Joseph Addison – Essays from “The Spectator” (ctd.)

Addison continues his argument about Paradise Lost. In poetry not only the whole should be great but also its parts. He says he won’t presume to criticise Virgil for things like the whole book about games in the Aeneid, or a flippant comparison of an angry queen to a spinning top, but in fact in a sense he does just by mentioning these things and saying that in contrast, Milton’s work is all great. It is also of exactly the right size. He quotes Aristotle who used the example with animals: the mite is too small to appreciate and an imaginary animal which would be ten thousand furlongs (2,000 km) in length would be too big. The memory of the reader is like the eye: the text needs to be of such length that it can hold everything in. Milton, in fact, had a more difficult job, because the material from Genesis is much more sparse than the mythology on which Homer and Virgil drew, and when he added things, he had to do so with care so as not to cause offense. It’s also impossible to calculate the time frame of his poem, as opposed to the Iliad or Aeneid, because so much of it takes time in the regions where there is no day and night.  The essay ends with a remark that it is going to be continued in the Saturday issue. As the Helpful Footnote informs us, there were eighteen parts in fact, but we can be pretty clear at this point that Addison thinks Milton is the best.


Joseph Addison – Essays from “The Spectator”

In this essay Addison discusses Paradise Lost, going point by point through the list of the requirements an epic poem should meet (based largely on Rene Le Bossu’s treatise on epic poetry, which in turn was largely a systematization of the Aristotelian theory, as the Helpful Footnote informs us). He starts by dismissing the question, apparently current in his times, whether Paradise Lost is an heroic poem by saying that if you don’t want to call it so, you may call it “a divine poem”. An epic poem should describe one action, which should be 1. one 2. entire and 3. great. This is why Homer and Aeneas begin their poems in medias res, because if they went back to the founding of Troy, it wouldn’t be one action anymore, and they provide all the relevant information in flashbacks. So does Milton, and he may be even better than both ancient poets, because Aristotle himself points out there are some digressions in the Iliad, and one could make a similar charge against the Aeneid, but not against Paradise Lost. He also manages to do the primary plot and the secondary plot (the Fall of Man and the fall of Angels), just like Virgil wrote both about the founding of Rome and the founding of Carthage. The second requirement is that it should be the entire action, for instance like in the Iliad from the anger of Achilles to its results, and Milton satisfies it as well. Finally the greatness of the described action – of course, what could be greater from the viewpoint of a pious Christian than the creation of the world and the Fall?

John Dryden – “Epigram on Milton”, “Alexander’s Feast”

“Epigram on Milton” is, as befitting an epigram, a very short poem linking Milton to two great epic poets of the past, Homer and Virgil. The first is unsurpassed in loftiness of thought, the second in majesty, and since Nature could not go any further in any of these qualities, in creating Milton she combined the two.

“Alexander’s Feast” is another of these odes on St Cecilia’s Day, and again it has a musical setting by Handel. It’s a longer poem and so the resulting musical piece is a full-blown oratorio, so it’s more of a time commitment and for this reason I did the unpardonable thing – I broke it in two. So far it’s not as impressive as the previous one, IMHO, but maybe it’s precisely because I didn’t listen it properly from the start till the end. The poem is about Alexander celebrating with his mistress Thais his victory over Persians. There is a big party and the singer Timotheus sings a song about the legendary divine origin of Alexander, who according to an oracle was not the son of Philip but of Zeus himself, who visited his mother as a dragon. The listeners exclaim “A present deity!” and Alexander nods, pleased with the flattery. The next part of Timotheus’ song is about the god of wine Bacchus, who arrives greeted by the sounds of trumpets and hautboys (both instruments, I am sure, unknown in antiquity), but it gives the composer an opportunity for some fine musical effects. Wine-drinking is praised as “the soldier’s pleasure” because “sweet is pleasure after pain”.

John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 12 (the end!)

