Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/9/2008: from Paradise Lost

from Paradise Lost
Book I ll. 1-26

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

John Milton 1674

Where to start an epic, the greatest in the english language? Well, at the beginning! These are the first 26 lines of John Milton's Paradise Lost, which, as an epic will do, contain the invocation to the muse and introduce the subject. In this poem, the muse plays a large role; Milton said that the muse would come to him at night. In this clear state, the words would arrange themselves in front of his eyes (which, by the way, were sightless; he went blind before composing the poem). He writes, "The thoughts, as if by their own power, produce the lines of poetry," and, "true eloquence I find to be none, but the serious and hearty love of truth... when such a man would speak..., his words (by what I can express), like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places" (An Apology for Smectymnuus).

Even in this excerpt, he asks, "chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure," hoping for purification and inspiration. So the Muse, for Milton, was a literal visitor he had, in that he did not "make up" the words, but rather that they were given him out of his own desire for truth and goodness. Milton, in writing the epic, assumes the pious pose necessary in order to be inspired: he wants to know himself, he wants to help others, he wants to know God and be able to write of His ways to men.

Milton also wishes to know of all things; the generation of the earth from Chaos, the original state of man and how he fell, the temptation and the goodness of man, life and death, the fall and the possibility of redemption--manifest in the Son of God. So to ask for inspiration is also to ask for knowledge, somewhat paradoxical given that the fall comes as a result of humanity's desire for knowledge. In Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve by telling her that she can be Adam's equal in knowledge, so to ask for it in the introduction perhaps benefits from the fall? That is, there's no going back; mankind is hungry for knowledge and to eradicate this won't get us back to the tree of Life. Rather, we have to deal with the conditions of the fall in order to be redeemed, and perhaps, as the existence of knowledge and epics containing them will reveal, it is also possible that the return will be better. After all, the garden of Eden in PL is only a small part of the earth, whereas man presumably finds a far greater Eden upon his redemption, encompassing the old garden and all of the land he has tread since that time...

Oh achingly beautiful, are not these lines:
Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant:

A glorious blossom of creation appears to us here; Milton appropriately uses a sexual and asexual metaphor. Much of the epic following takes place in the fertile and generative garden. The imagery of the plants and animals is almost erotic, and Adam and Eve are consistently naked with one another. Milton implies that there is a holiness and a purity to this kind of sex.

It is also appropriate to discuss generation--pregnancy--in this opening section, as the poet himself must generate the epic. The question of artistic creation in relation to sexual creation in relation to cosmic creation is one that has been played out by artist after artist... what does it mean to be inspired? Sing, O muse!

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