Sunday, October 10, 2010

Paradise Lost: "virtually unreadable"?

Sophie Gee
Writer and Scholar

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.

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22 Comments:

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

I wasn't aware that vitalism attributes plant life to "thinking matter"

Milton did not, as far as I can remember. Plants enter the realm of thought just by being digested by Man.
But, in his pre-Miltonian long poem Il Mondo Creato, the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso mentions a Rabbinic text according to which plants were "living" and "thinking" in paradise before Adam's sin, i.e. in a perfect world. Looks like the poet shares this view, though he says that it is impossible to check the plants' "intelligence" now, in our current condition.

 
At 4:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting rabbinical passage. I wonder if Milton knew of that . . . not that he used it.

Eve could have used a warning from the Tree of Knowledge -- "Don't eat me!"

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:56 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Tasso did not read the Rabbinic texts directly, I think. In his bibliographical notes he doesn't give any info referring to these verses (MC 7.829 ff).

According to the editor, Prof. Bruno Basile, the poet's description depends on St. Basil, Hexaemeron 7.1.1; St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 8.4 and Quaestiones in Genesim 27.

 
At 6:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In that case, Milton surely knew of this tradition and chose not to use it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:13 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Plants in paradise "recognize" Eve's touch, however.

 
At 9:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, right. Was that metaphor? Where's the passage?

(And when she sins by taking the fruit, all nature feels the wound.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:23 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

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."

Rather than Milton, I would evoke William Blake, To Thomas Butts

 
At 9:28 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Where's the passage?

PL 8.44-47

 
At 9:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dario.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:14 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

I am intrigued that the Medieval commentators on Walter of Chatillon's poem 'Alexandreis' refer to the plants and animals created in Genesis as 'souls' or animae rather than plants and animals.
I rather liked the Dark Materials trilogy and it got a few younger readers very interested in reading Milton, difficult though he is.
I could never understand how anyone could not enjoy Beowulf. Considering how many times the story has been made into movies, something about it must resonate with modern audiences.

 
At 10:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not familiar with that poem, but the comments sound interesting. If I recall, Aristotle spoke of vegetative, animal, and intellectual souls, so that might be a background.

I also like Beowulf, but I can understand why some wouldn't.

As for Pullman, I started off with high expectations based on how well he described things and the sense of mystery to be unveiled. I liked the bear character all throughout the story. But the unveiled mystery turned out rather banal . . . for me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:46 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Beowulf. Considering how many times the story...

e.g. again republished very recently (April 2010) in Italy:

original text + modern "sequels"

***

Jeffery, you're absolutely right about Aristotle. The current, intimist concept of "soul" dates back just, say, to the 18th century. But it used to have a wider, more biologically-oriented meaning before that.

 
At 11:58 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

plants and animals created in Genesis as 'souls' or animae

Excuse me, just one more "item": the Jewish word that is usually translated as "soul" was nephesh, that literally refers to "throat, breathing". Biological life.

 
At 5:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, thanks for the confirmation on Aristotle and the reminder on nephesh.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

And the Roman anima also meant 'breath' or 'life force' as opposed to animus which meant the rational mind.

@But the unveiled mystery turned out rather banal . . . for me.

I wonder how many stories are going to be ruined for me, too, with all the reading that I have been doing in these last few years. :-)

 
At 4:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting that "animus" is rational . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:21 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Hello, I haven't been blogging for a few months (long story). I hope you are fine. Thought I better update myself on the state of Milton. Unreadable? I imagine a lot of poetry is! He needs "mediation", his own Raphael? Only to the tedious academics who write...
Still, your blog isn't tedious! I must catch up.

 
At 6:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Catch up? But you already know far more than I!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:55 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

I strongly suspect that Milton's poem was already "virtually unreadable" when it was first published

I agree. And, it is not only about Milton.
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in an Italian language which didn't EXIST yet. He created it. Or, rather, he started from the everyday language of his homeland Florence, that was spoken only in a small area, then he made it more complex by inserting words from other dialects, and from Latin, even Greek etc. So, the Divine Comedy was a no man's land.

In the 16th century both Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso wrote their own long poems in order to "re-create" Italian, since Dante's "dictionary" was far from being used everywhere, after two centuries. But, they both referred to a "literary Florentine language" which was no more spoken in Florence (!) and was comprehensible only to scholars throughout Italy.

"Current" Italian was fixed by Alessandro Manzoni only in the 19th century thanks to his novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). But meanwhile the poet and scholar Giacomo Leopardi had a quite different approach to language.

Anyway, all Ms-Gees nothwistanding, these poets keep on being read and loved.

 
At 8:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

For many people, my blog is probably unreadable . . . though perhaps not for good reasons.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:35 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

THE INCREDIBLE UNREADABLES

They are among us.

They are alive.

Be. Ware.

 
At 4:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No cape, or no escape!

Jeffery Hodges

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