From the Bedside Table of God

The Cairns Institute James Cook University

2017 August, 30

From the Bedside Table of God

John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost is one of the greatest productions of literature, equal to Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, in my view greater. In this guest lecture I make argument about the sublimity of this colossal work of poetic genius, share my passion for this greatest of epics, and my contention no greater gift was given humankind than this work of art for which Milton received £5 upon its publication. Why would humans choose to live their allotted three score and ten years without receiving and knowing this gift? Time must come to pick it up again, for to not know Milton is the very definition of spiritual impoverishment and cruel self-abnegation.


Let me acknowledge the First Nations of this place. I bring greetings from Cape York  Peninsula. I am grateful to The Cairns Institute for indulging my love of the poetry of  John Milton, and specifically Paradise Lost. Milton hoped his epic would “fit audience  find, though few” (Book 7: 31),and I could hardly hope for more.

The structure of my lecture is in eight parts:

1. The Poem

2. Poetic Destiny

3. Milton England’s Rebel

4. The Devil’s Party

5. Satan, Envy and Eve

6. Milton’s Theodicy

7. Literary Memory

8. The End of Genesis

Threading throughout are four themes I want to canvas, if only lightly:

i. The poem’s sheer intellectual scope and Milton’s poetic ambition

ii. Milton’s 370 year old spell

iii. The Heaven and Hell within the human mind

iv. The Next Epic

1. The Poem

We start with the poetry. No words can better speak to its might than its own. We  start in the beginning:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer

Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,

Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first

Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,

Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,

Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause

Moved our grand parents, in that happy state,

Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off

From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides.
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host

Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,

With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night

To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,

Confounded, though immortal. But his doom

Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought

Both of lost happiness and lasting pain

Torments him: round he throws his baleful eyes,

That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,

Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.

At once, as far as Angels ken, he views

The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames

No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
Such place Eternal Justice has prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set,
As far removed from God and light of Heaven
As from the centre thrice to th’ utmost pole.
Oh how unlike the place from whence they fell!

There the companions of his fall, o’erwhelmed
With floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns; and, weltering by his side,
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and named

Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heaven called Satan, with bold words

Breaking the horrid silence, thus began:—
‘If thou beest he—but O how fallen! how changed

From him who, in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright!—if he whom mutual league,

United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the glorious enterprise
Joined with me once, now misery hath joined

In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest
From what height fallen: so much the stronger proved

He with his thunder; and till then who knew
The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,
Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,

And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,
And to the fierce contentions brought along

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,
And shook his throne. 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. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late

Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,

And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;
Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,

We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,

Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven. (Book 1:1-124)

Everything yields to the poetry. Everything must. Not Samuel Johnson, William Blake  or T.S. Elliot, nor any voice of commentary or literary criticism in the 350 years since  could add or detract from its power. Least of all anything we say today. So what then is  my purpose? 

It is to urge you to pick up Paradise Lost again. With our copy in the bookshelf, we  have made many attempts since first obliged to read certain passagesat high school or  university, perhaps one of its twelve books, and put it down again. Samuel Johnson  identified this problem in his Life of Milton:

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. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and  overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and  seek for companions. [252]

I too grappled with this work since high school. I was looking for Shakespeare in  Milton,and could not find him. This is a different species of language and poetry to his  near-in-time predecessor. Everyone is familiar with the sensation Shakespeare  excites: your brain is set on fire, and the neurons in its deepest regions enlivened. 

Milton does the same, but the effect is not so directand not easily won. The enjambed blank verse which Milton invented in Paradise Lost is not so readily unlocked.

Probably his sternest critic, because most credible – T.S. Eliot, writing 250 years later  – was right when he said this poetry is aural.

To extract everything possible from Paradise Lost, it would seem necessary to  read it in two different ways, first solely for the sound, and second for the sense.  The full beauty of his long periods can hardly be enjoyed while we are wrestling  with the meaning as well; and for the pleasure of the ear the meaning is hardly  necessary, except in so far as certain key-words indicate the emotional tone of  the passage. Now Shakespeare, or Dante, will bear innumerable readings, but at each reading all the elements of appreciation can be present. There is no  interruption between the surface that these poets present to you and the core.

