June 13, 1997
That Living Intellect: Literary Canonization
Milton's "Paradise Lost"
For generations since his death, and perhaps even during his life, Milton's "bogey" has haunted all the masters of the English language as art. It was difficult to explore verse in a way that he had not already done it, or so it is said. Regardless of whether Milton truly exhausted all that is good in English verse, his figure is one which is essential to the integrity of literature in English—Paradise Lost is part of what is considered the "canon," which is something undeniable and irrevocable. Men like T.S. Eliot have attempted to kill Milton's haunting presence by using an entirely different set of figurative sources, as in The Waste Land; but still, what Milton has done and the immensity of his accomplishment is something not to be diminished by other works. Great works in the English language are now destined to share their limelight with, or stand in some way affected by Milton.
The reasons for this are many. And to convince a group of atheists or agnostics to approach the great epic work as a serious piece of literature, the crux of my argument would be simply that story—by its very nature—need not be true in objective reality in order to teach us things and reveal other truths we do not know. From Beowulf to The Tempest, there have been important works in English literature with basis on little more than folk-lore and mysticism—and to cast these aside as unworthy of any significant attention would be inimical to the very essence of the literary arts. In the other great epic of the English language, the "poet's poet" writes:
|Right well I wote most mighty Soveraine,|
That all this famous antique history,
Of some th'aboundance of an idle braine
Will judgéd be, and painted forgery,
Rather then matter of just memory (II:1:1-5).
Spenser predicts, concerning his The Faerie Queene, that it will be regarded by some as merely a child's story, some illusion painted for useless ends. In light of this prediction, he argues, though, asking later, "Why then should witlesse man so much misweene/ That nothing is, but that which he hath seene?" (II:3:4-5). This is the same sort of prediction which Milton implies when he professes to reveal things "invisible to mortal sight." He knew that—regardless of whether the Bible was true or not—his story was just that: a story. There were lessons to be learned from it which remain in the text, independent of the fact that the story is one no longer considered true in any sense by most.
In discussing The Faerie Queene, Catherine Belsey refers to the concept of ocular error—trompe-l'oeil—as the harbor of the individual's desire in relation to a piece of literature, though this term is usually applied in the context of the visual arts. While the line between art and nature is blurred in the story of Spenser's epic, what makes the piece interesting is not as much its presentation of themes in a clear and objective manner, but more so, these "mistakes of the eyes," these delightful interludes when one looks past the particular morals of an episode of the work, and rather enjoys the work itself, as something beautiful to enjoy. This is the attitude with which such a work as Paradise Lost should be approached. Some of the greatest myths and legends have come from pagan religions such as those of the Greeks, giving rise to equally tremendous art reflecting these stories—from great verse and fiction to phenomenal works of sculpture, architecture, painting. And to ignore the utter beauty of the story of Pygmalion, for instance—let alone take it to a modern level like George Bernard Shaw—because it is not believable, is to lose the flavor of artistic appreciation. Of course the story is not true—but it can still be appreciated for its enthralling images of exquisite material beauty and reverent intellectual beauty. The same is the case with Paradise Lost.
It is difficult to read even the first five lines of Milton's epic—if one knows a little of the character of its author—and not come in reverence to its altar. Oftentimes, independent of the scriptural premises, the "one greater man" who is predicted to come procures images of Milton himself as the hero, the redeemer of literature as Christ is the savior of the soul. In his long apologia "De Profundis," Oscar Wilde refers to Jesus as the true beginning of the Romantics, a precursor to their ideas. He says that there is something about a young Galilean Shepherd taking the world upon his shoulders that is just simply amazing. In the same sense, there is something about a scholarly near-blind heretic becoming the mouthpiece of God which simply awakens the senses, revitalizes the spirit of loyalty and piety—whether this is in reference to one's deity, country, or self—just as Vergil once did. Clearly, the story of the Aeneid is a fiction—but it has a place in classical literature because of its appealing artistry and its place in history, in the minds and hearts of men. Oscar Wilde himself has said, "all art is quite useless"—speaking in terms of industry and conquest, a poem or a painting will not accomplish a thing. But the true essence of Wilde's statement, which Milton boldly echoes through eternity in his epic, is that of art for art's sake.
Even the most ardent disbeliever cannot deny the facts of reality, the effects that religions have had on the art and culture of different ages. Despite the truth that hardly anyone believes in the Greek pantheon and relatively few in current religious trends including Christianity, the immense proliferation of art with religious themes is more than enough evidence to indicate the effects of faiths on many cultural levels. In the same sense, though people may not believe in Paradise Lost—or the Bible—as accounts of true events in the history of the world as we know it, it offers a lens, or perhaps a mirror, by which we can explore the world of Milton, of Christianity, of the English language. Whether or not one believes in a certain philosophy or doctrine or story, it is irrational to deny the effects of those on individuals and societies. Such is the case with Paradise Lost.
But there is so much more to Milton's work than mere pandering to his own culture. The themes of the epic can hardly be ignored—and to say that it is merely an apologetic encomium making a case for Christianity would miss the many complex ideas presented. Milton's Satan, for instance, is one of the most intricately wrought, intensely supported characters in the history of English literature. He is a powerful example of the notion that Milton was not close-minded to looking at different aspects of his faith and culture, and was by no means going to chain his hands and the minds of his readers by writing a straightforward simple-minded Christian panegyric. Even the peasants of China love the character of Satan, and find him more emphatic and human than the others of Paradise Lost—this can hardly have been unconscious on the part of such as Milton, so aware, so conscious of his place in literature. And the modern-day atheists, agnostics, pantheists (non-theists of every sort) are—and often declare themselves to be—literary Satanists. And why not? Satan is the ultimate rebel; the adversary of authority; the one who called the Almighty on his flaws and was not afraid of it; the most profound manifestation of Thomas Jefferson's notion that we should "question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
The exploration of Satan's character, in addition to his own twists on the original story of Genesis make Paradise Lost an ingenious work of creativity and intellectual fortitude. It would seem folly that one of the greatest pieces of the English literary canon has been referred to as "a monument to dead ideas," a mere reflection of times and themes which no longer exist. However, considering the secularization of the age, the emphasis on heresy and irreligiousness seem to have become the prerequisites of intellectual virtue. While transcending dogma and doctrine in order to embrace all art is something a true aesthete must do, to go so far as to declare Milton's Paradise Lost outmoded and irrelevant can be nothing short of outrageous and irreverent. The method, form, and lyrical intensity of the poem are what entered it into the canon initially, and are what will preserve it there, in its proper place, for all time—after all, it was conceived in and takes place in Eternity—or so Milton claimed. In the modern day, in the company of those who regard the Bible and its contents as no more than legend, religious propaganda, or literature, Paradise Lost sits well and holds its own as a great piece of literature should, for as Milton himself wrote in "Areopagitica,"
|For books are not absolutely |
dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to
be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are;
nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and
extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
Even if the Bible were to die in the dust and no one ever turned its pages again for religious illumination, Milton's work will still remain—and perhaps inspire some to read more scriptures. But overall, Paradise Lost is arguably one of the greatest achievements in the history of English literature, and those who are unable to appreciate it because of their own philistine nature, have not caused Milton or Christianity or the English language any hurt, but only their own unredeemed souls.
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Essay copyright ©1997 Saif Patel. Published by express written permission of the author.
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