Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Wall Street Journal: 'Lost' in Paradise Lost

"Exiting paradise:
An engraving (after Gustave Doré)
of the archangel Michael
expelling Lucifer from Heaven"

Friday's issue of the Wall Street Journal has an article by John Gross, "Cosmic and Sublime," that reviews and largely praises the recent publication of The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by the scholars William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon:
The edition is a model of its kind, well designed and attractively produced. There are scholarly but unintimidating footnotes and helpful introductions to the major works. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized -- a difficult decision but the right one. The long pages of continuous verse, which could have looked daunting, are easy on the eye (not least thanks to ample leading between the lines). A great deal has been packed in, but Milton has still been left room to breathe.
Gross, therefore, is happy with the edition but wonders if readers will open the book and read:
The whole enterprise is meant to be reader-friendly, and it succeeds. Yet one can't help wondering how many readers are going to avail themselves of the invitation it extends.
Why not? Because Milton so totally overwhelms:
No one disputes that Milton is a great poet. But for many readers today, that might be part of the problem -- not his stature as such but the fact that he is so strenuously, so oppressively great. There are other great poets in English, but most of them, beginning with Shakespeare, wear their greatness fairly lightly. By contrast, Milton will settle for nothing less than the cosmic and the sublime. As the Germans would say, he is kolossal.
I happen to like the kolossal character of Paradise Lost, but I can understand that many readers might feel a bit . . . what's the word for it . . . 'lost'?

Well, everybody gets lost in Milton, and that was part of Milton's intention -- if we are to believe Stanley Fish:
I would like to suggest something about Paradise Lost that is not new except for the literalness with which the point will be made: (1) the poem's centre of reference is its reader who is also its subject; (2) Milton's purpose is to educate the reader to an awareness of his position and responsibilities as a fallen man, and to a sense of the distance which separates him from the innocence once his; (3) Milton's method is to re-create in the mind of the reader (which is, finally, the poem's scene) the drama of the Fall, to make him fall again exactly as Adam did and with Adam's troubled clarity, that is to say, 'not deceived.' (Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 1997), page 1)
Even the Wall Street Journal's editors get lost. Beneath the image reproduced above, which the paper borrowed from the Granger Collection (but which I have borrowed from Art Passions for its more precise detail when enlarged), I have quoted the words precisely as they appear in the paper:
Exiting paradise: An engraving (after Gustave Doré) of the archangel Michael expelling Lucifer from Heaven
The Wall Street Journal, as one might suspect, gets its information from the Granger Collection (as one discovers by plugging 0005727 into the search function):
MILTON: PARADISE LOST. The archangel Michael, expelling Lucifer from Heaven (Book I of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.') Wood engraving after Gustave Doré.
Despite these 'helpful' words intended as informative, this scene is not that of Lucifer's expulsion from heaven -- which Milton attributes not to the power of any archangel such as Michael but to the Son of God. Rather, this scene depicts the archangel Gabriel 'expelling' Satan (not called Lucifer, by the way) from the Garden of Eden. Here's the scene, from Paradise Lost, Book 4, with Gabriel addressing Satan:
Satan, I know thy strength, and thou know'st mine,
Neither our own but giv'n; what follie then
To boast what Arms can doe, since thine no more
Then Heav'n permits, nor mine, though doubld now
To trample thee as mire: for proof look up,
And read thy Lot in yon celestial Sign
Where thou art weigh'd, and shown how light, how weak,
If thou resist. The Fiend lookt up and knew
His mounted scale aloft: nor more; but fled
Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night. (
PL 4.1006-1015)
Gabriel tells Satan to look up at a sign in the heavens and read its prediction of the outcome if Satan should resist. Satan reads and sees that his power is too weak (signified by his "scale" in the celestial balance being aloft because too light). Satan then flees.

Thus is Satan expelled...

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