THR Web Features   /   November 21, 2023

The Anti-Poetry of John Milton

How a great poem can open up our lives.

David K. Anderson

( Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve (detail), 1808, by William Blake (1757–1827); public domain, via Wikimedia Commons;

Reviewed Here

Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost
Ed Simon
New York, NY: Ig Publishing, 2023.

Great critics enjoy magisterial prerogatives, and one of them is the right of comparing John Milton to William Shakespeare. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge took his turn, he was wise enough to refrain from making the two contenders for the title of England’s greatest poet. They are simply too different, he avers. Milton is Shakespeare’s “compeer, not his rival.” Shakespeare, Coleridge explains, “passes into all the forms of human character and passion,” while Milton, “attracts all forms and things to himself, into the unity of his own ideal. All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton; while Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself.” For Coleridge the authorial personality of the one is perfused throughout his work until no stable, freestanding sense of “Shakespeare” remains; the work of the other, line by exacting line, demands to be read in light of the man himself. Not even Dante, who cast himself as the protagonist of his own great poems, or Tolstoy, who pauses a narrative to interject whole philosophical essays, press themselves on the reader as forcefully as does Milton. 

A quarter-century before the publication of Paradise Lost, as England was careening toward civil war, Milton wrote a lengthy attack on the institution of bishops titled The Reason of Church Government […]. Midway through, he pauses his dense polemic, deciding that the time is ripe for an autobiographical sketch. He recounts not just his background but his ambitions. He explains that inner conviction, as well as “divers of my friends,” convince him that one day “I might perhaps leave something so written to after times, as they should not willingly let it die.” Few authors have dangled such a tempting hostage before the eyes of Fortune, and we can imagine Royalist scribblers chortling as the brash young puppy goes on to consider whether his great work should be modeled after the classical epic, the Book of Job, or Greek Tragedy. 

And yet he made good on his aspiration. Samson Agonistes would be his tragedy; Paradise Regain’d his Jobian “Brief Epic.” But it is Paradise Lost, which ranges from hell to heaven, recounting the fall of angels and humanity, Earth’s creation and the prophetic vision of our eventual redemption, that fully satisfies that absurdly precocious declaration of intent. The audacious subject is announced in the 26-line opening of Paradise Lost, and so too is the “great argument”: “To justify the ways of God to men.” The poem will demonstrate how the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving creator can be reconciled with a broken creation. These are the bookends of the verse paragraph; between them is an equally crucial passage where, following epic precedent, Milton invokes the Muse. But his Muse is not one of the daughters of Zeus. It is no lesser deity than the Holy Spirit. “Instruct me,” he pleads, “for Thou know’st; Thou from the first / Wast present.” There is humility here: Milton believes that he is utterly dependent on the Spirit’s guidance. And yet the pride is palpable. He is called to do this; the Spirit will enable him to shape the argument. 

One of the chief virtues of Ed Simon’s Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost is that he not only respects but also likes John Milton. His appreciation of the poet, dead for some 350 years, is not without condescension—he casually labels him a “bigot,” at one point, though the nature of the bigotry is neither defined nor self-evident—but it is genuine. If he can overstate the man’s contrary nature—the biographer John Aubrey recounts that Milton was “Of a very cheerful humour…. He would be cheerful even in his gout-fits, and sing”—he knows to value it as the attribute of a driven, brilliant, wholly original mind. Simon’s exploration of Paradise Lost is composed, in homage to the poem itself, of twelve “Books” (instead of chapters), each one devoted to a different aspect of the poem or poet. Interwoven with reflections on the epic are reflections on Simon’s own life. He recounts moments of illumination and disappointment, his father’s death, his struggles in graduate school and, most potently, his struggles with alcohol. 

These vignettes illustrate how we bring our own experiences to a great poem as well as how a great poem can open up our own lives—Paradise Lost, Simon claims, interprets us. Simon takes us on a walk through Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, describing the flora and fauna, its relationship to the larger city and its history. The park, he explains, is his Eden, “an exemplary mimesis of nature; pristine, bucolic, and pastoral.” Milton’s loving, extended descriptions of Eden make his poem “the first and greatest environmental epic,” Simon states. He rightly notes that Milton does not construe the “dominion” God grants to man in Genesis as crude mastery but rather as “responsible stewardship.” The first couple are to care for Eden, and expand it, so that the whole Earth’s perfection—and their own too—is realized, much as Michelangelo sought to realize the essence of a sculpture within a block of marble. 

Simon has the habit of shooting from the hip and a taste for sweeping claims. Milton “surpassed” Edmund Spenser “in almost every way.” The heretic and the saint alone are holy because they alone take God seriously: “everybody else is just concerned with appearances.” Milton’s Satan, he tells us repeatedly, is the “greatest literary character,” and the God of the Bible is “the second greatest.” These are contestable assertions, to put it mildly, but fair enough in a popular appreciation leavened with a strong dash of memoir. There are, to be sure, a handful of outright errors: confusing Hera for Athena as Zeus’ cranially delivered progeny; claiming that Pelagius’ soteriology of works inspired Augustine’s Confessions, rather than the reverse; rechristening Jacques Lacan as “Paul”; assigning the morality play Everyman to the thirteenth century (two hundred years too early); and claiming that “Pandemonium” is a Latin, rather than a Greek, neologism. But censoriousness is perhaps out of tune with the book’s spirit. Better to think that one accompanies Simon on that long walk through Frick Park, tossing off rejoinders at especially florid pronouncements.

