a year of morning thanks
John Milton -- 1608 - 1674
Only once in all my years in the classroom did I have the opportunity to teach Paradise Lost. It was in a special topics course I created--Milton and Melville. I'm almost embarrassed to offer that title, such a strange union it was--two Calvinist writers. Sort of.
It was a small class, years ago, and I remember how much they hated Moby Dick, whose hundreds of pages on cetology is more than anyone ever wanted to know about whales. But they loved Paradise Lost. Just loved it.
So did I. There may well be people alive who don't need a companion commentary for some explanation of what they're reading when they go through that old epic, but there probably aren't many. You don't just surf through PL, you paddle, with cupped hands.
But the rewards are immense. I'll wager that there are others, like me, who claim to learn as much theology by a good, thorough reading of Paradise Lost as they do by a decade of sermons from even a sound preacher. I used to argue that every student who graduates from the college where I teach should have been forced to read slowly through Paradise Lost.
Just don't make me teach the class. I'd be suicidal. Pearls before swine--and all that.
This morning is John Milton's 400th birthday. He's long gone, but I dare bet that somewhere in this world this morning, some kid is still mining pure gold from Paradise Lost--like I once did, and like the students in that little class did too, years ago.
In college, when I first read big chunks of PL, I remember being taken by the Devil's oratory, his defiant, romantic will to take back the dignity he'd lost when he got tossed from court of God almighty. And I remember the old controversy about the poem--that Milton couldn't help himself, that he too was taken by Satan and created him, for better or for worse, as the real hero of the epic. "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven," he screams, trying to raise himself from the inextinguishable lakes of horrid hellfire.
Here's what the Writer's Almanac reports this morning: "Many readers come away from [PL] feeling that Satan is the most interesting and sympathetic character."
I've got no argument. But the finest explanation/interpretation I've ever heard for that perception is that while it's true--Satan is most interesting and sympathetic--it's true because it's true, because he's Satan. He's the wretched murderer the victim lets in the door for some dang reason, the guy with the perfect smile, the reveler who makes everyone in the room turn their head. He's the Great Deceiver because he is, just as he is in PL.
Milton didn't write better than he knew. Milton, the Calvinist, knew.
Maybe I'm just prejudice.
No matter. On this 400th anniversary of his birth, this morning I'm thankful for John Milton and what he left for us to love.