Paradise Lost, Books XI and XII: The Bittersweet End

It’s the end of our Paradise Lost readalong, folks.

ParadiseLostReadalongWhen I first started thinking about doing a readalong for Milton’s epic, I planned on a once-a-month posting schedule, but then thought that maybe not too many people would sign up for a year-long immersion in Paradise Lost. Reading-wise, I think two books every ten days is manageable, though strenuous work, especially for first-time readers, and so, after thought and some discussion, I ended up with our every ten-days schedule that you’ve seen.

Posting every ten days, though? I think I may have been optimistic about that. Paradise Lost is so dense, so challenging, so vitally interesting, that I found it pretty much impossible to write the kind of posts I wanted to write in just ten days, especially since I didn’t cut back on my non-Milton reading and posting. The lesson I took from this readalong: go with your gut instincts, even if you think you’ll be the only one reading.

That said, I hope you’ve still found these posts interesting and not too didactic, and that if you haven’t read Milton, you’ve been persuaded to give him a try some day.

So here’s the man himself with summaries of Books XI and XII:

Book XI:

The Son of God presents to his Father the Prayers of our first Parents now repenting, and intercedes for them: God accepts them, but declares that they must no longer abide in Paradise; sends Michael with a Band of Cherubim to dispossess them; but first to reveal to Adam future things: Michael’s coming down. Adam shows to Eve certain ominous signs; he discerns Michael’s approach, goes out to meet him: the Angel denounces their departure. Eve’s Lamentation. Adam pleads, but submits: The Angel leads him up to a high Hill, sets before him in vision what shall happ’n till the Flood.

Book XII:

The Angel Michael continues from the Flood to relate what shall succeed; then, in the mention of Abraham, comes by degrees to explain, who that Seed of the Woman shall be, which was promised Adam and Eve in the Fall; his Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension; the state of the Church till his second Coming. Adam greatly satisfied and recomforted by these Relations and Promises descends the Hill with Michael; wakens Eve, who all this while had slept, but with gentle dreams compos’d to quietness of mind and submission. Michael in either hand leads them out of Paradise, the fiery Sword waving behind them, and the Cherubim taking their Stations to guard the Place.

Not everyone likes these final two books, since they compress a great deal of Biblical history into, essentially, forty pages. C.S. Lewis called Books XI and XII “an untransmuted lump of futurity,” and called its verse “curiously bad.” Not one for mincing words, C.S. Lewis. A modern creative writing teacher might tell you that these books “tell” instead of “show,” especially as the lines go on and Adam’s heightened sight fades.

With the exception of a few passages*, I find myself aligning with C.S. Lewis’s sense of Books XI and XII; the illustration of repeated covenants between God and humanity, punctuated with violence and vengeance, is utterly unappealing after the beauties of the garden and Eve’s hymns to God and nature (Eve is, by the way, sleeping through most of these books). On the other hand, this feeling of disappointment is Milton’s point; after the Fall, there can be no return to Paradise, in either location or language.

[* On the Flood: “Sea covered sea, / sea without shore, and in their palaces / Where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped / and stabled” (11.749-52).]

One of the appealing parts of this section of the epic, at least for me, is its political resonance. Milton makes his case here for the always-tyrannical, and yet inevitable nature of monarchy, or as Michael puts it, “Tyranny must be, / Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse” (12.95-96). Risky stuff, but Milton has already aligned himself with the righteous angel Abdiel in Book VI, and in Book XI with Enoch, whom he turns into a figure unjustly persecuted for his righteous political and religious beliefs.

Then there’s Adam. I don’t much care for him in the rest of the poem, but in Books XI and XII I want to throttle him pretty much all the time. Michael usually takes the trouble to correct Adam’s errors in perception, but it’s galling every time Adam waxes rhapsodic about his “seed” someday overcoming Death (with an assist from Mary, of course) — all the while eliding Eve’s necessary role in populating the Earth. Here’s the worst offence, and one that seems to go uncorrected (after Michael explains the coming of the Son of God):

Now clear I understand
What oft my steadiest thoughts have searched in vain,
Why our great expectation should be called
The Seed of woman: Virgin Mother, hail!
High in the love of Heav’m, yet from my loins
Thou shalt proceed and from thy womb the Son
Of God Most High: so God with Man unites! (12.376-82; emphasis mine)

See what I mean? Adam inserts himself into the redemption narrative, while totally ignoring Eve’s role. And it seems that this elision will stand — but Milton is nothing if not surprising, because guess who gets the last spoken lines of the poem?

