“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”.
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)
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.
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.
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.
This excerpt is not very interesting because it’s still Michael summarizing the Pentateuch for Adam: ten Egyptian plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, God choosing to reside in the Ark as a sign of his special preference for Israelites, the Ten Commandments, and the battle when Moses stopped the sun. A few interesting points: Milton explains that it tool Israelites so long to reach the Promised Land because first they had to get some martial training; otherwise, they would turn back and go back to Egypt, as anyone would. He also keeps on pushing his republican agenda, emphasizing the founding of the council of Seventy Elders. He also draws attention to Christian typology, i.e. how the events in the Old Testament prefigure the events in the New, for instance how Moses is a type of Messiah as the mediator between God and men.
Michael says that Adam is correct to abhor royal power, but the thing is, after the fall human nature is tainted and not ruled by pure reason and thus people are ready to lose their natural liberty over and over again. That’s why after some time God gives up on all mankind and decides to focus on just one nation. That is why he picks Abraham, whom now Michael can see, but Adam can’t. Michael relates to Adam his vision of Abraham leaving his home, receiving the promise of multiplying his descendants, then the story of Jacob travelling to Egypt and Israelites leaving Egypt. At this point Milton drops the strange convention of not naming people by their names. I’m sure there is some very learned explanation about it, but he just doesn’t seem to me very consistent. First he doesn’t use any names and his readers have to rely on their knowledge of the Bible to guess to whom he refers; then he describes the geographical surroundings of the Promised Land, with Michael interjecting “things by their names I call, though yet unnamed”, and then he seems to realize using place names and omitting personal names doesn’t make sense, so he starts calling people by their names as well.