Book One, devoted to original sin, is the richest of the twelve. It involves a painfully entertaining anecdote about how, prior to his recovery, Simon sabotaged a venomously supercilious British grad student. He seems to have achieved the sober alcoholic’s priceless gift of undeluded self-scrutiny and so balances the schadenfreude due to the prig with candid awareness at his own malice. Original sin is hardly the public’s favorite doctrine, but Simon agrees with Chesterton who remarks that it is the only one for which there is empirical proof. Moreover, he understands it as something much more sophisticated than the idea that we are born into the world with a criminal record. Rather, it is a universal, inherent brokenness, meaning that all of us, whether or not we struggle with drink, are alcoholics. Paradise Lost, he explains, “is…about the disease of the soul.” In Book 9 of Milton’s poem Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and we are told, “Earth trembl’d from her entrails,” nature registering the catastrophe before they do. The transgression arouses them, and they couple, with a crude lustfulness that was absent in the joyful prelapsarian sex they have enjoyed heretofore. They sleep, they wake, and everything is different. They blame one another, and are now terrified of God, who will shortly find them in their fig leaves. Sin is alienation: Adam and Eve had been one another’s gift; they are now divided. They are divided likewise from the world in which Simon notes they had enjoyed such “symbiosis.” They are divided from God, with whom they had known perfect communion. And they are divided within themselves. “[W]e live / Law to our selves, our Reason is our Law” unfallen Eve had told the serpent. Now the will, which had been in perfect alignment with moral reason, cannot be trusted. In a poignant passage, Simon describes the curbs he tried to place on his drinking, prior to recovery. “Every single one of those rules broken,” he writes, “sometimes on the first try.” 

Simon explains that original sin is one of few Christian doctrines he finds compelling. The Biblical God may be a great literary character, but to Simon he is a third-rate deity. Simon is much enamored of William Blake’s maxim that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” While critics who resist the thesis such as C.S. Lewis and Stanley Fish are given their due, it lasts but a few short pages. Satan’s charisma is too heady. Even with his wings singed and beautiful face scarred by the war in heaven, his louche glamor transfixes Simon as it has many others—what Doors-loving teenager was ever repelled, rather than enthralled, by the sight of Jim Morrison’s 1968 mugshot? 

That Satan himself admits his vicious folly in soliloquy, and that the glamor has long faded by the time he swoops down on Eden, like a vulture intending “[t]o gorge the flesh of lambs or yeanling kids,” makes little difference. The poem makes sense to Simon as the fable of a glorious creation made still more glorious by the diehard rebellion of one of the creatures, who refuses to acknowledge a master. Simon regards God, whether of the theological tradition or of Milton, as distasteful: “a petty tyrant,” “monstrous,” and “inert, vacant, insipid.” 

I will grant “insipid,” at least at certain points in Milton’s rendering. The poetry of the Father is dour and flinty, while Satan has been given perhaps the most propulsive, supple, intellectually rich verse in the language. This God makes unshakably confident pronouncements as to his omnipotence, omniscience, and holiness, while conveying little felt sense of burning love even when extolling how loving he is: academic theology rendered in blank verse. As Northrop Frye put it, Milton let his God speak “in defiance of all poetic tact.” God’s astringency partly reflects Milton’s awareness that not even he could not craft expressive poetry fit for the Infinite. However, the sharp contrast with Satan’s style is entirely purposeful. God communicates pure truth and if his communiques underwhelm when recast for fallen mortals, their very inharmoniousness is a sign that he can be trusted. It is Satan, lying to men, angels, and himself, who needs verbal adornment. When Milton returned to the character in Paradise Regain’d, we see him once again in combat with the Son of God, now born into history as Jesus of Nazareth, freshly baptized and fasting in the wilderness. Satan, warm with the memory of how smoothly he had seduced our great-grandparents in Eden, attempts to suborn him with every trinket in his storehouse, all of which meet with corrosive scorn: “our Saviour answer’d with disdain. / I never lik’d thy talk, thy offers less, / Now both abhor.” Satan’s fluent glibness is snuffed out. 

There is nothing winsome about this Jesus, but winsomeness is not, Milton believes, what we need from him. We need freedom. Milton’s lifelong commitment to liberty was manifest in his strident opposition to kings and priests, but he believed we can tyrannize over ourselves without their help. “I formed them free,” the Father states prior to the Fall, “and free they must remain till they enthral themselves.” Self-enthralled, we are now marked by an inborn and habitual propensity to sabotage our own happiness, with the contents of a bottle or otherwise. When Milton composed the flat, harsh utterances of Jesus and the Father his creative genius was not, as Blake had it, revolting against his conscious theology. They are his antidote to the “glozing lies” of the one who having ruined himself would ruin us as well. One of the most remarkable aspects of Milton’s epic, then, is the way in which he puts his titanic gifts in the mouth of the enemy only to cut through them with a kind of anti-poetry, exposing the destructive fatuity of our cherished resentments, of our libido dominandi, or of our belief that, while we might have gone too far last night, we can still handle a few drinks.