Reading “Paradise Lost” in the fall of 1968: a poem on liberty and loss, and the sexual revolution, too

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Ta-daaaa!

I knew it, I knew it. A John Milton revival is on the way. I could smell it in the air. I wrote about it here – but here’s another indication: Robert Crossley‘s “My Ever New Delight: The Pleasures of Paradise Lost” in the current issue of The Hudson Review. 

“Paradise Lost is a feat of delicate engineering,” Crossley explains, “to leave parts out is to risk the whole thing collapsing.” He has taught it for years, and insists “the students in my epic poetry course mastered the distinctive Miltonic rhythm of lines suspended over vast spaces, the rhetorical energy of the speeches, the thundering polysyllables colliding with brisk bursts of vernacular, the enjambments and the inversions and the heaping of adjectives that make Paradise Lost a tour de force for the human voice.”

But his interest began with Prof. Mary Ann Radzinowicz of the University of Virginia, who introduced the masterpiece only after the students had read the prose treatises, many written during the poet’s stint as chief propagandist for Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary government…

With this understanding of Milton’s utopian commitments and his experience as a failed revolutionary, I was ready to read Paradise Lost as a poem less about theological doctrines than about liberty and loss, a poem with an intensely personal dimension. Even Milton’s anxious publisher required him to attach to the second edition of Paradise Lost as an explanation for why the poem didn’t rhyme exhibited the still smoldering fires of the old revolutionary resisting authority. … From that note a reader plunges (quite literally) into the dizzying account of a fall from the heights of heaven to the bottom of the universe. The leader of the rebel angels has been

John Milton knew a little about falls himself…

Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire.

It will be nine days before Satan can so much as lift his head from the lake of fire and begin to undertake his campaign of ven­geance against the Almighty.

One of the great mysteries of Paradise Lost—how could Milton write with apparent sympathy for the devil?—was about to be dissolved for me. It wasn’t that he thought Satan a hero (as some of the Romantic poets, Blake and Shelley in particular, liked to believe). Milton’s judgments about Satan are clear and unequivocal. But psychologically Milton had been there: he knew what it meant to rebel against an absolute monarch and to lose. Empa­thy isn’t the same as sympathy. Milton could put himself into the mind and the circumstances of the fallen angel, understanding a rebel’s seething hatred, despair, and fixed determination “never to submit or yield,” while also peeling back the layers of delusion, self-aggrandizement, and fabrication in Satan’s accounting of himself. Here were radicalism and fraudulence, freedom and its counterfeit fused in a single personality not easily pigeonholed.

Act I, equality. Act II …?

As I began reading Paradise Lost in the fall of 1968, Mary Ann Radzinowicz would occasionally punctuate her lectures with brief asides about speeches and confrontations at the Democratic National Convention that had just concluded in August and on the national debates about policy and strategy in Vietnam. My marginal annotations to my old graduate school text of Milton tell part of the story. Much of Book II of the poem is devoted to a council on foreign policy in hell. Next to the hopeful but hollow speech of Belial, whose “Tongue / Dropt Manna” during the debate over the devils’ strategic attitude toward God in the aftermath of their downfall, I’ve penciled in “Hubert Humphrey rhetoric.” When Satan announces his expedition to Earth to avenge his defeat by destroying the Creator’s new human beings, his Seraphim celebrate “with pomp Supreme” their newly installed “dread Emperor.” My pencil note, reflecting the polit­ical conventions of the previous summer, reads: “A ‘spontaneous demonstration’ for the new standard bearer of the party of hell.” I hasten to say that Radzinowicz didn’t try to score cheap points or to turn Paradise Lost into a crowd-pleasing guidebook to American politics. Her notations to contemporary events were small change in the larger transactions of reading. She never lost sight of the epic poem we were traversing, but she made the politics and psychology of the epic as vital to us in 1968 as it had been for Milton’s first readers in 1668. For me, all the doors were flung wide open.

There’s more: How Raphael tries to teach Adam to be a misogynist. And the sex life of angels, too. Read it all here.


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