Episode 30

From Paradise Lost by John Milton 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses a passage from Book VII of Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Poet

John Milton

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

From Paradise Lost, Book VII, 449-474

by John Milton

The Sixt, and of Creation last arose
With Eevning Harps and Mattin, when God said,
Let th’ Earth bring forth Soul living in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde. The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertil Woomb teem’d at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet formes,
Limb’d and full grown: out of the ground up-rose
As from his Laire the wilde Beast where he wonns
In Forrest wilde, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk’d:
The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green:
Those rare and solitarie, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Herds upsprung:
The grassie Clods now Calv’d, now half appeer’d
The Tawnie Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,
And Rampant shakes his Brinded main; the Ounce,
The Libbard, and the Tyger, as the Moale
Rising, the crumbl’d Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarse from his mould
Behemoth biggest born of Earth upheav’d
His vastness: Fleec’t the Flocks and bleating rose,
As Plants: ambiguous between Sea and Land
The River Horse and scalie Crocodile.

 


Podcast transcript

Of all the great English poets John Milton is the hardest to love. He was literally a Puritan, a member of the religious faction who famously banned Christmas when they came to power after the English Civil War.

In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, there’s a memorable scene where Sir Toby Belch is being told off for being drunk and disorderly, by Malvolio, who is described in the play as ’a kind of Puritan’. So when when Malvolio reprimands Sir Toby, Toby’s comeback is:

‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’

This is a caricature of Puritanism, but it’s a fair bet that cakes and ale were not high on Milton’s list of priorities. And he was very concerned with being virtuous, and making us virtuous too.

And this is the big problem with Paradise Lost for a lot of readers, because he says right at the beginning of the poem that he’s writing it to improve us, to ‘justify the ways of God to man’. In other words, he’s going to explain to us why there is suffering in the world. Why there is evil in the world and why it’s our fault and not God’s. And he’s going to write as many lines of iambic pentameter as it takes, which in this case was about ten thousand, to drum it into our skulls.

And what a lot of people have objected to over the years, is that he seems to be on of God and morality and virtue rather than the side of humanity.

Because for him, human fallibility is the big problem, as he explains when he tells us about the Fall of Adam and Eve. And of course, Eve gets most of the blame. Even making allowances for the sexist culture of his time, Milton’s attitude to women comes across as profoundly misogynistic.

So it’s hard to warm to Milton. It’s hard to love him, maybe in the way that we might feel that we love Shakespeare or Chaucer or Wordsworth. I read Paradise Lost thirty years ago, and I have hardly looked at it since.

And yet… I recently opened it and started having second thoughts about Milton. Because if he’s difficult to love, then there is plenty to admire in his poetry, and even, dare I say it, to enjoy.

Turning again to the first page of Paradise Lost, I was struck by his sheer ambition. So as is traditional at the beginning of an epic poem, he invokes the Muse, the divine source of poetry, and says:

                                                         I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rime.

I mean, come on, we have to admire the guy’s boldness here! This is someone who has read pretty much all the great poetry ever written up to this point. He’s read Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare. And he says he wants to do something that none of them ever even attempted. So we’ve got to give him 11 out of 10 for ambition.

So inspired by reading this, I cranked up the audiobook version of Paradise Lost, read by Anton Lesser, an amazing Shakespearean actor who really knows how to read verse properly and I found myself transported. The poetry is absolutely magnificent, and I actually think Milton pretty well succeeds in what he set out to do. He says he ‘intends to soar’, and he really does, there’s a lofty, awe-inspiring quality to the verse.

And some of it is even quite moving on a human level. There were some scenes that I’d forgotten about, where he does display a bit of genuine empathy and pity for Adam and Eve and their suffering.

And Satan, of course, is fantastic. It’s a cliche of Paradise Lost criticism is that Milton has unwittingly given Satan all the best lines. William Blake famously said that Milton ‘was of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Because Milton is supposed to be on the side of God and the angels, but actually his portrayal of Satan is so full of energy and charisma, when he says things like, ‘Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n’.

