Recommended Reading: Monica Youn’s Blackacre

blackacre-1

Monica Youn’s Blackacre* practically shimmers with intelligence as it ranges over subjects including desire, territory (physical, emotional, imaginative), race, and fertility. Here intellect meets imagery with an intensity so great it took my breath away.

fullsizerender-5In the first section, eleven poems circle and interrogate Francois Villon’s fifteenth-century Ballade des pendus (Ballad of the Hanged Men); these poems are about transformation, and life as much as death. In “Portrait of a Hanged Woman,” the speaker rejects the Greek notion of catastrophe (the fall from grace):

No it is
the sudden
terrible

elevation of
a single point—
one dot

on the topography
of a life.

Later in the poem, she writes:

A life is not
this supple

it is not meant
to fold, to be
drawn through

a narrow ring.

These very short lines do make me think of falling, always (although that’s maybe my own readerly idiosyncrasy), which plays against the assertion that catastrophe is an elevation. And see how the narrow lines mimic the “narrow ring” of the second quotation?

Blackacre‘s second and third sections offer an eclectic sampling of forms, lengths, and subjects, from the brief, ekphrastic “Quinta del Sordo” to the multi-section “Epiphyte.” These are poems intimate enough to be whispered, learned enough to be declaimed from a lectern.

It is in the third section that the poet introduces the “____acre”; as Monica Youn explains in an essay for The Poetry Foundation, “‘Blackacre‘ is a legal fiction, an imaginary landscape. Just as we use ‘John Doe’ for a hypothetical person, lawyers use ‘Blackacre’ as a placeholder term for a hypothetical plot of land.” The hypothetical nature of the poems’ titles belies their specificity (“minnows wheeling in meticulous formation/ the occasional water snake, angry, lost.”) and (for some) their grounding in the presumably autobiographical “I.”

While I have returned and will again to many of these poems, it’s the fourth section, comprised of two poems (both called “Blackacre”) that I cannot get out of my head.

The second of the two poems, which you can find here, is an extended meditation on Milton’s famous Sonnet 19 (“On His Blindness”); you might remember its final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

“Blackacre” is a long prose poem in fourteen sections. Each section takes as starting point the last word in the corresponding line of Milton’s poem, from which the speaker undertakes a close reading of the sonnet and her own experience with infertility. In the first section, she notes,

I came to consider my body — its tug-of-war of tautnesses and slacknesses — to be entirely my own, an appliance for generating various textures and temperatures of friction. Should I have known, then, that by this act of self-claiming, I was cutting 
myself off from the eternal, the infinite, that I had fashioned myself into a resource that was bounded and, therefore, exhaustible?

I read this poem for the first time in the car, as we drove west at twilight. The sky gradually darkened, and I struggled to catch the last of the sun so I could read the last few pages of this brilliant, cooly radiant book.

Highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

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Paradise Lost, Books IX and X: Crime and Punishment

ParadiseLostReadalongAt long last, we’re here: Books IX and X bring the Fall and its aftermath to Paradise. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Summaries courtesy Milton.

Book IX:

Satan having compast the Earth, with meditated guile returns as a mist by Night into Paradise, enters into the Serpent sleeping. Adam and Eve in the Morning go forth to their labours, which Eve proposes to divide in several places, each labouring apart: Adam consents not, alleging the danger, lest that Enemy, of whom they were forewarn’d, should attempt her found alone: Eve loath to be thought not circumspect or firm enough, urges her going apart, the rather desirous to make trial of her strength; Adam at last yields: The Serpent finds her alone; his subtle approach, first gazing, then speaking, with much flattery extolling Eve above all other Creatures. Eve wondering to hear the Serpent speak, asks how he attain’d to human speech and such understanding not till now; the Serpent answers, that by tasting of a certain Tree in the Garden he attain’d both to Speech and Reason, till then void of both: Eve requires him to bring her to that Tree, and finds it to be the Tree of Knowledge forbidden: The Serpent now grown bolder, with many wiles and arguments induces her at length to eat; she pleas’d with the taste deliberates a while whether to impart thereof to Adam or not, at last brings him of the Fruit, relates what persuaded her to eat thereof: Adam at first amaz’d, but perceiving her lost, resolves through vehemence of love to perish with her; and extenuating the trespass, eats also of the Fruit: The Effects thereof in them both; they seek to cover their nakedness; then fall to variance and accusation of one another.

