John Milton could not have said it better when he summed up the folly of vanity:
all who in vain things
Built their fond hopes of glory or lasting fame…
Naught seeking but the praise of men, here find
Fit retribution, empty as their deeds. (III 448-54)
When the second edition of his epic poem Paradise Lost appeared in 1674, Milton had raised hell enough to call it a day. No doubt he expired fully expecting to ascend to Parnassus, where Muses with glad arms would welcome him to the realm of poetic immortality, into the company of Homer and Virgil. Only trouble is he underestimated the entry price. For despite his other-worldly aspirations, Milton is stuck on earth. His glory depends too much on the accolades given him by men and not the gift of the Muses, for he falls just short of inspiration.
Reading Paradise Lost is a beautiful experience. The worlds flow out of the page like wet shadows and wrap themselves around your mind, your eyes, your tongue. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading out loud — the English language is rarely so melodiously cast. Much is made of the fact that Milton, being blind, dictated the entire text of the poem to a series of scribes, to wit, his long suffering daughters. The way the poem rolls off the tongue attests to its oral readiness. Much has also been made of Milton’s talent as a child, his fluency in multiple languages, his blindness, his prodigious memory. Paradise Lost shows clearly that in craft he lacked nothing.
Out the ashes of ruin, Milton has Lucifer’s architect build “Pandemonium,” the seat of demons. Modeled after the Pantheon, it is raging with defeated rebels. The edifices evoke images of Greek temples and Italian basilicas. The language of Paradise Lost crackles and sizzles with life when describing this colossal event. And when Milton tries to define the nature of hell, he approaches an inspired simplicity. Lucifer, flying past the infernal gates of damnation, burned and deformed, cannot escape “the hell within him, for within him hell/ He brings, and round about him, not from hell/ One step no more from himself can fly/ By change of place” (IV 20-3). The gist is clear and I can just imagine Milton testing the phrasing in his vast, agile mind, binding every alliterated ‘Hell’ and ‘Him’ breathlessly, inexorably.
But there are some even nicer lines here and there when beauty is beautifully cast. Lucifer, speeding to Earth, makes a pit stop on a sunspot. Milton’s description of the churnin’ and burnin’ of elements on the sun reminded me of the plutonic processes Lyell would describe in The Principles of Geology two centuries later. I found myself, like the Arch Fiend, transfixed by the blazing surface of the orb:
What wonder then if fields and regions here
Breath forth elixir pure, and rivers run
Potable gold, when with one virtuous touch
T’arch-chemic sun so far from us remote
Produces with terrestrial humor mixed
Here in the dark so many precious things
Of color glorious and effect so rare? (III 606-12)
Yet more evocative is the description of the landscape bursting with new life where “gentle gales/ Fanning their odoriferous wings dispense/ Native perfumes, and whisper whence they stole/ Those balmy spoils” (IV 156-58). Milton here elevates the English language to ephemeral heights. We marvel with the fallen angel who, though itching for mischief and intent on corrupting God’s new hope – these creatures so “equal to the sons of heaven,” – stops for a moment, touched by the beauty of the earthly garden.
Would that all of Paradise Lost were imbued with such captivating subtlety! The poem is built on a vast classical tradition and Milton invents a host of curious things besides “Pandemonium” to populate his verses and showcase his imagination. He introduces Sin as the daughter of Lucifer. Much like Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of battle, wisdom, and craft, who jumped fully grown out of Zeus’s split skull, Sin comes out of the prideful Light Bearer’s swelled head. She however, is useless except as pawn, temptress, victim, and the unfortunate mother of Death — by incest, no less. Milton zealously recreates the battle scenes of the Iliad, sans gore, —these are after all celestial beings, so blood is definitely out of the question— making up all sorts of nifty devices for angels to wreak havoc with.
Homer and Virgil “sing” of angry men, and crafty men, and reluctant, puppet-hero men — but they sing of men nonetheless. If the opening of an epic poem tells us anything, Milton’s is a dead give away; he too “sings”, assuming the foundation of Christian creed and mythology for a subject. The poetic devices he employs all allude to his predecessors, confirming the poet’s ambition to be counted among the immortal greats. If three hundred years of scholarship means anything, I’d say his gambit worked. Eminent bastions of human academic endeavors, laden with credentials, have accorded Milton “the praise of men,” mistaking him for one of the immortals.
