Paradise Lost 2: Written in the Heart


garden at dawn.JPG
Front Garden early morning 27 August

Last Sunday I started my online reading of Paradise Lost in honor of Milton’s Cottage celebratory reading aloud  of the whole poem – which they undertook in order to celebrate 350 years since the poem was first published.

Last week in Paradise Lost 1 I set out  my way of reading this poem, and the some of the reasons why  I  read it. I had  started to read the first sentence, thinking about Milton the writer, setting out to do this great thing, knowing it was or should be great, and consciously setting himself across two human cultural traditions, the Classical and Biblical :

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.

Before we go further, I want to read the original as it appears in Genesis Chapter 2 , in the King James Version which Milton would have read. I’ve posted the Genesis text at the bottom of this page. It’s the original of the main story.  If you are interested in this, there is a comprehensive world of scholarship looking at the creation of  the Genesis text and the wikipedia entry looks to me a good introduction to it.

But let us  just take it that  the Genesis text existed and was well known to Milton, and was accepted as a sacred text. Trying to imagine Milton, I try to imagine such a sacred text as a reality to me. Not sacred in the sense of untouchable, for after all, the puritan revolution had  made the text available (the King James Version was thestandard  English bible, the Bible in English, not Latin) to everyone who could read or listen. But sacred in the sense of being applied at all times to life.

Milton began to think that he could make something – something as yet ‘unattempted in prose or rhyme’ – from this Biblical text – and it is in a sense as if the poem is a  complex responsive reading. But what impulses lie behind the  need for this imaginative leap to remake the text?

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

This is the subject of and the impulse behind the poem. This is the story of the ‘first’ disobedience and  all subsequent ones, their ‘fruit’.

Disobedience is a hard word for a contemporary reader like myself. I have to translate it  into my own language. For Milton, for Genesis, it is about  there being an order or way set by God: humans are asked to obey. When we look at Genesis, we see a commandment:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

For some reason my mind jumps back to the Emerson I was reading while I was on holiday earlier this summer.  I’m trying to think of the idea of a commandment or law as a natural experience. The water acting upon a rock teaches a fisherman ( Emerson said). The natural law one may deduce from that is that even stone can be changed by persistence. If you wanted to translate that into a law of God you could say something like ‘ God said,  ‘let the weak have powers to change the strong’.

I’m thinking of the people who existed pre-Genesis and the priests and others who wrote it, of the Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis Epic in British Museum.  These ancient people see actions in the world and create stories explaining them. Those stories are built around the concept of Gods or God. Those Gods or God demand obedience. People’s real daily actions are changed in order to  meet those  (Godly/story-based/idea-based) demands. A religion, a cultural artefact of great complexity, is built up over hundreds of years.  Milton grows up in that culture. He accepts it as his own.  He believes that each heart has its own relation to God – priests, Rome, fancy stuff, even churches,  not needed. He wishes to remake it all  afresh for himself, and for perhaps his world. After all it is plural pronoun he uses:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

I’m going to go on now to the next sentence, where Milton calls for help:

And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

He asks  God, the  creator, to come to him,  asking the power that created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, to instruct him. ‘Instruct’ is  not ‘inspire’, a verb more about building than breathing: Milton is asking for very clear and definite direction.

What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

This is going to be an argument,  he tells us: not a story or a myth but  series of logical propositions which will be in effect a proof that the ways of God are right, are justified. But it will come from ‘me’. It’s personal. Milton is going to bring everything he has got.

All of which seems to suggest someone may feel that the ways of God, as they currently stand, do not seem justified or justifiable, that ‘eternal providence’  does not seem to be asserted. Or they need help.  Or perhaps it is just that this is the best subject Milton can imagine for an epic poem? It’s a strange mixture of ego, ambition, intellect, learning and then suddenly, the cry for help. ‘The upright heart and pure’ is the place Milton believes his God prefers. Milton’s heart – is it upright? Is it pure? as anhonest man he will know that althoug he tries, it is not. Nothing works properly here, in a world afterthe great fall.

Do you start such an enterprise from a position of certainty?  Do you start it to ensure  or to build certainty? When I read ‘ what in me is dark’ I can’t help but remember that Milton is blind.

What Milton has  in the way of  equipment for his epic journey, is a  back story, the cultural artefact that is the Genesis myth, or to put it in Milton’s voice, his own reading of the Holy Bible. And he has classical exemplars, Virgil, Homer and others. He has is human experience,  which has been large, as he has lived through and been involved in the English revolution and the execution of a King. And he has his heart. He has what the poem will later call the ‘umpire conscience’. He has his darkness, too.

Interpreting the Bible without church or priest was  the religious revolution of Milton’s age. He’s going to do that now, in this profoundly personal endeavour, using his own heart as his raw material, fleshing out the Bible story.



And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.
14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
22 And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
20 And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

2 thoughts on “Paradise Lost 2: Written in the Heart

  1. stayingfaithful August 27, 2017 / 9:21 am

    Reblogged this on Staying Faithful and commented:
    Loved this post on Milton; it seems he was not in such a different situation to today. While he himself has complete confidence in his faith, there are many questions around him. When I first read Paradise Lost it made me see the biblical story in a different way and this blogger who I have been following recently is a thought-provoking guide.

  2. Candia October 25, 2017 / 9:19 pm

    My favourite poet. He was my Special Study in my English Literature degree and I spent a year reading everything by him – prose, or poetry. Love Christopher Ricks’ explanations of the etymological puns and CS Lewis commentaries.
    Have a bust of him too!
    Try to visit his cottage in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. It is about 35 years or more since I went there.

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