And you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to hear echoes of Milton’s own rebellious streak, you know first he was on the side of the rebellion against Charles I, but later on he could also be an outspoken critic of the republic, when he thought it was abusing its power.

So I never thought I would ever go through Paradise Lost from beginning to the end again, but thanks to Anton Lesser, I have.

I wouldn’t quite say I’ve had a road to Damascus experience. I still have very strong reservations about Milton. But I’m going to propose a new category which allows me to appreciate him on his own terms, and that is the category of the bonus great poet.

So these are poets who are easily overlooked, because they are a bit niche. A bit eccentric or too much associated with the fashion of their time that is completely unfashionable now. I’m talking about poets such as Edmund Spenser, Alexander Pope, and of course, Milton.

And the way I propose we treat the bonus great poet is that most of the time we forget about them. But every so often, we remember they exist. We go over to the bookshelf and we open it and we go, ‘Actually, this is really good. I wouldn’t want to read it every day. I can’t go the whole hog in terms of their worldview or even their aesthetic, but there is much to enjoy here and why shouldn’t I enjoy it once in a while?’. A bit like having a liqueur on Christmas Day, even though I hardly ever drink liqueurs. And I realise Milton wouldn’t be happy about being compared to a Christmas liqueur, but I think he’s going to have to meet me halfway on this, and that’s how he and I can find a rapprochement.

OK now that we have established cordial relations, let’s have a closer look at Paradise Lost. So remember last month I was talking about the three basic types of poetry. We’ve got dramatic poetry, like the verse drama of Shakespeare and Marlowe that we’ve been looking at recently. We also have the lyric, which is typically shorter and more musical, and especially these days, more personal and reflective. And then we have the epic, which is about storytelling on a grand scale, involving adventure and heroism and the supernatural and the divine.

And in Paradise Lost, Milton is very self-consciously using the conventions of epic poetry. As we’ve seen, he begins with the traditional invocation to the Muse, and the idea is that the poet is really looking to channel divine inspiration. So as well as the invocation to the Muse, the opening lines of Paradise Lost contain another epic convention, and that’s the statement of the poem’s theme and a summary of the plot:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse,

So he’s going to tell us the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, famously eating the apple, which was the one thing they weren’t supposed to do, and discovering knowledge of good and evil, bringing sin and death into the world, and yet being redeemed by the arrival of the Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Milton has clearly read his Homer and Virgil and seen how it’s meant to be done, and he’s honouring the great tradition. But there’s one big twist, and that is that Milton is trying to write a Christian epic. And there’s a tension here, because he’s clearly a fan of what he would call pagan mythology and tales of heroism, which isn’t really compatible with his Puritan Christian faith. Not to mention awkward questions such as: what does he think he’s doing invoking a heathen Muse for his Christian epic? So maybe Milton was human after all.

So turning to today’s passage I’ve picked one of my favourite bits of Paradise Lost, the creation of the world in Book VII. He’s drawing on the Biblical account, the creation of the world in seven days, in the Book of Genesis. And the original text is wonderfully terse. In the King James Bible, which was published in 1611, when Milton was a toddler, the creation of the land animals on the sixth day is described in just 64 words:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:24-25)

And Milton includes this account, and follows the wording of the King James very closely:

                                                         when God said,
Let th’ Earth bring forth Soul living in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde.

So that’s the setup, if you like, the command of God from the King James Bible, and if you recall Malika Booker back in Episode 25, pointed out that you don’t get much more patriarchal than the King James Bible, so this is definitely God with masculine pronouns.

But in Milton’s poem, we also get the response to the command, which doesn’t appear in the Bible:

                               The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertil Woomb teem’d at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures

In the Bible, the creatures are made by God, but here Milton describes them as emerging from the Earth ‘opening her fertile womb’, so there’s no doubting the feminine character of the earth.

And as we saw in Episode 24 about D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Humming-bird’, there is an ancient tradition of personifying ‘Mother Earth’ as a female deity, and Milton being the incredibly learned poet that he was, would certainly have been aware of this. And being the Puritanical, patriarchal Christian that he was, he would have officially disapproved of it, and relegated it to the ages of darkness and ignorance.