But scholars may not be blamed for rendering unto Milton that which is Milton’s. For although the poet proposes to write about the origins of sin, and how humanity fell into its trap, he cannot “justify the ways of God to men” (I 26), and ultimately merely “sings” of “men”. Milton seems to believe that if Dante could get away with the unapologetic self aggrandizement he indulges in throughout the Divine Comedy (something that he manages to render – quite honestly – rather endearing), he too can do away with any semblance of humility and shine the light on himself. He tells us that he is like Homer, a blind bard who can “see and tell/ Of things invisible to mortal sight” (III 55). What seems to have been overlooked in three centuries is Milton’s inability to make fallen angels more than merely a pack of spoiled children. Worse yet, their Creator, God, is made in the disappointing image of man.
The depiction of God in Paradise Lost bears witness to more than just the patriarchal myopia of Milton’s time and, sadly enough, our own. In our postmodern age where anything goes, and “perspective” counts for everything, it may be unacceptable to rage against the smallness of Milton’s God. I am rather partial to Dante’s vision of the fountain of life. Religion notwithstanding, I like the notion that God is the solidarity of all creation, and that One is “Divine Power, Highest Wisdom, and Prime Love.” So rage I will against Milton’s domineering despot. This God is insecure, spiteful, and paranoid. The omniscient being and his son plot Lucifer’s downfall when they see him hatching schemes of rebellion: “It now concerns us to be sure/ Of our omnipotence.” It sounds like he’s afraid he may be overthrown: “Let us advise…/…and all employ/ In our defense, lest unawares we lose/ This our high place” (V 729-32). It baffles the mind how this epic which has swallowed entire chapters whole from the book of Genesis can have an all-knowing God who is afraid of being caught unawares. Worse yet is the talk of God’s “derision.” Milton’s heavens are a base place, not much different from the petty concerns of this world, and his God is but a small, and rather frightened mortal.
It is no wonder then that Zarathustra was amazed that the Holy Man had not heard that God was dead. An omnicient God, an omnipotent God could reasonably be expected to also be immortal. But two hundred and eleven years before Nietzsche started to write Also Sprach Zarathustra, Milton had already mortalized God. Perhaps Milton’s is merely a reflection of his time, the voice of the heirs of Bacon, Kepler, and Galileo, that unholy triumvirate that planted the seeds that would be so assiduously tended by the Rationalists intent on weeding out the tyranny of superstition.
Once man could discern cosmic order divorced of ritual and mysticism, once he could chart and contain the heavens, he could do what Lucifer and all the rebel host of banished angels had not succeeded in doing: he could catch God unawares and throw him down from his high place. He could irrevocably make him nur ein Mench. As Zarathustra progressively descends the mountain to return to men, he contemplates this knowledge that only he seems to have, and we feel his growing isolation. Finally, his plaintive lament cannot but rend the heart:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?”
But while man can mortalise God, men do not have the capacity to be gods. Zarathustra’s very Untergang speaks the lot of mankind: his path is one of inexorable descent, downfall, and ultimately, disappointment. Any concious attempt on man’s part to ascend to the heavens – those same heavens he has so thoughtlessly pulled down around his ears – must end in failure. Try as he might, man can only dream of the Übermensch, never actually reify him.
It could be true that Milton’s poem was just a piece of propaganda and all the characters in it mere allegories for the people who lived during the poet’s time. Paradise Lost becomes then one man’s dated diatribe against the people he dislikes. Time there was when poets aspired to something beyond this crude existence. Dante went through hell to get to an Empyrean peopled with wise and graceful spirits. Virgil admittedly was just working for his bread, and had no delusions about his own importance. In fact, legend has it that he begged that his Aeneid be destroyed when he died. Both Dante and Virgil kept their sights on what they knew best: the ways of men. In doing so, their poetry transcended the mean limits of mortal cares and soared into the heavens.
Milton, however, is the son of a different time, a time that has looked into the heavens and deciphered its mysteries. He reaches up to what was once unfathomable and the mystical beauty of the celestial beings comes away with his withdrawing hand. Paradise Lost shines because here English poetry is rarely ever so beautiful when it allows the Divine. But it remains an eminently mortal work. Reflecting upon it now, I imagine that the title does not merely refer to the misadventure of Eve and Adam; the paradise lost is the explosion of mystery, the exposure of myth, the Untergang of the Divine.
But mortal as he and his God may be, Milton leaves us the not mean consolation of a rich text mined with poetic gems set in beautiful language in which we can “luxuriate”, as a fellow I once knew liked to say. In the end however, I am still left haunted by a troubling thought: “in heav’nly Spirits could such perverseness dwell?”