Milton in May: Week 1

I did a class on Milton when I was at university.  The professor was this tiny, enthusiastic woman, clearly in love with Milton and excited for us to be in love with him, too.  She would charge up and down the classroom gesticulating wildly and drawing stick-figure pictures of important scenes on the chalkboard.  I have her in my head like a soundtrack when I read Paradise Lost.  It was the best class I took at university, and the single piece of literature I most enjoyed reading and learning about.  So hopefully I will not sound like an idiot when I write about it this month for Rebecca’s Milton in May reading project.

If there was one thing my tiny Milton professor was determined we students would all leave the class understanding, it was that Milton was not of the Devil’s party without knowing it.  But you can see why Blake would think so.  Paradise Lost is about stories, and Satan tells a compelling story, a seductive story, the story with himself as the proud, brave, warrior hero, down but not out, preparing himself to fight another day.

To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall….   Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce,
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

He’s Achilles, refusing to bend knee to Agamemnon!  He’s Aeneas, defeated in battle but setting out to found a new, greater kingdom!  When you come from the Iliad and the Aeneid, Satan’s rhetoric is pretty convincing.  He’s the first character we meet, the first voice we hear, and there’s something stirring and admirable (to me, anyway) about confronting impossible circumstances with an unflinching determination to manage them.  “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” says Satan.

Except, of course, he’s lying.  And Milton’s not just paying lip service to the idea of Satan’s wickedness and deceit; he shows it to us over and over.  As soon as Satan gets in front of his troops, he’s singing a different tune.  “Who here / Will envy whom the highest place exposes / Formost to stand against the Thunders aim?” he asks them.  Not so much of this better to reign in Hell business now, eh?  Satan utterly lacks integrity; the stories he’s telling will change whenever he needs something new.

Like, check it out, this bit’s funny.  In Book 2, Satan’s volunteered to go scope out the new world God’s invented for Man, when he gets to the gates of Hell and finds them guarded by Sin and Death.  Sin, who is all covered in snakes and hellhounds, tells him how she was born out of his head when he first conceived of rebellion, and that they subsequently had sex and produced a gruesome son, Death, who promptly raped her to produce the hellhounds that are perpetually curling up in her womb and eating their way back out again.  It is a nasty piece of imagery.

Dear Daughter [says Satan], since thou claim’st me for thy Sire,
And my fair Son here showst me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in Heav’n…
I come no enemie, but to set free
From out this dark and dismal house of pain,
Both him and thee.

Uh, sure, dude.  You’re her knight in shining armor.  We’ve seen these two, Sin and Death, they’re not dear or fair, and Satan was all set to bash them to bits five minutes ago.  It’s a sham!  If Sin were our friend we’d be telling her this guy’s bad news.  But she’s picking up what he’s putting down:

Thou art my Father, thou my Author, thou
My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow?  Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

(Ew.)

I have to say, I’m finding Satan far less appealing this time through.  Not sure if this is down to my tiny Milton professor, or the years that have gone by since I last read Paradise Lost, or the fact that I like God better now than I did then, or what.  I still feel sort of fond of Satan, if only for the swooping grandeur of his rhetoric and his trickster-god manipulation of the other denizens of Hell; but I am finding him fundamentally shabby, after all.  The best plan he can come up with is to annoy God by wreaking havoc on something lovely and innocent that God’s created; even framed as guerrilla warfare against a tyrant God, that’s not a terrible admirably aim.

The character of God, on the other hand, is coming off rather better than when I was in college.  At least part of the time: Milton’s always good on free will.

I made [Satan] just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Elegant antithesis there, eh, with God repeating stood and fell four times apiece in four lines?  The problem is that wholly good characters are boring, and God and Jesus are too good to be interesting.  Which they’d have to be, of course!  Milton believes in them!  I like them on the subject of freedom, but far less on the subject of their boundless mercy and goodness, and the ambrosial fragrance and new joy ineffable that fill’d all Heav’n every time they talk.  I’d rather read about hellhounds gnawing through Sin’s uterine walls.

