Monday, March 31, 2008

South and North

I’ve been away for the past week in North Derbyshire with my wife and daughter, visiting my in-laws, walking forest paths, lighting woodstoves against the chill weather. I finished Paradise Lost and will blog about it over the first week or two of April. Other than that, not much to report, but here’s a list of CDs we played in the car on the way down and up:

Trash Can Sinatras – I’ve Seen Everything
Beck – Odelay
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig Lazarus Dig!!!
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus
David Gray – White Ladder
Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Various Artists – The Little Mermaid (soundtrack)
Gotan Project – La Revancha del Tango
Morrissey – Ringleader of the Tormentors
Nicola Conte – Jet Sounds

All that interspersed with Radio 3 and Classic FM.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I'll be without Internet access for a few days, so I won't be able to post here. However, I'll continue to read and make notes on Paradise Lost. When I'm online again, I'll begin posting these.

I've installed moderatorial controls, but you can still comment. Comments will appear when my access returns. I've had to take this step because one of two of the "anonymouses" from the Stanza Report 2 thread (all of whom originally came to this blog from email links - strange, that...) have been posting abusive comments to various threads. Amazingly, these people have also tried to assert their own high moral ground. I've been reviewing poetry for a few years now and this is the first time I've experienced this kind of reaction. However, I stand by my comments, despite the obviously orchestrated (though anonymous) attempt to persuade me to censor them. I guess it's needless for me to say how badly that attempt reflects on all those involved.

So normal service will resume soon. April is NaPoWriMo and I plan to write lots of poetry, if I could just get more flesh on the bones of my current idea. We'll see. I also have three poetry collections to review for Magma magazine, so life is going to be busy.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Another Great Grog Taster

Another taster for what’s coming up at Poetry at the Great Grog on the 13th April. Just up is a short bio and poem from American, Edinburgh-based writer, Elizabeth Gold.

And you can also read a bio and poem from Tom Pow, posted a week or so ago.

Paradise Lost - Day 22

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today I reached Book 9, Line 1016.

Satan, in serpent guise, flatters Eve. He talks of how she is the most beautiful in all creation, but that she would be (L 541-548):

best beheld
Where universally admired; but here
In this enclosure wild, these beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who should’st be seen
A goddess among gods, adored and served
By angels numberless, thy daily train.

Eve is amazed the snake can talk and asks it how? Satan replies that he smelled the scent of a fruit, found the tree it grey on, and once eaten “such pleasure till that hour/ At feed or fountain never had I found” (L 595-597). He has speech, greater power of reason, and because of his superior nature, he can best appreciate Eve’s beauty.

Eve flirts with the serpent (L 615-16):

Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The virtue of that fruit, in thee first proved

Already Eve has become a bit of a tease. She’s ripe for the Fall. She asks to see the tree, but when she gets there, she tells the snake that God had told her never to eat its fruit. Satan tells her she doesn’t need to worry. Never has his powers of persuasion been exerted to greater effect. He’s worked out his game-plan really well (L 687-92):

Look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained then fate
Meant me, by venturing higher then my lot.
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open?

Satan says that Eve won’t die if she eats, that God may even reward their courage, and indeed that a firm knowledge of evil will actually help them to shun it (this is illogical, as not eating from the fruit means that evil won’t exist for them, but Satan makes it sound entirely reasonable). Satan continues saying that God wants to keep humans in their lowly place, but if they eat, they will be like gods. He then parodies the biblical injunction from Colossians 3 – “Set your affection on things above…for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” – with a quite brilliant gloss (L713-17):

So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on gods, death to be wished,
Though threatened, which no worse then this can bring
And what are gods that man may not become
As they, participating godlike food?

Satan works this god-imagery to the maximum. He finishes by saying of the fruit, “Goddess humane, reach them, and freely taste” (L 732). Eve look sat the fruit with desire. She addresses the tree with a stunning passage of poetry, entirely trusting the serpent’s story, and suggests of God that (L 753-60):

his forbidding
Commends thee more, while it infers the good
By thee communicated, and our want:
For good unknown, sure is not had, or had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.
In plain then, what forbids he but to know,
Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions bind not.

The snake hasn’t dies, she reasons. There can’t be any harm in trying the fruit, it will only make her wise. After all the build-up, Milton makes a bold decision in having the act take place suddenly – no taking the fruit, holding it, almost biting – she’s right in there. The starkness and awful simplicity works (L 780-84):

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

The snake slips away, but Eve doesn’t notice. All her attention is on the fruit. She takes great delight in it as if she had never tasted anything so delicious “or fancied so, through expectation high/ Of knowledge” (L 789-90). That word “fancied” being loaded with connotation of imagination and speculation, an immediate sign of the fall. And then in Line 793 she is “heightened as with wine”, recalling that fermented wine didn’t exist in pre-Fall paradise. The irrationality caused by it is the only “wisdom” Eve is tasting, although she thinks differently (as any drunk knows).

Eve promises to offer songs of praise to the tree each morning – songs she had previously offered to God. She resolves to persuade Adam to share in the fruit. She can’t bear to think of dying and then ‘another Eve’ being given to Adam in her place, so her first expression of love in Paradise Lost becomes a plan for her lover’s death (L 830-33):

Confirmed then I resolve,
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe:
So dear I love him, that with him all deaths
I could endure; without him live no life.

She finds Adam and begs him persuasively to eat the fruit, so that they will be together. Adam, to say the least, is shocked. He’d been out collecting flowers for her, but now (L 892-95):

From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve
Down dropped, and all the faded roses shed:
Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length
First to himself he inward silence broke.

That’s the first sign of decay in Paradise – those roses. He is aghast and knows that things have changed irrevocably, but he can’t bear to live without her. Even if God should give him a new woman, he’ll always love Eve, the flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. Then he calms down. He starts clutching at straws – maybe God won’t really destroy the pride of his own creation. Surely that would only hand victory to Satan. Eve senses his wavering and says she would never ask Adam to taste the fruit if she really thought he would die as a result – a complete lie, as we’ve already seen. She says she feels full of life and asks him to taste (L 989-90):

On my experience, Adam, freely taste,
And fear of death deliver to the winds.

This line may be connected with Death’s eerie sniffing from far away “the smell of mortal change on earth” (Book 10, L 272-73). Adam eats from the fruit, he and Eve “swim with mirth” (L 1009) and then (L 1013-15)

Carnal desire enflaming, he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn:

And we can guess what’s coming next.

Paradise Lost - Day 21

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday I reached Book 9, Line 531.

Eve reckons their work in the garden could be better done by splitting up to concentrate on different tasks. Adam sees the point, but is concerned that the enemy in their midst will find them weaker if separated. Eve is cross that Adam doubts her strength to resist the enemy. Adam says he doesn’t doubt her, but feels that together they will be stronger. In addition he knows that even temptation not given in to is capable of producing “scorn and anger” and in Eve’s presence, Adam knows that he would never shame himself by giving in.

Eve says that faith, love and virtue don’t amount to much if they can’t be sustained alone. Adam replies that they have free will and, with something that looks good (but is false), there’s always a danger of compromising oneself. But then, critically, he allows her to go, against his better judgement. In so doing, he also shares the blame for what is about to happen (L 370-75):

But if thou think, trial unsought may find
Us both securer then thus warned thou seem’st,
Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more;
Go in thy native innocence, rely
On what thou hast of virtue, summon all,
For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine.

Adam gives Eve free will rather than relying on passive obedience. I suppose you could see the ‘image of God’ in him at this point.

