Thursday, 7 September 2017

#22 An epic poem

Paradise Lost  - John Milton

It took John Milton seven years to write this epic – his masterpiece.  He was a solitary yet dedicated literary genius in England during the 17thcentury. He was well aware of his genius even at a  young age and had long wanted to write an epic. Literary epics hitherto didn’t boast of any English epic until Milton changed that with Paradise Lost.
Gustave Dore's dramatic illustrations of the scenes from the epic have a magnificent beauty of its own.
The story by itself isn’t a new one but is taken from the Biblical book of Genesis – of the creation of man and his disobedience which leads him to be exiled from Eden. But these few lines from the Bible are transformed into a powerful tale of power, loyalty, betrayal, rebellion, treachery, wickedness and redemption in the hands of the master craftsman Milton.

Due to unprecedented circumstances in the history of English politics, the then ruling monarch Charles I is deposed and beheaded (the only monarch to have had this fate, and hence the current Prince Charles dislike for his title of Charles I). So, it was that in the year 1649 began a seventeen years long experiment in a Commonwealth (as opposed to a monarchy). John Milton, being the dedicated servant he was, answered his call for duties as a citizen, responding to the need of the hour and takes up the anti-royalist side of the Parliamentarians. He supports them with his prose writings, as he termed it “the writings of his left hand”. The poet in him lies dormant for the next seventeen years.      

The word ‘pandemonium’ was coined by John Milton as the name for the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. It means ‘all demons’.
When the “merry monarch” Charles II finally brings back monarchy to England, Milton finds all his political efforts have turned against him. All his works were publicly burned and he himself would have been put to death hadn’t it been for the fact that he had by then become completely blind.
Being blind would have effectively ended any other writer’s art , but it wouldn’t be so for Milton. In fact it was then, after he lost everything he had – his shattered dreams for a new and reformed England, the death of his second wife, his own blindness, his public humiliation - that he returns to the epic which he had long since wanted to have authored.

Amazingly he published the epic in 10 books in the year  1667. He later revises it to 12 books – a standard number for epics (Homer’s Illiad  and Odyssey runs to 24 books …..each)John Milton, the blind poet,  brings together his immense knowledge and learning, synthesizing biblical, classical, medieval and modern knowledge to  describe the fall of man, the first ever Civil War – the battle between the angels led by Satan and God, the promise of Christ’s sacrifice and future redemption of mankind.

It goes without saying that this is not a light read. It pay rich dividends though to those who labour to understand the nuances of Milton’s grand style.

Here is a quick overview of the 12 books:

Book I -> shows us the fallen angels in Hell beginning to recover and Satan’s first speech
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”(I.263) 
Book II -> Satan and his followers discuss possible ways to take revenge. It is decided that Satan will fly to Eden and corrupt the newly formed creatures.
Book III -> God openly admits his foreknowledge of the angels’ rebellion and also of Man’s inevitable Fall. Christ, his son, offers himself as redemption for the future of mankind.
Book IV -> Satan’s arrival in Eden – his soliloquies. Our first view of Adam and Eve. Satan’s plan for their destruction.
Book V-> Archangel Raphael is sent to counsel and advice Adam of the pitfalls of disobedience to God
Book VI -> Raphael narrates the war in Heaven carried out by Satan and his followers for Adam to know and understand the evil that was banished from Heaven
Book VII -> Raphael also explains how God created Eden and Man
Book VIII -> Adam tells Raphael what his first experiences were after he was created.
Book IX -> (Probably, along with Book IV the most famous of the twelve) the temptation of Eve by Satan in the disguise of a serpent and the Fall of Man
Book X - > Explains the change that takes place on earth and Hell as a result of the Fall – and the final degradation of Satan – his eternal punishment to live as a base, crawling creature, who was once a supreme archangel.
Book XI -> Archangel Michael is sent to inform Adam that they would have to leave Eden (Paradise) forever and also tells him what the future of mankind looks like.
Book XII -> Archangel Michael predicts the redemption of mankind with the coming of the “second Adam” (Christ) and then guides both Eve and Adam out of the gates of Paradise, which has been lost to them.

Literary epics are highly conventional compositions and will have certain marked characteristics, so a few features to keep note of if you pick up this epic:

1)     The hero is a figure of national or even cosmic importance -> though there are debates  between who the actual hero of the epic could be – Christ , Satan or Adam – it clearly is of cosmic importance.
2)      Setting of an epic would be one on a grand scale – in the case of Paradise Lost  - the entire universe.
3)      The action involves extraordinary deeds. The epic battle of the angels, the creation of Pandemonium, the journey of Satan over Chaos to reach Eden, the fall of the angels, the building of a path between Hell and Earth by Sin and Death (hideous creatures both)
4)      Gods and other supernatural beings take an active part in the whole epic (God, Christ, Archangels, Satan and his entire army, Cherubims, Seraphs, Sin, Death, Spirits, and all of God’s creations)
5)      And most important of all – the elevated and grand style of poetry. This is probably the highlight of the entire epic for me.

With lines that have become proverbial and epic in themselves , there are numerable lines in these books that highlight the despairing emotions, the conflicted passions and the acceptance of the inevitable fate.  

And noticeably Milton does give a fair share of some of these masterly lines to none other than the fallen angel Lucifer a.k.a. Satan. Some critics believe that he did so because he understood the pain of the fall from grace. Others believe he wanted to represent the wonderful ability of Satan to use the art of persuasion to his advantage.  It is interesting to note his lines and speeches he delivers for the power and charm it creates in his audience.

This is perhaps the longest review I have done so far, and I feel only a slight tip of the iceberg has been unveiled. But, there you go, that’s an epic for you.

P.S. Did you know? This epic has inspired the series title for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Also there is a hilarious but infinitely diminished ‘Twitterature’ story of Paradise Lost as well . And I am sure many many more inspirations have risen from this one epic tale.

P.P.S Milton has used a staggering number of grand words to create the elevated mood of an epic – I have marked  a minimum of ten words at least per book – mellifluous, perfidious, obsequious, pernicious, transpicuous, sapience, opprobrious……it goes on and on!

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