Eve.

And here they are:

This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence: though all by me is lost,
Such favor I unworthy am vouchsafed,
By me the promised Seed shall all restore. (12.620-23)

It’s a definite revision of Adam’s claim that Milton not only allows to stand, but also emphasizes with Adam’s silent confirmation: “So spake our mother Eve and Adam heard / Well pleased but answered not” (12.624-25).

Milton’s poetic prowess returns in full force these last thirty lines. Here’s a metaphor I love for its multilayered quality:

from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
Homeward returning. (12.626-32)

Isn’t that lovely? The cherubim, fierce and dangerous in their “bright array” move from a “fixed point” into midair, “gliding” like insubstantial “evening mist,” which itself might “glide” from a “marish” (marsh) and comes to earth around the feet of the working man walking home.  The descent of the cherubim emphasizes the change in Adam and Eve’s state; they will become laborers who must return home each night, though to to their first home they can never return. The cherubim’s gliding ease contrasts with the heavy, weary step we imagine for the laborer; their speed reminds us how swiftly the fortunes of the first human pair have changed. The heavenly and the homely in one metaphor — just lovely.

I’ll leave you with the poem’s final lines, as Adam and Eve turn away from Paradise:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

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Recommended Reading: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I’d been lingering for two months on the library waitlist for Kate Atkinson’s new book, so it was with glee that I delved in to this 500+-page thumper.  Life after Life

I went in cold, and was blind-sided by the inventive structure. The novel attempts to answer that unanswerable question: what would you do if you could live your whole life over again? What would you change? How would you try to get it “right?”

You see, Ursula Todd, the novel’s lens and protagonist, can live her life over again, and not just once. This twist ensures that she also dies, over, and over, and over again, so many times that I lost count. She begins again at her birth (though sometimes, mercifully, Atkinson fast-forwards to another precipitous event), and, until she makes it past childhood, her first focus is to avoid the things that carried her off in those years: accident and illness.

Once she successfully navigates into adolescence, Ursula begins to recognize her peculiar form of reincarnation, and starts trying to prevent not only her own death, but those of her family and neighbors, and finally, even greater catastrophes. But she finds that every choice engenders unintended, often dangerous consequences.

I loved this book, not only for its unconventional, even experimental form, but also for its carefully-chosen language and attention to the details of time and place and families. If I had the chance to speak with Ms. Atkinson, I’d ask her how she kept track of the detailed strands of narrative; the continuity across times and lines of plot is striking.

And I’d ask how she decided when to stop the book, when in theory the variations could continue on and on.  And I’d ask her if she’d like the chance to live over and over again, or if once is enough. I’m asking myself that question right now.

Recommended Reading: Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis

I think we l know how I feel about jacket copy and blurbs. To wit: not good. But for once, the blurbs are on to something, and it’s the gem that is Chloe Aridjis’s Asunder.

AsunderThe novel follows Marie, a guard at London’s National Gallery, through her perambulations at work, at home, and abroad. This is isn’t a novel with extravagant plot points; instead, it’s superb gathering of images and moments, a testament to a quiet life. To observation.

It’s about the entropy of decay and the possibility for violent change. It’s a weirdly beautiful excavation of life. And the images! New, lively, strange.  Here’s one example. Marie is examining a painting:

It was a mysterious painting, of a seaside landscape with a few human figures, and my eyes first came to rest on the wall of ancient wrinkled cliffs resembling a procession of tired elephants. (111)

Arresting, isn’t it?  I felt swallowed up the images as I read. I loved this novel, and if you’ll excuse me, I‘ll be off to find my own copy.