Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Paradise Lost, Book I; etc.

I won’t promise this to be short. I don’t expect it to be long. As I type this, my head feels plagued by a sticky, snotty Beelzebub, and my lungs are wracked by infernal flames.

The imperial “We” have read Book I of Paradise Lost—hence the chthonic body imagery—as well as several more sections of Religio Medici and part of the first chapter of A Map of Misreading.

Religio Medici

Possibly because I’m sick and only attentive in a semi-hallucinatory way I have very little to say about the Browne I’ve read in the last 24 hours. I’m up to section 25 of the first part. It’s not uninteresting reading, but neither has any part of it made a significant impression. Again, this could be due to my limited mental functions. I’m having to skim over the last sections even to remember what they were about. He’s casually discussing how he manages conflicts between Scripture and reason. At this point, I’d describe the discussion as rambling, but not unpleasantly so.

A Map of Misreading

This is a book of poetry criticism by Harold Bloom. It was originally published in the 70s as a follow up to his cornerstone theoretical work, The Anxiety of Influence, and is intended as a practical example of his theories being put to use. I’ll be honest, I’m not all that interested in the theories, but Bloom is always an interesting and impassioned writer and my interest in the book is more as an example of deep reading in poetry. I began reading it last night after my wife mercifully left me in the car while she and kids went grocery shopping. It was getting dark and I started drifting into a half-sleep where the text merged with my own preoccupations with a wished-for poetic vocation. He wrote with lots of reference to the sea and my dreams were pleasantly water-obsessed.

In all likelihood I’ll put this book aside until after I finish some others. I originally ordered it because of it’s sections on Milton, particularly the preface on “Lycidas”—after ordering it (but before receiving it) I realized that the preface had been repurposed for use in his poetry anthology which I already have. Bloom is a famous recycler of his own prose.

Paradise Lost

Why have I not read this until now? Something you must know about me is that I love narrative verse. To date I have done relatively little re-reading—Beowulf, Homer, and Dante are exceptions.

Whatever difficulties lay ahead, Paradise Lost is a far easier read than “Lycidas.” I expected this. It would be extremely difficult—both for the writer and for the reader—to manage that level of allusiveness and ambiguity throughout a long poem.

Milton’s lines scream along. There is no doubt about his mastery of the heroic line. The form of the poem disappears into the narrative.

This is my first reading, so there won’t be much analysis, but there are a few images that I particularly appreciated.

As when the potent Rod

Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day

Wav’d round the Coast, up call’d a pitchy cloud340

Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,

That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung

Like Night, and darken’d all the Land of Nile:

So numberless were those bad Angels seen

Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell345

‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;

. . .

Thick swarm’d, both on the ground and in the air,

Brusht with the hiss of russling wings. As Bees

In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus rides,

Pour forth thir populous youth about the Hive770

In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers

Flie to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,

The suburb of thir Straw-built Cittadel,

New rub’d with Baum, expatiate and confer

Thir State affairs. So thick the aerie crowd775

Swarm’d and were straitn’d; till the Signal giv’n.

These images first brought to mind the derivation of “Beelzebub” I first learned of through William Golding—Ba‘al Zəbûb, “Lord of the Flies”—and from word to image—Salvador Dali’s insects, both in his paintings, and in his film with Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou.

Un Chien Andalou

I also enjoyed the comparison of the demons to the barbarians invading Rome:

A multitude, like which the populous North

Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass

Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons

Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread

Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands.355

And for Paul, who just recently finished Moby Dick:

or that Sea-beast200

Leviathan, which God of all his works

Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:

Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam

The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,

Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell,205

With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind

Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night

Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay

Chain’d on the burning Lake

Gordon Teskey, in the Norton Critical edition of Paradise Lost, explains the lines:

night-foundered: separated from its ship, which has perhaps sunk (foundered). The sailors in the skiff are overcome by darkness. They fasten anchor to what they suppose to be an island but is in fact a whale. The whale dives, dragging them down with it—a symbol of the devil.

A final thought—the requisite catalog was mercifully short, and won’t be the sleep aid one finds in Homer. Speaking of which, Osip Mandelshtam, translated by James Greene:

Sleeplessness. Homer. Taut sails.

I have counted half the catalogue of ships.

That caravan of cranes, that expansive host,

Which once rose above Hellas.

Like a wedge of cranes towards alien shores,

On the kings’s heads godlike spray.

Where are you sailing? Without Helen,

What could Troy mean to you Achaean men?

Both the sea and Homer, all is moved by love.

To whom shall I listen? Now Homer falls silent,

And a black sea, thunderous orator,

Breaks on my pillow with a roar.


  1. I plan to read a book a day. So 12 days to read Paradise Lost, and maybe another few days to review and re-read. I'm having a hard time getting through the 2nd book tonight. Fuzzy, achey head. (Whine, whine, whine.)

    I think Paul said he was still a week or two away from starting. These posts will be here whenever you get to them.

  2. 'Rambling but not unpleasantly so' is not so bad a description of R.M especially part 1 but the shorter part two on Christian charity is easier and he's more affable without so much theology. Its apt to read Browne's stoic gloom when ill but he won't cheer you up, 'Death is the cure of all diseases'. By the way Browne introduced the word 'hallucination' into the English language.

  3. I'm up to the mid 30s in part one. I find myself struggling a bit to find the right approach to him. It's almost startling to read someone so intellectual speak at length about what is known to be true about angels. I'm reminded of something I read recently -- I can't remember where, maybe in Lewis's Discarded Image which I was browsing, that it's a mistake and a loss to read writers of a different age as if they were current, that what is important is precisely how different their world was, how differently they thought, etc. I admit to a naïveté in reading from the perspective of "what can I immediately take from this," when I think I'm coming to understand that one must first put one's own existential needs at a distance, and come to grips with where the writer is at, appreciating it for precisely what it is before forming arguments, or taking mental notes on what can be helpful or interesting for our own circumstances. A good lesson for any listener, probably, regardless of time and place.

  4. Also, I was amused when reading the footnote to section 35, which concludes with "nothing became something, and Omneity informed Nullity into an essence." The footnote reads:

    "An excellent Burlesque on some parts of the Schoolmen, tho' I fear an unintentional one" (Coleridge).


Don't be a jerk.