Book X:

Man’s transgression known, the Guardian Angels forsake Paradise, and return up to Heaven to approve their vigilance, and are approv’d, God declaring that The entrance ofSatan could not be by them prevented. He sends his Son to judge the Transgressors, who descends and gives Sentence accordingly; then in pity clothes them both, and reascends.Sin and Death sitting till then at the Gates of Hell, by wondrous sympathy feeling the success of Satan in this new World, and the sin by Man there committed, resolve to sit no longer confin’d in Hell, but to follow Satan their Sire up to the place of Man: To make the way easier from Hell to this World to and fro, they pave a broad Highway or Bridge over Chaos, according to the Track that Satan first made; then preparing for Earth, they meet him proud of his success returning to Hell; their mutual gratulation. Satan arrives at Pandemonium, in full of assembly relates with boasting his success against Man; instead of applause is entertained with a general hiss by all his audience, transform’d with himself also suddenly into Serpents, according to his doom giv’n in Paradise; then deluded with a show of the forbidden Tree springing up before them, they greedily reaching to take of the Fruit, chew dust and bitter ashes. The proceedings of Sin and Death; God foretells the final Victory of his Son over them, and the renewing of all things; but for the present commands his Angels to make several alterations in the Heavens and Elements. Adam more and more perceiving his fall’n condition heavily bewailes, rejects the condolement of Eve; she persists and at length appeases him: then to evade the Curse likely to fall on their Offspring, proposes to Adam violent ways which he approves not, but conceiving better hope, puts her in mind of the late Promise made them, that her Seed should be reveng’d on the Serpent, and exhorts her with him to seek Peace of the offended Deity, by repentance and supplication.

Out of thousands of things to talk about, I’ve picked three passages from Books IX and X. I’d love to talk about every passage that’s provoked marginalia, but I require food and sleep and interaction with other humans.

It pays to have a compact OED: Sure, it weighs more than my toddler, and you need the included magnifying glass to have any prayer of reading it, but when you read a passage like this —

There was a place,
Now not (though sin, not time, first wrought the change)
Where Tigris at the foot of Paradise
Into a gulf shot underground till part
Rose up a fountain by the Tree of Life.
In with the river sunk and with it rose
Satan involved in rising mist, then sought
Where to lie hid. (9.69-76)

— if you’re like me, you want to know the etymology of “involve.”

photo (54)And so I turn to my OED and read that it’s from the Latin “to roll into or upon, to wrap up, envelop, surround, entangle, make obscure” (1480). And sure enough, Milton’s cited as an example later in the definition. But see the genius at work here? With Satan’s reappearance in Paradise in Book IX, with one verb, Milton does so much to elucidate Satan and foreshadow the Fall to come. Yes, Satan’s enveloped in mist, and he’ll roll on the serpent’s folds. But he’ll also entangle Eve in sin, and make obscure what is plain. (And, by the way, how awesome are the “mazy folds” of the serpent, and the way Satan rises up on the folds like an orator about to speak?)

One of my favorite similes in the poem:

Much he the place admired, the person more.
As one who long in populous city pent
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air
Forth issuing on a summer morn to breathe
Among the pleasant villages and farms
Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight–
The smell of grain or tedded grass, or kine
Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound–
If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass
What pleasing seemed, for her now pleases more,
She most, and in her look sums all delight.
Such pleasure took the serpent to behold
This flow’ry plat the sweet recess of Eve,
Thus early, thus alone. (9.445-57)

For an epic poem, Paradise Lost is often concerned with the domestic; Eve and Adam are, after all, gardeners. We see them at home and in their ordinary daily pursuits, and with this simile, Milton reaches out to the ever-growing number of city dwellers in his own era, comparing Satan’s pleasure at Eve’s beauty (and the beauty of her handiwork) with the simple pleasures of getting out of town. It’s my favorite incursion of “modernity” in the poem. I’ve said before that we can read Paradise Lost as an example of eco-poetry, and this is just one instance of the way Milton values the rural, the natural, over artificial constructs. Later, after Eve and Adam eat of the forbidden fruit, he writes that “Earth felt the wound,” comparing the pain nature itself experiences at the Fall to the pains of labor and birth.

The return of the poem’s creepiest character: Sin and Death create a path from Hell to Earth, and Death vows to follow in his mother’s steps.

