My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“The greatest epic poem in the English language,” proclaims the crumbling front cover of the old Mentor Classic mass-market paperback of Paradise Lost I got for a quarter from a library book sale (it was almost 40 years old when I bought it, over 20 years ago). The competition, to be fair, isn’t very stiff. Beowulf is not exactly in the English language, The Faerie Queene is more romance than epic, and most of Milton’s celebrated Romantic and Victorian successors framed their efforts in imitation of his; so unless we grant “poem” status to epic or mock-epic novels like Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, and Ulysses, then Paradise Lost it is.
Milton, anyway, was ambivalent about writing a Christian epic, and conscious that there was some disjunction between his Greek and Roman poetic models and his story’s Biblical source. In one of his two customary invocations to the muse, he worries that he’s writing in “an age too late” for “heroick song,” but he also dismisses the traditional subject matter of epic and romance (“long and tedious havock [of] fabled knights / In battles feign’d”) in favor of “the better fortitude / Of patience and heroick martyrdom / Unsung”—the humility of the Christian worldview, not the pride of the pagan. Yet Milton, scholar and revolutionary, was nothing if not a proud man. With its opening boasts that it will portray “[t]hings unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” and “justify the ways of God to men,” Paradise Lost may have inherited the earth, or at least the canon, but it certainly didn’t do so by being meek.
We begin in medias res in the burning lake of hell where the fallen angels raise themselves groaning in chains while “darkness visible” flames around them. There are literary works that immediately wash away the doubts and disputes and chatter that have accrued around them with their immense imaginative force. This is one of them. Milton’s blank verse, his endless, rolling, thundering Latinate sentences, seem to carve his impossible images in vast edifices of stone. We fly through billowing chaos, zoom across the universe, and visit palaces in the north of Heaven. And the effect is closer to architecture than any other art: I have never known any book to make me feel so small. In his Life of Milton, Samuel Johnson, who wittily and even contemptuously expresses many doubts about the poet’s life and character, captures the work in one sentence: “The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity.” Satan starts speaking:
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.
Vaunting revolutionary rhetoric. With Satan’s speech we arrive right away at the famous interpretive problem the poem is said to present: that Satan is its liveliest and—at least initially—most attractive character. Or even its only character in a dramatic or novelistic sense, its only figure with a strong sense of a variable inner life, the rest being rather heraldically drawn types, at least until the fall of Eve late in the story. William Blake made the case most famously in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
More critics than I ever plan to read have tried to solve the problem. In the 20th century, the Christian C. S. Lewis patiently explained the classical psychology and Christian theology that demands readers execrate this only superficially charismatic Devil (A Preface to Paradise Lost), while the atheist William Empson sympathetically investigated Satan’s implied motives as if he were a character in a play or novel, speculated about gnostic influences on the poet, and pronounced God the child-sacrificing villain of the piece (Milton’s God). It’s still a live question: just this month, Sam Buntz essayed again on the topic, eloquently taking Lewis’s side.
Critics agree that Milton follows a decided plan of degrading Satan’s character the further he gets from heaven and the deeper he wades into sin. During the war among the angels in Heaven, narrated by the angel Raphael to Adam in the poem’s central books, Satan makes a claim against God—that he and the other angels are self-begot, not created—which Empson finds defensible, given God’s apparent reticence about the nature of things before His subordinates:
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native Heaven, ethereal sons.
Our puissance is our own; our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal…
Splendid poetry—I want to declaim it on a barricade in a burning city—but too redolent of teenaged ignorance to stand scrutiny, just like my jejune fantasy. Who is self-begot? None of us. Still, the pride here is sublime, and honest in its way; Empson emphasizes that Satan really appears not to know until the war whether or not God is truly omnipotent, and therefore he finds the revolt intellectually justified. Whether or not we will go that far with Empson, we can grant that Satan is a character with enough grandeur, bravery, and strength—all inextricably mixed with the pride that led him to “think himself impaired” when God named His son the Messiah—to have something to lose before he lost it. In literary terms, this makes Satan a hero of a particular type: a tragic hero, one whose catastrophic fall is already implicated in his gorgeous merit. When Satan ventures to the newly-created earth and finds that God has created Adam and Eve, his tortured soliloquy, which recalls Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, emphasizes the character’s tragic stature:
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
With this anguished depth psychology, Milton participates, for better and for worse, in the birth of the modern self. Regarding Satan as a tragic hero relieves us of having to decide whether or not we agree with him; it’s enough that we feel pity for what he’s lost and terror at what he’s become.
