Sunday, January 20, 2008

Paradise Lost: Sound Advice for First-Time Readers

William Blake, The Temptation of Eve
"but to keep ye low and ignorant"
(Image from darknefs vifible)

A couple of years ago, on December 9 2005, an anonymous student emailing from some University of Massachusetts campus posted this open-ended query to my favorite e-list of scholars, the Milton-List:
"what fate does mankind deserve following the fall?"
That was all, not even a capitalized "W"! The poor student was pretty obviously looking for help with a term paper and probably desperate at the end of a fruitless semester filled with procrastinating activities. Various Milton scholars on the list had little sympathy, and didn't hide their annoyance (so I'll hide their identities):
"I suspect that's something your teacher wants you to determine."

"If you expect to get a useful answer to this question, you're going to have to provide some context."

"At least try to contribute something beyond this, like, say, maybe the entire draft text of the paper you're obviously trying to get us to write for you."
And so the 'answers' went . . . . Well, regular readers know how much sympathy I have for those unfortunate students who have stumbled into less than upright means of fulfilling assignments, so I decided to help with the stumbling:
Pay no attention to those other scholars. They wish to hide knowledge from you, to keep you low and ignorant. Why? Because in the day that you receive an answer, you shall be like them, knowing good texts from bad -- if there be bad.

Here, accept what I offer: After eating the apple, which turned out to be unripe, mankind deserved a bellyache, and that is exactly what mankind received.

All scholars are secretly agreed upon this, but I am revealing it openly for the first time. Share it freely with other students. Put it into your term papers. Quote me on it.

But don't bellyache afterwards.
I was alluding, of course, to Satan's words directed toward Eve Paradise Lost 9.684-732 as he tempted her to receive the apple:
Queen of this Universe, doe not believe
Those rigid threats of Death; ye shall not Die:
How should ye? by the Fruit? it gives you Life
To Knowledge, By the Threatner, look on mee,
Mee who have touch'd and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfet have attaind then Fate
Meant mee, by ventring higher then my Lot.
Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty Trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless vertue, whom the pain
Of Death denounc't, whatever thing Death be,
Deterrd not from atchieving what might leade
To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunnd?
God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just;
Not just, not God; not feard then, nor obeyd:
Your feare it self of Death removes the feare.
Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
Ye Eate thereof, your Eyes that seem so cleere,
Yet are but dim, shall perfetly be then
Op'nd and cleerd, and ye shall be as Gods,
Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.
That ye should be as Gods, since I as Man,
Internal Man, is but proportion meet,
I of brute human, yee of human Gods.
So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on Gods, death to be wisht,
Though threat'nd, which no worse then this can bring.
And what are Gods that Man may not become
As they, participating God-like food?
The Gods are first, and that advantage use
On our belief, that all from them proceeds;
I question it, for this fair Earth I see,
Warm'd by the Sun, producing every kind,
Them nothing: If they all things, who enclos'd
Knowledge of Good and Evil in this Tree,
That whoso eats thereof, forthwith attains
Wisdom without their leave? and wherein lies
Th' offence, that Man should thus attain to know?
What can your knowledge hurt him, or this Tree
Impart against his will if all be his?
Or is it envie, and can envie dwell
In Heav'nly brests? these, these and many more
Causes import your need of this fair Fruit.
Goddess humane, reach then, and freely taste. (
PL 9.684-732)
I don't know if the student caught my allusions or even followed my well-intended advice, but my "bellyache thesis" actually has much to commend it . . . even if no other scholars seem to have recognized the chasmic depths of its engulfing profundity.

Now, however, those procrastinating students looking for help in writing their last-minute papers have a legitimate resource, a new, user-friendly website designed by students for first-time readers of Milton's Paradise Lost:
darknefs vifible
I think that they mean "Darkness Visible," but whom am I to take issue with nostalgia for the lisping orthographic conventions of Early Modern English?

Humor aside, I like the website and recommend a visit -- and not only for first-time Milton readers.

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