But for Milton the poet, this is clearly a deeply resonant image, and he responds to God’s command with a spectacular sequence of poetry, elaborating on the Biblical text in great detail, with the descriptions of all the different creatures and their emergence from the earth:

                                The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertil Woomb teem’d at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet formes,
Limb’d and full grown: out of the ground up-rose
As from his Laire the wilde Beast where he wonns
In Forrest wilde, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk’d:
The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green:
Those rare and solitarie, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Herds upsprung:

As you can hear, Milton uses considerably more than 64 words, and I’ve only got room for an excerpt from the whole description today, the passage goes on to describe the creation of lizards and serpents and ants and bees. So what we’ve got is Milton’s Baroque fantasia on the book of Genesis.

One creature after another appears out of the earth, to form a kind of 17th century bestiary, starting with the ‘wild beast’, whatever that was; then the cattle in the fields; the lion; the ounce, which was a lynx; the libbard, which was the leopard; the tiger; the stag; ‘Behemoth’, which was a gigantic creature mentioned in the Book of Job, scholars think Milton probably meant an elephant; then flocks of sheep; the ‘river horse’, the hippopotamus; and the ‘scalie crocodile’.

And I get the same kind of pleasure from reading this as I used to get when I was very small and I was looking at the illustrations of animals on my bedroom wall. You know the lions and monkeys and tigers and whatever. And I think I can detect Milton taking an innocent pleasure in listing the animals and describing them. Have a listen to the lion:

                                               now half appeer’d

The Tawnie Lion, pawing to get free

His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,

And Rampant shakes his Brinded main;

Isn’t this just delightful? We can really see the lion popping out head first, then shaking his back legs to free them from the earth. And then he ‘springs as broke from Bonds’, the alliteration really puts a spring in his step!

And then the lion ‘rampant shakes his Brinded main’. ‘Rampant’ was a technical term from heraldry, a ‘lion rampant’ is a specific pose, standing up on its hind legs, with its claws outstretched, you can see it on the Royal Banner of Scotland. ‘Brindled’ means the lion’s mane was streaked or flecked with different colour.

It’s a really vivid visual description, and I find myself poring over the individual creatures in this passage, the way I used to pore over the pictures of animals on my bedroom wall. And part of the effect comes from Milton’s very skilful handling of the verse form. So if you’re reading this passage on the page, you would see that

The grassie Clods now Calv’d, now half appeer’d

is a single line, so ending it on ‘now half appeer’d’ creates a mini cliffhanger, as we wonder momentarily what has ‘half appeer’d’. It’s only at the start of the next line that we learn it is ‘the Tawnie Lion’.

So this is the technique of enjambment, which we’ve looked at quite a lot on this podcast, where the grammatical phrase spills over from one line to another, and it’s used by poets for all kinds of effects. One way Milton uses it in this passage is to show the animals appearing out of the earth one after another, like rabbits popping out of hats.

So going back to the beginning of the description of the teeming earth:

                                The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertil Woomb teem’d at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet formes,
Limb’d and full grown: out of the ground up-rose
As from his Laire the wilde Beast

‘teem’d at a Birth’ is the end of a line, so that there’s that little moment of surprise when ‘Innumerous living Creatures’ pop out at the start of the next line. Then we have ‘out of the ground up-rose’ ending another line, only for the ‘wild beast’ to appear in the next line. Shortly afterwards, we get:

Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk’d:

Which of course has the effect of prompting us to ask, ‘Pray, tell us John, what rose and walked among the trees in pairs?’. And Milton obligingly tells us in the next line:

The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green:

And the birth-by-enjambment continues, with the Libbard, the stag’s head, Behemoth and the River Horse all popping up at the start of a line, and resolving the syntax Milton has left dangling at the end of the previous line. And in perhaps my favourite enjambment of all, he says that the animals appear out of the earth like ‘the moale’ – line break – ‘rising’.

And this is just one aspect of Milton’s technique, which takes the blank verse we have been discussing for the past couple of months, to a whole new level, doing things ‘unattempted yet’ in poetry, even by Shakespeare.