Eve’s response begins, “With thy permission then…”, again implicating Adam. She continues( L382-84):

The willinger I go, nor much expect
A foe so proud will first the weaker seek;
So bent, the more shall shame him his repulse.

Milton doesn’t intend irony here, but it’s hard to see the strong-willed Eve here as “weaker” than Adam who goes against what he knows is the best course of action. Eve goes off to the roses. Satan, from within the snake, sees her and is at first overcome by the beauty of the scene, and by Eve’s own beauty. It’s those moments of doubt that make Milton’s Satan such an appealing character, not just the great poetry of his speeches. For a brief moment, evil is undone (L 455-66):

Such pleasure took the serpent to behold
This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus early, thus alone; her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft, and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or lest action overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:
That space the evil one abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge

But then he remembers that all those pleasures of heaven have been denied him and “fierce hate he recollects” (L 471). He slips up to Eve, gets her attention, and begins to speak.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 20

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today I reached Book 9, Line 204.

There’s a lot in this section, which will be a true test of my resolution to post shorter pieces about Paradise Lost – by necessity of time more than anything else. I think I might have to slip a couple of paragraphs above my ideal length tonight.

Back in Book 8, in a dream, Adam sees Eve being made from one of his ribs, and he wakes to find she really exists. He is immediately besotted by her, but still reckons she’s a less perfect image of God than he is himself! In that, he was in agreement with most of Milton's contemporary theologians. But none of that matters for the way he looks on her (L 551-53):

All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, wisdom in discourse with her
Looses discountenanced, and like folly shows

However, this discourse seems to worry Raphael. Adam’s desire and passion is surpassing his respect for wisdom and knowledge. Neither Raphael, nor Milton, are going to let him away with that (L 562-66):

Do thou but thine, and be not diffident
Of wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou
Dismiss not her, when most thou needst her nigh,
By attributing overmuch to things
Less excellent

Raphael urges Adam to love Eve, but claims that passion and love are two different things. Reason couldn’t be allowed to fall under passion’s sway. The tradition was that passion only entered the world after the Fall, but Adam’s speech comes close to displaying passion – hence, Raphael’s alarm. Certainly, Adam’s fall is being patiently prefigured by Milton. Adam says that he feels deep desire but hasn’t been overcome by it (that’s a knife-edge position, as anyone who has felt desire for another human being will know!). Adam wants to know how angels love, and Raphael says they love like humans, except to an even higher degree. He doesn’t give away any more than that. Book 8 ends on an ominous note. The angel goes up to heaven “from the thick shade” (L 652) and Adam goes into his bower, previously described as “of thickest covert…interwoven shade.” At the beginning of Book 9, Milton mentions “Sin and her shadow Death” (Book 9, Line 8-9). The shadows are lengthening.

Book 9 begins with another invocation of the Muse, by whom Milton obviously believed he was completely possessed when writing. Satan, after being expelled from Eden, circles around for 7 nights (echoing the divine creation in 7 days), plotting his next move. Ingeniously, he metamorphoses into a “rising mist”. He marvels at the earth’s beauty and centrality, but his only pleasure can come with its destruction (L 129–32):

For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts; and him destroyed,
Or won to what may work his utter loss,
For whom all this was made

Satan speaks about his glory in, as he sees it, freeing the rebel angels from their servitude. He is angry that God, as he sees it, has replaced them with human beings, and is indignant that they appear to be served by angels. He finishes with a flourish, a typically great Satan-speech, as he decides to occupy the serpent (L 163-78):

O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast, and mixed with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the height of deity aspired;
But what will not ambition and revenge
Descend to? who aspires must down as low
As high he soared, obnoxious first or last
To basest things. Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on it self recoils;
Let it; I reck not, so it light well aimed,
Since higher I fall short, on him who next
Provokes my envy, this new favourite
Of heaven, this man of clay, son of despite,
Whom us the more to spite his maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.

Satan finds a serpent, enters its mouth, possesses its brain, and waits for morning. Adam and Eve rise at the beginning of a new day…

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 19

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today I reached Book 8, Line 452.

Adam continues to press Raphael for information about the universe. He has doubts over the theory of a motionless earth that the rest of the universe spins around. The speed necessary for its orbit every 24 hours seem impossible. Raphael replies that many enquiries are pointless, and that Adam’s amazement at the stars may be misplaced (L 90-97):

consider first, that great
Or bright infers not excellence: the earth
Though, in comparison of heaven, so small,
Nor glistering, may of solid good contain
More plenty then the sun that barren shines,
Whose virtue on it self works no effect,
But in the fruitful earth; there first received
His beams, unactive else, their vigour find.

Raphael talks for a while about how the universe works. His ideas reflect current theories of his time and many will seem odd to us now, but Milton demonstrates incredible breadth of knowledge in Paradise Lost – contemporary scientific theory, theology, classical myth, literature etc. He knew it all. He often avoids coming down in favour of one scientific theory or another but incorporates many of them into his cosmological system, so that God isn’t tied into any human theories.

Adam is content when Raphael urges him not to over-indulge in imagination or speculative theory and turns to matters nearer at hand. He tells Raphael his own account of life since his creation, particularly the time when God led him to Paradise in what at first seemed a dream, a place where each tree (L 307-09):

Loaden with fairest fruit, that hung to the eye
Tempting, stirred in me sudden appetite
To pluck and eat

God reveals himself to Adam as the creator of all. Adam feels alone and says that the world, even Eden, isn’t enough. He has no equal to interact with. God says that he, himself, also has no equal. Does Adam consider him to be lonely? Adam replies that God can raise creatures to a divine level if he wants. God is pleased with Adam and says that he’s always planned to give him a companion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ekphrastic Competition

My poem, Theatre of Marcellus, has been judged runner-up in the 2008 Creative Writing Competition run by the National Galleries of Scotland, the English-Speaking Union and the Scottish Poetry Library. The idea was to write a poem inspired by an artwork in one of the National Galleries. You have to scroll down to the bottom of the page (at the link), under the “published adults” category, to find that Shore Poet, Ian McDonough, was the winner, and that I shared the runner-up spot with none other than Alan Gay.

Not sure I want to post the poem here at the moment, but here’s the photograph (a little information also at the link) that inspired it. Amazing photo!

Paradise Lost - day 18

I am still continuing my attempt to read Paradise Lost in one month. This week is really busy and next week I won’t have access to a computer over several days. So I’m going to cut how much I write – just a paragraph or two per 400 lines. That’s the only manageable way of doing this now. I’ve just reached the end of Book 7, at line 640.

Book 7 reads like an intermission, although I suppose it does reflect on Adam’s desire for knowledge and builds up to the point at which human desire takes that bite too far. But the information Adam asks Raphael – about how the world and humankind were created – is within Raphael’s brief from God. While Raphael is happy to tell Adam the creation story, his words contain a string in the tail, given the role that food was soon to play in the fall (L 126-130):

But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

The rest of the book consists of a retelling of the Genesis myth. Milton manages to incorporate a number of contemporary cosmological theories into his account so as to avoid pinning God’s acts down to any one of them. The idea of light being created before the sun is dealt with ingeniously, for example. There is some fine poetry in sections of Book 7, although it’s not the most exciting part of Paradise Lost. However, the sound and rhythms are especially good here, just after the description of the creation of cows (L 463-74):

The grassy clods now calved, now half appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane; the ounce,
The libbard, and the tiger, as the mole
Rising, the crumbled earth above them threw
In hillocks; the swift stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarce from his mould
Behemoth biggest born of earth upheaved
His vastness: fleeced the flocks and bleating rose,
As plants: ambiguous between sea and land
The river horse and scaly crocodile.

