The Place To Meet Milton: On Re-reading Paradise Lost
I just finished re-reading Paradise Lost.
My impressions? It's very Christian. The end goes all prophetic. Really it's like four poems.
Paradise Lost Poem One tells Satan's comeback from his wee setback of eternal damnation.
Paradise Lost Poem Two is Archangel Raphael and First Human Adam's chitchat about this and that - war in heaven and the creation of the universe and sundry other cosmick gossip.
Poem One and Two are the great science fiction style parts of Milton, and show what he learnt from the speechifying of the Ancients and Mr Shakespeare's productions.
Paradise Lost Poem Three is the Action: vis, Eve and Adam eat and Fall. It's, um, a psychosexual drama with angels.
Last we get Paradise Lost Poem Four, the prophetic wrapup where God judges, the Son sacrifices, Heaven hurrahs, Eve repents and Adam hallucinates the future on a hilltop with Archangel Michael. Then it's out of the garden and into the book of Genesis.
What to think? It's hard to appreciate deeply enough the science-fictionality of Milton's Paradise Lost in context of a world where SF didn't yet exist.
Certainly the poem compares not unfavorably to Homer's work (Poem One and Two), Dante's (Poem Four), Shakespeare's (Poem One's psychological portrayal of Satan and Poem Three's portrayal of Adam and Eve), and D.H.Lawrence (Poem Three's frank eroticism). In the light of the Western Tradition Milton is indubitably great.
Dante, Milton's opposite in temperament, best shines a light on the artist John Milton. Where Dante's art is delicate, tinted mercurial (being a Gemini as he informs us) Milton's is darkly sensuous, visionary, and monumental art.
Milton's effects strain the imagination; much is left to the reader to imagine, and much of Milton is dark to the moral eye not through obscurity but through largeness of imaginating. These effects become vivid only when the reader's sensual and moral temperament happens to concur with Milton's.
Image making in Milton is moral AND sensual; he sees no break between the two natures of the animal and the angel in a true Christian. This view, so alien morally but so modern in its acceptances of sensual desire, at once endears and distances us from Milton.
We feel he is serious, and noble, and a man disappointed in his sex life, and yet we sense a rich inner life of emotion and sensuality survives the disappointment, an inner life sustained, to our modern consternation, not by healthy adult relationships but by mere moral fortitude! Milton becomes uncanny, heroic, when we consider him as the figuration of the Human. What kind of pragmatism is involved in such a moral-sensual stance? Perhaps outside the author of Paradise Lost we cannot imagine another such man.
Ultimately the greatness of Paradise Lost comes down to incommensurates: I find myself liking John Milton more for himself than for his poem. Paradise Lost becomes the place I meet Milton in rather than the poem I read.