Oh Milton, Milton, Milton: local boy born on Bread Street just off Cheapside; the ‘Lady of Christ’s’ College Cambridge; defender of regicide; pro-divorce pamphleteer; free-speech zealot; house guest of Galileo; blind visionary; dreamer of Paradise Lost, now buried alongside the Barbican’s fountains – how oft I think of thee.
Forgive my windy oratory/Milton draws this out of me – and many others. William Blake took Milton to be his ‘poetic father’ and in his epic prophetic book Milton, the poet of Paradise Lost falls from the heavens as a comet and enters Blake through the ankle. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley lifted Adam’s anguished thoughts as the epigraph to her masterwork Frankenstein:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (PL X, 743–745)
And Keats abandoned Hyperion because the struggle with and against Milton’s style and influence was too exhausting. The critic Harold Bloom has written frequently about Milton’s artistic struggles with his precursors (Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, the Bible itself, to name but few) and the trials faced by those who came after him (most notably Blake, although Milton’s sublime influence upon the Romantics was profound).
University library shelves creak with miles and miles of tomes devoted to defending or attacking Milton’s poetry and documenting the aftershock of Paradise Lost. This makes Milton sound like the poetic equivalent of fracking, so massive has the effect of his central work been. And just think about his contribution to the English language. Shakespeare was no slouch when it came to neologisms (229) but Milton invented 630 new words to get his vision across (source: Paradise Lost by Caroline Moore, Connell Guides 2015).
I came to Milton quite late: I managed to side-swerve him until my first year as an undergrad at the University of Nottingham. My Milton tutorial took place at 9 a.m. every Monday and, due to the weekend’s revels, it was the grimmest slot of the week and also the most arduous. Ploughing through not only Paradise Lost but the dense prose works like Areopagitica and the strange Comus a Masque was gruelling at times.
But being able to sit in one’s room with the snow gathering apace, riding the rollercoaster of Miltonic syntax, dodging the scattershot of allusions, admiring the grand conceits and the tender human moments in their midst became addictive and compulsive over that first Nottingham winter.
I love the way Milton moves from the vast to the intimate. From Satan’s flight from Hell to the new fabled Earth (pausing to land on the Sun for a pit stop):
Round he surveys (and well might, where he stood
So high above the circling canopy
Of night’s extended shade,) from eastern point
Of Libra to the fleecy star that bears
Andromeda far off Atlantic seas
Beyond the horizon; then from pole to pole
He views in breadth, and without longer pause
Down right into the world’s first region throws
His flight precipitant, and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique way
Amongst innumerable stars, that shone
Stars distant, but nigh hand seemed other worlds;
Or other worlds they seemed, or happy isles,
Like those Hesperian gardens famed of old,
Fortunate fields, and groves, and flowery vales,
Thrice happy isles; but who dwelt happy there
He staid not to inquire: Above them all
The golden sun, in splendor likest Heaven,
Allured his eye; thither his course he bends
Through the calm firmament, (but up or down,
By centre, or eccentric, hard to tell,
Or longitude,) where the great luminary
Aloof the vulgar constellations thick,
That from his lordly eye keep distance due,
Dispenses light from far; they, as they move
Their starry dance in numbers that compute
Days, months, and years, towards his all-cheering lamp
Turn swift their various motions, or are turned
By his magnetic beam, that gently warms
The universe, and to each inward part
With gentle penetration, though unseen,
Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep;
So wondrously was set his station bright.
There lands the Fiend, (PL III, 555–588)
… to the tiny but devastating moment of our Fall:
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate. (PL IX, 781)
I say ‘our Fall’ because the book is about us. Whether you are religiously inclined or not, Paradise Lost is about us inasmuch as it is about choice, decision, free will, and ethics. And in the tiny nucleus of the book’s grand, allusive and allegorical structure there is a human couple making their first steps in the naughty world of decision and freedom. And to their characterisation, Milton brings subtle psychology, humour, and pity. For me, some of the most poignant and moving poetry I know comes at the end of the poem:
In either hand the hastening angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (PL XII, 637–649)
There are many other ways in which Paradise Lost speaks to us still. Last Wednesday, December 3rd 2015, I watched several hours of the British parliamentary debate about extending British military action from Iraq to Syria. The whole time I couldn’t get Book II of Paradise Lost out of my mind. In this book, the fallen rebellious angels, condemned to Hell, debate their next actions in the grand palace of Pandemonium (that’s a word Milton invented). Warmongering Moloch, quiescent Belial, venal Mammon, cunning Beelzebub and Satan take turns, speechifying with varying degrees of charm, deceit, paradox and courage. Our parliamentary debate felt like a re-staging, or a parody, of this great scene.
Here Belial takes the floor:
On the other side up rose
Belial, in act more graceful and humane.
A fairer person lost not Heaven; he seemed
For dignity composed, and high exploit.
But all was false and hollow; though his tongue
Dropped manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels: for his thoughts were low,
To vice industrious, but to nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful. Yet he pleased the ear,
And with persuasive accent thus began:
I’d like to talk at length about how Paradise Lost influenced the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein – he practically used Book VI’s battle in Heaven as a shooting script for the battle on the ice in Alexander Nevsky (Ken Russell later used this scene as the template for the great ‘heist on the ice’ in Billion Dollar Brain) – for it sometimes seems to me that John Milton invented action cinema in Paradise Lost. Perhaps we’ll pursue this idea further in my class.
To sum up, reading Paradise Lost recharges my love of language and my attention to it. It teaches me patience and the importance of following up allusions to get the full picture. It’s a demanding read: learned, digressive, punning, ironic, syntactically acrobatic, but it puts the fire back into English poetry and burns new pathways through my brain.
What does Terminator II: Judgement Day owe to Milton? Find out in Simon’s London short course, Paradise Lost: ‘An Express Elevator to Hell’. Book online or call 0207 582 1679.