I know what Eliot means. My breakthrough came one evening when I picked the poem  up again and read aloud the opening passage with which I started this lecture.  [Bizarrely, my son was playing AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ on his Angus Young  signature Gibson SG as Satan and his horrid crew stirred to life on the “lake of fire”].

The vista opened and this poem’s genius finally revealed itself: there could be no  turning back. From then it could not be put down. What an epiphanous moment. It  was like entering the Galleria dell'Accademiato see Michelangelo’s David for the first  time having only seen it art-books. Or Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum and seeing  Picasso’s Guernica, or approaching Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia from the street. Or  reading Anna Karenina for the first time as a seventeen year old.  

Paradise Lost cannot be grasped by silent inside-the-head reading, it must be read as  Milton dictated it to his amanuenses: with full voice. 

Sing Heavenly Muse. Epic poetry is not to be read like drama. Various audiobooks,  including one produced by the BBC on the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, makes  the mistake of trying to dramatize Paradise Lost, as ifa Shakespearian play. I esteem highly Blackstone’s audiobook, narrated by the minor English American actor, Ralph  Cosham. Following the written text with Cosham’saudiobook I highly commend, as a  way to bring sound and meaning together. 

Samuel Johnson summarised Milton’s epic as follows:

[211] The subject of an epick poem is naturally an event of great  importance. That of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of  a colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of  worlds, the revolutions of heaven and of earth; rebellion against the  Supreme King raised by the highest order of created beings; the  overthrow of their host and the punishment of their crime; the creation  of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and  innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to hope  and peace.

David Scott Kastan, whose edition I also commend, writes that Paradise Lost is  “unrivalled in its intellectual scope and poetic ambition” (Kastan xii). To me Milton is  to Shakespeare as Einstein is to Darwin. Shakespeare and Darwin are concerned with  the human and Milton and Einstein are concerned with the universe.

2. Poetic Destiny

John Milton was born into prosperity on 9 December 1608. A precocious scholar from  childhood, his brother testified to the burning midnight oil. He was filling the vessels  of Mnemosyne: the Greek Goddess of Memory, from whence his great poetry  eventually sprung. 

His religious radicalism was installed by his tutor, Thomas Young. He attended St  Paul’s School London where he learned the Greek and Latin.

Milton was undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge and received his masters  there, in preparation for Anglican priesthood. However he returned home and  undertook a further six years of self-directed study supported by his father. He read  everything;as well as fluent in Latin, Greek and Italian, he learned Hebrew, French,  Italian, Spanish, Old English and Dutch. He became what has not improbably been  described as the most learned figure in the history of letters. He toured the continent  and met Gallileo whom he references in Paradise Lost as the “the Tuscan artist”. Let  me extract the passage in Book 1. It follows Beelzebub’s response to Satan upon  awakening in hell:

He scarce had ceased when the superior Fiend

Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield

Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,

Behind him cast; the broad circumference

Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb

Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views

At evening from the top of Fesole,

Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,

Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe.

His Spear, to equal which the tallest pine

Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast

Of some great admiral, were but a wand,

He walked with to support uneasy steps

Over the burning marle, not like those steps

On Heaven’s azure, and the torrid clime

Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire;

Nathless he so endured, till on the beach

Of that inflamed sea, he stood and called

His Legions, angel forms, who lay entranced

Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks

In Vallombrosa, where the Etrurian shades

High overarched embower; or scattered sedge

Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed

Hath vexed the Red Sea coast, whose waves overthrew

Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,

While with perfidious hatred they pursued

The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld

From the safe shore their floating carcasses

And broken chariot wheels, so thick bestrown

Abject and lost lay these, covering the flood,

Under amazement of their hideous change.

From age 19 Milton knew his destiny was to write the greatest work of literature in the  English language and achieve immortal fame. Milton’s poetic destiny took possession  of him from youth. He wrote forlornly in his seventh sonnet:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,

Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!

My hasting days fly on with full career,

But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.

He was 23 so anxiety about his literary progress was clearly premature. Nevertheless it  came late.

