EPS Review #167 - Paradise Lost

Touched by his noodly appendage Paradise Lost, by John Milton, Longman, 1971, 650pp.

More Science Fiction. There is lots of talk of the planets and Galileo.

	Of amplitude almost immense, with stars
	Numerous, and every star perhaps a world
	Of destined habitation;         (VII 620)

There are lots of monsters (including orcs, XI 835), but primarily Satan, and his daughter/wife Sin, who has bad personal hygiene:

	The one seem'd Woman to the waste, and fair, (II 650)
	But ended foul in many a scaly fould
	Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm'd
	With mortal sting: about her middle round
	A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark'd
	With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung
	A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
	If aught disturb'd thir noyse, into her woomb,
	And kennel there, yet there still bark'd and howl'd
	Within unseen.

So much for Fluffy! The hounds chew on her vitals when they are at home.

Satan is mad because God pulls a son, a Messiah, out of nowhere and puts him in charge. Before that, apparently, Satan (Lucifer) was God's favorite. So Satan wants to get even. He does not reckon with Michael's magic sword, though:

	                but the sword (VI 320)
	Of Michael from the Armorie of God
	Was giv'n him temperd so, that neither keen
	Nor solid might resist that edge: it met
	The sword of Satan with steep force to smite
	Descending, and in half cut sheere, nor staid,
	But with swift wheele reverse, deep entring shar'd
	All his right side; then Satan first knew pain,
	And writh' d him to and fro convolv'd; so sore
	The griding sword with discontinuous wound
	Passd through him, but th' Ethereal substance clos'd
	Not long divisible, and from the gash
	A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow'd
	Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
	And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.

Finally the Messiah appears, sprouts four heads, gets medieval on Satan and his troops, introduces them to disease, opens the force-field at the edge of heaven (VI 860) and tosses them all into The Pit.

God then designs a new world, and, well, you know the rest of the story.

This was our book club selection, along with a reread of The Subtle Knife. (Meanwhile P's book group was reading Jilly Cooper). The Pullman book was as good as I remembered (and the American title appears in VII 225: "He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd / In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe / This Universe, and all created things:"). And, many years ago I also liked Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels (the only C.S.Lewis I do like), especially the green Venusian Eve on her floating island. I cannot really say that I liked Milton though -- I know this is inflammatory.

Milton is master of the Very Boring Simile. The VBS (the V could stand for Virgilian, as well) goes on and on about some detail, and the notes swell at the bottom of the page (I bought the Alastair Fowler edition) as the obscure references mount. And unlike Shakespeare, you do not really come across passages that resonate from memory. I remembered (IV 641) "Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, / With charm of earliest Birds" because it was the gloss on cirm meaning song in my Old English class with William Alfred. And of course my pedagogical friend John quotes the ending pretty often: (XII 648) "They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow, / Through Eden took thir solitarie way." I am not sure why I have heard him quote it, but perhaps he feels cast out of Paradise now and then. Apart from these there is a lot of gold and jewels and adamant and amaranth and stuff. I was expecting to come across Khan's "From Hell's heart, I stab at thee", but it turns out that comes from Moby Dick.

I did like Eden. Did you know that before the fall, Adam and Eve still had jobs? They were gardeners: they tidied up vines, and manure is mentioned (IV 628). Milton was an Englishman, all right. This big poem made me feel like a schoolboy again. I liked the prelapsarian sex (IV 740), and the big footnote where scholars debate what might have happened if Eve had got pregnant before eating of the tree: no original sin! And I also kept my eye out for the section on how Angels get it on (VIII 618). And it was amusing to read Eve saying that Adam has God, while she has Adam and to read that Adam only ate the apple out of Love for Eve, who was already in trouble. Those summaries at the beginning of chapters are really helpful, by the way.

Our book club had a daytime excursion to Milton's Cottage. I foolishly felt that I did not have time to attend, and so missed out on buying pencils and (what the English call) rubbers that say "Paradise Erased".

At our evening club meeting, I raised the serious issue of personal libraries under threat. P and a couple of her friends have been railing at me for keeping so many books around. As we know, women despise the karmic burden of possessions, and they exhorted me to get rid of some volumes. Tim, even after whipping up an excellent fish dinner, gave a rousing speech about where else can you store eight hours of pleasure than in a slim printed volume? Hear, hear. My comment was a more prosaic "they look impressive on the wall."

My mother has a formal picture of her father reading Paradise Lost, that used to be in our hallway. I always wondered if that was his book, or if it was just a studio prop. Now I have read it all, or at least my eyes travelled along all the words. I can't really recommend it, though.

Tim wrote: I read part of it to E on the day of the book club, as she drove us to Ikea to buy flat-pack furniture. She said the encyclopaedic knowledge of classical civilization and Bible mean it's essentially inaccessible to modern non-scholars. I think she's probably right.

But I liked:

	Him the almighty power hurl'd 
	Headlong flaming from th'ethereal sky
	With hideous ruin and combustion down
	To bottomless perdition.

though I have to admit I remember that because my English teacher banged on about it so much when we were studying books 1 and 2.

Bob wrote: Sad you didn't like it.

I read this over a semester in college with a Russian English teacher who made the images and the points of Milton about how to live painfully clear. It's a very powerful piece that does plough on - but has its dramatic moments - I will send my cliff notes.