And with great timing, the very last created thing before humankind is the serpent, the perfect touching-up of the official accounts (L 495-99):

The serpent subtlest beast of all the field,
Of huge extent sometimes, with brazen eyes
And hairy mane terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call.
Now heaven in all her glory shone…

Great irony in that last line of course. Raphael wraps up his account of creation with the creation of man and woman, and gives a final warning about the dangers of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God rests on the seventh day and the host of heaven sing their joy at it all, especially about how the plot of the rebels has failed. Although a number of rebel angels have been lost to heaven, the earth will make up for it, especially those who have been made in God’s image.

Paradise Lost - Day 16 & 17

More Paradise Lost in one month. Over the weekend, I got to the end of Book 6, at Line 912.

God the Father has decided it’s time to finish off the rebel angels and so tells the Son that his moment of glory has arrived. Jesus boards his chariot with Victory by his side and his bow and quiver “with three-bolted thunder stored” (L 764). The demons see him coming, but like Pharaoh when asked to set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, “they hardened more” (L 791) on seeing his glory. No one else helps Jesus against the rebels. The victory will be his alone and Milton makes plain that it’s the rebels’ own doing that has brought about their doom. Jesus is a wrathful figure, and these are not the kind of images likely to feature in many contemporary sermons (L 835-43):

Among them he arrived; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent
Before him, such as in their souls infixed
Plagues; they astonished all resistance lost,
All courage; down their idle weapons dropped;
O'er shields and helms, and helmed heads he rode
Of thrones and mighty seraphim prostrate,
That wished the mountains now might be again
Thrown on them as a shelter from his ire.

And it’s all effortless. This is the real shocker: that contrast between the two-day battle between the loyal and rebel angels which the good angels were winning but with a great deal of effort and with nothing decisive. The Son hardly breaks sweat (L 853-55):

Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked
His thunder in mid volley, for he meant
Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven:

The descriptions in this entire section are as vivid and dramatic as any page-turner blockbuster. The Son appears to sweep the rebels towards the chasm opening up beyond the borders of heaven. They can’t resist (L 862-866):

the monstrous sight
Strook them with horror backward, but far worse
Urged them behind; headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of heaven, eternal wrath
Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.

Definitely, read all of this bit! The anguish and desperation is powerfully conveyed. The rebels fall for nine days through chaos before “hell at last/ Yawning received them whole, and on them closed” (L 874-75); the sheer force of it! – the yawn like an animal receiving its dinner without the slightest effort on its part, the food received whole almost like a snake, the mouth closing into darkness.

The Son returns to heaven to a palm branch waving crowd, which made me think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but which may have its roots here more in the apocalyptic literature of Revelation 7: 9, where a white-robed crowd stand before the throne in heaven, palm branches (signs of victory) in their hands, singing triumphant songs.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Great Grog News

To whet your appetite for the next set of readings at the Poetry at the Great Grog series on Sunday 13th April, I thought I’d ask each of the readers to contribute a brief bio and a poem to the Great Grog site.

The first contribution is from Tom Pow - really interesting poem. What made it of added interest to me is that the final line is one-word different from the version in the book. The book says "splintered" where the text Tom sent me says "leftover".

Sunday, March 16, 2008

StAnza Poetry Festival 2008: report, part 2

Got back to the StAnza Poetry Festival this morning in time for the masterclass in translation, featuring poets who use dialect in their work – Franconian, Scots, Shetlandic. It was a entertaining session, and comparing the translations they (and members of the audience) had done of one another’s work was fascinating.

I skipped away a little early to catch Cheryl Follon’s reading. She was excellent, just as she had been at the Great Grog last month. There’s a real dynamism about her poems when read out loud, plenty of fireworks going on sonically and rhythmically, but not in a show-off way.

I had soup afterwards with Andy Jackson and Cheryl, who had to rush off for her train. So Andy and I had a pint of lager in The Criterion pub on the St Andrews main street, before the Wholly Communion film, which featured readings to a packed Royal Albert Hall (try filling that for a poetry reading these days…in fact, maybe it would be possible??), by Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue etc. The lager was fine for me, but most members of that audience looked as if they were under the influence of something far more potent. A few of the poems still sounded good today, others came over as pretentious crap, but the film made compelling viewing.

I had a coffee afterwards with Andy Philip, ran into Gerry Cambridge and Colin Will, and met sorlil for the first time. I looked at a few pamphlets at the Fair, talked with Jim Carruth for a while, and that was about it for me. On my way to the train station, I ran into Trish Ace and her friend (whose name has gone out of my head. Sorry) who filled me in on many gaps in my knowledge regarding the current Scottish poetry scene.

So that’s StAnza for another year. I had a good time. The highlight was undoubtedly August Kleinzahler’s reading on the Friday evening. That will stay with me for a while.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 14 & 15

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday and today, I reached Book 6, Line 679.

Abdiel returns to celestial applause. The heavenly armies are massing, led by Michael and Gabriel. They march off in mid-air, so as to have an untroubled passage, and soon the two armies are face-to-face. Abdiel scolds Satan for his folly. He says that God “at one blow/ Unaided could have finished thee, and whelmed/ Thy legions under darkness” (L 140-42), and then, recalling the council meeting when only Abdiel took Satan on, says, “now learn too late/ How few sometimes may know, when thousands err” (L 147-48).

Satan echoes the Bible in his answer in L 166-69 (Hebrews 1: 13f – “To which of the angels said he at any time, ‘Sit on my right hand?...Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to ministering for them who shall be heirs of salvation?”):

I see that most through sloth had rather serve,
Ministering spirits, trained up in feast and song;
Such hast thou armed, the minstrelsy of heaven,
Servility with freedom to contend

But Abdiel has an answer all ready for that one. Satan has come out with this allegation before, that the angels are servile, “trained up,” and have so abdicated their notional freedom, but Abdiel comes at the question slant (L 178-83):

This is servitude,
To serve the unwise, or him who hath rebelled
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthralled;
Yet leudly dar'st our ministering upbraid.
Reign thou in hell thy kingdom, let me serve
In heaven God ever blessed

This also echoes, ironically, back to Satan’s speech in Book 1, line 263 – “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Abdiel swings his sword and rips through Satan’s crest. Satan backtracks. The battle begins. It goes on for a while and seems, to begin with, quite equal. In the middle of the chaos, Satan spots Michael and runs over to have a chat with him. The battle isn’t much detailed. It’s as though Milton deliberately decided to stand at a distance. One critic says that Milton felt war to be an unsuitable subject for epic poetry and only includes these battles because they are necessary for the plot. A modern-day battle-scene would have blood spattered all over the page, but with Milton, you get lines like this (L 211-17):

dire was the noise
Of conflict; over head the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew,
And flying vaulted either host with fire.
Sounder fiery cope together rushed
Both battles main, with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage

It’s as though the camera eye is always panning out. Even when Michael is swinging his sword about, it’s “squadrons at once” (L 250) that are “felled,” not much close up. So a lot left to the imagination. When Milton mentions a few battles between individual later on, he says he leaves out most of the details.