Other than juvenile poemsand his middle years, Milton’s poetic promise would not  yield its ambitious fruit until his revolutionary political work in Oliver Cromwell’s  Commonwealth ended in smoking ruins. Milton wasan intellectual engine in the  Puritan republic, serving as its chief propagandist and Latin Secretary, responsible for  communicating with European governments.

Trying to induce heaven on earth consumed Milton’s middle years. There was no time  for his nascent promise to come to fruition.

I want to dwell momentarily on what it means to summon a life. To know the unknown  inside yourself, or the unknown that is as yet some seed or some deep well  accumulating memory, to incubate one’s destiny with no inkling whether and how  one’s talents and sense of self would manifest in the world. No foreknowledge but (to  use Milton’s most frequent adjective) adamantine certainty that one would produce  great artalmost as surely as the pre-destination he abjured in Calvinism.

If Michelangelo’s burning destiny soon revealed, then Milton’s remained obscure and susceptible to extinction. Had his oeuvre ended with the onset of blindness his place  in the pantheon of English poets wasas assured as his friends Andrew Marvel and John  Dryden. Had his revolutionary politics ended as it perhaps might have – hung, drawn  and quartered – then his name would stillappear in anthologies of English verse today.  Comus, Lycidas and other minor works leading up to Paradise Lost assured him his  place in literary history.

But his greatest work lay still before him. Not until he voided death with help from friends – not least Marvel – and could no longer read or write, infirm and blind – would  his Muse visit his dreams, and the deep wells of learning and memory stream forth  verse the like of which the world had not seen since Homer or Virgil. 

This is his description of the process of inspiration:

If answerable style I can obtain

Of my celestial patroness, who deigns

Her nightly visitation unimplored,

And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires

Easy my unpremeditated verse:

Since first this subject for heroic song

Pleased me long choosing, and beginning late;

The English revolution was failed and with the Restoration of Charles the Second,  Milton, unrepentant but restrained, briefly imprisoned and under fear of retribution  for his role in the republican government – not the least for having written the  Regicide Treatises justifying the execution of Charles the First – had no choice to  continue politics. The republic was dead. His life’s work in politics was over. 

What remained for him, blind and decrepit, facing ridicule and opprobrium from the  royalists, was the as yet unfulfilled promise of his poetic destiny.

Let us now turn to,

3.Milton, England’s Rebel

The great irony of the contemporary view of Milton is he is the Dead White Male par  excellence of the Western literary canon, and yet it is hard to think of any poet more  radical in his time than he. 

If Satan was Heaven’s Rebel and Adam and Eve rebelled Paradise, then John Milton  was England’s Rebel.

Milton was the consummate arguer. Public argument through treatise was his great  renown, and he was a master of polemic, rhetoric and vehement dialectic. When after  the first 10 Book edition of Paradise Lost was republished with amendments following  a 12 Book structure, he added summaries at the beginning of each Book entitled ‘The  Argument’. He was making a case. A case justifying the ways of God to man.

Earlier Milton wrote a controversial treatise advocating grounds for divorce. His  Areopagetica is one of the first defences of freedom of speech. The positions he  argued were highly contentious and against the powers of the day. He was a republican  who worked assiduously for ‘The Old Cause’ in the prime of his life, held a senior  position in the Commonwealth’s government, and wrote in justification of the  beheading of Monarchs. Milton was a radical not just in his writing but in political  practice. He ardently sought for the republic to succeed in Britain.

And yet by the end of the twentieth century Milton, who lived his last days destitute, would become the very symbol of patriarchy and privilege, the number one villain of  the Western Canon. If there were a statue of him at Christ’s College, it may be well be  vulnerable to stern retrospective judgment. He may have escaped justice at the hands  of Charles the Second, but how such a radical would come to be seen as such an  archetype of all that is supposedly bad in the pantheon of English and Western  literature – is a strange wonder.

Moreover, if you believe as Samuel Johnson and I do – that his Paradise Lost is indeed  one of if not the “finest productions of the human mind” – then the retrospective view  of English poetry’s greatest rebel, is more the pity. That contemporary and future  audiences may not come to know this piece of art for such silliness, troubles me. It is  now a free gift of humankind, available on the World Wide Web. As many as can be  encouraged to, should partake.

