The four hundredth anniversary last year of John Milton’s birth was marked, inside academe and beyond, by celebrations which sometimes seemed to devolve into complaints about Milton’s difficulty. “Virtually unreadable,” proclaimed Princeton scholar Sophie Gee in the New York Times. “Quite recently I had a very bad experience of trying to teach some of my, in other respects, extremely good students about Paradise Lost,” said outgoing UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion on BBC radio. As Harold Bloom, prominent scholar and professional viewer-with-alarm, has said, readers “now require mediation to read Paradise Lost that relatively few will make the attempt . . . is a great sorrow, and true cultural loss.” And Dennis Danielson, author of many books and articles on Milton, published—as a way to deal with the epic’s difficulty—Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition, a “translation” into easy English without the line-breaks. His stated intention: “to free [Milton’s] story from linguistic obscurity and the confines of academia by offering it to today’s readers in their own language.” Danielson’s edition prints the original on the left hand page.
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
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, Heavenly Muse.
To Danielson that means:
Tell the story, Heavenly Muse: of humankind’s first trespass, of forbidden fruit whose lethal taste brought death and sorrow to our world, and drove us out of Eden—until one greater human should redeem us and regain the happy place we lost.
God-awful enough to tempt me to try my own prose version:
Sing, Muse, of our first sin, the bite of the apple which brought death and woe to the world, and lost us paradise, which we won’t get back till Jesus Christ—
Worse than God-awful! But trying to make Milton idiomatic forced me to discover how necessary his language—syntactically Latinate, defiantly unidiomatic in his own time—is to meaning and to feeling in Paradise Lost.
Look back at the opening passage. The disorienting, and absolutely essential, thing about it is that Milton lays down five lines of phrase upon complex phrase, and delays the verb till the sixth line. So “Sing” is like a release valve. That handsomely convoluted grammatical load makes the singing that finally bursts out vibrate with all the weight of what has come before. And “sing” becomes a surge of energy that propels you into the epic. Danielson conceives of his Parallel Prose Edition as a tool to help us get through the poem, but creates his own kind of stodgy slog (far better than mine, obviously). Taking the Milton out of Milton emphasizes how much we need Milton’s language to create his effects.
No one ever told me Paradise Lost was difficult: I was never assigned it in a class. When I finally got around to reading it on vacation in Paris, ten years after I graduated from college (a Mentor paperback, $2.50, used, with great footnotes by Edward Le Comte), I was wowed. It was like walking into a museum or gallery and seeing something you’ve never seen before which astonishes you. You don’t know why it does. You can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have the same reaction. Is it possible that teachers are preventing their students from seeing Milton as Milton, scaring them off, by talking too much about how much good-hearted help they’ll need to understand him?
The Milton problem reminds me of pregnancy, and the Nipple Nazi of Northampton.
It’s November 2006, a Saturday, an overheated hospital conference room in Western Massachusetts. My first and only child is due in two months.
In close recess and secret conclave sat,
A thousand demi-gods on golden seats,
Frequent and full. After short silence then,
And summons read, the great consúlt began.
In other words, a dozen pregnant ladies and our partners, on metal folding chairs. Childbirth 101 is a day-long class led by a doula with a fondness for making chalked lists on a portable blackboard. (A doula is a non-medical labor coach whose name derives from the Ancient Greek word for “slave”; doulas are in fact well-paid. I wouldn’t have one at my baby’s birth.) Mostly the doula leads us through icebreakers and Q&A sheets designed to tell our partners be supportive and reassure us that It’s okay to feel however you feel. I begin to be very afraid. The worst is the unit on breastfeeding. The doula lets us know that breastfeeding is painful, difficult—and the most important thing we can do for our babies. She says there’s a right and wrong way to hold baby; that our husbands (or partners) should stand over us and tell us what we’re doing wrong; that our nipples will get chapped and stony and crack and it will hurt horribly but we shouldn’t apply lotion to help; that we should wake baby every two hours to feed it; that giving baby a pacifier or substituting a bottle at an early feeding could ruin both our lives. One mistake and that could be that! “So remember,” she says, passing out plastic dolls for us to practice on, “relax.”
