Sunday Pages: "Paradise Lost"
Excerpts from an epic poem by John Milton
In order to graduate with a degree in English Literature, I had to take courses in two of the three major authors: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton—DWEMs all.
Shakespeare was taught by a frustrated actor, tedious and dull, who loved the Bard almost as much as he loved to hear himself soliloquize; I got a B-minus. I had no desire to waste my time with either Chaucer or Milton, and I desperately lobbied the department to let the class I’d taken on James Joyce count toward the “major author” requirement. This was denied, and I found myself, kicking and screaming, enrolling in Milton—which wound up being the best class I took in seven semesters of college.
“Don’t write this down,” Donald Sutherland’s English professor tells his bored class in Animal House, “but I find Milton as boring as you find Milton. His wife found him boring, too. He’s long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our society, and his jokes are terrible.” Fair criticism, but it misses the key point: when Paradise Lost is on, it’s on. It’s like a football game: long and slow and dull most of the time, but when it’s good, it’s the best thing there is in all of sports.
Paradise Lost concerns the aftermath of an epic (in every sense of the word) battle in which God and his Angels put down an insurrection by Satan and his Devils. Insofar as the fight against Trump was a Manichean struggle between good and evil, Milton, contrary to what Sutherland’s professor tells us, translates quite well into American society in 2021.
In this early excerpt from Book One, Milton writes about how Satan convinced his diabolical charges to rise up against the Almighty; he may as well be talking about Trump inciting the motley MAGA army to insurrection:
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High,
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.
(Note the double meaning of vain in “vain attempt.”) We can look to the lines that immediately follow for some hint at what fate awaits Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, and the other Congressional traitors:
Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
That sounds like an appropriate punishment! Trump is already in a sort of “bottomless perdition,” as he has been de-platformed. Without Twitter, without Facebook, he has been cast out, as Satan is in Paradise Lost. We can only guess at how the loser ex-president is feeling right about now. Or we can continue reading:
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell!
This sounds a lot like Mar-a-Lago.
And if we wonder what purple-handed Mitch McConnell and his seditious GOP charges in the Senate are thinking, we need only skip a page or two ahead, and excerpt the part where Satan himself addresses his co-conspirators:
…to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destin’d aim.
“To do ill our sole delight” is basically the Republican platform in 2021. One would be hard pressed to find a more poetical expression of McConnell’s politics of obstructionism.
Satan returns, of course. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve, whose disobedience brings “Death into the World, and all our woe, with loss of Eden,” as Milton puts it. (To put this in modern terms, just replace the word “Eden” with “Congress.”) That is why we must remain vigilant—especially now, with the demon exorcized from the White House.
Trump and his MAGA minions still lurk. They still plot evil. They must be cast out, like the demons they are: Trump must be convicted at the impeachment trial, his domestic terrorists rounded up, prosecuted, and imprisoned. The Paradise that is the American experiment could still be lost.
Photo credit: Engraved plate from the sixth edition of Paradise Lost, 1763.