God, anyway, has a master plan that circumscribes Satan’s tragedy and turns it into our divine comedy. This brings us to the poem’s second famous problem: if Milton’s Satan is an untoward triumph, his God is an equally inadvertent disaster. There’s no saving the poet here. He should have observed the prohibition on graven images. He keeps telling us that even in Heaven, God is invisible, so why does he make Him audible? Caught in the familiar theological problem that His omniscience allows Him to foresee Satan’s rebellion and man’s fall, but that His benevolence prevents Him from being acknowledged the author of evil, Milton’s God keeps exhaustively explaining Himself to Jesus. These tortuous perseverations seem unwittingly to bespeak some divine hesitance or consciousness of guilt. If we examine God’s plan, though, we can see that Milton was aware of the problem and its solution. After explaining how Jesus will atone for humanity’s disobedience at the crucifixion and then fight a final battle with evil at the Second Coming, God explains how the world will end:
The world shall burn, and from her ashes spring
New Heaven and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell,
And, after all their tribulations long,
See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds,
With joy and peace triumphing, and fair truth.
Then thou thy regal scepter shalt lay by,
For regal scepter then no more shall need,
God shall be all in all.
For the republican and regicide Milton, the trappings of authority—including, apparently, a transcendent and monarchical Father God and his regal Prince—are temporary expedients until we all become capable of enjoying the anarcho-communism at the end of history. From this perspective, to riff on one of Empson’s startling analogies, Milton’s God really is like “Uncle Joe Stalin,” though Satan isn’t much better, a kind of Lenin whose revolt, however we might comprehend it, leads to tyranny, as Satan becomes monarch of Hell. Milton, though, if we can belabor this fanciful analogy, is Trotsky, a visionary of the permanent revolution. At the end of time, God will dissolve into humanity, and humanity will therefore be God, free and equal at long last.
In the epic’s rather inadequate conclusion, when the archangel Michael shows Adam the whole future course of humanity in a tiresome stretch of Bible-summarizing before sternly dismissing him and Eve from the garden, our erring progenitor almost indecently exclaims over his fortunate fall, which sets in motion the dialectical machinery of our eventual total deliverance:
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring…
So while C. S. Lewis knows more of classical and medieval thought than I do, his strenuous defense of Milton’s orthodoxy (“the adverse criticism of Milton is not so much a literary phenomenon as the shadow cast upon literature by revolutionary politics, antinomian ethics, and the worship of Man by Man”) still seems to fall short when it denies the poet his radical modernity, however we judge it. Michael promises Adam that if he properly internalizes the virtues, he will enjoy a better version of the racking inwardness Satan gained through sin, otherwise known as what prior epic heroes have lacked, i.e., subjectivity:
…then wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far…
This modern interest in the self explains the presence and the effectiveness of Milton’s epic invocations, with their poignant personal asides on his blindness—
Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou, celestial Light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
—and on his not-entirely-un-Satanic sense of political defeat, no matter how recompensed by his sublime and inspired art:
Standing on earth, not rapt above the pole,
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn
Purples the east: still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.
Are we fit? Probably not enough: do we know the languages and the theology he knew? Some do, and I’ve met them, but I don’t. Yet he was a man, not a god, and susceptible to criticism. Dr. Johnson, a Tory and Anglican, had political and religious reasons to deplore Milton, to quote again from his Life of Milton:
His political notions were those of an acrimonious and surly republican… He hated monarchs in the state and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey. It is to be suspected that his predominant desire was to destroy rather than establish, and that he felt not so much the love of liberty as repugnance to authority.
We might not share that particular qualm, especially if we are acrimonious and surly republican Americans, but when Johnson immediately follows it up with a censure of Milton’s intense misogyny (“He for God only, she for God in him”), obvious even before Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf complained of it, we have to admit he has a point:
It has been observed that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it. […] [T]here appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.
And Johnson, who preferred novels and autobiographies to epics and romances, was also on solid ground when he noted that the poem’s very virtue—its soaring sublimity—also makes it more alienating and exhausting than more mundane literary performances:
The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.
The last sentence goes too far, though, and the first one might too. My interest in Satan, and in the persona of the poet himself, is a human interest, and I know few poets more pleasurable in their energy of invention. Following Johnson, and with likely similar political motives, T. S. Eliot’s modernist rebuke of what he took to be Milton’s crushing rhetorical artificiality is beside the point, as if it were not the poem’s very triumph. Having read it for the third or fourth time in two decades, I renew a judgment first made when I was a teenager, that whether or not Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language, it is one of the best books in any genre I have ever read.