Adam says he can now look forward to the future with hope and he knows he only needs to have faith in God, love him and fear him and he knows now that death is only the gate to the eternal life. Michael says that he is right and that is what he should be really interested in, not presumptuous interest in science and knowledge (Milton really did have an anti-intellectual bent.) Now it’s time to get down and wake up Eve, who has also been sent some consoling dreams in her sleep. It’s up to Adam to decide what he wants to tell her about his visions and when. (Grrr.) When they descend from the hill, Eve is already awake and says that in her dreams she learnt something about how from her seed the Redeemer is going to be born, so she is now quite humbled and will gladly follow Adam anywhere because without him no place is Paradise for her. The Cherubim are already gathering like mist in the fields in the evening (the last epic simile of the poem) and Michael has to grab both humans by the hands and run with them out of Paradise because the fiery sword the guarding angel is holding is not a regular-sized sword used by humans (as usually depicted in art) but more like a huge comet which already starts to heat the air and turn Paradise into a desert. Then he disappears without saying so much as goodbye. Adam and Eve look back, but they can only see the shut gate with “dreadful faces thronged”. They shed a few tears, but wipe them away and hand in had, they start to look for their new resting place, “through Eden took their solitary way” (the famous last line).

And so that’s it! I’ve read it and survived. On the whole, Milton won’t become my favourite poet, I’m afraid. There are many fine pieces like the intriguing figure of Satan or the descriptions of Paradise in bloom. Milton can be also awfully prosy, and don’t get me started about the long lists of obscure place-names, or the general treatment of Eve. I’m glad I’ve made my way through it, but I’m also glad it’s over.

William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)


John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 12 (ctd.)

Adam again expresses his joy, this time at seeing how much good God is going to bring out of this evil, so much so that he is almost happy to have sinned. This is not, as the Helpful Footnote points out, quite the same thing as the old medieval doctrine of “felix culpa”, the idea that humankind is much better off because of the original sin. As Milton is at pain to point out, God’s original idea was to put Adam and Eve on the tenure track which would eventually have brought them to Heaven, and the original sin was a setback for them. But it was an opportunity for God to show his grace to a far greater degree than if Adam and Eve had not sinned. Adam is concerned about the fate of believers after Jesus leaves them: aren’t unbelievers going to persecute them, just like they did with Jesus? Certainly, answers Michael, but God is going to send them the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, which is going to bestow on them not only moral support in face of the attacks of the ungodly people and Satan, but also give them the ability to speak in tongues and perform miracles. After all the original apostles die out, leaving their writings behind, Christianity is going to become corrupted as well: people are going to use it for worldly advancement and pecuniary gain, they are going to enter into an unholy alliance with the temporal power to suppress the freedom of conscience, which in Milton’s view is the basic tenet of Christianity. Interestingly enough, Milton overlooks the Reformation, probably because the Church of England became, in his view, not much better than the Church of Rome. So all the true believers have to rely on is their inner light and the Scriptures, and they have to look forward to the Judgement Day, when the Earth is going to be purged through fire and the new, perfect and eternal world is going to be created.

John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 12 (ctd.)

Michael stops because he sees Adam is bursting with joy and the urge to ask something. Adam of course wants to know when and where Messiah is going to do Satan in and exactly how. Michael has to explain it’s not going to be a fight like Adam envisages. The Son of God is going to destroy Satan through the perfect obedience, exactly the thing Adam was lacking. In order to do that, he is going to undergo the physical punishment of torture and crucifixion, “imputing” his innocence on those who believe in him and this is what the metaphor of bruising the heel and crushing the head means. After that he is going to die for a moment, resurrect, reveal himself to his disciples several times, send them to spread the gospel to all the nations of the world and bring salvation to other people than the descendants of Abraham, ascend to heaven and judge everybody on the Doomsday, after which the saved are going to live either in Heaven or on Earth, which really doesn’t make much difference, because after that the whole earth is going to be much more pleasant than even Eden. That’s a full stop for Michael, both literally and metaphorically.


John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 12 (ctd.)

Adam is overjoyed with what he hears from Michael, but he thinks mistakenly that the multiple descendants of Abraham are the fulfilment of the promise made to him by God. He asks why they need so many laws if God chooses to live among them. Michael gets into a fairly complex theological discussion: the Israelites are still going to be sinful because of the taint of Adam’s original sin. The laws are for them to figure out what sin is but also to make them realize that laws cannot remove sin, and neither can “expiations weak” of animal sacrifice. So finally people are going to figure out that they need not animal sacrifice but the sacrifice of “more precious” blood, “just for unjust”, and they can be saved through their faith in him, which is going to give them justification. So the whole moral evolution, if I understand Michael correctly, is from the punctilious observance of numerous laws to being guided by one’s faith and conscience.  The next page is a brisk summary of the history of Israel: the judges, David, Solomon, the Babylonian exile, the return from Babylon, Macchabees, Roman rule and the birth of Jesus.