Michael tells Satan that he’s brought evil into existence and he should go back to hell immediately, or worse will happen to him. Satan is scornful and says he will win the fight, but Michael wounds him on the arm. It’s here we learn the first major disadvantage that Satan will have to cope with. The heavenly angels are impervious to pain, but Satan’s armies, through sin, have opened themselves to suffering. Their wounds heal after a short time, but they suffer pain until healing takes place. Satan’s followers step in to help him recover, but the episode is a bitter blow to his pride. The heavenly forces begin to take a decisive advantage and Satan’s troops have to retreat. While the demons can’t die, the pain they suffer is decisive.

Night falls and the demons come together. Their morale is at rock bottom. Satan tries to rally them by saying that God had sent forces he hoped would defeat them, but he hasn’t managed it – if they can hold on for one day, they can do it again, he argues (the argument is dodgy, as God hasn’t yet played an active part in the battle – he’s left it to his angels). Satan says they are healing, they’ve proved invulnerable despite the new pain, and perhaps the invention of “weapons more violent” (L 439) could swing things their way.

Nisroc speaks. He says they can’t go on fighting the impassive and invulnerable while feeling pain themselves. It’s hopeless. He then turns his irony, by implication, on Satan himself (L 464-68):

He who therefore can invent
With what more forcible we may offend
Our yet unwounded enemies, or arm
Our selves with like defence, to me deserves
No less than for deliverance what we owe.

He’s saying that anyone who can come up with the force to defeat their enemies will have their allegiance (i.e. not necessarily Satan). Satan remains calm. He says he already has the invention in raw materials below the soil of heaven – gunpowder! They begin looking beneath the ground and find the materials they need to make gunpowder. A little later, the heavenly armies see them coming and are pleased about it. As the cherub, Zophiel puts it (L 538-39):

Arm, warriors, arm for fight, the foe at hand,
Whom fled we thought, will save us long pursuit

But the demons divide heir flanks, and through the middle come their guns. When they fire them, the heavenly angels are thrown back in large numbers. There’s almost a comedy element to this, although I’m not sure it’s intentional (L 592-94):

That whom they hit, none on their feet might stand,
Though standing else as rocks, but down they fell
By thousands, angel on archangel rolled;

Milton does say shortly afterwards that their undignified collapsing both rendered them “more despised” (L 602) and gave “to their foes a laughter.” (L 603). So maybe comedy/farce is right enough. The heavenly forces are anything but amused. They solve their temporary problem by picking up entire mountains and hills and throwing them at the demons. They weren’t expecting that! The demons are in big trouble again. God isn’t to keen to have much more of heaven torn to pieces and decides it’s getting near time for his Son to finish things off.

StAnza Poetry Festival 2008: report, part 1

I had a good time at StAnza yesterday. First I saw Annie Freud on the life and work of TS Eliot and Janice Galloway on that of Edward Lear. They were both really good and it was interesting to see the differences and (perhaps more surprising) the unexpected connections between the two poets.

I saw Sarah Maguire’s StAnza lecture on “poetry and conflict”. It should be on the web at the StAnza site quite soon. She was asserting the importance of poetry even though that importance isn’t taken seriously in western culture. She contrasted that with how vital poetry is in many other cultures e.g. middle eastern and Arabic cultures. And in despotic societies, where even lyric poetry is viewed as subversive, there is a hunger for it. But despite the marginalisation of poetry in the west, it’s nonetheless vital that poets here continue to speak.

That summary of an hour-long talk is a gross simplification of course. It was an interesting speech. I suppose I’m left with the feeling of not really knowing what response she was hoping for, what her aim was. It certainly did make me ask questions. If lyric poetry possesses an innate value and is “a way of happening” (Auden) in itself, what does that mean in a society in which few people read poetry? What’s “happening” exactly and what value can it have if the vast majority ignore it? And if the dominant lyric poem hasn’t been a “way of happening” for the vast majority of people (who don’t read it), is there a need for poetry to engage more with public and political issues, not at the level of rant, but as a way of witness or warning (she quoted MacNeice, I think, as saying that poetry could act as a warning)? Would that have an impact on more people? Or should poets concentrate in getting their poems (lyric or otherwise) seen in unlikely places, outside the usual magazines that are read mainly by other poets?

In the evening, I saw Tess Gallagher and August Kleinzahler reading from their work. My favourite piece from Tess Gallagher was actually a short story – witty, warm, and clever. August Kleinzahler gave the best 45 minutes at StAnza so far. A really brilliant reading! Some people sitting at the back thought he was a bit quiet, but I was at the front and could hear no problem. A lot of people are touted as being great contemporary poets, but Kleinzahler is the real thing.

More on Paradise Lost coming later…

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 13

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached the end of Book 5, at Line 907.

The discussion on food between Adam and the seraph, Raphael, continues. Raphael says he can eat Adam’s food, even though it’s not his normal fare. It’s clear that Milton didn’t go along with the common idea that angels were purely spirit without body. In fact, he goes as far as to imagine them excreting – the word “redounds” meaning ‘remains in excess’ – “what redounds, transpires/ Through spirits with ease” (L 438-39). They eat together, a kind of communion between earth and heaven. Raphael mentions that one day humans may even become like angels, “if ye be found obedient” (L 501). Adam latches onto that phrase. What possible reason could there be for disobedience? He doesn’t get it. Raphael reminds Adam that God made humans “perfect but not immutable” (L 523-24). Adam is intrigued. Raphael tells him of Satan’s fall from heaven with all his hoards.

The story was that one day God made a speech in heaven – “This day I have begot whom I declare/ My only Son, and on this holy hill/ Him have anointed, whom ye now behold/ At my right hand” (L 603-05). All the angels are to swear allegiance to the Son. Anyone who disobeys him will fall “Into utter darkness, deep ingulfed, his place/ Ordained without redemption, without end” (L 614-15). Most seem happy enough about this arrangement, but you can guess who isn’t! Leaving Satan aside for a moment, it’s worth pondering again here why Milton’s Satan is such a compelling figure and why God seems so infuriating. I find Blake’s appraisal of Milton as one of devil’s party - whether Milton knew it or not - more than a little patronising. I think the problem is that evil is easier to represent. It’s possible to represent good with some vigour, but only as a result of tensions which threaten the good. In the case of God, it’s impossible that anything could threaten him, or he would cease to be God. Thus, in Paradise Lost, God appears emotionless, bland, hard to relate to, in comparison both to Satan and also to God’s less perfect angels, such as Gabriel, whose speeches in Book 4 were as cutting as Satan’s own. Michael Schmidt put it like this in “The Great Poets” supplement to the Independent newspaper a couple of days ago:

“Milton’s unequal skill in characterisation is understandable. Goodness, especially divine goodness, cannot be particularised without limiting it. Virtues are flimsy, abstract when they aspire to be comprehensive. Evil, however, has to be particularised. Men fall from grace in different ways, to different degrees. Evil acts in a world of characters we recognise. The devil has the best, the most diverse and seductive, tunes. A marriage between virtue and character, between pure qualities and mundane objects, is beyond most art, even his.”

Satan, we learn, was the most powerful archangel in heaven and feels jealous at the Son’s status. He talks to his next-in-command and asks him to call all those who have allegiance to him to gather together to receive the Son of God who will soon “pass triumphant” (L 693). This deception draws one-third of heaven and allows Satan to trust in his oratorical skills to muster a huge army.

However, God, knows it’s all happening. He knows everything, of course. How does he react? With indignation? Anger? Courage? No, Line 718 has, “And smiling to his only Son thus said…” and the Son’s response begins (L 733-735):

To whom the Son with calm aspect and clear
Lightning divine, ineffable, serene,
Made answer.

