Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Weary Appreciation of Paradise Lost

I've read over some parts of this again within the past couple of years, and, seeing as I might not have occasion or motivation to record any of my feelings about it at any later date, I am going to do something of the sort now.

The perception of Milton among even generally well-read or educated people is one of the oddest of any legitimately great poet in any language that I am aware of. He is appreciated and revered by scholars, but outside of that profession, hardly anyone seems to believe it possible that a well-adjusted person could genuinely enjoy reading him. This state of affairs is perhaps of no great moment, other than to demonstrate that Milton is a figure of private rather than communal interest more than almost any other literary figure of his stature that I can think of. His writing has been found by many confident intellects over the years to be boring, sour, pompous, dismissive of women entirely and of all but a few score of men in the entirety of history. He never condescends to approach the typical reader on his accustomed level either intellectually or morally. The famous observation of Samuel Johnson (who, having compiled an English dictionary, one presumes had an unusually high tolerance for tedium), that no one ever wished Paradise Lost a word longer than it was, is often quoted approvingly. Compared to his fellow epic and epic-quality poets, his characters and language do not, without a good deal of preparation in literary reading, it seems, inspire a powerful emotional response. That said, failing to attain the state of realizing how great Milton really is, and coming to some perception of what it is that makes him so, is to be denied a substantial pleasure, if one is susceptible to such things, of such a sort as life offers on but a handful of occasions during its duration.

I think I tried to start Paradise Lost once when I was in high school, mainly because it is always prominent and available (and books, as I have noted previously, often took the place in my early years that women fill in the lives of life's protaganists), but I could get nothing out of it since I understood nothing about either language or thought, and, as noted earlier, the poem does not appeal strongly to sentiment and emotion, which was the entire range of my mind at the time. By the time I read it in college, I knew enough of Christian history and the history of Western poetry and philosophy to be able to get some modest thrills out of the experience. Since then I have read it once more in full and parts of it on various other occasions, and it is one of the few works, and Milton one of the few writers, to consistently impress me as what is said of all great books, that it appears greater, and in a substantial way, on every new reading. I am convinced at this point that he reads more clearly and easily than Pope, to name a recent example, and indeed, most poets, and that the poem is a wondrous work of man. How does it work?

The great force of the poem to me is achieved by a tremendous uniformly accumulating momentum that displays a remarkable array of elasticity in always propelling itself forward. He manages various tiers of plot and character in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances but are clearly delineated in their relations to each other; seeming contradictions of traditional logic or theology (God's power is limited in dealing with the rebellious angels? No!) are calmly and almost immediately addressed ("...since by fate the strength of gods/and this empyreal substance cannot fail..."); even trickier conundrums such as relations of eternal beings in time he handles expertly within the terms of his own poetic world, of which he is the absolute master, this being probably one of the requirements of successful poetry at the highest level. What else is there?...Here is a passage from Book I where he displays a nearly perfect understanding of the materials of life and of words and story, and how to unite them (ll. 423-428):

"...For Spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompunded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they chose..."

Of the fallen angels he lands upon the simple but ingenious conceit that they can be--and must be--anything our imagination requires to conceive of them as such. I suppose I had better give an example of what I mean (I. 562-7):

"...and now
Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling arms, in guise (emphasis mine)
Of warriors old with ordered spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
had to impose..."

His renderings of nature are filtered through a thoroughly civilized humanity. The pictures that follow are always refined and dignified and at the same time immediately recognizable, which indicates to me that the high view of our own existence is not necessarily the lie it is sometimes claimed to be, but is crucial to our development as people despite the undeniable ubiquity of unpleasantness and baseness and failure that often demands our unwilling attention. This is a metaphor for the withered glory of the fallen angels as they regroup after the rebellion, and it is strikingly beautiful, and can be clearly seen even though one has likely never seen the precise picture delineated (I. 612-15):

" when heaven's fire
Hath scathed the forest oaks, or mountain pines,
With singed top their stately growth though bare
Stands on the blasted heap..."

Given the amount of time and the length of the essay already undertaken, I will stop here and do a short second post later. I am not going to go through the whole book, but there may be a few more points I wanted to make; if not, there will be no second post.

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