Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sing, God-awful Muse!

On Milton and the Nipple Nazi of Northampton.

The Milton problem reminds me of pregnancy, and the Nipple Nazi of Northampton.

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

                                                         not deceived,
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.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2009

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry: Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013); My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She has been...

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  1. July 8, 2009
     eugene boyles

    more milton, less nipple

  2. July 11, 2009
     Ken Bartsch

    Several years ago, I showed a friend of
    mine my new copy of Milton's Paradise
    Lost and he, forgetting his education for
    a moment, asked, "Who translated it?"
    Perhaps twitters and texxers need a
    translation of Milton but people who love
    English revel in his language . The only
    thing I found unpalatable about Paradise
    Lost was its idolization of empire. I could
    not abide his British God, an insufferable
    Arrogance who rules by power and
    authority and utterly without humor. It
    was hard to believe that Milton himself
    didn't prefer the Satan he created.

  3. July 12, 2009
     Charles Lovecraft

    Reading the snippets of Milton you provide and you see [underlined] the undulant powerful stresses in all the right places and which is what makes the language so awe-inspiring and transfiguring, and massively landscape-like. Richard L Tierney is like that too – perfection of modulated tone, the stresses all in the right places, enacting the grand-painted imagery wanted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perceptions on Milton with us. Long live the Great Old Ones!

  4. July 14, 2009
     John Irvine

    Nice piece. You are being discussed in regards to David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", which it seems the whole internets are reading this summer:


  5. July 14, 2009
     ellen moody

    Your comparison ought to be puzzling. You liken reading Milton to giving birth and breast-feeding. Then you describe these two experiences with the punitive cruel bullying language I have continually come across about them. Not that I'd ever breast-feed; you'd have to whip me and then I'd not give my life up to such slavery.

    Milton is not so bad. I suggest one reason for learning how to read Miltonic verse is he gave birth to all sorts of poetry written in this idiom, from the early 18th century descriptive and georgic verse to funny parodies on. It's a matter of lending yourself to the rhythm and the way the sentences are arranged. Like Latin, after a while you get the hang of it.

    Then you could read Thomson, Cowper, Philips ("The Splendid Shilling"), Shelley and Keats (who imitate Milton) and in our own day say Anthony Hecht. Not many woman have imitated Miltonic verse (except parodically), it's too vatic.

    Ellen Moody

  6. July 14, 2009
     Ann Fisher-Wirth

    A delightful essay, Daisy.

    Here in the South, many of our students are remarkably un-resistant to Paradise Lost; they like it quite well, and that's because they know the characters and share the world view. It's Old Home Week.

  7. July 14, 2009
     Gail White

    The historian Macaulay first read Paradise Lost at the age of 14. Vachel Lindsay first read it at the age of 9. Both of them adored it.

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the poems, but in ourselves.

  8. August 19, 2009

    Wonderful essay. I have no degree. Some
    education, I've read PL twice through. And
    pick it up here and there to reread the
    "juicy bits". I am no Christian, so I read it
    as fantasy. I love the language. The
    power while reading it aloud.

  9. August 25, 2009
     Steve Nash

    Lovely essay. I often felt rather square-pegged for my love of PL and it amazed me that even whilst studying toward an MA in literature the predominate response to my adoration of Milton was met with a mixture of baffled looks and hostile accusations of elitism.

    If read without fear Milton opens incredibly easily and this piece has made my day, so thanks Daisy.

  10. March 6, 2010
     Donald McGrath

    Liked your piece. I studied PL in university and loved the poem. Also found Milton, at times, quite funny, as when he describes various prelates, blown by a great cosmic wind, going arse over end through space. Sure, some passages need a second read, but it's usually so damn rewarding. And new-fangled attempts like Danielson's represent academia's anxiety about its own relevance. Stick to the original, I say.
    Milton delivers, baby!

  11. April 22, 2010

    Lovely essay--seriously a beautiful
    meditation on Milton and life. I *love* to
    see poetry interact with life like this.

    The attention to detail opens Milton's PL up-
    -good poetry rewards investigative.


    You made Milton pertinent to womanhood
    on a whole different level.

  12. October 9, 2010
     Dennis Danielson

    It's a lovely essay, Daisy, even if (for me, as you might understand) it stings just a little in places. Really: if my efforts (thanks for seeing that they arise from love) send readers back to Milton's original--to poetry rather than prose--I'm happy.

  13. October 10, 2010
     Carol Barton

    I agree that we do Milton (and our students) an immeasurable disservice, when we make him the property of the intellectual elite--those gifted few born with the innate ability to read and understand him, that exclusively "fit audience though few" to which he is delightfully intelligible.

    People have done the same (even more ludicrously) with Shakespeare, so that even the adult students I've taught have approached his plays with more than a little trepidation. Until they read them, at least. I will never forget the big, burly Marine, who, deployed to a duty station elsewhere, enjoyed _Lear_ so much that on his return, he proudly announced that he'd gone to see _Romeo and Juliet_ (the movie version, which was playing near the base where he'd been sent) and had "made [his] whole g*dd*mn platoon go with [him."

    God bless my undergrad English prof, who refused to let us read an interlinear "translation" of _Canterbury Tales_ and instead insisted that we attempt to read it aloud, glossary to hand, reassuring us all the while that we would soon get the hang of it.

    Psychologists have demonstrated that the "self-fulfilling prophecy" applies to teaching, too. Students achieve exactly what we expect them to--and it is arrogant and condescending to assume that they "can't" read _Paradise Lost_ (or anything else) until we've helped them try.

    I'm glad your baby wasn't deprived of breast-feeding because of the Nipple Nazi--and with all due respect to Professor Danielson, whose love for Milton is unquestionable--I hope his _Parallel Prose_ edition will be a last, and not a first, resort.