On “Paradise Lost”: First impressions
Posted June 11, 2007on:
I am only 620 lines into Paradise Lost and am already enamoured. This surprises me as it always does whenever I find myself enjoying epic poetry. The combination of its dusty, tedious image among the masses and its absence from any classrooms I entered planted the idea in my mind that I probably wouldn’t like it. But the form was married to one of my favourite sort of stories, mythology, and I desired the cachet of being versed, or at least acquainted with such works.
During my teenage Tennyson craze I lived on the high romance of Idylls of the King, unaware at the time that I was knee deep in epic splendour, nor did I consider the boost to my Literary Reader score. I never looked at reading tastes and images in that fashion until I moved here — in Jamaica one was simply a reader and while touting a classic did garner some impressed “ooooo” so did my large collection of Nora Roberts paperbacks. Anyway by the time I read the Homer epics I knew what was what, but glee at the elaborate metaphors, petty Olympian antics and graphic gore eclipsed everything else.
Paradise Lost is doing the same. It’s strange how familiar some of the lines ring — “Farewell happy fields / Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail / Infernal world” — it’s killing me that I can’t remember where I first heard/read them. Without the footnotes there are one or two lines that would have been incomprehensible but another aspect of the familiarity is that Milton often refers to Homer, particularly The Iliad (so far) and Shakespeare. The blank verse really rolls off your tongue whenever Satan speaks so it’s not hard to see why Milton first envisioned the poem as a play. John Leonard pointed out why poetry served Milton better:
The epic form gave Milton a licence to cover vast tracts of space and time. Spatially, the action ranges over the whole earth, throughout the universe, and beyond the universe to Heaven, Chaos and Hell. The action extends back in time before the creation of our universe to the begetting of the Son of God and forward to the Second Coming. Milton would have forfeited this cosmic sweep had he presented the action on a stage.
I’ve been reading it aloud, partly because it helps my comprehension, partly because the words call for it somehow. Satan’s soliloquies are too flown with grandeur and palpable feeling to tolerate being echoed silently, the words bouncing off the sides of my skull. (Bear with me, I’m in love with the language and cannot resist incorporating an archaic word or usage here and there in every day speech. Silly, I know.)
What I find most curious at this point is mine (and possibly Milton’s) warring reactions to the Arch-Fiend. He gets the first word here and cuts such a heroic, defiant, courageous figure that I can’t help but pump my fist in the air (only a wee bit if in public) and think, yeah God you big bully! But then Milton undercuts that with a description of his selfish nature here, a foreshadow of his ultimate, deserving defeat there, and I pout and think, oh, right, Satan and all that. Take a look at this passage:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee and deify his power
Who from the terror of this arm so late
Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
Forget the hate and revenge talk for a minute. In fact I don’t even have to tell you as I think Satan’s challenging, indomitable tone does that for you. There’s a leader one could get behind and take on all, even to death. Then he shoots himself in the foot:
To do aught but good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
as being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil,
Which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
One is nicely reminded that one shouldn’t be cheering for him because “to do ill” is his “sole delight” and everyone knows that God’s “destined aim” ends with the devil on the losing end of that stick. The words “if I fail not” mean “if I’m not mistaken” and those words right beneath his hope to “succeed” well…things don’t look good.
But! say those two out loud and the first one still reads way better so, as of right now, I’m on his team. I wonder if God will sound as cool or if he’ll be an old fogey?
The descriptions of Satan’s army as he roused them out of their stupor, “Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell”, and subsequent descriptions created such clear, wondrous images that I googled for some illustrations, Blake’s specifically. I’ve seen Gustave Dore’s here and there but until now I was cold to them. Blake’s distinctive curves and colours suited my idea of Paradise Lost. It’s taken direct knowledge of the work to get me to appreciate his black and white art.
In the first excerpt “study of” means “effort to achieve”; “And…overcome” is ‘What else does “not being overcome” mean?’; “Doubted” means “fear for”. Annotations are John Leonard’s, from the latest Penguin Classics edition.