Paradise Lost: "virtually unreadable"?
A scholar on the Milton List linked to a humorous article by Daisy Fried on 'failed' attempts to rewrite Milton's epic poem, "Sing, God-awful Muse!" (Poetry, July/August 2009), an article partly incited by Sophie Gee's observation that the poem is "now virtually unreadable."
Intrigued by this remark, I followed up on Professor Gee's words at the New York Times in an article titled "Great Adaptations" (January 13, 2008) and discovered that she was also speaking of that old poem Beowulf:
Take "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." The unpalatable truth is that both originals are now virtually unreadable. "Beowulf" is written in Old English, an inflected Germanic tongue that looks a lot less like our language than one would hope. As for Milton's epic, it's in "normal" English, but its blank verse is so densely learned, so syntactically complicated and philosophically obscure, that it's almost never read outside college courses.There's considerable truth to these words, I suppose, though I strongly suspect that Milton's poem was already "virtually unreadable" when it was first published, not only now, three centuries later, and for precisely the reasons offered by Ms. Gee.
Ms. Gee goes on to praise recent adaptations of both Beowulf and Paradise Lost, referring to "Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's film version" of the former and "Philip Pullman's [Dark Materials] trilogy" version of the latter. Readers may recall that I had kind words for the Beowulf film but unkind words for Pullman's reworking of themes in Paradise Lost. Pullman can write very well, but I find profound bitterness in the novels, a bitterness so pervasive that it distorts the story and ruins the narrative . . . at least for me. Not that Pullman is uninteresting, for he is intelligent, and draws on Milton for ideas with literary potential, as Ms. Gee notes:
The oddest of Pullman's ideas is Dust. Composed of animate, freely moving particles that gather on adults and avoid children, Dust turns out to be the stuff of consciousness itself, the matter that permits people free will and choice (and arouses the hostility of those in authority). Pullman gets it from "Paradise Lost," where Milton describes the universe as composed of animate particles, originally the matter of chaos. In this, Milton builds on a philosophy called Vitalism, which holds that all animate things -- including plants and insubstantial beings, like angels -- are made from "thinking matter."I wasn't aware that vitalism attributes plant life to "thinking matter," but this does have me curious about the degree to which Milton may have built on the philosophy of vitalism, assuming that this philosophy even pre-dates Milton, and curious about the sense in which Milton's particles of chaos are animate, assuming that one can call them particles.
At any rate, despite Pullman's updating of Milton, I find Paradise Lost far more readable than Dark Materials.