The truth is, for most women who try breastfeeding, there’s a learning curve—a short one for some, longer for others. The Nipple Nazi, as I came to call her once I recovered from her Red Alert tactics, was wrong about everything—pacifiers, substitute bottles, sleeping babies, lotion. There’s discomfort—call it pain if you want. Then it goes away. Soon enough it’s lovely. And when you get sick of it, you can stop.
What do we read Paradise Lost for? Ideas? Allegory? Poetry? Plot? Why not plot? Why not character? In Book IX Adam decides to eat the apple along with Eve. Why? He’s
But fondly overcome with female charm.
In my Mentor edition, Edward Le Comte notes that “fondly” here means both “foolishly” and “affectionately.” Stanley Fish writes, in a New York Times review of the Parallel Prose Edition, that Danielson’s translation of the line—“an infatuated fool overcome by a woman’s charms”—isn’t quite right, because “‘infatuated’ . . . redoubles the accusation in ‘fool’ rather than softening it.” The problem, says Fish, is that the unresolved ambiguity of the original is important to “the question of just how culpable Adam and Eve are for the fall.”
Reading Fish, I realize I don’t read Paradise Lost in terms of questions of theology and morality, free will and predestination, but rather as a novel in verse. What does Satan want? How is he different from Adam? Who do we sympathize with? The question of the double meaning of “fondly” pertains to Adam’s motive, not just to cosmic guilt. Mine isn’t a particularly sophisticated way to read Milton—motive also matters to detective fiction—but surely things like plot and character are what most people read for, most of the time.
So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake.
Danielson translates: “So lay the huge Arch-fiend, stretched out, enchained on the burning sea.”
Famous image, not difficult. Did Danielson want to get rid of redundancy by removing “in length”? But the Arch-fiend is all the bigger by being stretched out and huge and in length and lying. The addition of “en” to chained is a harmless, if senseless, bit of decoration on Danielson’s part, and the loss of two “l”-sounds from the couplet is minor musical unfortunateness. But changing “lake” to “sea” changes the flames. On a lake they seem huge. Danielson’s “sea” could almost quench them. Once again, I’m grateful for the wrongheadedness of prose. It reminds me how scale—the relationships between sizes of characters and surroundings—is one of the text’s abiding fascinations, and one of the ways it roils, disorients, then reorients.
“Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again,” wrote Samuel Johnson. Mostly I use Paradise Lost as a touchstone, reading bits and pieces to solve writing quandaries of my own, looking for Milton’s muscle, his force, his sense of purpose, his beautiful, beautifully strange, blank verse lines. Indeed, I’ve only read PL straight through twice. The second time was just after my daughter was born in 2007, when the midwife told me I had to sit for an hour three times a day in Epsom salt baths doing nothing. Milton was my resource. This time I wasn’t reading Paradise Lost for pleasure (though it gave me pleasure). I was trying to remember, in those first weeks of motherhood, who I was. I needed to know if my brain still worked. An easy-read novel, a little modern standard-syntax poetry, Milton in prose, couldn’t have given that to me. I needed something to read that required real reading—strange syntax, paradoxes that seem perfectly logical to the poetry mind:
yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.
I needed the way Milton disappears the narrative into elaborate metaphors and brings you back out again. Here’s what it sounds like to Milton when demons cheer:
As when from mountain-tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the north wind sleeps, o’erspread
Heaven’s cheerful face, the louring element
Scowls o’er the darkened landscape snow, or shower,
If chance the radiant sun, with farewell sweet,
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings.
I needed Milton’s demons. His virtuousness. His virtuosity. His ambiguity. His spine. His stately pace and swooning images, seriousness and decoration, austerity and gorgeousness, thrust and return, moral purpose and love for the character of Satan. I needed the way his sentences finally get there over half a dozen or a dozen lines.
Danielson’s Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition is clearly a labor of love by someone who knows Milton. The trouble is, Danielson wants to orient rather than disorient—and that’s not Paradise Lost. It’s not what poems do. Me miserable, I would read in the tub, myself am hell, not feeling all that miserable or hellish, not anymore. Then Maisie would cry, and I would get out of the bath and feed her. It was lovely. It didn’t hurt. Neither did Milton. He was enacting my own disorientation. He was mattering to my life.