Friday, September 5, 2014

Paradise Lost

John Milton

Lines 1-26 are below.

For the full text of the poem, click here 

Or you can find (here) what is described as an "English translation", which is actually the full text in the left-hand column, and an explanation for illiterate dummies on the right - yes, it really is that bad. Which begs the question: why am I making the link to it? Fair question deserves fair answer. Because sometimes there are things you have to disbelieve with your own eyes, and this is one of them; especially if you are an English teacher, and your students might choose to use this cheat-crib.

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidd’n Tree, whose mortal tast
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 Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, dids’t inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flowd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’Aonian Mount; while it persues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temple th’upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st, Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in mee is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

I first encountered Milton at school, as a set text on an A-level syllabus. Logic insists that this should have destroyed him for me, then and ever. School teachers (I speak as one) are all-too-often guilty of vivisecting poetry in the manner of newts and anemones, pulling out the fibres of metre and the stamens of hidden meaning, and then seeming perplexed when, for all their fine stitching, the sorry creature doesn't survive the operation. What chance for the poor pupil, required to "appreciate" an esoteric art-form that in truth is bemusingly obscure and entirely irrelevant to the adolescent life, when what is served up is lobotomised newt and lacerated anemone? Difficult enough to spell onomatopoeia correctly, let alone recognise one! And as to "analyse and explain its usage" in the poetry of…

That Milton survived for me I attribute to my own doltishness. Until the age of eighteen I had not the slightest comprehension what poetry was for, nor why anyone should go to such complicated lengths to say what could as easily be said in unrhymed, unmetred prose – and this despite the fact that I had written reams of it, mostly extremely badly. What I had was a sense of something important to, and valued by, people whose taste and sophistication I admired and even envied ("even envy" would be more poetical, but alas ungrammatical in this sentence). Like Art, like Music, like Cricket, like Religion, here was something that I felt I ought to appreciate, for the very simple reason that others had placed it upon so lofty a pedestal. Who can ignore a Mystery to which he is denied access? Myself a failed initiate, I stubbornly pursued entry into the Cabal – in the same way that, as a Jew excluded until the law made such exclusion illegal, I had been determined to play my rounds of golf at Moor Park, Wentworth and St Andrews.

But the Milton was different - that, and Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin", which may actually be the same poem, if you think about it. What held me in thrall was not the subject-matter, nor the technical accomplishment, not even its status in the aristocracy of culture, but simply its sound: the emotional impact of certain cadences and intonations, the auditory effect of certain timbres and resonances and assibilations; the same impact, really, as listening to Leonard Cohen perform "Stranger Song", or Elly Ameling sing Mahler. Deconstructing the words of poems until they were stripped of meaning, I read them as symbols, not signifiers: mere musical notation. My preference was for the lyrical, the aesthetic: Dylan before Keats. This remains the case today.

So Milton. I came to him initially because I had a love of showing off, and having performed the whole of Browning’s "Pied Piper" before the school at thirteen, the opening several hundred lines of "Il Paradiso Inglese" fastened themselves to my ego at sixteen (and are still there, constant, to this day, though the synapses have somewhat dilapidated). I could have claimed I had done this to improve my memory, but that would have been a lie; I could have claimed, with more veracity, that it was for the very private pleasure of reciting it aloud, alone. Others with better voices acquire a repertoire of songs for the same purpose: to sing in the bath or on country lanes, to relax by. Being completely tone-deaf, but gifted of a strong stage-voice, I acquired a repertoire of poetry instead. Later, returned to regular attendance at the synagogue, I used the Hebrew liturgy in precisely the same way. But then, I stood in front of my class for half an hour, and burbled my iambics till the boys could take no more, and begged me to desist. Milton himself survived the ordeal by fire. 

As to Milton himself. Of the Catholic and Protestant ideologies I knew little and cared less; to the factions in the English Civil War I was quite simply indifferent. Some sense of meaning exacerbated the music of the lines, something of the majesty of the King James Bible, but with passion where that book plods with lassitude. In the fragment, for example, describing the fall of Lucifer from Grace, a passage I now recognise as enormously derivative of Dante, there was something almost nightmarish, something of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", which I associated vaguely with Isaiah and Adolf Hitler in roughly equal measures. I have many times wished these lines upon others, whether personal foes or the greater, universal dragons:

Hurled headlong flaming into th'Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantin Chains and Penal Fire.

The same intention as the "Ve la malshinim" section of the Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, but much better expressed. Powerful magic! You can see why I thought of Hitler, though Milton was probably thinking of Charles I when he should have been thinking of Cromwell.

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