I shall not lag behind nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable,, and taste
The savor of death from all things there that live.
Nor shall I to the work thou enterprisest
Be wanting but afford thee equal aid.
So saying with delight he snuffed the smell
Of mortal change on Earth. As when a flock
Of rav’nous fowl though many a league remote
Against the day of battle to a field
Where armies lie encamped come flying, lured
Wish scent of living caracasses designed
For the death the following day in bloody fight,
So scented the grim feature and upturned
His nostril wide into the murky air,
Sagacious of his quarry from so far. (10.266-81)

Gah! I wrote about Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as the scariest poem in English last Halloween, and there’s no way that Milton’s death wasn’t an inspiration for the creature slouching toward Bethlehem. Yeats’s creature is a “shape”; Milton’s Death is a “feature” with one “nostril wide.” And snuffing? Nazgûl-like, if you ask me. And P.S., fellow Tolkien fans: there’s a simile in Book IX that’s a dead ringer for the Dead Marshes.

As if you needed any more incentive to read Paradise Lost.

March 1: The bitter end — wrapping up with Books XI and XII.

Paradise Lost, Books VII and VIII: Edenic Education

ParadiseLostReadalongAs per our last outing, I’m going to let Milton himself give the summary of these two books, in which Raphael relates to Adam the story of creation, and Adam tells Raphael what he remembers of his first days in Paradise.

Book VII

Raphael at the request of Adam relates how and wherefore this world was first created; that God, after the expelling of Satan and his Angels out of Heaven, declar’d his pleasure to create another World and other Creatures to dwell therein; sends his Son with Glory and attendance of Angels to perform the work of Creation in six days: the Angels celebrate with Hymns the performance thereof, and his reascention into Heaven.

Book VIII

Adam inquires concerning celestial Motions, is doubtfully answer’d, and exhorted to search rather things more worthy of knowledge: Adam assents, and still desirous to detain Raphael, relates to him what he remember’d since his own Creation, his placing in Paradise, his talk with God concerning solitude and fit society, his first meeting and Nuptials with Eve, his discourse with the Angel thereupon; who after admonitions repeated departs.

Though not as action-packed as Book VI, Books VII and VIII offer perks of their own: Book VII features some of Milton’s loveliest nature poetry (and his sometimes funny tendency to explain absolutely everything), and in Book VIII, we get Milton’s views on aliens and angelic sex. Really — read it and see!

I’m in the midst of a rather horrid cold, dear readers, so I’m going to be correspondingly rather brief.

Milton’s catalog of the beauties of Eden (reminiscent of the evocation of the lush garden in Book IV) is all part of the consistent foreshadowing in these two books: all is beautiful and perfect, and it’s not going to stay that way. Similarly, Adam’s focus on Eve’s beauty and her enthralling charms presages the Fall that’s about to happen.

One of the most interesting discrepancies in the poem is revealed with Adam’s interpretation of Eve’s turning away from him at their first meeting. Adam attributes Eve’s initial relcutance to natural modesty and maiden bashfulness, but Eve tells a different tale in Book IV. Having seen her own reflection, Adam seems “less fair / Less winning soft, less amiably mild” and she wishes to return to the other figure she saw. Interesting, huh?

Here’s a passage I like that seems pretty darn important (Raphael is speaking to Adam):

Consider first that great
Or bright infers not excellence: the earth
Though in comparison of heav’n so small,
Nor glistering, may of solid good contain
More plenty that the sun that barren shines
Whose virtue on itself works to no effect
But in the fruitful earth. (8.90-96)

 

Something wicked this way comes — on February 20 we’ll be talking about Books IX and X, and the return of everyone’s favorite fallen angel. 

Paradise Lost, Books V and VI: The Books in Danger of a Michael Bay Adaptation

ParadiseLostReadalongWe’ve made it halfway in the Paradise Lost ReadAlong, so here are some links if you’d like to catch up:

Introduction
Books I and II
Books III and IV

Books V and VI find Raphael relating recent celestial history to Adam as part of a mission from the Father. He tells Adam of the war in Heaven between the rebellious and loyal angels, effectively bringing us, by the end of Book VI, up to the starting point of the poem in Book I: Satan’s fall, with his cohort, from Heaven into Hell.

In a departure from my usual practice, I’m going to let Milton himself give you the synopsis of these two books (Yes, he’s considerate enough to provide a synopsis for each book before the verse starts. Isn’t he great?). Also, I’m writing this late at night, so things may get, shall we say, irreverent?