For one thing, Shakespeare and other dramatists were writing verse to be spoken aloud by actors. But subtle effects like these little surprising enjambments are more noticeable on the page than in the ear. And unlike Shakespeare, who famously never published his own plays, Milton sold Paradise Lost to a publisher. So he may well have been writing with a reader in mind, rather than an audience.

So just to recap, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, ti TUM, ti TUM, ti TUM, ti TUM, ti TUM. And blank verse was very congenial to Milton. If you recall, the blank part of blank verse means it doesn’t rhyme, and Milton thoroughly approved of not rhyming.

In his introduction to Paradise Lost he described his blank verse as ‘English heroic verse without rime’, and said rhyme was ‘no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse’ but ‘the invention of a barbarous age’, and dismissed it as ‘the jingling sound of like endings’. So he was even a Puritan when it came to versification, the pleasure of rhyme was obviously too close to cakes and ale.

A couple of months ago, if you recall, we looked at Christopher Marlowe’s early Elizabethan blank verse, where the end of most lines coincided neatly with the end of a phrase:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

So it’s pretty easy to hear where the first line ends, and the second one begins, even though we can’t see the text.

Then last month we heard a speech by Shakespeare, where he was using enjambment much more extensively, and also often starting phrases and sentences in the middle of lines, so that the blank verse became much more flexible and emotionally expressive, which obviously had big advantages for writing drama.

And what Milton does is, he takes that basic principle from Shakespeare, the beginning and end of a phrase don’t have to coincide with the beginning and end of a line, and he takes it to extremes. So at the start of today’s passage from Paradise Lost, the first four and half lines are a single sentence:

The Sixt, and of Creation last arose
With Eevning Harps and Mattin, when God said,
Let th’ Earth bring forth Soul living in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde.

And you can hear that the syntax is not straightforward and simple, in what for Milton is a relatively short sentence.

But Milton is just warming up here: the next sentence is nine and a half lines long, and the one after that, going all the way to the ‘scalie crocodile’ at the end of today’s passage, is twelve lines. He piles on clause after clause, with inversions and digressions and expansions, punctuated by commas and colons and semicolons, so it’s really hard to keep up and make sense of what he’s saying.

Quite often you think he means one thing, then you read on and discover that what you thought was a subject was actually an object, or an adjective you thought was attached to one noun actually belongs to another.

So don’t worry if you get confused or if you lose the thread from time to time. That’s par for the course with Milton. And he’d struggle to get away with this these days. You know, the famous guide book, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, that tells us to write as simply and clearly as possible. This is Strunk and White’s worst nightmare. If you pasted this into Grammarly it would tell you this is really bad writing, because it’s so hard to read. But of course, it’s no such thing. This is amazing writing.

And one thing that makes it amazing is this incredible syntax that is unfolding and unravelling before our eyes; and what it’s doing here is it’s mirroring the action of the teeming Earth, that’s throwing up one species after another. The effect is like a panning shot in an animated movie, where we see one species after another appearing and shaking itself free and starting to roam across the landscape.

                                                         the Ounce,
The Libbard, and the Tyger, as the Moale
Rising, the crumbl’d Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarse from his mould
Behemoth biggest born of Earth upheav’d
His vastness: Fleec’t the Flocks and bleating rose,
As Plants: ambiguous between Sea and Land
The River Horse and scalie Crocodile.

It does sound magnificent, doesn’t it? Partly, it’s the hypnotic effect of the regular metre, the beat of the blank verse. And partly it’s from the sense unfolding with the convoluted syntax. And partly it’s from the interplay of the metre and the syntax, which reaches a high point with Milton, and it’s hard to see how anyone could take this kind of complexity much further.

Last month I compared Marlowe’s blank verse, with it’s neatly end-stopped lines, to a marble staircase. By contrast, I said Shakespeare’s blank verse, with its phrases starting in the middle of lines and running over the line endings, is more like a spiral staircase, where it feels like one step is always turning into another as you descend it.

