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Paradise Lost
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All Book Discussions > Paradise Lost - Style and the Body

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message 1: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith Intentions of finishing Book 2 during my lunch break were thwarted when I ended up reading a lecture on Book 1. (I'm making a separate thread from this so that it doesn't get tangled up in the theology discussion in the other thread).

Now, I'm usually not too interested in the technical details of style - iambic pentameter, rhyming patters, end stops, etc. However, this lecture had something interesting things to say about style and how it relates to Milton's radical theology (more on that in another thread). Anything in italics is a quote from the lecture transcript.

So apparently Paradise Lost is the first narrative poem in English that didn't rhyme. Which doesn't sound like much to us, perhaps, but apparently it was the most shocking thing about the poem at the time, even more so than the sympathetic portrayal of Satan. John Drydan actually wrote a rhyming version for the people who couldn't deal with the lack of rhyme.

But Milton saw rhyme as a constraint, and a completely unnecessary feature that was only used because of custom.
Milton brings to his critique of rhyme that same... political rhetoric that he had brought to his critique of monarchy in the regicide treatises. You can also hear Satan's critique of the tyranny of heaven in this account of the rhyme as well. Like kingship, rhyme is a custom. It's an invention of a barbarous age which a blind and ignorant population will accept only to its own vexation, hindrance, and constraint. It's always Milton's duty -- this is the reason that he was put on this earth: to liberate a people from any such constraining customs. It's the rhetoric of liberation that -- this is the rhetoric that permeates all of Milton's political prose.

Related to this, is Milton's view of the body. Milton was a monist - he believed that body and spirit are not two different things, but are indistinguishable.
Milton insisted that there's no such thing as an immaterial spirit, that that was a contradiction in terms. Everything that we call soul or spirit, even God himself, for John Milton is bodily. Spirit is merely a kind of bodily form of energy, and God at the beginning of time infused this energy into the entirety of the material world at the Creation.
So physical life, physical matter, for the mature Milton is never lifeless or dead. All matter contains within it something like a "potency of life"; that's Milton's phrase. It has a capacity for action, actually a capacity for motion


In the same way as he sees body and spirit as one, I think he also sees the style and the content as one, so that the style of the poem affects what it says. In describing rhyme as "bondage" Milton sees his poem as a body, and rhyme as shackles that would constrain the body:
[Rhyme words are] manacles that confine the otherwise vulnerable and tender flesh of the body of the poem. Rhymes are barbarous forms of constraint that impinge upon the true freedom of the body of the poem.

It's interesting then, to look at depictions of bodies in the poem, particularly when angels' bodies are compared to human ones:
For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thir Essence pure,
Not ti'd or manacl'd with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condens't, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aery purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfil.

So angels have bodies but they don't have organs,bones or any specific shape, so they can mould their bodies into either sex and presumably into other forms.
Now this little discussion that Milton's given us here on the ambisexuality of his angels, not unlike perhaps the ambisexuality of his God, seems to have little to do with the discussion at hand of the heathen deities, but I think it has everything to do with Milton's understanding of his own verse, which he has freed from the bondage of rhyming just as angels are freed from the manacles of joints and limbs.

The lecture gives a few examples of the way in which the poem actually has this sense of bodily freedom. A simple one, is in loaded/double meanings. The word "Fruit" for example, refers to both results and the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve eat. Milton plays lots of little rhetorical games to allow his words to say more than one thing.

Apparently one function of this style is to make the text intentionally difficult (it certainly achieves that!)
We're continually being prevented from reading the text to get to the end. We're prevented from rushing to the end of the sentence, or to the end of the poem... As far as the plot goes, we know how it's going to end... but Milton is developing a style -- and he's working really hard to do this -- that works to resist our drive to get to the end of the story. It's through a mechanism of an entirely new kind of verse that Milton weaves into the metrical fabric of the poem, a new perspective on that old theological problem of human free will and divine foreknowledge. Can it be said that we actually chose to sin or to eat the apple if God had known all along how the story would end, or that we would do this thing in the first place? That's the conundrum that on some level we've all confronted and has been confronted since time began; but Milton knows that if this poem is going to be successful, we cannot as readers be permitted to think the story had to be what it was. We can't be permitted to think that the story had to turn out the way it did. We need to think that the actions in the story were in some way free and absolutely, perfectly undetermined. We need to get at the story of the Fall from the perspective of its beginning rather than from the perspective of its ending.


message 2: by Barbara (last edited Feb 17, 2011 02:01AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Barbara | 4434 comments Mod
And all I wanted to do is read a classic and now there are two discussion threads going on :) Oh Boy!
I too have read about how revolutionary it was of Milton to write a poem that doesn't rhyme. It would have been easier to read if he did make it rhyme though. I think. Nowadays we don't expect a poem (epic or not) to rhyme but back in the days it had to rhyme.
Maybe it has also something to do with his views of the body and soul. He wrote Paradise Lost when he was completely blind probably from glaucoma. His daughters and secretaries wrote down his words for him. How would it have influenced him if he felt that body and soul were indistinguisable and one and then his body became broken in a way. What would that mean for his soul? Do I make sense?

It also makes you think twice about book 8. In this book Adam tells about his own creation and him asking God for a wife because:

But Man by number is to manifest
His Single imperfection, ....

and thus saying that man is incomplete without woman.
God on the other hand is according to Adam:

Thou in thyself art perfect, and in thee
Is no defidience found: not so is Man,

God and angels who can change shape are perfect as they are but man who is male is not and misses completion which comes in the form of woman. Having said that I do have a problem with Eve being the one to get refreshments for Raphael in book 7 but that may just be the feminist in me.

I do think even though making the poem rhyme would have made it easier to read as it often does for me, it would have lessened the impact of the poem. It gives Milton a wider range of words and nuances he can express because he doesn't have the obligation to look for a word he can use. It's like he throws away the shackles of conventional writing (in that time) and by doing that he gives strength to his own words.


message 3: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith Hehe, sorry, it's just one of those books that get me going :)

Interesting point about the blindness... If I simply close my eyes for a while, I feel more 'inside' myself, like my thoughts and my body are more closely connected. Thinking and sensing the physicality of my body are similar experiences. When my eyes are open I can see my physical body, it feels more separated from my thoughts. So perhaps that affected Milton's worldview in some way?

It gives Milton a wider range of words and nuances he can express because he doesn't have the obligation to look for a word he can use. It's like he throws away the shackles of conventional writing (in that time) and by doing that he gives strength to his own words.
Yes, that's exactly it. He complains about the rhyming constraints because they prevent you from using the ideal words, opting instead for something that rhymes.

I think it's interesting that Milton actually parallels Satan in the way he breaks with convention, and yet he is still very much on God's side. However, his theology here is fairly radical anyway.

Eve brings refreshments for Raphael? That sounds so odd, like he came to her home for tea, instead of them all hanging around naked in a garden.
I was always a fan of Adam's first wife, Lilith.


Barbara | 4434 comments Mod
Raphael does come for tea in a way. He is sent to explain some stuff to Adam and Eve and Adam sends Eve of to get food and drinks for them. It's very old fashioned.
I just read book 9 and there is another really demeaning sentence in there. Satan goes for Eve to seduce her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because as a woman she is the less intelligent and thus easier to seduce. I got really angry at that, but I guess that is the spirit of the time in which it was written at least I hope so.


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