Book V:

Morning approacht, Eve relates to Adam her troublesome dream; he likes it not, yet comforts her: They come forth to their day labours: Their Morning Hymn at the Door of their Bower. God to render Man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience, of his free estate, of his enemy near at hand; who he is, and why his enemy, and whatever else may avail Adam to know. Raphael comes down to Paradise, his appearance describ’d, his coming discern’d by Adam afar off sitting at the door of his Bower; he goes out to meet him, brings him to his lodge, entertains him with the choycest fruits of Paradise got together by Eve; their discourse at Table: Raphael performs his message, minds Adam of his state and of his enemy; relates at Adams request who that enemy is, and how he came to be so, beginning from his first revolt in Heaven, and the occasion thereof; how he drew his Legions after him to the parts of the North, and there incited them to rebel with him, perswading all but only Abdiel a Seraph, who in Argument diswades and opposes him, then forsakes him.

Book VI:

Raphael continues to relate how Michael and Gabriel were sent forth to battle against Satan and his Angels. The first Fight describ’d: Satan and his Powers retire under Night: He calls a Councel, invents devilish Engines, which in the second day’s Fight put Michael and his Angels to some disorder; But, they at length pulling up Mountains overwhelm’d both the force and Machines of Satan: Yet the Tumult not so ending, God on the third day sends Messiah his Son, for whom he had reserv’d the glory of that Victory: He in the Power of his Father coming to the place, and causing all his Legions to stand still on either side, with his Chariot and Thunder driving into the midst of his Enemies, pursues them unable to resist towards the wall of Heaven; which opening, they leap down with horrur and confusion into the place of punishment prepar’d for them in the Deep: Messiah returns with triumph to his Father.

Neat, huh? I’ve cleaned up a bit of the spelling. (These “Arguments,” as Milton called them, aren’t pulled from Gordon Teskey’s edition of the poem, since I thought it might be nice to give you delightful readers a better taste of seventeenth-century phrasing.)

As you can tell, Books V and VI are heavy on action (hence today’s post title. Which was a joke. I hope.) Book V features a particularly Miltonic moment, however: a lone voice raised against wrong action, in the form of Abdiel’s resistance to Satan’s call for rebellion and war.

On the surface, Satan’s initial raillery against the Father’s elevation of the Son might seem appealing to a republican (small-r) revolutionary like Milton: Satan objects to being asked to prostrate himself to a new master (especially one whose power seems to derive from nepotism) who promises to hand down new laws that must be obeyed.

However, Milton (via Abdiel) neatly refutes Satan by revealing his error — the assumption that the Son and the angels are equals:

Canst thou with impious obloquy condemn
The just decree of God pronounced and sworn
That to his only Son by right endued
With regal scepter every soul in Heav’n
Shall bend the knee and in that honor due
Confess him rightful King? Unjust thou say’st,
Flatly unjust, to bind with laws the free
And equal over equals to let reign,
One over all with unsucceeded pow’r.
Shalt thou give law to God, shalt thou dispute
With Him the points of liberty who made
Thee what thou art and formed the pow’rs of Heav’n
Such as He pleased and circumscribed their being? (5.813-25)

Scorned by Satan and Satan’s fellows, Abdiel remains steadfast, and in one of the poem’s best images, he walks fearlessly away from the rebellious to join the righteous:

So spake the seraph Abdiel faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he
Among innumerable false. Unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.
Nor number nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed
Long way through hostile scorn which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud tow’rs to swift destruction doomed. (8.597-907)

A powerful passage, isn’t it? And particularly poignant, given Milton’s own part in the failed (though initially righteous, in his eyes) English revolution. Like Abdiel, “his loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.”

*

I won’t quote lengthy passages from Book VI, but it’s one of the most entertaining books of the poem, in which Raphael describes to Adam (Eve being noticeably absent, having fulfilled her womanly serving duties *grumble grumble feminist grumble*) the progress of the war. On the first day, Michael leads the loyal angels against Satan and his followers. Angels on both sides are injured, but only the rebel angels feel pain (and we also learn that they’ve lost the ability to feel pleasure). Angelic bodies heal themselves, it turns out. Michael faces Satan in single combat, and Satan, to his dismay, is bested and forced to retreat.

During the night, the rebel angels invent cannon (often regarded as devilish in the Renaissance) and surprise the heavenly hosts, who respond by hurling mountains at their foes. The imagery here is so fantastic — it just cries out for Guillermo del Toro. (Michael Bay, in the unlikely event you’re reading this blog: STAY AWAY FROM MILTON.) Plus Satan engages in some tricky non-diplomacy and witty banter with his pals, so now I’m envisioning a del Toro/ Aaron Sorkin collaboration . . . But I digress.

