Saturday, 11 September 2010

Great-Grandson of Discovering the Classics

This week, I finally finished Milton's Paradise Lost.

I confess I have mixed feelings about it. I should emphasise, though, that that is a personal reaction. It would be futile to deny that this is one of the great works of English literature. Certainly I have no intention of denying it. Let me therefore unpack some of my impressions, for what they are worth.

The Poetry

Milton really knows his way around iambic pentameter. And he knows how to sustain it for the long haul. That's no mean feat. Shakespeare could take advantage of the nature of dialogue to allow him some variety in his use of that metre, but Milton, though he has several series of long monologues (I'm not sure if its legitimate to call them dialogues when its mostly long speeches replying to each other or whole books of recounted narrative in direct speech), also has masses of poetic description sustained for pages. To maintain that in iambic pentameter is impressive.

And some absolutely delicious lines result. Who could deny the delectability of a line like 'So glozed the tempter and his proem tuned'? How I would love to use that in a conversation one day! Or this description of ante-deluvian women: 'Bred only and completed to the taste/ Of lustful appetance, to sing, to dance,/ To dress, to troll the tongue and roll the eye.' Or the description of Noah as 'the only son of light in a dark age'. Wonderful.

I was a bit put off by Milton's aversion to rhyme (this would have been alleviated if he had accorded any affection to alliteration, but nothing was apparent). He has strong views on the matter- he speaks of rhyme as 'the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre' and those who will regard its absence as a defect are, to him, 'vulgar readers'. But he refuses to be constrained by 'the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming', whatever anyone else may think. To which, my hackles being raised, I was of a good mind to retort, "Hey!" in a wounded and indignant tone. But that is a rather inarticulate way to reply to a great English poet, so this vulgar reader has a good mind at some point in the future to craft a poetic protest defending rhyme in heroic couplets (and yes, they will be in iambic pentameter). Watch this space.

The Story and Theology

There's no way of treating the narrative and its theological ideas and implications separately, so I won't.

There's no denying that Milton writes a cracking tale, rousing and suspenseful. It does go on a bit in parts, and the modern reader is likely to get bogged down in a few bits (so, perhaps, even some older readers- Samuel Johnson declared of the poem, 'None ever wished it longer than it was.'), but the narrative as a narrative is very well-crafted. Particularly notable bits, and certainly the most memorable ones, are the opening in Hell, the account of the war in Heaven (very anthropomorphically told, but Milton sidesteps this by Raphael's explaining to Adam that he has had to translate what happened into terms Adam can understand) and most especially the temptation itself.

This latter is a particularly brilliant piece of work. Milton extrapolates from details of the Fall narative in Genesis and ties these together to make a temptation scene that is dramatically complex but utterly plausible. The reader, even with the benefit of retrospective knowledge, cannot help but be tempted, if only vicariously. Milton does this by drawing attention to things which the reader of Genesis too easily passes over. Eve meets a talking snake. Naturally, she does what we all would do- wonders how a snake could talk. The snake, who has been possessed by Satan, informs her that he ate of a particular fruit which, somehow, endowed him with the ability to reason and understand and this has made him capable of speech. Where is this remarkable fruit, wonders Eve. The snake leads her to the forbidden tree. She knows what it is, but begins to wonder. If an animal can gain abilities and faculties proper to creatures higher than it in the hierarchy of being (in this case, human faculties) by eating its fruit, what would happen if she ate it? What would she then be capable of? She begins to wonder about the prohibition as well. Surely the prohibition was a test. But what kind of test? Did God, through the mediation of the angels, tell them not to eat the fruit of this tree because He didn't want them to eat it? Or did He tell them not to eat it to see if they would? Was it a test of their ability to reason independently, rather than just follow arbitrary orders? Did He actually secretly want them to eat of it the whole time? All the while, Satan remains completely in character as the snake, not telling Eve to do anything, but all the while suggesting and encouraging her in these trains of thought, until at last she eats. It is a masterfully conceived scene.

Of course, right at the outset, Milton declares the purpose of the poem to be to 'justify the ways of God to men' and much ink has been spilled on whether or not he succeeds. A lot of this ink I haven't seen, but I have read the poem myself and that, I believe, entitles me to an opinion. There are two extremes on the matter, and those at least I have read. On the one hand, there is Blake's assertion that Milton could make Satan an interesting character but not God and the angels (the angels in particular strike one as cardboard cutouts, in stark contrast to the demons in the first couple of books who are remarkably distinct) because Milton was 'of the Devil's party without knowing it.' On the other hand, there is C.S. Lewis' assertion that those who are offended by Milton's God feel thus not because He is somehow different from the Christian God but because He is the same. "Many of those who say they dislike Milton's God," he says, "only mean they dislike God." Interestingly, the edition of Paradise Lost that I have puts an interesting spin on Lewis' assertion. It is edited with an Introduction by Phillip Pullman, the well-known atheist and author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (which some have described as a kind of Chronicles of anti-Narnia). Pullman finds God offensive and repulsive, tyrannical, manipulative and cruel, the very opposite of loving or benevolent, and this picture he finds abundantly confirmed by Milton.