Witness the scene he conjures when Satan chests Death at the Gates of Hell:

Each at the head

Levelled his deadly aim; their fatal hands

No second stroke intend; and such a frown

Each cast at th’ other as when two black clouds

With heaven’s artillery fraught, came rattling on

Over the Caspian,—then stand front to front

Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow

To join their dark encounter in mid-air.

Samuel Johnson’s is the clearest enunciation of Milton’s gifts:

[231] He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to  know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully  than upon others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the  splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating  the dreadful: he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not  be said, on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of  extravagance.

Let me indulge another passage when Sin and Death sense that Satan has succeeded in  his enterprise. Death says to his mother:

“Go whither fate and inclination strong

Leads thee; I shall not lag behind nor err

The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw

Of Carnage, prey innumerable, and taste

The savor of death from all things there that live.

Nor shall I to the work thou enterprisest

Be wanting but afford thee equal aid.”

So saying, with delight he snuffed the smell

Of mortal change on earth. As when a flock

Of ravenous fowl, though many a league remote

Against the day of battle to a field

Where armies lie encamped come flying, lured

With scent of living carcasses designed

For death the following day in bloody fight,

So scented the grim feature and upturned

His nostril wide into the murky air,

Sagacious of his quarry from so far.

4. The Devil’s Party

Satan survives the torrid journey through Chaos and the Abyss and arrives in view of “this pendent world”. The poem likens the fiend to a ship come to harbour having  barely survived the storm:

That Satan with less toil, and now with ease,

Wafts on the calmer wave by dubious light,

And, like a weather-beaten vessel, holds

Gladly the port, though shrouds and tackle torn;

Or in the emptier waste, resembling air,

Weighs his spread wings, at leisure to behold

Far off the empyreal Heaven, extended wide

In circuit, undetermined square or round,

With opal towers and battlements adorned

Of living sapphire, once his native seat;

And, fast by, hanging in a golden chain,

This pendent world, in bigness as a star

Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.

Thither, full fraught with mischievous revenge,

Accursed, and in a cursed hour, he hies. (Book 2: 1041-1055)

It is pointless to discuss character in Paradise Lost. Those who complain about God as  a boring or undeveloped character miss the point. He is not human. That he must  simply be obeyed is the very definition of God. There is no scope for character. This is  a theological being, not human. He is, unavoidably, not vulnerable to character analysis, and therefore lacking in interest for those seeking the human drama of  Shakespeare. The only aspect of God which comes close to vulnerable analysis of his  interior life is when the poem deals with the theodicy that lies at the heart of the poem  – why does God permit the Fall when he has foreknowledge of it? This is the only time  I have a slight sense God is somewhat human because he is compelled to defend  himself, but his primary function in the poem is conventional and Milton could not risk  departing from the bounds prescribed by scripture – nor would he have wanted to. But  the foreknowledge problem is a theological issue, not character.

It is different with Satan. There is more scope for character, and that he is fallen  provides the opportunity to present his interior life as a great and tragic figure most  identifiable with and to fallen man. But he is a God not a man. The constraints of  scripture and theology are not as strict as they are with God and Messiah, his son. 

This is way, I think, to understand William Blake’s famous point when he said:

“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and  at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the  Devil's party without knowing it.” (William Blake)

But rather than Milton not knowing he was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it, I  think it is the reader who is joins the Devil’s Party without knowing it – perforce  Milton’s poetic art. 

For Satan cuts a magnificent figure, even in despair:

Farewell happy fields

Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail

Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

Receive thy new possessor: One who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less then he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven.

We now turn to,

5. Satan, Envy and Eve

Satan is enthralled – nay, in love – with Eve and filled with envy. His pursuit and  temptation and beguilement of her is absolutely one of the supreme achievements of  this poem.

Such pleasure took the serpent to behold

This flowery plot, the sweet recess of Eve

Thus early, thus alone, her heavenly form

Angelic, but more soft and feminine

Her graceful innocence. Her every air

Of gesture and least action overawed

His malice and with rapine sweet bereaved

His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.