On the third day, the Father decides that enough is enough. Michael’s done excellent work at QB, but it’s time to bring out the Son, who says, basically, “Hold up. I got this.” The loyal angels line up and watch as the Son, with thunder blaring and chariot blazing, charges the rebel angels alone and so terrifies them that they throw themselves out of Heaven (h/t to obliging self-opening, self-healing heavenly wall) and into a nine-day fall to Hell.  That’s what George Lucas would call aggressive negotiation. (Now that I’ve quoted possibly the worst screenplay of all time, I’m done with movies now, I promise.)

But it’s not all fun and demon defeat in Book VI. The point of Raphael’s tale is to warn Adam, lest he think about disobeying God:

Let it profit thee t’have heard
By terrible example the reward
Of disobedience! Firm they might have stood,
Yet fell. Remember, and fear to transgress! (6.909-12)

Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle Son. Wait. Where have I heard that before?

Really done now.

Coming up on February 10: Books VII and VII — Adam’s Edenic education continues.
A programming note: Today features a rare double post here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses, so you might like to scroll down or click over to today’s earlier post, a review of Melissa Pritchard’s fascinating novel Palmerino.

Paradise Lost, Books III and IV: Oh, Milton.

Feel free to read the Paradise Lost Readalong introductory post here, and catch up on Books I and II here.

ParadiseLostReadalong

Books III and IV of Paradise Lost are, for me, the most difficult to grapple with. Book III is, for the most part, an exercise in Milton’s brand of theology (which I find unconvincing) and Book IV contains some of the very worst of Milton’s views on gender hierarchy. So in today’s post, I’m going to wrestle (in a limited way) with these issues. But first: the summary.

Book III begins with the invocation to light, one of the poem’s most famous passages. Within the invocation, the poem transitions from the darkness of Hell to the light of Heaven, where God the Father tells the Son and the heavenly hosts what is to come: Satan’s successful temptation of Eve and Adam and the Fall. However, the Father also plans to offer humanity grace, but only if a suitable sacrifice can be offered to satisfy the demands of justice. The Son offers to become that sacrifice; the Father accepts, and orders the angels to praise the Son. Meanwhile, Satan reaches the Limbo of Vanity, and from there goes  to the gate of Heaven. Disguising himself as a lesser angel, he finds Uriel, regent of the sun, and asks directions to the home of humankind. He “alights first on Mount Niphates.”

In Book IV, we finally reach Eden, and meet Adam and Eve. Satan, after much internal debate, reaffirms his evil purpose, and descends into the Garden (enacting yet another fall). The garden, as well as Adam and Eve, are at last described. Satan stalks the human pair, and learns that God has forbidden them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Uriel, having recognized Satan as a bad angel by  his wild gesticulations on Mount Niphates, warns Gabriel (who’s in charge of security in Paradise) that an evil spirit is skulking about. Gabriel sends two angels to check on Adam and Eve as they sleep, and they find Satan crouched at Eve’s ear, tempting her in a dream. Brought to Gabriel, he plans to resist, but a sign from Heaven sends him flying out of Paradise.

Here’s what I’m mulling over this week:

The Problem of Evil

Book III finds Milton confronting the problem of evil (why does an all-loving, all-powerful God allow Evil to exist? Why does he allow the Fall to occur?). He presents his solution in the most Miltonic way imaginable: by putting his theories in the mouth of God (the Father) himself. He prefaces this excursion with the invocation to “holy light” (3.1), recalling his invocation to the Muse (Holy Spirit) in Book I, in which he asked,

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men. (1.22-26)

God’s omniscience means that he mixes his tenses rather indiscriminately, so that even though, in linear time, the Fall hasn’t yet happened, God can accuse Adam and Eve of ingratitude, explaining that he created them “sufficient to have stood though free to fall” (3.99). He goes on to ask his audience (rhetorically) if he hadn’t given men and angels free will, “what proof could they have giv’n sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love” (3.103-04). He dismisses his own foreknowledge as an influence on those who choose to sin, and makes a distinction between those who sinned without deception (the bad angels) and those tempted and deceived (men). The latter will receive mercy, tempered with justice; the former will languish in Hell.