Except when I wouldn’t – Milton can be very effective.  Here’s another good bit from the heaven scene.  We have already seen Satan ask his demons who will risk the danger of going up to check out Eden, and they all stand silent.  In a parallel scene, God tells the angels that when mankind sins, they have to die.  Dye hee, or Justice must, says God (good line, eh?), unless someone will pay the price, and die in man’s place.  The angels are as silent as the demons were, and then Jesus speaks up.  Is it just because of the Aslan echoes that I find this passage kind of moving (and wouldn’t CS Lewis be thrilled then)?

Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye,
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage.

Milton is such a gorgeous writer.  Shame about all the crazy thoughts inside his 17th century head.

28 thoughts on “Milton in May: Week 1

    • He used to totally intimidate me too! I wish you could take the class with my tiny Milton professor. She did the most superb job demystifying him for us. I would say, his poems require fairly careful attention, and sometimes I lose track of a sentence and have to go back and start over. But I find him well worth it; a lot of his lines are so, so gorgeous.

    • Oh, yes, I liked Areopagitica. I was going to reread some of Areopagitica later on, when I get to the part in Paradise Lost where Eve is having a dream. I remember we talked about that in our Milton class, and how her dream reflects Milton’s ideas about literature and why it’s good for us.

      • Hey, Jen? If you’re rereading Milton, does that mean you’re going to tell lots of fun bits from Paradise Lost again? Cause that was SO MUCH FUN when you read it the first time, and I can barely remember it now, which is sad.

        Areopagitica is conveniently located in the book of Milton I brought you from Dublin, if you’re looking for it. I was very tempted to keep it.

      • also, waitasecond, she drew stick figures? She never drew stick figures for us! So, when I did visual aids entirely in stick figures for my presentation on Sir Gawain, I was really being a horrible suck up entirely by accident?

        NO FAIR.

      • I don’t know yet. I will see how my reading goes. I may find that I love Milton and don’t want to mock him.

        Yes, she drew stick figures. She did a diagram of hell/chaos place/earth/heaven; she did a picture of a Leviathan (it was a very large goldfish); and I know she did some other stuff. So, yeah, you’re a suck-up. LAME.

      • *cries in the face of sisterly disapproval*

        Also, you didn’t seem like you were mocking him last time, you were just telling stories. It was AWESOME.

        …also, the corn here? SO GOOD. I just went to the store to get some bread for lunch (I slept late and read in bed, so lunch was very late) and they had corn! And oh, it was corn, corn so very very delicious it blowed up my mind. Usually I only have one cob for lunch, on those occasions when I have corn, but I had two, and contemplated a third very seriously, only deciding against it because it was such a late lunch, and I might be able to have corn for dinner.

        Just letting you know so you can have something to look forward to upon arrival: CORN! COOOOOORRRRRRNNNN!

  1. I certainly hope I don’t sound like an idiot when speaking of Paradise Lost. I am a bit worried that someone will think I’m an expert or academic because I wanted to do the readalong — I’m really just reading it for fun right now.

    Speaking of C.S. Lewis, I just found a slim volume by the man called “A Prologue to Paradise Lost.” So I’m hoping to read about how thrilled he is! It’s about 140 pages, based on lectures he gave.

    This is only my second read, and I’ve been fascinated by Satan. I agree on the yuck for the sin and death scene. But oh my, I loved Satan’s rousing speeches to the other devils. I loved the heaven scene too — I think you captured some of the most interesting parts in this post of yours. It’s the free will/freedom thing that I like most about this story.

    Thanks for reading a long with me. Isn’t it beautiful?!

    • You don’t! I know what you mean, though, I am definitely no Milton expert. I hope I do not say anything absurdly wrong, I feel it would be slightly letting down my Milton professor. :P

      I’m excited to hear your thoughts on CS Lewis! Like, ridiculously excited. As excited as I was to see Milton paying fond tribute to Shakespeare, so I hope CS Lewis doesn’t let me down by hating Paradise Lost.

