Thursday, March 3, 2011

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 3)

"All there, forever falling,
falling lovely and amazing."
-Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side"

By the twilight of his life, Milton had fallen hard from his heights as a celebrated propagandist of a successful Revolution. By the time he finally set himself to his great work, Cromwell was dead (hooray!), Charles's son...Charles...had been invited back onto the throne like he would be doing England a favor (boo!), and it was only through the intervention of his friend Andrew Marvell that Milton was able to avoid beheading for his role in Charles I's death. He was totally blind by this point his wife Mary had died in childbirth and his second wife Katherine had died without ever being seen by her husband. Of his four children, his son had died at only a year old and his three daughters had a strained relationship with their passionate, political father. Milton was more alone than he had ever been in his life, and, feeling that he had squandered his poetic talent in his decades of political involvement, decided that he would use his isolation to write the epic he had dreamed of since he was a schoolboy.
Sort of, but blind, with more dead wives, and charged with high treason.
He had promised people that he would write an English epic, something that would do for the Commonwealth--or, well, kingdom once again--what Virgil had been able to do for Rome: to cloak its founding in the Christian faith and glorifying the nation and language, and had hinted that he wanted to write about the Arthurian legend in particular. What he eventually produced was a work set in Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and the Garden of Eden, dealing with (essentially) an employee who is fired for insubordination and decides to get revenge on his old boss by screwing up the marriage of his kids. It's the equivalent of if, after finally reaching the final game of the World Series, the Cubs just all came off the bench holding bowling balls-- and somehow managed to score a perfect 300 and win the game.

The thing is, of course, that Paradise Lost is a poem of England. Milton lived through the Civil War, for christ's sake, and here he was writing an epic poem about a selfish tyrant, a revolution, the invention of Law, and the first and last truly free human beings. To say that it was just a biblical retelling, or that it wasn't about his politics, would be like reading Animal Farm and saying "this can't be about the Russian Revolution! They're all pigs! And look at the sad little horsey!"
"Wait...Red Dawn was about Afghanistan?"
The entire text is one of the most anti-authority, pro-liberty, Sic-Semper-Tyrannis things ever written. And that's not even taking the reading that we're supposed to cheer for Satan (which, sorry Blake, Shelley, Anton LeVey, is wrong)--Milton's poetic triumph is that able to show how not only is it morally right to be a rebel, but that God would vote for Eugene Debs, listen to Crass, and know every word of Easy Rider.

First off, the very language of the poem is one that clearly doesn't give a shit about your badge, Mr. Man. The entire poem is unrhymed--something which Milton defended, not just as a stylistic choice, but as a necessity of republican virtue. He argues in the introduction that rhyme, like kingship, only came about in the middle ages and is a form of tyranny over words. Just as the Greeks and Romans governed themselves with democracy, their poetry was capable of governing itself only through the beauty of metrical rhythm, and it would be sinful to write a poem which condoned tyranny by not doing the same.

Similarly, he uses his incredible skills in Latin, Greek, English, and Italian to create a new English language. Repeatedly throughout the poem he contorts English to the grammar of Romance languages for the benefit of its beauty, or returns to the Greek and Latin roots of words and coins new English words from them to suit his purposes. The verse repeatedly spills out of the lines, so that the first sentence of the poem lasts for around forty lines, and that's fairly typical. As a poet, he is as unrestrained here as anyone ever was.
And then he had his dog attack an effigy of King Charles. "DOWN ROCKO, HE'S MINE."
And according to a lot of more modern critics, he is able to free English in a way few ever have: in writing about an unfallen world, he actually redeems the language from sin. For example, take a look at this (long, but there are no short ones) quotation, when we first meet Eve in Book IV of the epic (sexy words bolded):

She, as a veil, down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.
Nor those mysterious parts were then concealed;
Then was not guilty shame, dishonest shame.

Won't somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN?!
That's right: Eve is not just naked, but she's having wild enough sex with Adam to dishevel her hair and they don't care if anyone sees it--and, to quote Patrick Stewart, "I've seen everything. I've seen it all." But Milton immediately tells us that this is something pure and beautiful, and that these two people are the most good that ever lived. In this case, the words "disheveled," "wanton," "amorous," and "pride"--two of which are deadly sins--aren't sinful, because sin doesn't exist. Milton here destroys the entire notion of profanity and obscenity: no matter how explicit (and except for John Wilmot, who I plan to talk about on a later date, this is about as explicit as most poetry of the day gets), a portrayal of true, good love is sinless and beautiful. Much like in his arguments for the freedom of the press, Milton proves that no word or idea (or body part) is evil if used in the service of good.