Kingship

When the Son offers to be the sacrifice demanded by justice (though Milton never explains why an omnipotent God feels bound by justice), the Father praises him and anoints him “universal king” (3.317).  In Milton’s view, true kingship is born of sacrifice and sanctity, not a will to power. Earthly kinship, in Milton’s theology, is an echo of Satan’s desire to usurp the heavenly throne, to reign as a tyrant.

Hypocrisy

(This passage speaks for itself.)

So spake the false dissembler unperceived,
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible except to God alone
By His permissive will through Heav’n and Earth.
And oft, though Wisdom wake, Suspicion sleeps
At Wisdom’s gate and to Simplicity
Resigns her charge while Goodness thinks no ill
Where no ill seems (3.681-89)

The Garden and the Nature of Work

Milton’s triumphant, lovely description of Paradise is too long to quote here. The garden is wild, dripping with fecundity and lush growth; Milton compares it with modern planned gardens, praising Paradise’s luxurious profusion. Here all manner of beasts and birds and plants live harmoniously (Adam and Eve are vegetarians; fruit practically offers itself to them, and they use the husks to scoop water from accommodating streams.). This natural world (and the pair’s bower of bliss) contrasts with the demons’ artificial edifice in Hell, just as humans’ prelapsarian work (tending the garden) contrasts with Fallen labor (Mulciber will teach men to, “with impious hands / [Rifle] the bowels of their mother Earth / for treasures better hid” [1.686-88].).

Gender Hierarchy

It’s always difficult for me to suppress a groan when I read the first description of Adam and Eve in Book IV. Both are beautiful, more beautiful than any other humans will ever be, but Milton is careful to describe their relationship in terms of hierarchy:

Though both
Not equal as their sex not equal seemed:
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace:
He for God only, she for God in him. (3.296-99)

Coming from a man whose views on marriage and sexuality were, for his day, very progressive (In the 1640s, Milton was widely excoriated for the tract Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he advocated companionate marriage — a meeting of the minds — and the right to divorce if the spouses were not compatible emotionally. And he’s no prude — Adam and Eve clearly have sex before the Fall.), this declaration always disappoints me, even if it doesn’t surprise me.

However, scholars have pointed to several ways in which Milton ameliorates Eve’s subservient position. Foremost among these is the simple fact that Eve is the poem’s best poet. Adam’s declarative sentences are leaden read next to Eve’s lovely, flowing lines. Even Satan doesn’t compose as well as she does; his syntax is too sinuous, too studded with outbursts. Eve speaks in melodious paragraphs. Here’s an example of the way Eve undercuts her own stated submission with glorious poetry:

To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorned:
My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains.
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change: all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming-on
Of grateful evening mild; then silent night,
With this her solemn bird, and this her moon,
And these the gems of heav’n, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glist’ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon
Or glittering starlight, without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes? (4.634-58)

Or consider Eve’s account of her creation, the first to appear in the poem, at lines 440-91 . I’ll talk about it next time, when we venture into books V and VI on January 30th.

Paradise Lost, Books I and II: You know a book is great when you can’t wait to start talking about Satan.

[If you missed the introductory post, click here.]

ParadiseLostReadalongIt’s here at last: the first reaction post for the Paradise Lost Readalong! Joining me in reading things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme will be these fine folks:

Please head on over to their blogs to read their perspectives on the poem.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Paradise Lost — at least seven times, but quite possibly more. Like any great work of art, it withstands repeated scrutiny, always offering something new to the reader.

Still, this is the first time I’ve posted about Paradise Lost, and it’s rather overwhelming — there’s so much to talk about. I mulled over what to write for a couple days, and decided that posting a summary of the action and a few stand-out passages/themes seems like a workable plan. I’m open to suggestions, though, so if I’m not covering something you want to talk about, let me know in the comments, won’t you?

So: the summary.

Book I begins with an invocation to the muse in which the poet/speaker sets out the scope of the work and its trajectory, as well as his own ambitions. From there, we move to a view of Satan, stunned on a lake of fire, surrounded by his rebellious followers (one-third of Heaven’s host). Satan rouses himself, and the others, and they convene to discuss what they should do next — whether they should resign themselves to their lot in Hell, or make open war on Heaven, or attempt some middle course.

Book II begins with the demonic conclave, the result of which is that Satan will undertake a one-angel journey through Chaos to seek out the ‘Earth’ that was spoken of in Heaven, to see what use of it he can make for his own ends. His way out of Hell is barred by two terrible figures, Sin and Death, who reveal their familial relation with Satan. They allow him to pass, and Satan finds his way to Earth: “Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge / Accurst, and in a cursèd hour, he hies” (2.1054-55).

