Dove-like… brooding on the vast Abyss

There are so many things one could say about John Milton, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Today is his birthday, for one thing. He was an amazing prose writer, and his Areopagitica is pretty much the basis for the whole freedom of the press thing you hear so much about. He was on the winning side of the English civil war, which eventually became the losing side, and he spent some time in prison even though he had technically been pardoned. He wrote some poetry, including a little something called Paradise Lost, and a slightly lesser known something called Paradise Regained. Oh, and he went blind by the time he was 46, did I mention that? So what is possibly the greatest epic ever written in the history of the English language wasn’t actually written, it was dictated. My mind, she is blown.

You may have noticed that I kind of admire the guy, but there are a surprising number of Milton-haters out there. Dismissing the unwilling teenage reader demographic, most of these people object to one thing: Milton’s emotional honesty, or lack thereof. I am reminded of Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea Del Sarto“, about the Italian painter who was called faultless but whose work lacked the vivacity of his contemporaries’. Milton is technically perfect, sure, but arguably cold and bereft of feeling, his work more like a posed photograph instead of a candid shot.

Some of his poetry can certainly be considered a bit unfeeling. “Lycidas,” in particular, comes across as opportunistic. “I know I’m supposed to write a poem about this dead guy who went to school with me, but here’s this pastoral about my religious views, he’s in there somewhere, kthxbye!” The poem is amazing, positively bursting at the seams with allusions and imagery, but emotionally speaking it can be dead at times.

Paradise Lost, in a way, falls into a similar trap. In some places it feels as if the story is second to the moral, and it takes on a didactic quality second only to something like Lucretius’ On the Nature of The Universe. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pin down who exactly is the hero of the epic. Is it Satan, who dominates the first two books? Is it Adam? Is it Jesus Christ? Is there more than one hero, or is there no true hero? No such trouble emerges in the Iliad or Odyssey or Aeneid, so what gives, Milton? Who are we supposed to be rooting for?

And yet. And yet, it is an incredible poem. The meter, the syntax, the diction, the alliteration, the allusions, the imagery… I posit that never has a poem been written, before or since, with the richness, depth and scope that Paradise Lost boasts in a single book. If epics were cakes, Paradise Lost would be a multi-tiered fondant-covered wedding cake, probably some form of dense chocolate, with cascading champagne fountains and a dozen edible dancing couples that actually moved. The Ace of Cakes would be insane with jealousy. Does it matter whether the baker wept with joy while constructing such a culinary marvel, or regarded it with a cold, professional eye? I say it does not.

And anyway, as I told someone else, emotional authenticity is overrated. That way lies Bukowski and every angst-ridden teenager who ever rhymed “heart” with “apart” or “rain” with “pain.” Give me soulless perfection over raw emotion any day of the week.


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