Milton’s Paradise Lost

Jessica Martin, in The Guardian, has begun a series examing Paradise Lost. It’s well-timed given the promised release of a movie based on Books V and VI of the great English epic.

Here’s part 1, part 2. Other parts to follow.

Here’s Martin on Milton’s choice of epic as his genre:

And so Milton folds together two stories focused on different heroes, placing them in balance. On one side, and opening the poem, the defeated figure of Satan following a first great fall, his fall from heaven. Corrupted by overweening ambition, morally tormented, subtle and charming, Satan presents like a melange of the best villains of the stage-plays of Milton’s youth; but his strand of the story follows the epic tradition.

To him belongs the journeys, the politics, the battles, a growing insupportable self-knowledge that will, eventually, diminish him to almost nothing. He travels to encounter and corrupt his opposite numbers, the counter-heroes Adam and Eve – united where he is solitary, ignorant where he is knowing, happy where he is miserable. Their meeting will result in the poem’s second and very different fall, raising Adam and Eve separately and for different reasons to tragic stature. Out of its disaster, as out of Troy’s burning, we see them at the beginning of an odyssey. Their final “wandering steps and slow” will walk them out of the poem and into history, an untold journey leading humanity – eventually, eventually – into the embrace of a lost beloved.

I’ve probably blogged about this before, but looking back on my teaching career, one of the great gifts I received was teaching for most of my fifteen years in an interdisciplinary humanities program, and in almost every year, in a term that had us reading at least some of Paradise Lost. I hadn’t read it before beginning to teach and learning from my colleagues at Sewanee and Furman, and growing to love Milton’s language and genius, is one of the great gifts I’ve received.

It’s probably time to read it again. It’s been almost four years.

“Ancient of Days”

Here’s the Blake image I referred to in my Sunday sermon

I mentioned that the shafts of light emanating from the fingers are reminiscent of a compass, which calls to mind Milton’s description in Paradise Lost of God creating the universe:

Then stay’d the fervid Wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In God’s Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World. Paradise Lost VII.224-231

The image of the golden compass has itself become quite familiar in contemporary culture, most prominently in Phillip Pullman’s novel of that name, recently made into a movie.