Complete control, untroubled, even a little humour: God seems perfectlyinhuman, which is Milton’s difficulty, because human is precisely what God can’t be represented as being, and perfection is almost impossible to portray.

Satan gathers the multitudes in his palace. He says that it’s time to cast off their yoke – the honour they must give to God and now the Son too. They are equal in freedom to God, so why should they obey him? A seraph, Abdiel, is the only one to speak against Satan. He is outraged, saying that God has only ever done good to them, and that far from being God’s equal, they are God’s creation, created indeed through his Son.

Satan replies that there’s no proof that God created them. This is Satan at his oratorical best, suggesting that the doctrine of creation through the Son, which Abdiel seems to have been familiar with, is in fact “new” (L 852-61):

That we were formed then say’st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power

So they are their own “gods”. Abdiel is furious and tells Satan that he’ll soon know the level of his power - “for soon expect to feel/ His thunder on thy head, devouring fire” (L 892-93).

He storms out the palace. The last lines, 896-907, of Book 5 are worth studying for their variation in rhythm, for the way sound and sense converge, for a free lesson on how to write blank verse:

So spake the seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only he;
Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud towers to swift destruction doomed.



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In Memory

I was at a funeral earlier today, of John Carrie, a Church of Scotland minister. I had learned a lot from John back in the early nineties when I was green and clueless; mainly about how to make things happen and work really well while giving an outward impression of complete chaos (a trait that was remembered with a laugh at the service). He always had about fifty new ideas a day and would have boundless enthusiasm for all of them. One speaker at the service began by saying that John was “not your standard minister,” and while I don’t know what a “standard minister” is, I know what he meant. The church in Queensferry, where John had served for the last 37 years – his only parish – was packed, but the local Roman Catholic Church (and this is in itself testimony to John) had opened its doors and a computer-generated audio link was relayed there to another packed congregation. That was where I ended up.

I’d last spoken to John almost a month past. He was soon to retire and was talking about that with his usual optimism. It’s really sad that his death came before he could enjoy retirement. Also sad that he died just before Easter. When we sang Thine Be the Glory at the end of the service, I knew there was every possibility that it would have closed John's own Easter Sunday service, had he lived to do it:

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering son.
Endless is the victory thou o’er death has won

He was a big Leonard Cohen fan. And this track, If It Be Your Will, is one of Leonard’s best ever – a song of untouchable beauty both musically and lyrically. I hope John would approve my choice.

Paradise Lost - Day 12

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached Book 5, Line 403.

Eve wakes up and recounts to Adam her bad dream of a spiritual being tempting her with deliciously-scented fruit from the tree of knowledge, and indeed to be “Thy self a goddess, not to earth confined” (L 78). Satan, in the dream, knows which buttons to press. He plays on the concept of ‘happiness’, an important word in Paradise Lost, recognising the human trait that believes the grass is always greener anywhere but here, and with typical irony, calls her “angelic”:

Here, happy creature, fair angelic Eve,
Partake thou also; happy though thou art,
Happier thou mayst be, worthier canst not be:

Eve feels disturbed and anxious. Adam tells her that ‘fancy’ can play tricks with one’s rational faculties, but that as she abhorred the tempter’s idea, she hasn’t done anything wrong (L 119-22):

Which gives me hope
That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,
Waking thou never wilt consent to do.
Be not disheartened then, nor cloud those looks

Eve feels better but still tears fall from her eyes. They go out and sing their morning hymn/prayer together. Like in several psalms, they invoke all nature to praise God for the gift of life and beauty and to cast away darkness. They get to work in the garden and feel their sense of unity and contentedness restored.

God sends the seraph, Raphael, to warn them of the danger and of who is behind it with his deceit and lies. If Adam transgresses, he won’t now have any excuse. God makes it clear that he has given his human creation enough power to withstand temptation if they so choose. Raphael flies to Eden where he’s spotted from a distance by Adam who tells Eve to give the kind of hospitality a visitor deserves. Eve collects fruits from the garden. They don’t heat up their meals as fire hasn’t been discovered yet (it was one of the consequences of the later fall).

Eve makes a drink from unfermented, crushed grapes - a symbol, as intoxicating wine was associated with the loss of rational control brought about by the fall. The image of a woman crushing grapes to make alcoholic wine became a common symbol of excess. However, the drink Eve makes is “inoffensive must” (L 345), the “must” being unfermented juice.

Raphael arrives and Adam invites him to dinner. Raphael accepts and greets Eve with the words (L 388-391):

Hail mother of mankind, whose fruitful womb
Shall fill the world more numerous with thy sons
Then with these various fruits the trees of God
Have heaped this table.

This recalls the ‘annunciation’ from Luke 1: 28, in which an angel tells Mary, the mother of Jesus – “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Just as Jesus was the ‘second Adam’, so Mary (the mother of the Messiah) is related to Eve (the mother of all). It’s a little surprising that Milton draws this parallel, given his Reformist sympathies and the suspicion with which many of the early Protestants viewed the Mary-cult. However, the parallel is with a biblical text, which might have swung it for Milton.

They sit down to eat. Adam speaks innocently to Raphael about the goodness of God, but with an unfortunate subtext he couldn’t have even suspected (L 400-402);

To us for food and for delight hath caused
The earth to yield; unsavoury food perhaps
To spiritual natures

Adam’s curiosity about the dietary habits of spiritual beings might be seen as a short step along the path to become like a god by eating what only they can eat.

It's StAnza 2008!

The StAnza Poetry Festival kicks off today at St Andrews. Sadly, I can’t be there until Friday, which means I’ll miss the likes of Tim Turnbull, John Burnside, Penelope Shuttle etc. I also can’t be there on the Saturday, so I will miss August Kleinzahler’s intimate “Round Table reading,” the dream-ticket of AB Jackson and Alexander Hutchison, and the excellent Alison Brackenbury and Michael Schmidt combo.

So what do I plan to see on the Friday and Sunday? Well, if there are still tickets left, I’ll try to get to:


1. Showcase: Gregory Award Winners
2. Past and Present: Eliot, Lear (little chance of tickets being left for that!)
3. StAnza Lecture: Sarah Maguire
4. Reading: August Kleinzahler and Tess Gallagher


1. Masterclass: Translation
2. Poetry Theatre: Bowen and Lloyd
3. Poetry Film: Wholly Communion

And there are plenty of other things to do – various exhibitions, a pamphlet fair, a bar – I’m sure to find time to check out all these venues as well. I wish I could stay to hear James Fenton and Adrian Mitchell on the Sunday evening, but I’ve got to pick up my daughter from her cousins’ house before it gets too late.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 11

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached the end of Book 4, Line 1015.

Got to say, Book 4 has been a terrific read, the best Book so far. Great drama, fantastic poetry, and today – at last – a good angel whose sarcasm is at least a match for Satan.

Adam and Eve retire to their bower, which Milton describes in fitting paradisaical terms. But then comes a moment of controversy (L742-47):

nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.

Sex before the fall! Of course, this would have annoyed certain people. Some theologians argued that if Adam and Eve were to conceive before the fall, then Cain would have been surely born free from original sin. And doesn’t the purity of innocence – their lack of clothes (and the later embarrassment after the fall when they suddenly discover they are naked) - suggest a lack of sexual love? But other theologians reckoned that conception in innocence wouldn’t preclude subsequent infection with original sin. So there!

