Posts filed under ‘John Milton’
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.
yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.
And we’re back. I know it’s been almost a month since my last post, but that’s the kind of month it’s been. Anyway, I’m back, and we’re starting the war theme we promised you all those weeks ago. Hopefully, we’ll manage to get back to regular programming.
And so, to Man’s first disobedience. You can’t run a series on war poetry without including that most apocalyptic battle of all – the battle between Hell and Heaven, between Good and Evil – the first book of Paradise Lost. We use the phrase Devil’s Advocate glibly in our everyday speech, but if there was ever a poet who gave Lucifer a voice, ever a poet who gave roaring and majestic tongue to that mightiest of the Fallen Angels, it was Milton.
Today’s extract will seem familiar to Steinbeck fans, but it is in fact, just part of a larger monologue, picked at random from a book that is pure fire and brimstone – easily one of the most eloquent pieces of writing in the English language.
Not only is Paradise Lost Book I a fascinating read for lovers of fine poetry, it is also a text that takes on astonishing relevance in the context of the war on terror. Later on in the text Milton writes:
Henceforth his might we know, and know our own
So as not either to provoke, or dread
New warr, provok’t; our better part remains [ 645 ]
To work in close design, by fraud or guile
What force effected not: that he no less
At length from us may find, who overcomes
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
It’s something the planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom would do well to keep in mind.