Here’s what struck me on this read:

Milton’s Audacity: Sure, he calls on the Muse’s (in this case, the Holy Spirit; this isn’t your Grandma’s pagan epic, after all) aid, but his purpose is to JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN. Sheesh. Along the way, he plans to explain the source of all fallen human history — essentially improving upon the Bible — and he plans to do so in a blank verse epic poem. Amazing. And the audacity is justified; the epic similes are just that, the catalogue of demons is like some kind of Hendrix guitar solo, and Satan— well, that’s where I’m going next.

Satan: I know — everyone talks about Milton’s Satan, and there’s a good reason for that. He’s the most likable devil you’re unlikely to meet, and it’s amazing what Milton does with him. In Book I, Satan reads like a tragic hero, the leader of a lost (and yes, evil) cause:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost: th’ unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield–
And what is else not to be overcome? (1.105-109)

and

Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells! Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time!
The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (1.249-255)

It’s this combination of charisma, truth, falsehood, and evil that makes Satan so very dangerous. By Book II, however, Milton pulls back some of the heroic constructs around Satan — his physical size, his precedence among his peers, his persuasive speech — to reveal the tyrant beneath (and for Milton, tyrant is pretty much the worst moniker one can earn). Satan sits “High on a throne of royal state” (2.1), but he’s not the only king in Hell; Moloch is described as a “sceptered king” (2.43), while Beëlzebub, rising to speak, is described thusly:

Deep on his front engrav’n
Deliberation sat and public care
And princely counsel in his face yet shone,
Majestic though in ruin. (2.302-05; emphasis mine)

Still, among these Satan is still preeminent, the only fallen angel willing to make the dangerous journey out of Hell (and the only one smart enough to be certain that he takes full credit for his courage):

None among the choice and prime
Of those Heav’n-warring champions could be found
So hardy as to proffer or accept
Alone the dreadful voyage till at last
Satan, whom now transcendent glory raised
Above his fellows with monarchal pride
Conscious of highest worth, unmoved thus spake:
[. . .]
But I should ill become this throne, O peers
And this imperial sov’reignty adorned
With splendor, armed with pow’r, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deter
Me from attempting. Wherefore do I assume
These royalties and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept as great a share
Of hazard as of honor, due alike
To him who reigns?
[. . .]
Thus saying rose
The monarch and prevented all reply (2.423-29; 445-54; 466-67)

Fascinating, isn’t he? He’s about to lead the equivalent of a one-man away team onto a hostile planet (bet you thought I couldn’t work Star Trek into this post — ha!), which is admirable and brave, and yet his purposes are nothing but evil. Extraordinary character development.

Sin and Death: The only king who comes close to Satan’s power is, of course, Death:

The other shape
(If shape it might be called that shaoe had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either): black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell
And shook a dreadful dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on. (2.666-73)
Creepy, no? An admission: I’ve spent so much time poring over the disgusting descriptions of Sin and Death (fun fact: my research was on obstetrics & gynecology in early modern literature, which is weirdly relevant here) that I just don’t have the energy to write about it again. The passage is gross, replete with incest and bowel-devouring hounds (really!), Paradise Lost‘s very own trippy excursion into allegory. Start reading around line 650 if you’re interested.

I was going to talk about Milton as proto-environmentalist (I might even bring in some JRR Tolkien, because that’s how I roll), but that’ll have to wait for next week, since I’m afraid I’ve gone on too long.

See you again on January 20th for Books III and IV!

It’s Milton Time! Paradise Lost Readalong 2014

ParadiseLostReadalong

Well, friends, here we are, about to embark on the good ship Milton for the next two months.

And by “we” I mean Rick (Another Book Blog) and CJ (ebookclassics) and me, unless y’all step up to the plate and climb aboard (and no, Milton won’t be mixing metaphors the way I do.). Paradise Lost is dense, but we’ll only be covering 300 pages in two months, so it’s not exactly like tackling Moby-Dick or Middlemarch (not knocking — worthy books, both).

By the time Milton was starting work on the epic poem in English, his political cause was in decline, his first wife and only son were dead, and he was blind (he dictated the poem to one of his daughters). By the time Paradise Lost was first published (1667*) Milton had been imprisoned for his role in the English Revolution (and subsequently released, thanks in part to the offices of his friend, fellow poet Andrew Marvell) and London had burned in the Great Fire of 1666. Paradise Lost, then, was an epic born in a time of upheaval — personal, political, and national — for its poet.