For Milton’s blank verse, the image that comes to mind is a swiftly rushing mountain stream, being diverted and divided by the rocks it encounters on its downward journey, occasionally cascading from a great height, then collecting in pools and rushing onwards once again.

On one level I think we’re meant to feel overwhelmed, by the sheer abundance, the fecundity, of Milton’s verbal imagination. But also, as we’ve seen, to really grasp what Milton is saying, and to appreciate the subtlety of his effects, you really need to see the text and read it, it’s impossible to take it all in with your ears the first time you hear it read aloud. So we have moved from blank verse spoken on a stage, to printed on a page, if Milton will forgive me a little rhyme.

And remember, Milton had famously gone blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost, and had to dictate the poem to his assistants. So how on earth he managed to hold all of this in his mind without being able to see it is anyone’s guess. He claimed it was dictated to him by his ‘Celestial Patroness’, the Muse, so the simplest explanation is the most outrageous one: his appeal to the Muse worked, and we are in the presence of a work of divine genius.

 


From Paradise Lost, Book VII, 449-474

by John Milton

The Sixt, and of Creation last arose
With Eevning Harps and Mattin, when God said,
Let th’ Earth bring forth Soul living in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde. The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertil Woomb teem’d at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet formes,
Limb’d and full grown: out of the ground up-rose
As from his Laire the wilde Beast where he wonns
In Forrest wilde, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk’d:
The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green:
Those rare and solitarie, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Herds upsprung:
The grassie Clods now Calv’d, now half appeer’d
The Tawnie Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,
And Rampant shakes his Brinded main; the Ounce,
The Libbard, and the Tyger, as the Moale
Rising, the crumbl’d Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarse from his mould
Behemoth biggest born of Earth upheav’d
His vastness: Fleec’t the Flocks and bleating rose,
As Plants: ambiguous between Sea and Land
The River Horse and scalie Crocodile.

 


John Milton

John Milton portrait engraving

John Milton was an English poet, polemicist and civil servant who was born in 1608 and died in 1674. Prodigiously learned, he composed poetry in Latin and Italian as well as English, and could also read Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Old English and Dutch. He took the side of Parliament in the English Civil War and was a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Cromwell. He was an outspoken prose writer, who defended the execution of Charles I as well as the principle of free speech in the Commonwealth. 

Early in his career, he mastered a wide range of verse forms and became well known for works including Lycidas and Comus. By the time he came to write Paradise Lost, in the reign of Charles II, he was blind, impoverished and out of favour. But he persisted and produced what is generally considered one of the greatest works of world literature.


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This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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4 Comments

  1. Tony Crocker

    Criticism at its best, extremely well informed and appreciative yet honest about a neglected work. Would it be interesting to see why e.g. Keats gave up on trying to emulate Milton or why something like The Waste Land is considered, at least by Pound, as epic in form?

    Reply
    • Mark McGuinness

      Thank you Tony. Maybe the answer to both questions is linked… I think one of the problems for Keats was that the world had moved on since Milton’s day, so long poems based on classical myths felt pretty stale. (Apart from the fact that emulating Milton is an impossible task!)

      I’m not sure I’d agree with Pound that The Waste Land is epic in form, but if it is, then it’s because Eliot and Pound understood (as maybe Keats didn’t) that the concept of the epic had to be reinvented for their age. Maybe we could meet Pound halfway and say TWL is epic in scale, if not in form?

      Reply
  2. Andrew

    When I taught books of Paradise Lost to sixth-formers, I always read sonnet 20 with them which thoroughly puts to rest the anti-cakes and ale view of the Puritan Milton! He loved music and wine, and the most cursory reading of the poetry evidences his sensual nature. I love also that this arch- Protestant poet loved his Dante (music, Dante and discredited Catholic theology come together movingly in sonnet 13).

    Reply
    • Mark McGuinness

      Excellent point about sensuality, which I agree is evident throughout his verse; it was one of the reasons I chose this passage. Although I’m not sure that Sonnet 20 would be quite enough to win over Sir Toby.

      And oh yes, he had plenty in common with Dante.

      Reply

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