Sunday, May 31, 2009

Paradise Lost, literature admired, humanity demoted

I really enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s BBC programme on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ last week (available to watch here until Tuesday).

I’ve never read or even dipped into it, even though I picked up a copy in a second-hand bookshop some years back, which has been sitting on my shelf ever since, making me feel slightly more cultured by its mere presence.

The great thing about the programme was that it mostly consisted of an intelligent person being really enthusiastic about something he adored. Very good to watch. I think my two favourite parts were when he went through the ‘darkness visible’ passage, stopping every few words to remark on the ingenuity of the construction, and when he sat down with a first edition and said that it might not make very good television but that he just wanted to read it!

My only critical thought – and I say this, perilously, as someone who hasn’t read the thing and who dropped out of English lit A-level after three weeks – was his discussion of the last few lines:

Some natural tears they dropt, 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 wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Most of what Armando says about these seems fair, but he claims that the ending is “intensely secular” with “no mention of God”.

Not directly, but think about how two people, “hand in hand”, could be said to take “their solitary way”. The paradox equates godlessness with solitude; Milton suffuses these last lines with God’s absence.

It’s a terribly sad attitude, and a common one - voiced more recently and more feebly by a preacher that Ophelia Benson heard on a radio programme:

Then the preacher goes off on a little rant… of the 'how do atheists do it?' variety. He can't even conceive of it - it must be so bleak - if this is all there is - with no one to turn to. Davidson [the programme’s host] says, mildly, 'We have each other.' The preacher says, in a pitying voice, 'But human beings are not...dependable.'

I think that attitude is one of the enduring tragedies of humanity: that we aren’t good enough for ourselves or for each other.

If it weren’t a beautiful sunny day that I wanted to be out in, I might now launch into a rhetorical riff about how the invention of religion was our own Fall – when we ate the fruit of the tree of fantasy, and came to imagine that we could be newly clad in divine silk, like the fairytale emperor.

But that would be a bit glib, and a bit combative. Milton was no fool, and ‘Paradise Lost’ is clearly far more than a clever and elegant piece of Christian PR. Well worth a read, methinks.


CS Clark said...

I flicked over, saw him tell us that Milton was a spin doctor, and flicked off again. (In my case, the intelligent person being really enthusiastic about something he adored was Dr Roger Savage of Edinburgh University, and while he enjoyed drawing parallels I can't imagine him saying that. Enormously pretentious of me to say so, I guess: I'm just fecked they never gave Doc Savage his chance.)

I think it's a shame that people should attempt to secularise Milton, as much as it is when they try to make atheist admirable historical figures who were pretty clear that they were believers (and, as with Newton, not just conventional believers either). Do the last few lines not mention God? So, and it's the preceding 10,000 or so that do (and lines 561-585 of Book XII? Surely they're part of the ending). I used to be of the camp that believed Satan has all the best lines, but by now I'm convinced you can only believe that if you refuse to take Milton seriously.

Do read it though, preferably out loud and using the Peter Hall method of pausing at the end of each line even if the text suggests running on.

Finally, although I think you're on to something in solitary way having something to do with the absence of God (although lines 586-87 [thou] shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

may suggest internal experience of God is better than having him appear on a daily basis to see how you're doing) the meanings of solitary don't preclude being solitary in pairs, if it refers to the two of you being absent from society, broader companionship etc. (comparable to the common phrase: 'We are alone in the universe').

Matt M said...

I managed to read (and enjoy) PL up until all the Garden of Eden stuff - after which I got bored and gave up. Poetry and I have never really got along.

Iannucci has convinced me to give it another attempt though. It was, for the reasons you mention, a fantastic piece of television.