Happy Birthday, John Milton! (Poetic Genius and Christmas Curmudgeon)

December 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

No sooner are essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein handed in, then the copies of Paradise Lost are handed out to the Advanced Placement English Literature Students. Yes, there are over 10,000 lines of blank verse in the poem, but don’t shudder for them…they will be fine. This epic poem is a trip to the “dark side” like no other in literature. All it takes is a reading of Book One; a reading that says “Welcome to Hell”!

The connection is obvious. In her novel, Shelley has Frankenstein’s Monster explain how he gained his knowledge, not with the help of his “father”, but instead by reading several books while he hid from humanity. One of the books in his possession was the epic poem Paradise Lost. When the Monster finally confronts his creator, Victor Frankenstein, on a mountain glacier on Mount Montanvert, the Monster dramatically intones:

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

The “fallen angel” the Monster references is a hero/anti-hero of Paradise Lost: Satan, aka Lucifer, aka the  “infernal serpent”, aka the ‘Arch-fiend’ (and a myriad of other Miltonic epithets).

Students in previous classes have always found Satan the most memorable character in this epic poem since he is given the most memorable lines. They have been particularly intrigued that John Milton’s purpose in writing the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man,” is soon drowned out by the creation of Pandemonium (Hell’s Seat).  From the moment in Book One of Paradise Lost when Satan frees himself from the adamantine chains that bind him to a burning lake, students are taken with his attitude and his defiance as read in his great challenge:

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, than serve in Heaven. (PL 1 258-263)

No matter that in Book Six’s battle scenes in heaven are an exercise in futility, known as  the “great pie fight in the sky”, students root for the former archangel. They understand the sentiment in his statement,

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” (PL 211-214).

Paradise Lost was only one of Milton’s great contributions to literature. He was not only a brilliant poet, but he was also a powerful statesman and a Puritan. He became associated with the Puritan partisanship in Parliament, which was credited with banning Christmas in England in 1644. This would seem to be a contradiction since he was already known for the beautiful Christmas Ode, “On the Morning of Christs Nativity Compos’d 1629”. Perhaps it was the general Puritan aversion to Christmas carols that could be blamed for such a heinous act!.

His political career experienced the extreme highs of an appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (1648) and his association with Oliver Cromwell in the execution of Charles I (1649). In contrast there were the lows of an imposed exile upon the return of Charles II and the arrival of the Restoration in 1660. One of the reasons he was not executed for his implicit participation in Charles I’s regicide was that he was struck blind in 1654, and there were many who argued that this blindness was punishment enough. Milton was used to pain and suffering as the deaths of his first and second wives and several children were tragic interludes throughout his life.

Like another blind poet, Homer, Milton achieved greatness with an “inner sight”. Critics generally agree that his best poetry came after he became blind and dictated all the lines of verse to his remaining daughters. A painting by Mihály Munkácsy (1877) hangs in the New York Public Library (NYPL) and depicts a scene of a head-bowed Milton reciting to one daughter who is scribing lines into a book.

Milton & daughtersThe picture is an apt illustration for his opening thesis in Paradise Lost:

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. (PL I:18-22)

In 2008, the NYPL held an exhibition, “John Milton at 400: ‘A Life Beyond Life'” which featured illustrated etchings by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost. One illustration was of Satan on his flight to the Garden of Eden. As he travels, Satan pauses to tell the Sun how conflicted he is over his fallen state:

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. (PL IV:37-41)

Speaking these lines is a tragic Satan, fully aware that he has brought himself to ruin, as told by a poet, who had also come to political ruin. The reader can sympathize with such a character, and isn’t that the role of great literature? To draw on the reader’s empathy?

By the end of the poem, however, Milton restores the balance of sympathy towards Adam and Eve. They walk bravely, hand-in-hand, out of the Garden, into the sunset, ready to begin “his-story”.  In contrast, the character of Satan is reduced to a hollow hero, receiving accolades from a hissing mob of demi-devils. He is cursed, and like the Monster in Frankenstein, he is unreconciled with his creator.

So happy Birthday, John Milton, (December 9th), but let us not forget, that while your character Satan may dwell in evil, it was you who helped to cancel Christmas!

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