The action switches to the angel Gabriel who tells the angel Uzziel that a fallen angel may have infiltrated Eden. They send a couple of cherubs, Ithariel and Zephon, to root the evil being out, and it doesn’t take them long. Satan, in the form of a toad, is whispering into the sleeping Eve’s ear. Milton believed that devils had no access to human reason, only to their imagination – hence Satan’s attempt to infiltrate Eve’s dream-state. The two cherubs know something’s wrong, as animals never entered the bower (“Beast, bird, insect, or worm durst enter none;/ such was their awe of man.” – L 704). But Satan is so taken aback that he changes into himself again anyway.

The cherubs don’t ingratiate themselves to Satan. They ask him who he is and Satan is scornful that they don’t recognise him. Satan, despite the many admirable qualities Milton gives him, has a massive ego. The cherubs are no pushover and answer Satan in terms just as scornful – “Thou resemblest now/ Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul” (L 840) – that word “obscure” connoting both the sense of ‘dark’ and ‘unimportant’.

Satan gets quite emotional over this (L 846-50):

abashed the devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined
His loss; but chiefly to find here observed
His lustre visibly impared

That’s his inward thoughts. But outwardly, Satan is still “undaunted”. Still shocked, he allows himself to be arrested by the two cherubs and brought to Gabriel. The discourse between Gabriel and Satan is brilliant. They both try to out-insult one another and the result is extraordinarily entertaining. Gabriel begins by asking Satan why he has broken out of hell. Satan’s reply is suitably acerbic (L886-90):

Gabriel, thou hadst in heaven the esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question asked
Puts me in doubt. Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell…?

But Gabriel gives as good as he gets. How could someone like Satan, who fell in folly, dare to question Gabriel’s wisdom? Is he daft enough to think that escaping his current punishment won’t reap much worse? And seeing as Satan is alone, Gabriel asks after the hoards left behind in hell (L 918-921):

Is pain to them
Less pain, less to be fled, or thou than they
Less hardy to endure? Courageous chief,
The first in flight from pain…

Satan tells Gabriel that Gabriel can’t know from experience what it means still to show courage and endurance as a leader even after suffering defeat. He says he wants a new place to settle. Gabriel, perhaps a little stung by Satan’s taunt that he doesn’t really know what courage means, hits back hard (L 957-61):

And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem
Patron of liberty, who more then thou
Once fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored
Heavens awful monarch? Wherefore but in hope
To dispossess him, and thy self to reign?

Critics have argued over this passage. Those who view Milton (unknown to himself) as belonging partly to the devil’s camp, pick out words like “fawned” and “cringed” and “servilely” to suggest that Milton’s heaven depicts God as an egomaniac tyrant ruling by fear, much as Satan did in hell. But other critics suggest that Gabriel, in the heat of the argument, is using his opponent’s terms (in L 945, Satan accused the good angels of cringing), the way people often do in arguments, without meaning they depict reality.

Gabriel tells Satan to go back to where he came from, but Satan, enraged, is ready to fight the whole lot of them. The cherubs surround him with their spears and a terrible fight is about to ensue, until God tries to stop the fight by creating a pair of scales which hang in the air.

It’s worth asking why God didn’t allow the fight to go ahead and crush Satan there and then, rather than allowing him the opportunity to corrupt humankind. It’s clear from previous passages that Milton regarded free will as vital. Adam and Eve had to have the choice to obey, as obedience without choice was meaningless. The cherubs here have fulfilled an important function, stopping Satan’s attempt to brainwash Eve in her sleep, but the temptation at the tree had to be her conscious choice to accept or resist. So God steps in with the scales to stop the fight.

The scales tip up and the weights on Satan’s side fly into the air. Gabriel, not missing a trick, delivers his final barb (L 1011-1015):

And read thy lot in yon celestial sign
Where thou art weighed, and shown how light, how weak,
If thou resist. The fiend looked up and knew
His mounted scale aloft: nor more; but fled
Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Reading, Two Blogs, and a Gap

For any of you fed up with my menu of continual Paradise Lost reports this month, here is some other news.

As you may have already read on Tonguefire, various poets on HappenStance Press, including myself, will be reading at the Troubadour Coffee House in London on Monday 26 May. So to all my friends in the south, I hope you can make it there. I’m going to stay over, so there should be time to catch up afterwards, even if it is a Monday night. More news nearer the time, I guess. Good to see HappenStance continuing to extend its profile and reputation.

I wondered at the start of the month whether Paradise Lost would bring more or less visitors to this blog. I suspected less, but wasn’t certain of that. At the moment, the situation is unclear. A slight tailing-off, but not anything major. One of the good things about blogging is that commercial considerations don't count. I can write about what I want for whoever wants to read it. If no one wants to read it, no line-manager is breathing down my neck threatening to sack me. But if you’re desperate for something else to read, you could check out Andrew Shields’s Daily Poem Project, in which he asks you to vote for your favourite poem of the week posted at Poetry Daily (all the links are at his blog). Or you could read the responses to the first of the questions Poet Hound posed last month - the one about how we can best support poets.

Finally, I haven’t written a new poem for about a month now. I’d like to say that’s because I’m looking towards writing one-poem-a-day in April’s NaPoWriMo madness, but I don’t have even a single idea yet for that. Without some kind of unifying concept, theme, form or narrative, I’ll never manage it. Perhaps Milton will inspire me before March is out…

Paradise Lost - Day 10

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached Book 4, Line 689.

Milton describes the smooth rivers and fragrant trees of Eden, with occasional hints of what’s to come e.g. “with mazy error under pendant shades/ Ran nectar” (L 239-40), the “error” here not connoting anything devious and the “shades” meaning only leaves and braches, not the approaching shadows. Everything is perfect, even the roses are without thorns. Adam and Eve live contentedly, in God’s image, described in ways that may have earned Milton a few anachronistic pot-shots from feminist critics (L 295-299):

though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him

They walk hand in hand (L 321), just as they will leave Eden hand in hand after the fall (the final lines in Paradise Lost are, “They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way”). Animals play in the garden – lions, tigers, goats all together. The serpent slides through the grass unheeded – another premonition.

Satan looks on in pity. He can’t help but admire the creation, but his pity doesn’t result in action. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The union with humankind that Satan seeks is to sow the seeds of their corruption and to drag them into his internal and external hell. His lines, which could in other contexts have been spoken by a lover, exude only irony (L 375-77):

League with you I seek,
And mutual amity so strait, so close,
That I with you must dwell, or you with me

There’s a strong tradition dating back to the third century that Satan wasn’t permitted to use any animal other than the serpent for his purposes, but in this scene from Paradise Lost, he takes the form of various animals to avoid detection. However, while the other animals live in peace and harmony together, Satan appears fierce and predatory. Of course, in the Bible, Satan is depicted as a “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5: 8).

Adam chats to Eve about how wonderful Eden is, and how great God is to make such a gift to them when they can give nothing in return. They have been asked only to tend the garden, which they enjoy, and not to eat of the tree of knowledge, which doesn’t seem too hard a task. They’ve been told that eating from the tree will bring death, “what e’er death is” (L 428). Adam says that it’s hardly worth disobeying the command, as they couldn’t be any happier.

Eve replies. She remembers waking up on her first day of life, seeing her reflection in the river, and falling in love with it (not realising she was seeing herself) – a touch of the Narcissus there. She finds Adam. At first she is reluctant to enter into relationship with him as she doesn’t think he’s as beautiful as she is, but eventually realises that “beauty is excelled by manly grace/ And wisdom, which alone is truly fair” (L 490-91). Milton is emphasising her free will. She had the choice to reject Adam, but decided not to.