That space the Evil-one abstracted stood

From his own evil and for the time remained

Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,

Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge;

But the hot hell that always in him burns,

Though in mid-Heaven, soon ended his delight

And tortures him now more the more he sees

Of pleasure not for him ordained; then soon

Fierce hate he recollects and, all his thoughts

Of mischief gratulating, thus excites:

“Thoughts, whither have ye led me? With what sweet

Compulsion thus transported to forger

What hither brought us? Hate, not love, nor hope

Of Paradise for hell, hope here to taste

Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy

Save what is in destroying; other joy

To me is lost. Then let me not let pass

Occasion which now smiles: behold alone

The woman, opportune to all attempts,

Her husband, for I view far round, not nigh,

Whose higher intellectual more I shun,

And strength, of courage haughty and of limb

Heroic built though of terrestrial mould:

Foe not informidable, exempt from wound,

I not, so much hath hell debased and pain

Enfeebled me to what I was in Heaven.

She fair, divinely fair, fit love for gods,

Not terrible, though terror be in love

And beauty, not approached by stronger hate,

Hate stronger, under show of love well feigned,

The way which to her ruin now I tend.” (Book 9: 455-472)

The hot hell that always within him burns. Keep that line in mind for later. As Tolstoy  wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You, so is Hell. 

Let me now turn to,

6. Milton’s Theodicy

The Great Argument of Paradise Lost is to “assert eternal providence/and justify the  ways of God to men” (Book 1:25-26). The Almighty Father and Messiah are sitting at  heaven gazing down upon creation and Adam and Eve there. The Father discerns  Satan on his mission:

In blissful solitude; he then surveyed

Hell and the gulf between, and Satan there

Coasting the wall of Heaven on this side Night

In the dun air sublime, and ready now

To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet,

On the bare outside of this world, that seemed

Firm land imbosomed, without firmament,

Uncertain which, in ocean or in air.

Him God beholding from his prospect high,

Wherein past, present, future, he beholds,

Thus to his only Son foreseeing spake.

Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage

Transports our Adversary? whom no bounds

Prescribed no bars of Hell, nor all the chains

Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss

Wide interrupt, can hold; so bent he seems

On desperate revenge, that shall redound

Upon his own rebellious head. And now,

Through all restraint broke loose, he wings his way

Not far off Heaven, in the precincts of light,

Directly towards the new created world,

And man there placed, with purpose to assay

If him by force he can destroy, or, worse,

By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert;

For man will hearken to his glozing lies,

And easily transgress the sole command,

Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall

He and his faithless progeny: Whose fault?

Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

Such I created all the ethereal Powers

And Spirits, both them who stood, and them who failed;

Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Not free, what proof could they have given sincere

Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,

Where only what they needs must do appeared,

Not what they would? what praise could they receive?

What pleasure I from such obedience paid,

When will and reason (reason also is choice)

Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled,

Made passive both, had served necessity,

Not me? they therefore, as to right belonged,

So were created, nor can justly accuse

Their Maker, or their making, or their fate,

As if predestination over-ruled

Their will disposed by absolute decree

Or high foreknowledge they themselves decreed

Their own revolt, not I; if I foreknew,

Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,

Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.

This to my mind is sound theology. Perhaps being protestant (one of Martin Luther’s  tribe) Milton’s account of the problem of evil in the world, and how it is that God’s  omniscience and foreknowledge does not mean mankind’s capitulation to Satan’s  glozing lies was mankind’s choice, does not deviate from the conventional protestant  view.

Which brings me to the point about the fidelity of Milton’s theology in Paradise Lost with scripture. Coming from a protestant faith wary of departures from the Word of  God I have a sense that Milton’s poetic licence in extending the story of Genesis and  indeed inventing entire dimensions of the pre-history of the Creation – I am strangely  unperturbed by Milton’s idiosyncratic theology as laid out in this epic. 

The way in which the poem moves between biblical account and allusions to the  classical world is in my view seamless and naturally profound.

