Sunday, January 07, 2007

Milton: Still a little bit damned?

Portrait by Unknown 16th-Century Artist
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I quoted the introductory lines to Book 3 of Paradise Lost, where Milton addresses the "holy light" (PL 3.1), and I'll quote again today, adding a few lines:

Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight [ 15 ]
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend, [ 20 ]
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs, [ 25 ]
Or dim suffusion veild. (PL 3.13-26)
As I noted yesterday, Milton (as narrator) refers to himself and his own escape from the "Stygian Pool," which the Dartmouth site (Milton Reading Room) clarified as referring to the time spent in Hell, which Milton has now left in order to ascend to heaven, similar to Dante imagining his own heavenly ascent through Purgatory in Purgatorio 1.

Just for the hell of it, let's look at the opening lines of that canto, borrowed from The Princeton Dante Project:
Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;
e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l'umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
Ma qui la morta poesì resurga,
o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;
e qui Calïopè alquanto surga,
seguitando il mio canto con quel suono
di cui le Piche misere sentiro
lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.
Dolce color d'orïental zaffiro,
che s'accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro,
a li occhi miei ricominciò diletto,
tosto ch'io usci' fuor de l'aura morta
che m'avea contristati li occhi e 'l petto. (Purgatoria 1.1-18)

To run its course through smoother water
the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,
leaving that cruel sea behind.
Now I shall sing the second kingdom,
there where the soul of man is cleansed,
made worthy to ascend to heaven.
Here from the dead let poetry rise up,
O sacred Muses, since I am yours.
Here let Calliope arise
to accompany my song with those same chords
whose force so struck the miserable magpies
that, hearing it, they lost all hope of pardon.
Sweet color of oriental sapphire,
hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect
of intervening air, pure to the horizon,
pleased my eyes once more
as soon as I had left the morbid air
that had afflicted both my chest and eyes. (Purgatoria 1.1-18)
The parallel of ascent from hell to heaven, noted yesterday, is interesting, but note also the significant contrast. Whereas Dante, released from his hellish sojourn, emphasizes that the color of sapphire pleases his eyes (lines 14-18), Milton emphasizes that despite his release from hell, the light does not revisit his eyes, which roll in vain seeking light's piercing ray.

Milton speaks almost as one not yet entirely escaped from hell, as if still bound with Satan on the burning lake, where "round he throws his baleful eyes" but finds "No light, but rather darkness visible" (PL 1.56, 63)

Perhaps Milton continues to feel just a little bit damned...


At 2:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am doing an undergrad paper on Milton's blindness, how it affected his work and what he considered true blindness to be. Undoubtedly, it was very distressing to lose one's sight over a period of ten years - and some of that dispair can be seen in Samson Agonistes. Is this also another example? From what I have studied so far, Milton seemed freed by his physical blindness - and my sense is that he felt true blindness came from within - the inability to see a spiritual inner light.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You probably know far more about this than I, but I'd suggest that Milton has some deep ambivalence about his blindness, for he continues his lament for another 29 lines (though it's not constant lament), and he writes of his blindness in other places (as you've noted).

I also wonder if Milton wondered whether of not the blindness might be an affliction from God. I don't have any evidence for this at my fingertips, but I do wonder. Have you considered this in your research?

Jeffery Hodges

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