Friday, January 21, 2011

John Milton after paradise

There are two shorter pieces by John Milton which round out the set of his poems in English.  They are Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.  The former is the spiritual and intellectual successor to Paradise Lost, so essential that separating them into two pieces almost does them a disservice.  Revisiting my earlier, slightly embarrassing comparison of John Milton to Allen Ginsberg, one does not read Howl without reading Footnote to Howl.  Neither ought one fail to read this conclusion to Paradise Lost.  The latter work is a stage play in verse comprising the last day of Samson's life.  I shall start with that piece because I, and I daresay Milton would most likely agree, feel that the last word should go to Paradise Regained.

Samson Agonistes, while a compelling piece of theater (one that I would probably produce if I ever had a windfall large enough to fund my pipe-dream of The Chico Classical Theater Company.  You might even get away with an Evening with Milton: Act I: Comus, Intermission, Act II: Samson Agonistes.  They're only about 40 pages each), struck me as a fairly transparent metaphor for Milton himself in winter.  As I mentioned before, Milton was a vocal and prominent Puritan with leather patches on the arms of his coats from all the elbow rubbing he did with Oliver Cromwell's political elite.  Milton shrewdly went into a little more than retirement and a little less than hiding in the country after the restoration of the monarchy.  Milton was blind.  Milton famously had difficult relationships with women, possibly exacerbated by what modern eyes would find a "low view" of females.  Also, he was reported by his peers, even his sympathetic ones, to have been a difficult man.  His first wife left him after one month of marriage, returned, gave him two daughters, and died.  His daughters had a difficult time being around him.  His second wife died almost 20 years before he did.  Add to this the view of chastity that Milton once held in his early life (as seen in Comus) and his later, apparent view of male superiority (as seen in Paradise Lost) and it's not difficult to connect the dots to the scenes between Samson and Dalila (sic).

As blind Milton dictated these later works, it's difficult for me to refrain from imagining him laying on a leather couch while a bearded analyst writes it down on a notepad.  Samson talks about the curse of blindness, Samson is in a state of humiliation in the country of heathens, Samson's woman has betrayed him, Samson is impotent, infirm, and powerless.  Of course, then, there is the finale of going out in a blaze of glory, a hero's death, mixed with the elevated tragic figure (which Milton, in the introduction, made sure to point out is elevated, classical, and heroic.)  All of which would sound like hubris on Milton's part were it not for the delightful fact that the verse is masterful and absolutely sublime.  In other words, a lot of people can go around saying they are the greatest poet in the English language, but only one person isn't going to look like a fool when they say it.

Initially, I had assumed that Paradise Regained would deal mainly with either Christ's crucifixion and resurrection or the Second Coming.  Instead, the poem deals with Christ's temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  It is a microcosmic signpost pointing to the holographic defeat of Satan in the Son of God.  Indeed, one could make a credible argument that Satan is the main character in the Paradise series.  It certainly ends up being a story of his defeat and, I think, this later work should lay to rest any scholarly speculation of Milton's sympathetic view of Satan.  Sadly, that is not the case.

I think the piece also establishes the answer to a question we may have had at the end of Paradise Lost: Who is the protagonist in this piece?  Regained establishes Christ as the cosmic protagonist.

Milton employs his strong ability to flesh out stories from scripture.  The more cynical in their traditionally minded view of theological rhetoric might accuse him of eisegesis.  I, for one, was a little surprised at the near omission of the parts of the story where Christ counters Satan with scripture quotations (if memory serves, only employed once in the poem whereas thrice employed in the Gospel account.)  This did not bother me so much, however, because the point of Christ's supremacy and Satan's defeat is in no way compromised and, more importantly, it is an intensely beautiful piece of poetry.

It has been a long walk with Milton.  I've profited a great deal from it.  In the end, I think, for the time being, and like so many great authors who I admire, I think that Milton is, indeed, one of the, if not the, greatest poets in the English language.  I am also glad I will never have to go on vacation with the man himself. 


  1. I'm past the mid-point in Paradise Lost. I haven't determined yet whether I'll stay and finish Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes or come back to them a bit later. Probably later. Milton's poetry is superb. The man seems irascible. And I'm looking forward to my next stop in my literary tour: Chesterton's book, Chaucer, which I'm already reading at night before bed, and then Canterbury Tales. I've got David Wright's modern translation as well as an original language edition which I'll be using together in some way or another. I am fairly certain I'll like Chaucer the man more than I ever did Milton the man.

  2. No doubt!

    And, by the way, I'm little more than halfway through that lecture series and I think your assessment of the professor was right on the money. I too still enjoy it, but his passion for novelty and insistence on airing every bit of it seems almost like padding the course. Also, now I'm switching my brain into Ralph Waldo Emerson where Milton seems like a planet in a distant galaxy.

  3. Emerson is interesting, though I haven't read a lot of him. For me he represents a type of the liberal, intellectual spectrum of American Christianity... a type of Christianity which is closer to Unitarianism than Trinitarianism, or Thomas Jefferson's rational edition of the Bible.

    I feel cautious about him, but his vision of America I prefer to the anti-intellectualism we're currently suffering.