Like the great Greek epics before it, Paradise Lost begins in medias res. Books I and II find Satan newly come to Hell, pondering his plan of resistance. We’ll find a Satan quite unlike the medieval caricature that might be expected, but that doesn’t mean that Hell is without horrors.

Here’s our reading and posting schedule — please join us!

January 1: Introductory post

January 10: Books I & II reaction

January 20: Books III and IV reaction

January 30: Books V and VI reaction

February 10: Books VII and VIII reaction

February 20: Books IX and X reaction

March 1: Books XI and XII reaction; Wrap-up

A word about editions: I’m partial to Gordon Teskey’s 2005 Norton Critical Edition of the poem. I was the teaching assistant (for one semester) for his Milton class at Harvard, and I was won over by his persuasive reading of the poem, and by his approach to punctuating it (lightly). The edition also includes goodies — critical responses, a brief biography of Milton, and extracts from some of Milton’s prose works.  It’s third from the top in the picture above. Even if you decide not to go with this edition, I’d recommend sticking with a reputable academic publisher.

*Paradise Lost initially appeared in ten books; the 1674 printing expanded the poem to twelve books (like the Aeneid) and included a few small changes as well. 

Sing O Muse: Paradise Lost Readalong 2014!

Yes, this is just a sample of my Milton collection.

Yes, this is just a sample of my Milton collection.

January 1 will mark this blog’s one-year birthday, and what better way to celebrate than with an epic (literally) readalong? I’m hosting a Paradise Lost readalong from January 1 to March 1, and I hope you’ll come along to brighten up the winter doldrums. I’ll be tweeting with the tag #ReadPL if you want to follow along.

Here’s the breakdown:

January 1: Introductory post

January 10: Books I & II reaction

January 20: Books III and IV reaction

January 30: Books V and VI reaction

February 10: Books VII and VIII reaction

February 20: Books IX and X

March 1: Books XI and XII; Wrap-up

Let me know in the comments if you’re interested, and I’ll link up to the participating blogs. Cheerio!

“They also serve who only stand and waite.”

Milton Shorter PoemsMilton’s Sonnet 19,  “When I consider how my light is spent” is one of the best sonnets in English and a poignant meditation on the poet’s own blindness and responsibility to the world and his God.

Written more than a decade before the publication of Paradise Lost, Sonnet 19 finds the poet/speaker disconsolate at its opening, unsure how he will use his talents when he is blind, unsure how he can serve his God (and in a further implication, his country) in his affliction and at his advancing age.

The turn of the sonnet appears when “patience” counsels that God does not *need* any person’s labor, since God is omnipotent and, besides, his servants work by the thousands for his glory. To serve the lord, the speaker reflects, he must merely bear his own burden with grace: “They also serve who only stand and waite.”

And Milton waited, and in his waiting, created Paradise Lost.

Here it is, in all its exquisite glory:

Sonnet 19

When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present [ 5 ]
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best [ 10 ]
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

I was raised on opera as a child; I couldn’t identify a New Kids on the Block Song (still can’t), but I could pick Wagner out of a lineup every time. So with his Ring Cycle in mind, I was excited to read A.S. Byatt’s take on Ragnarok, or The End of the Gods, especially because I found Possession to be such a wonderful book (and if you read it, you might remember that Ash wrote a poem called “Ragnarok”).

Sorry, library copy.

Sorry, library copy.

Fans of A.S. Byatt will encounter her erudition and her command of language here, with cascading descriptions and lists reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is so satisfying, so meaty, that this short book (171 pages) takes quite a while to savor.

What impressed me most, in this telling, is the structure of the work. It’s not exactly a novel, but not exactly D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, either (my favorite book of mythology when I was a child). But there is a narrative flow, and the book opens with “a thin child in wartime” encountering the stories of these irascible, imperfect, impulsive gods and their creations. But these myths, as A.S. Byatt points out in an essay that closes the book, differ greatly from fairy tales; the good do not always prosper, and the bad are not always punished; indeed, Ragnarok is the end of the gods. The world with its gods dies and is not reborn.

The book is not an allegory for the woes of our world, but present in the author’s mind was, she writes, the steady bursts of destruction we inflict on the earth ourselves, without any help from the gods.