Satan sees their happiness and love and is understandably envious, but envy is quickly superseded by euphoria when their discussion hatches his plan to tempt them through the tree of knowledge (L 517-522):

can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin!

Satan shoots off, hoping to find more weaknesses to exploit. Meanwhile, at the east gate of Eden, the angel Gabriel sits guard. Uriel arrives and tells him the story of how Satan deceived him and may already have entered Eden. Gabriel assures him that no bad angel has entered by the gate and that if he has entered in some other way, he’ll be found very soon.

Night is falling. Adam tells Eve that, unlike the animals who just laze about, they need to rest to be fresh for the next morning. Eve agrees, again in terms that might engender a few sharp intakes of breath (L 635-638):

My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.

Adam goes on to explain that night falls because the sun must warm and give light to many other lands in preparation for their habitation, to ward off the attempts of night to bring total darkness, and to help out “the millions of spiritual creatures” who populate these zones and “lift our thoughts to heaven” (L 688).

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 9

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached Book 4, Line 222.

I’d found Book 3’s theological discussion in heaven a touch long-winded and the description of Satan’s journey through Chaos was difficult to picture at times, but this latest section was really good. Satan, in the guise of a cherub, asks Uriel how to reach Eden, and does so with wonderfully ironic piety. Empson suggests part of the pious effect is achieved by packing his speech with “all’s” – "where all his sons thy embassy attend" (L 658), “all these his wondrous works” (L 663), “all these his works so wondrous” (L 665), “but all these shining orbs his choice to dwell" (L 670). I suppose it does have that effect!

Satan tells Uriel that he wants to reach the home-planet of man, “that I may find him, and with secret gaze/ Or open admiration him behold.” (L 671-72). These are very similar to the words King Herod used when asking the wise men to come back with information if they found the promised Messiah, while actually plotting to kill him.

I wondered why Uriel couldn’t see past Satan’s disguise. Hadn’t God informed him that Satan was in the vicinity? But Milton had also thought about that one (L 684-84):

For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone

Over and above that particular, Milton wants to give his good angels faults and limitations, so that it’s clear only God is supreme and perfect. Uriel marvels at God’s creation from nothingness and then points Satan towards the earth, where the sun shines by day and the moon wards off night’s complete darkness. Satan speeds towards his goal.

Book 4 opens with Milton wishing that some voice had been raised to warn Adam and Eve of their plight. Satan rushes towards Eden but not in the happiest state of mind (L 17-23)

horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The hell within him, for within him hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place

There is some superb poetry in this Book, like the passage above and then later on as Satan’s doubts weigh him down. He sees the beauty and peace of Eden, and the terrible nature of his plot troubles even himself. God had been good to him before his initial rebellion, he remembers, and hadn’t deserved his evil reaction. His soliloquy is fantastic. Firstly, lines 73-83:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; my self am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for repentance, none for pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the spirits beneath

And then lines 88-92:

Under what torments inwardly I groan;
While they adore me on the throne of hell,
With diadem and sceptre high advanced
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery; such joy ambition finds.

Cliff Richard asked why the devil should get all the best tunes. Well, Milton certainly gives the devil much of the best poetry. Despite his doubts and torment, Satan believes that if he repented, he would simply fall again, even if God chose to forgive him. So he loses hope and expresses that with yet more terrific lines:

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my good

His change of mood causes his cherub-disguise to fall away and, unknown to Satan, Uriel is still watching him and realises it is Satan he’s sent towards Eden. Ominously, the scent of fruit trees greets Satan as he reaches Eden’s high walls, and he leaps over them, rather than using the gate, a reference to John 10:1, “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”

With shuddering irony, Satan lands on the tree of life where he sits like a cormorant “devising death/ To them that lived” (L 197-98). Next to him stands the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 8

More Paradise Lost in one month. I missed out Day 7. Today, I reached Book 3, Line 653.

God has said that humanity can be saved only through grace, but so as to satisfy divine justice, another must step forward to pay the price of the coming sin. There is silence in heaven (interesting!), until the Son offers himself (L 236-241):

Behold me then, me for him, life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleased, on me let Death wreck all his rage

Jesus is confident that he’ll rise from death, but he’s prepared to go through hell first, so “admiration seized all heaven” (L 271-2). God the Father replies, very pleased with the Son’s decision. The best bit comes in lines 305-312, a meditation on how power and prestige should be exercised:

Because thou hast, though throned in highest bliss
Equal to God, and equally enjoying
God-like fruition, quitted all to save
A world from utter loss, and hast been found
By merit more then birthright Son of God,
Found worthiest to be so by being good,
Far more then great or high; because in thee
Love hath abounded more then glory abounds

The angels appreciate God’s speech and raise a song of their own, lasting 72 lines (L 344-415), corresponding to the 72 people Jesus sent out with his message in the synoptic Gospels. Also, by tradition, there were 72 angelic names. In Milton, it seems, no word is there simply by chance. The angels’ song is one of praise to God an account of the previous victory over the rebel angels, and praise to the Son for the love shown in offering to die for humanity.

That’s the scene in heaven. The action then switches to “the firm opacous globe/ Of this round world, whose first convex divides/ The luminous inferior orbs” (L 418-20) where Satan walks, the sphere of the fixed stars and planets, outside both heaven and chaos. The place is lifeless, although later all vain and transitory things will fill it like aerial vapours. It’s probable that Milton based this idea on various satires and comedies depicting a limbo of fools and didn’t really take it seriously himself. The builders of the tower of Babel would be likely to end up there, as would those who seek Christ on pilgrimage to Golgotha (when he is risen) and (rather mischievously) those clad in Franciscan and Dominican robes. They would come near heaven and see Peter at the gates with his keys (an unbiblical concept Milton is satirizing), but a sudden wind would blow them “ten thousand leagues away” (L 498).

But at this time, the whole region is “unpeopled and untrod.” Suddenly a ladder appears from heaven, a clear reference to the vision Jacob had of a ladder stretching to heaven, soon after he had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright. Just afterwards, an opening emerges, stretching down to earth. Satan looks out on all this with wonder. After all the nothingness, this panoramic vision must have been astonishing. He’s not in the best of moods, after being taunted by the ladder to the very place where entry is impossible for him, but he’s definitely interested in the universe laid out before him. He flies in the general direction of the sun and soon he’s in a place of almost indescribable light (L 613-16):

Here matter new to gaze the devil met
Undazzled, far and wide his eye commands,
For sight no obstacle found here, nor shade,
But all sunshine

In the sun, Satan sees an angel (Revelation 19:17 – “I saw an angel standing in the sun”). He’s glad to find someone who might know the way to the earth, but realises that the archangel Uriel might not be too willing to help. So Satan metamorphoses into a cherub.


More Paradise Lost coming later. The online section of Sphinx issue 8 is up with forty new reviews of chapbook collections, including three reviews written by me:

The Beach Generation by John O’Donoghue
A Tapselteerie Touer by Andrew Tannahill
Relinquish by Meryl Pugh

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Voxbox Tango

Despite being really tired yesterday evening, I decided to make the effort to check out Voxbox, a new performance poetry venue in Edinburgh, run by Anita Govan and Kevin Cadwallender.

The Mercat Bar was a good, atmospheric venue for poetry. The performances varied from quite good to disturbingly inexplicable.