Let me now turn to

7. Literary Memory

At the beginning of Book 3 Milton’s narrator speaks to his blindness in this passage,  part of his extraordinary invocation to light:

Thee I revisit safe,

And feel thy sovereign vital lamp; but thou

Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain

To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;

So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,

Or dim suffusion veiled. Yet not the more

Cease I to wander, where the Muses haunt,

Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,

Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief

Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,

That wash thy hallowed feet, and warbling flow,

Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget

So were I equaled with them in renown,

Thy sovereign command, that man should find grace;

Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides,

And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old:

Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move

Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird

Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid

Tunes her nocturnal note. 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 expunged and rased,

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.

TS Eliot was inclined to agree with John Keat’s assessment that Milton’s magnificence  led nowhere. That he had dammed the creative flow of English literature. Eliot wrote  ‘To pass under the spell of Milton is to be condemned to imitate him.’ He wrote:

Milton made a great epic impossible for succeeding generations;  Shakespeare made a great poetic drama impossible; such a situation is  inevitable, and it persists until the language has so altered that there is no  danger, because no possibility, of imitation. Anyone who tries to write poetic  drama, even to-day, should know that half of his energy must be exhausted in  the effort to escape from the constricting toils of Shakespeare: the moment  his attention is relaxed, or his mind fatigued, he will lapse into bad  Shakespearian verse. For a long time after an epic poet like Milton, or a  dramatic poet like Shakespeare, nothing can be done. Yet the effort must be  repeatedly made; for we can never know in advance when the moment is  approaching at which a new epic, or a new drama, will be possible; and when  the moment does draw near it may be that the genius of an individual poet  will perform the last mutation of idiom and versification which will bring that  new poetry into being. [30]

We still await this last mutation of idiom and versification. It is nigh 370 years later  and the spell of Milton has intimidated all who have followed to produce an epic that  stands outside of his spell. Whilst new drama emerged after Shakespeare  unconstrained by his shadow, and whilst certainly new poetry emerged – all attempts at  epic poetry have never succeeded in escaping the great and terrible achievement of  Paradise Lost.

God knows the necessary subject matter is at hand, starting from the Fall and  humankind’s journey East of Eden into history. The Babels of Reason, Technology  and Artificial Intelligence. The rise of the Anthropocene, the impending biological  wastelands, Malthusian over-population, and the Human-made Climate Change – is all  there waiting for the latest mutation of idiom and versification.

But as the Dante scholar, Anthony Esollen makes so clear, there can be no epic  without theology. All the great epic poets and novelists were theologians, from Homer  to Tolstoy. Their theology was idiosyncratic and reflected the self-determination of  the nearly always crazy theologian, but without this architectonic there could be no  epic.

I suspect the place in which we will find heaven and hell will be within the minds of  humans. That heaven and hell lies within us. And this is where the next Homer or  Milton will find anew good and evil. 

Finally let me now close with,

8. The End of Genesis

The archangel Michael is instructed by God to inform Adam of their expulsion from  Paradise in Book 11. Eve overhears the conversation and this is her forlorn response:

“O unexpected stroke, worse than of death!

Must I this leave thee, Paradise? Thus leave

Thee, native soil, these happy walks and shades,

Fit haunt of gods, where I had hope to spend,

Quiet though sad, the respite of the day

That must be mortal to us both? O flowers,

That never will in other climate grow,

My early visitation and my last

At ev’n, which I bred up with tender hand

From the first opening bud and gave ye names,

Who now shall rear ye to the sun, or rank

Your tribes, and water from the ambrosial fount?

Thee, lastly, nuptial bower, by me adorned

With what to sight or smell was sweet, from thee

How shall I part, and whither wander down

Into a lower world, to this obscure

And wild? How shall we breathe in other air

Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits?” (Book 11: 268-285)

Then finally in Book 12 Michael leads Adam and Eve to the eastern gates of Paradise:

The archangel stood, and from the other hill

To their fixed station, all in bright array,

The cherubim descended, on the ground

Gliding meteorous as evening mist

Risen from a rive o’er the marish glides

And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel

Homeward returning. High in front advanced,

The brandished sword of God before them blazed

Fierce as a comet, which with torrid heat

And vapor, as the Libyan air adust,

Began to parch that temperate clime; whereat

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 dropped, 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. (Book 12: 626-649)

Thank you.