Now, is Satan the hero? Because that would be real rebellious, if Milton got us to cheer for the devil.

No. Nope. Not even close. And it wouldn't be, because Satan isn't a rebel in the poem. Oh sure, he puts on the appearance of freedom-fighting rebellion, but that's one of the greatest political points that Milton makes in the whole work. Satan is, essentially, trying to usurp power he never deserved from God, rallying up an army that believes that because he's rich and handsome he deserves to be king, and has no motivation for ruling beyond wanting to maintain power.
Well, I have a new favorite picture.
Satan is, at his core, a self-pitying tyrant--more Stalin than Lenin. He's also, like Charles, fairly roundly incompetent: not only is it made clear that he had no chance of winning the war (especially once Jesus rolls out his giant tank YES THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS [Book VI, line 840]), but God makes it clear all along that he could stop Satan from tempting Adam and Eve to fall, but that doing so would preempt Satan's freedom. Indeed, God never condemns Satan (or, really, anyone) to Hell in the poem. Instead, Satan hurls himself in out of shame for having lost, and knows full well he can return to Heaven the instant he's willing to give up his lust for power and become a member of the Parliament of Angels.His invasion of Earth isn't out of a lust for evil and chaos, but out of petty anger that it was given to Adam and Eve instead of him, and the language he claims it with is that of a monarch laying claim to a colony.

Yes, he says that "tis better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," but that's self-delusion (and Satan in the book, as the Prince of Lies, is better at lying to himself than to anyone else)--he never convinces any of his troops to do anything except for waking them up with a rousing speech. Satan isn't powerful, he's not noble, he's just a selfish, jealous loser-- think of it like Biff at the end of Back to the Future, where you know he's still a rapey psychopath but that the most he'll ever be able to do to hurt anyone is not wax their car enough. In addition, Milton's optimism returns in that Satan never accomplishes anything: he thinks he's king when he's simply imprisoned himself, and when he revisits Heaven later God and Jesus essentially go "ooooo, we're sooooo scaaaaared" (yes, Milton's God is sarcastic).

"Oh boo hoo hoo, did somebody lose a war against God?"
In fact, Satan's great victory--the fall--is just him defeating himself, because he was tricked by God into giving Adam and Eve the gift of liberty. They have to leave the Garden, but they are given the entire world to choose from and the love of their life to share it with; hardly much of a downgrade. In addition, it's made clear that because of their new freedom they will be able to improve themselves--by learning to rule themselves and by battling Sin (and, in a rather bizarre metaphor, making it so glutted and lethargic that the arrows of angels will be able to kill it for good later), they create the framework for the eventual Kingdom of God, in which Jesus will finally banish all tyrants and set up a just Republic. The final lines, though sad, are overloaded with hope, freedom and love in a way that no account of the fall ever had been before:

"Some natural tears they draped, but wiped them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence Their guide:
They hand in hand with wadding steps and slow,
Through Eden took Their solitary way."

Oh and right, Michael took Adam aside and showed him the future, including God's punishment of the first unjust king and a warning that all future tyrants would suffer the same fate.

Of course, I can't do the entirety of the work justice (but I'm not gonna say "go out and read it yourself!" because that shit is loooooong)--but these aren't small incidents. Indeed, these are almost all the major plot points covered, and they're all pretty clearly political. And not even, necessarily, subtly political. Yes, Paradise Lost is beautiful. Yes, it's arguably the greatest achievement of English literature. But, beneath the complex arguments, incredibly original language, rich characters (though he's not a hero, Milton's Lucifer remains one of the greatest protagonists ever written), the central political message remains, roughly, as follows:

"God Save the King!
He ain't no human being!
There's no future,
and England's dreaming!"

It's the climax of a lifetime of political activism, revolutionary pamphlets, and poetic passions, making an argument that striving to rule others is the greatest evil, and that men should help to lift each other ever higher. And  the man who wrote it remains one of the greatest rule-breakers, icon-smashers, and king-killers to ever live.
The ghetto prince of gutter poets.

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