Paradise Lost, Book IV (extract)
O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.
Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy;
Happie, but for so happie ill secur’d
Long to continue, and this high seat your Heav’n
Ill fenc’t for Heav’n to keep out such a foe
As now is enterd; yet no purpos’d foe
To you whom I could pittie thus forlorne
Though I unpittied: League with you I seek,
And mutual amitie so streight, so close,
That I with you must dwell, or you with me
Henceforth; my dwelling haply may not please
Like this fair Paradise, your sense, yet such
Accept your Makers work; he gave it me,
Which I as freely give; Hell shall unfould,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous ofspring; if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd.
And should I at your harmless innocence
Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just,
Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d,
By conquering this new World, compels me now
To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.
It’s been a very Milton-centric week in my online world. First this post (and the discussion in the comments space) by Daisy Fried over at Harriet about the delights of Milton’s verse and his accessibility to modern readers, then this piece today by Claire Tomalin in the Guardian Book Review. So I figured it was time we posted another extract from Paradise Lost (see earlier post here).
As I say in that earlier post, the thing that always strikes me, reading Milton today, is how, once you get past the often convoluted diction (and it does take a bit of working out, doesn’t it?) you discover a mind that is strikingly modern in its conception of the world. The two lines that immediately follow this speech in the book read: “So spake the Fiend, and with necessity, / The tyrant’s plea, excused his devilish deeds.”  Substitute ‘terrorist’ for ‘tyrant’, and what Milton gives us here is a pitch-perfect rendition of the standard terrorist apology: it’s terrible to have to hurt the innocent, but what can they do? It’s the big bad Oppressor’s fault, that’s what’s compelling them to act such brutally, they’re only sharing what’s been done to them, they would spare the innocent if they could but ‘justice’ demands it.
Fried, in her post, calls Paradise Lost “psychologically authentic”, and reading this passage it’s easy to see what she means. But the real power of Milton lies in a deeper authenticity, in a grasp of human nature so fundamental it can come to seem prophetic . That’s why Milton, for all his baroque grammar, remains not just relevant (whatever that means) but insightful and exciting.
 Quick note on the text. The text I reproduce here comes from Literature.org though my reading uses the text from the 1909 Harvard Classics edition of the Complete Poems. There are a number of differences in punctuation between the two texts, which explains why the audio recording may not follow the text here all that faithfully.
 Nor is Paradise Lost the only place where Milton’s concerns seem surprisingly modern. In a sonnet to Sir Henry Vane the Younger (from 1652; one of the sonnets Tomalin doesn’t mention in her piece), Milton praises Vane saying “Both spiritual power, and civil, what each means / What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done. / The bounds of either sword to thee we owe:” If only we could say the same of George W. Bush.