It was great to meet up again with Mike Stocks (editor of Anon Magazine, poet, and award-winning novelist) and the Andrea whose surname I didn’t know the previous evening at the Scottish Poetry Library (report, a couple of posts ago). Well, now I do know it. Andrea Dobson is from New Zealand, but lives in Edinburgh, and is an talented visual artist (you can see some of her work at the link) and highly accomplished tango-dancer.

There is a subterranean tango scene in Edinburgh that I previously didn’t know existed. Mike is involved. Kapka Kassabova too. They are all at it! Perhaps all poets and artists go to these tango events and only I didn’t know about them. I am a useless dancer. I can do Scottish Country Dancing, but only because it was drummed into me when I was at primary school. I remember lining up in the gym, the boys at one wall and the girls at the other. The boys had to walk forwards and choose a girl. There were always one or two who were never chosen and had to dance with each other or with the teacher. Ugh…horrible.

I bought two raffle tickets, gave one to Andrea, and - guess what! - she won a 5-CD set of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Paradise Lost - Day 6

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday, I reached Book 3, Line 216.

The gulf between hell and heaven is long and chaotic. No substance holds its shape, nothing is constant, and Milton describes it brilliantly (L 911-20):

Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

And there you have it in Line 917 – if you want to create a best-selling series of books for children, with movie offshoots, grab your title from Milton!

Satan negotiates this confusing world with difficulty, but for Milton, the fall of man must be caused both by Satan’s evil will and by contingency. Satan flies on a gust of surging smoke and then next minute plummets into a bottomless chasm and still would be plummeting today “had not by ill chance/ The strong rebuff of some tumultuous cloud/ Instinct with fire and nitre hurried him/ As many miles aloft.” (L 935-38)

He comes before the thrones of Night and Chaos, rulers of this place, and asks for directions to heaven. He promises them that his plan will reduce the earth to its “original darkness” and that Night’s standard will once more be raised there – a little misleading as that was only one of the options the infernal council had discussed in Book 2, but it works. Night and Chaos give Satan the guidance he needs. Book 2 ends with Satan at the walls of heaven, and a fantastic image, adapted from Homer. Homer’s Zeus asserts that if he lowered a golden chain from heaven, he could draw up by it all the other gods, the earth and the sea, and hang them from a pinnacle on Mount Olympus. In Paradise Lost, lines 1051-55, Satan gets his first sight of his destination, our poor old planet:

And fast by hanging in a golden chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accursed, and in a cursed hour he hies.

In Book 3, the action switches to heaven. Milton invokes his heavenly Muse again, grateful to have got through the poetry of hell and the gulf kingdom, but troubled. Milton had gone blind. It’s astonishing to think that a blind man could have written anything as lengthy and ambitious as Paradise Lost, and he certainly strikes a melancholy note (L 40-48):

Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summers rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank

A couple of evenings ago, at the reading I went to featuring Kapka Kassabova and Tracey Herd at the Scottish Poetry Library, a member of the audience wanted to know what it would take for them to write “happy poems.” I wonder what he would make of Milton! The truth is that the above is a beautiful, lyrical passage that possesses its own illumination, and without it the world would be that microscopic amount darker. Perhaps that’s one oblique answer to the audience member’s question?

Anyway, God surveys his creation from his throne – heaven, earth, hell, the gulf, and Satan at heaven’s walls. He can see it all. He says he created free will because no act would have meaning without it, and he won’t change the aspect of creation. When humanity falls, it will have fallen partly through being deceived rather than a fully conscious choice. Jesus, on his right-hand side is nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity. Will they continue to follow Satan, or will God eventually have to abolish what he had made? God has said that “I made him just and right/ Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (L 98-99). So humanity had been given the resources to withstand the temptation – deceived, but not altogether blameless. Humanity can find hope only in God’s grace, he says, and must respond to him.

This negotiates complex theological arguments of the time. God’s mercy and grace are the “instrumental cause” of human salvation, but humanity’s prayer, obedience etc are a “helping cause”. This compares with the more extreme Calvinists who didn’t believe in a “helping cause” and the Catholics for whom the “helping cause” was as integral as the “integral cause.” Well… I’m glad we’ve got that one sorted out!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 5

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday, I reached Book 2, Line 910.

The fallen angels disperse across the plains of hell. Some find a land of ice, where souls are transported from the fires and then back again, so that their agony is made all the greater by the extremes. There is a Dantean, grotesque imagination at work here. The Lethe river offers possible relief, as anyone who drank from it would forget everything, including pain and woe, but the river is guarded by Medusa, the Gorgon of Homer, whose glance could turn anyone meeting her eyes to stone. If anyone got past her to the river, the water would recede from their lips: a desert mirage that offers hope and steals it away.

Satan moves through this landscape until the gates of hell, guarded by Sin, a half-woman half-serpent, and Death, a shapeless horror with a fatal poison-dart, and which “what seemed his head/ The likeness of a kingly crown had on.” (L 672-3). Satan is at first aggressive. He says he’s going through:

Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof,
Hell-born, not to contend with the spirits of heaven. (L 687)

This is, we later learn, highly ironic, as Death was conceived in heaven - Sin is his mother and Satan his father, when they were indeed both residents of heaven. Sin was so beautiful then that Satan doesn’t recognise her in her current, hideous fallen state. Death replies with scorn and echoes Satan’s “hell-bound” jibe (L 696-99):

And reckonest thou thyself with spirits of heaven,
Hell-doomed, and breathest defiance here and scorn,
Where I reign king, and to enrage thee more,
Thy king and lord?

It looks as though there will be a fight to the death. Satan remains calm, although inwardly furious. Sin breaks up the fight and tells Satan the truth about Death’s parentage. Also that Death (their son) had raped her and that the offspring, a pack of yowling dogs, continually feed on her bowels – again that Dantean horror. She has been given keys to the hell-gates and told by God she must never open them.

Why God entrusted the keys to Sin is a matter of conjecture! She clearly has little to gain from this arrangement, except perhaps the unsubstantiated hope that if she does her job faithfully, her suffering might be lessened. Satan, of course, is quick to spot an opportunity, and changes his tune. Sin and Death, who have been described by Milton in hideous terms, find themselves addressed by Satan:

Dear daughter, since thou claim’st me for thy sire,
And my fair son here show’st me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in heaven (L 817-19)…

Satan says he comes only to rescue them from their plight and that he will give them power on earth when his mission succeeds, a prophecy he will manage to fulfil. So Satan makes a promise and then later keeps it – a devil of honour! At this point, he sees the latent possibilities of Sin and Death, how useful they could be to him, not only to let him pass through the gates, but to aid his attempt to bring God’s new creation of humanity to ruin.

Sin sees the point. Why should she obey God’s command? What has God ever done for her? She turns to Satan and says (L 864-70):

Thou art my father, thou my author, thou
My being gavest me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow? Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

Sin had previously reminded Satan that, in heaven, “shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed/ Out of they head, I sprung” (L 757-8) and that they had become lovers. So she is speaking literally of her origins. And the final lines there parody the biblical picture of Jesus sitting at his father’s right hand on the throne of heaven, and the Nicene Creed (“on the right hand of the Father…[Christ] whose kingdom shall have no end”).

Sin opens the gates. Satan goes through to find himself in a dimensionless world where Night and Chaos rule. There is noise and confusion, nothing is clear. It’s an amazing feat of imagination to describe a place where nothing can be properly described but Milton manages it with style (L 891-94):

a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost;

a place where "Chance governs all". Satan has a lot of work to do if he’s to manoeuvre his way out of this one.