That John Milton…he cracks me up!

[ETA: I apologize if you have me on bloglines and a billion entries came up. I’ve been trying to edit this for formatting and WordPress is NOT behaving].

I’ve been reading Paradise Lost for my grad seminar on the “long 18th-century.” Now, due to my own ineptitude and poor weekend-plan execution, I’m only skimming over books 6-8, 10-11 because those are not the books our professor wants to focus on in class (although I do intend to go back and read them thoroughly). I get a major slap on the wrist for that, because I am really enjoying Paradise Lost. One of the things I love most about seminars is the fact that I am forced to encounter works that I would otherwise have overlooked (and I have to find something to love because I am sooooo tired of taking courses and I have a crapload more to take–seriously, I’ve been taking grad seminars of one sort or another for the past 6 years). I went into this course thinking I would get some good background info and some historical/literary perspective on the Victorian period; I did not expect to enjoy the time period as much as I do. It was a crazy time to be alive: Courtly intrigues, pornographic poetry (a la the Earl of Rochester), and danger abounds! (For example, I had no idea that John Dryden was attacked in an alley! He was beaten pretty badly, but to this day, no one knows who did it or why. Some think that the Duchess of Portsmouth–Charles II’s mistress–ordered the attack, but that’s just conjecture). In addition, I love cranky old men. I’m not saying I agree with them, but I love reading their works. John Dryden and John Milton were cranky, but they were also masters of rhetoric, which makes reading their poems and political writings even better. As an example, in the preface to his poem Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden (who sided with the Tories against the Whigs in the Exclusion Crisis of 1681-4) has this to say:

It is not my intention to make an apology for my poem: some will think it needs no excuse, and others will receive none. The design, I am sure, is honest; but he who draws his pen for one party must expect to make enemies of the other. For wit and fool are consequents of Whig and Tory; and every man is a knave or an ass to the contrary side (177).*

Love it. Basically, Dryden is responding to criticism he’s received for his political poetry (from Whigs in particular) and his back is up. But my favorite line, by far, is this:

If you like not my poem, the fault may, possibly, be in my writing (though it is hard for an author to judge against himself); but, more probably, it is in your morals, which cannot bear the truth of it (177-78).

I soooo want to use this as an epigraph to one of my papers! I particularly enjoy the phrase: “..the fault may, possibly,…” He makes something so small, like perfectly-placed commas, speak volumes. Milton has hidden surprises as well. I found myself laughing out loud during parts of Paradise Lost, although it’s really hard to explain why when someone asks you what’s so funny. A conversation from last night:

Sarah: (laughing and trying to underline at the same time–never a good thing)

Apparent Dip: What’s so funny?

Sarah: So, Satan has escaped from hell and is caught in the garden trying to poison Eve’s dreams and encouraging her to think very bad things.When he’s caught, Gabriel confronts him and says:

"Why hast thou, Satan, broke the bounds prescribed
To thy transgressions and disturbed the charge
Of others, who approve not to transgress
By thy example but have power and right
To question thy bold entrance on this place,
Employed it seems to violate sleep and those
Whose dwelling God hath planted here in bliss?"

To which Satan responds:

"Gabriel, thou hadst in Heaven the esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question asked
Puts me in doubt.  Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell,
Though thither doomed?"

Ha, ha, ha–isn’t that funny?

Apparent Dip: …um…

Sarah: And then! And then Gabriel turns the tables and says:

"But wherefore thou alone?  Wherefore with thee
Came not all hell broke loose? Is pain to them
Less pain, less to be fled, or thou than they
Less hardy to endure?  Courageous chief,
The first in flight from pain, hadst thou alleged
To thy deserted host this cause of flight,
Thou surely hadst not come sole fugitive."

You can positively feel the sarcasm and disdain! Isn’t it great?!

Apparent Dip: …sure…

Yeah, guess you had to be there. But oh, that Milton, he cracks me up!

* Taken from, John Dryden: The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics edition.
Excerpts from Paradise Lost: John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. David Scott Kastan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 2005), 139-40.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I completely agree with your take on Milton. He really has his characters score the most perfect digs at each other. In that encounter I’d say Gabriel came off on top. Jesus comes off as a perfect fuddy duddy in comparison.

    Reply

  2. Imani: Yeah, Gabriel won that one hands down. And I think Milton had to write Paradise Regained in order to make Jesus seem more like the ideal Christian hero (v. a hero in the classical sense)–because he really doesn’t do too much in Paradise Lost but hang around. (Although, from what I hear, he doesn’t necessarily do all that much in Paradise Regained either).

    Reply

  3. I’ve loved Paradise Lost forever (well, since high school), and I completely agree about the humour! I always wished I could take a class on it, but I would’ve had to take two prereqs just to be eligible, and I had too tight of a schedule to fit it in. Silly English department.

    Reply

  4. Eva: I would love to take an entire course on Milton–3 hours of discussion just wasn’t enough time to truly grapple with him. I hope to be able to re-read Paradise Lost soon-ish (although I am so looking forward to next week’s reading: Rochester!).

    Reply

  5. I’m right there with ya! I giggle aloud at whatever I’m reading, recite to B., and he goodheartedly nods his head with an “uh huh!” and goes back to the sports page. lol

    The only thing I remember from reading Paradise Lost in an undergrad seminar is how cool Satan was. I loved that guy. Somehow I feel I need to cleanse myself now.

    Reply

  6. Andi: I think that’s one of the most brilliant effects of Milton’s work for me–you realize that you’ve been duped by Satan! The baddest bad guy there is! You’re right…I felt so…icky (how’s that for a high falutin’ word?) when I realized that. 🙂

    Reply

  7. Oh, this sounds eerily familiar — trying to explain to someone what’s so funny about what you’re reading. So glad to hear you enjoyed Milton (and even discovered he had a sense of humor). I read a bunch of his poetry last year, some of which is extremely funny, and some of which just took my breath away with its beauty. I must re-read PARADISE LOST sometime, though, because it’s been over twenty years, and I’d love to revisit it with the perspective I have now.

    Reply

  8. Emily: Oh do read Paradise Lost again. It’s just brilliant on every level. I found myself quite taken with it, even if Apparent Dip couldn’t see what was so funny!

    Reply

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