      It’s so beautiful, and I know I wouldn’t have decided to read it this month if you hadn’t started up the readalong. Thanks for hosting!

  2. Have I said this lately? YOU IMPRESS ME. I find Milton a tough slog, but when I read this very funny post, I resolved to give him one more go. I think if it had a riff track, I could get thru the whole thing.

  3. A very nice exegesis of some of the first book. Years ago I had a great experience teaching PL to a group of Kenyon students who had signed up for the class with a more famous professor–I was right out of grad school with an 18th-century specialty, but I polished up my 17th-century, stayed a couple of chapters ahead, and I know that at least two of them will always remember that semester–and PL–fondly.

    I used to say I learned all my theology from PL.

    • Thanks! Your semester of teaching it sounds like a great experience. I can imagine that teaching it would give you an even deeper appreciation of how fantastic it is. Even when I disagree with Milton’s theology, I love the way he sets it out.

  4. Oh wow, very impressive post in that you managed to make Milton sound accessible. I’m not sure if I feel courageous enough to pick him up yet.

    • I think one reason I find Milton fairly accessible is that I did the Aeneid in Latin class in high school, and Milton’s writing in the same vein. (Except in English, which makes it easier.) So when I start reading it, and it’s all epic poem conventions, the most patient part of my reading brain kicks in, and I don’t mind the lofty language and extended metaphors and absurdly long sentences. I wish everyone who was intimidated by Milton could take the same class I took, though! He’s well worth the time, and my professor made him so interesting.

  5. I’ll back you up on that Milton class being amazing. It was probably my favorite class at school. When we did the group presentation, I was Satan. I suppose that’s why I always found him to be the most enjoyable character by far. I wonder if I, like you, would find upon re-reading that I don’t like him as much. One thing I always found really interesting about Satan is that when he confronts Sin and Death at the gates of Hell, he’s all like “How dare you contend with me, a spirit of Heaven?” or something like that. It really makes you wonder what’s going on in his mind. Sure, in front of his demon buddies he’s willing to talk about the power of Hell, but when it comes time to intimidate a stranger, he mentions his God related identity.

    P.S. My Satan wings I made for my costume are one of my better accomplishments in life.

    • Oh, I liked that too. What books did y’all present? My group I know had Book Nine (I was very excited about that), and then I don’t remember what else we had. We had the scene where Eve falls. I talked to the snake. :P

  6. Who was your Milton prof? I had Maggie Kilgour at McGill University and she was a dynamo. She, too, made Milton thoroughly appealing. Great teaching + great books=heartwarming, feel-goodishness.

    • Well, my professor was actually the head of our English department, which is why I felt so lucky to have been able to take the class. She doesn’t teach it every semester, because she has too many other obligations. My little sister never got a chance to take it, which I think is sad.

  7. Let me say that I have always found Milton sleep-inducing. Paradise Lost was the one book I had to give up on and study from the Cliffs Notes during college. That being said, I would read and enjoy your paraphrased version any day. If there were any modern retellings in print I think I’d almost be willing to give it a try.

    • I bet it would make a fantastic graphic novel, if the writers and artists did it right. I’d like to see someone try to do that – maybe it would lead people to the original poem! Milton is difficult, though. I lose track of a lot of his sentences and have to go back and start over to figure out what the proper syntax is.

  8. What a great post! Looking forward to more! I like the idea of a graphic novel. I’m thinking something along the lines of the Sandman books, except theological-er.

    • That is really, really true. I had a great teacher for Paradise Lost, and I had a great teacher for Latin, where we read the Aeneid. I can hear both their voices in my mind when I’m reading Paradise Lost, with all its epic poetry conventions and classical references. They were two teachers who knew their subjects inside and out, and loved them – it makes such a difference.

  9. As someone whose work involves ecology, I’m reading your excellent post on Milton at the same time that I’m hearing the BP and Halliburton CEO’s on television making excuses for the oil spill.

    So I come to: I wish a modern-day Milton would write about the paradise we’ve lost in our own time.

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