly built out of the Deep: The infernal Peers there sit in Councel.

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst 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 [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Shall we start?

The poem is divided into  ‘books’,  and each book starts with a summation of its content, which Milton calls, ‘the argument.’ I tend not to read the argument, or  only to come back to it later, because the range of what is to be covered is so vast, I can’t take it in. I prefer to jump into the poem and read it sentence by sentence. So let’s start with that.

One of the things you have to get used to in this poem is the need to find main verbs. Reading aloud is a good way to do this, and if you want  sense of the rhythm of the lines  I like this reading by Tom O’Bedlam. When you are first reading,  try reading along with Tom for a while – see how he doesn’t stop at line endings but tries to read along the sentences, or within sentences, the clauses. Head for a piece of punctuation!

The opening lines are heading towards the verb ‘sing’ at the opening of line 6. But first we get  a tiny precis of what the song is  going to be about:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Words to think about here:

Disobedience, forbidden, mortal, death, woe, loss… these words are clues to us that this is about things going wrong or being done wrong and the awful consequences of that wrongness. Which starts with ‘disobedience’.  A word to get my 27 year old back up if ever there was one!  Who makes laws anyway! Old patriarchs!  God with a white beard! I don’t obey you.

I rant,  I remembering my ranting, but  I read on.

Translation into modern English: it’s about how humanity broke the law and the fallout from that – death and human woe – and the persistence of that fallout until  ‘one greater man’ (Christ) fixes it.

Because the notes are there in the Dartmouth edition, I couldn’t help myself clicking on the note about ‘of man’s first disobedience’ and as you’ll see if you click on it, it tells us that Milton’s opening, while being totally about this subject (the Bible story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden of Eden) yet it is also in the tradition of more ancient epic texts – all of them beginning with an announcement that we’re going to hear a story that explains how some bad stuff came about.  That’s a good and all-too-human place to make start. After all, everyone over the age of thirteen and some people younger than that, knows that the world is broken.

And Milton connects himself to the biggest human voices of the past. That’s quite interesting to me, because one of the things I get  interested in as I read is the sense of Milton as the writer of this poem – it used to offend me, but now I’m interested in the fact that  like Mohammed Ali getting ready for a fight, Milton has to big himself up in his own mind in order to do this big thing. I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest! And yet, for Ali, some of the time, that was just true.

I’ll notice that stuff as we go. But let’s reread those first sixteen lines and get the run of them in our mind again :

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst 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 [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

When we hit the main verb, ‘sing’ in line six, Milton is addressing it to the ‘Heavenly Muse’. But it is Milton who is going to be singing – this is him writing, composing and composing by reciting aloud while his daughter writes it down, this poem. He is asking to be inspired and more than that – claiming, stating that he is inspired by the same muse that spoke to or inspired many biblical figures.

This muse

on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos:

I have to look up Oreb and Sinai, because my knowledge of the Old Testament is weak. In those places, that shepherd must be Moses.  Moses, inspired by the holy muse taught the Israelites the story of creation, and that story is to be found in Genesis.

I want to note that John Milton is here connecting himself directly to one of the key figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition. My younger self would have scoffed at Milton’s ego. My older self is in awe of his ambition and sense of involvement. One of the You Tube comments I’ve read called Paradise Lost  fanfic, and I think that is  right. Milton is so completely in tune with the Bible, at one with it, engrossed in it. And he feels able to join in and respond to it, calling on the same muse to help him write a poem that is unsurpassed:

I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

I do not know why my younger self was so appalled at the ambition of this – it isn’t as if I consciously rated the great traditions of the Bible or classical literature. I just didn’t like Milton’s self-assurance. But as I read this morning, I can’t help seeing that self-assurance has real grounds – it’s like seeing a great  sportsperson or any artist displaying the ease of great skill, practice, developed talent. It’s there, and you have to acknowledge it.  so – we’re off…let’s see how he sings this adventurous song.

A final point to think on – if he was so at ease in his Bible, why did he want retell the story? But we’ll pick this up next time.

To finish, read that chunk again. It’s import to get the sound of the lines into your head.

 

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