[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
John Milton (1667)
Oxford Library of the World’s Great Books, OUP, 1984, illustrated Gustave Dore; quarter bound in blue leather, with gold letters and ridges on the spine, with cloth boards embossed with gold, and marbled endpapers.
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:
Earth felt the wound……
John Milton knew so much and was so wise that it is a wonder that he could write any poetry at all. Anyone who tracked down every allusion in Paradise Lost would have earned the best classical education possible with which to spend what was left of their life.
Milton was brought up in the Puritan tradition and is still remembered at Cambridge University. Difficulties with his marriage led him to very modern views on the subject. He would become a champion of liberty, at least as he understood that term, and the mouthpiece of the Puritan Revolution and Oliver Cromwell. He was lucky not to be executed in the Restoration. Now, only Shakespeare stands taller in English letters.
Paradise Lost is at least in part a war story. All is well in heaven until God announces that he has a son. Satan is stricken with envy. The unthinkable happens: there is war in heaven. Satan loses and he and his defectors are cast into utter darkness – into hell. For revenge, he visits earth in the form of a serpent and seduces Eve into taking a bite of the apple of the forbidden tree of knowledge. Adam follows Eve. They have hot guilty sex as they come to grips with sin, shame and guilt. Then they put up the fig leaves. The father gives judgment on his disobedient children. They are cast out of paradise, and are told of the miseries to come, but they are promised that redemption will come to them from the son of God.
Paradise Lost and The Iliad have at least two things in common. First, each epic is dominated by the wrath of a hero – the wrath of Achilles against his king and the Greeks, and the wrath of Satan against God and his son. Secondly, redemption is either given or promised in each. In The Iliad it is given by the father, Priam, when he submits to his enemy to ask for mercy for his son. In Paradise Lost, it is promised on behalf of the son, who later gives himself to redeem fallen man.
But their gods are different. The gods of The Iliad may be immortal, but they are many, and they are divided against each other. Each smells of mortality. The God of Paradise Lost and the Old Testament is very different. He is the only One. He is omnipotent and omniscient. But he is not impersonal. He has intimations not of mortality, but of humanity. He did, after all, say that he made Adam in his own image.
The Iliad is about war and peace. Paradise Lost is about heaven and hell. But war and peace we can see; heaven and hell we cannot. It is knowledge against belief. The knowledge may be primitive and the belief may be fervent, but the difference is obvious.
The Godhead of Paradise Lost is split when Satan revolts. Milton may or may not have intended Satan to be the hero of his poem, but that is what he got for a lot of readers. (C S Lewis was scandalized.) The father and son are out on the grounds of their divinity. Adam and Eve are out on the grounds of their humanity. They are – thank heaven – utterly, incurably, and irredeemably human. The rest of the host just do what they are told, or fall in behind Satan, and squabble and hiss at him if they do not like his work.
That leaves Satan. The more Milton dislikes Satan as a being, the more we like him as a character. He has a lot going for him as hero. (I put to one side his modernist sin of fathering a child and forgetting the mother.) He ends up outcast by everyone. Well, we tend to take a shine to outcasts. Satan does have a mind of his own, and he is the only one openly to stand up to authority, to offer defiance. He is the one character in each epic, excepting Priam, who refuses to toe the line. He is a born insurrectionary, our primal hell-raiser. It looks like he had been stewing on status for a while. He talks of knee tribute:
Too much to one, but double, how endured (5.783)
He is wildly and immediately successful in executing his plan to corrupt the whole order of creation. When ‘the enemy of mankind’ got to work, Eve fell immediately, and ‘Earth felt the wound’ (9.782). Adam followed quickly next, and as a result the lord of hosts, the lord of all creation, would have to give up his only begotten son to undo the work of Satan.
This is not a bad return on the handiwork of a day or two; not a bad return for an outcast doomed to be blasted in eternal fires. Thrown out of heaven; hissed at in hell; but a complete winner on earth.
And Satan has a point. His envy knows no bounds when he sees Adam and Eve in Eden ‘imparadised in one another’s arms’, but he immediately sees their limitation and weakness as his way to strike at God.… …..knowledge forbidden?
Suspicion, reasonless: Why should the Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? And so they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state?
Yes, Satan does impute envy to God, but we all know people who ‘only stand by ignorance’ – some of the happiest lawyers and the most successful politicians on earth. But ‘knowledge forbidden’? Can it be a ‘sin to know’? Surely not. What is the answer to this question of Satan? Are we doomed to be cocooned in ignorance or to face the everlasting bonfire?
The pride of Satan leads him to ambition to ‘set himself in glory above his peers’, but one thing Satan never was – a quitter. And when Satan told his crew that they could by their warlike effort claim ‘Honour, dominion, glory, and renown’, he was simply giving them the mission statement of Achilles and the other blood-drenched heroes of Homer.
In The Iliad, there were two acts of pride – hubris – that led ultimately to nemesis. First, Helen and Paris took off knowing the consequences. Secondly, the Greek king refused to hand back his prisoner to the gods, knowing that this would lead to divine retribution. Paradise Lost reaches its climax with our first sin, the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, by Adam and Eve. But two acts of disobedience born out of pride had happened first. When God took a son to share his power, knowing at least the potential of the problem of what we call sibling rivalry, Satan then decided that he could not stand competition from a newcomer. His paramount sin was envy, but what Satan felt was an affront to his honour. Then Eve refused to obey Adam, although she knew very well that for her the power of Adam was absolute. But now, only the most wilfully morbid self-flagellant believes any of that moonshine about Eve being the author of our original sin.
When the father announces the arrival of a son, the poet describes the reaction of Satan in terms of envy, honour, pride and malice. Here is real envy. When Milton wrote that Satan ‘thought himself impaired’ he may have had in mind that chilling remark about Cassio made by Iago, that most evil predator on another’s honour:
He has a kind of beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.
Milton said he wrote this wonderful epic ‘to justify the ways of God to men.’ He will not often get that result now, but what he has given us, like the Sistine Chapel, is a picture of us in terms that are beyond our understanding. The theme is desperately mortal.
The best way to take Paradise Lost is to listen to it. (Make sure that you get the version where Eve is played by a woman, and not just by the narrator.) Then you can, as with Shakespeare, just laugh at the sheer blinding throwaway brilliance and magic of it all. They were both drunk on words and language, and they both shared their passion with us.
John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.