Contrary to Lewis, I too found such characteristics clearly portrayed in the character of God in the poem, and I do not believe any of them are characteristic of God as He is. It is worth asking, then, why God is depicted in this way.

Reading Pullman's introduction initially, I wondered if this portrayal of God might not be a consequence of Calvinist ideas. Milton was, after all, a Puritan (sort of), and I am not alone in finding the implications of TULIP to result in a God Who, though undeniably sovereign, is also morally repugnant. However, in reading the poem, I found this was not the case. Calvinism is nowhere particularly explicit and the more discomfiting aspects of Milton's God do not appear to be consequent upon Calvinist ideas. That appears to come from a quite different quarter, because it turns out that Milton was also an Arian.

One of the chief theological problems with Arianism is it naturally leads to a theology of 'divine child abuse'. Many modern atheists have accused Christians of subscribing to such an idea (admittedly, the tendency of some Christians to reduce the whole doctrine of Redemption to exclude everything except penal substitution doesn't help matters) but this is only because they don't get the concept of the Trinity. God is on the Cross as much as He is up in heaven. For Arians, however, the accusation is legitimate- they really do advocate a theology of 'divine child abuse'. So, in Paradise Lost, though it is never really made explicit (though a couple of passages come close), the distinction drawn between the Father and the Son so that they are two clearly separate characters means that the reader doesn't really see the Son as God to the same extent and in the same way as the Father, if at all. Thus, the Father's waiting three days while watching His angels battle and fall against Satan and his minions, then sending the Son out to win the day in one foul swoop, seems callous and cold-hearted. One is more likely to ascribe that characteristic to God than the Son's heroism in routing the foe. Likewise, the Father's acceptance of the Son's offer to sacrifice himself to redeem man introduces all kinds of problems on a character level. Whereas Milton could (albeit with difficulty) have demonstrated God's love for mankind by implying that the Son's gracious offer to be incarnated, suffer and die was something proper to God and consistent with His character, the reader is more likely to see the Father's pragmatic acceptance of this offer as God's proper act in that scene. Pullman admits that the Son is the more sympathetic character, but is also perfectly aware that Milton did not believe the Son was God, even if other Christians do, and thus it is the Father Who is the depiction of what Milton understood God to be like.

In addition to his Arianism, I could not shake the impression that a large part of the problem with Milton's depiction of God is the fact that he decided to make Him a character among other characters at all. There is some beautiful poetry associated with God throughout the poem, but little sense of transcendence or the numinous when God is treated of directly. God has speeches just like everyone else in the poem has speeches. There is little sense when the Father speaks that He is qualitatively different from the other characters around Him. More powerful, perhaps, but not fundamentally different. Of course, if one wants to treat of the transcendent or mysterious in a story, the easiest way is to never let the reader see it, like the way Tolkien never depicts or deals with Sauron directly in The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, though it is awfully difficult to write about the numinous in a narrative, it is not impossible. Kenneth Grahame achieved it with Pan in The Wind in the Willows in a scene that has never ceased to resonate with me since childhood (Pan? The goat-footed minor Greek deity, Pan? Yes, Pan- if you haven't read it, do so and tell me if you don't get goosebumps). Lewis, likewise, to a greater or lesser extent with Aslan and, above all, with 'the god of the mountain' (actually Cupid) in Till We Have Faces. Likewise H.P. Lovecraft in The Call of Cthulhu. Milton was a greater master of English than any of these; surely he could have pulled off a God who would inspire awe in his readers if he had wanted to. So, I don't know if I would go as far as Blake, but (much as I regret to say it) I believe Lewis far off the mark on this one. Milton's theodicy is, for me, a failure.

So, mixed feelings about Paradise Lost. I think it is inadequate in what it sets out to do (i.e. in how it works as a theodicy); on the other hand, if only all inadequate theodicies could be as spectacular and brilliantly written as this one.


Matthias said...

Thanks for this GAB, i think i will try and tackle Dante's inferno first. Am currently ploughing through Luther's TABLE TALK and enjoying it.
Now you need to read Paradise Found!!

GAB said...

Tabletalk, eh? There's some good stuff in there.

I concur about Dante- he should definitely take priority. Don't stop at Inferno though. It gets even better.