MEET THE CONTRIBUTORS
We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
To whom thus also the angel last replied:
This having learned, thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars
Thou knewst by name, and all the ethereal powers,
All secrets of the deep, all nature's works,
Or works of God in heaven, air, earth, or sea,
And all the riches of this world enjoyedst,
And all the rule, one empire; only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.
~Paradise Lost, XII.574.
In the classic comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook says:
I am very interested in the Universe - I am specializing in the Universe and all that surrounds it. I am studying Nesbitt's book - The Universe and All That Surrounds It, an Introduction. He tackles the subject boldly, goes through from the beginning of time right through to the present day, which according to Nesbitt is October 31, 1940. And he says the earth is spinning into the sun and we will all be burnt to death. But he ends the book on a note of hope. He says 'I hope this will not happen.' But there's not a lot of interest in this down the mine.
Paradise Lost ends on a note of hope. Having spent hundreds of pages telling us how the world got messed up, Milton wheels in the archangel Michael to reassure Adam (and us) that there's a happy ending to the story, before kicking him out of the garden. He does this by speed-reading the rest of the Bible to Adam (in blank verse, of course). Readers don't always find this narrative section very excitingly written. Perhaps it's something about trying to cram the whole history of the cosmos into a few pages that makes it seem a bit clunky at times.
These few lines, though, I find oddly touching. Michael is reassuring Adam that, by trusting in God, he can gain a wisdom which is greater and more valuable than an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cosmic order. Adam and Eve have just messed up the cosmos for themselves and their descendents, but through faith their inner world can begin to be put back together again. 'Charity' (a word sometimes understood as 'love' in the Protestant tradition) is the 'soul' which will hold their renewed selves together and enable them to face the now harsh outer world.
This stress on inwardness can seem like a withdrawal, a giving up on the world. Perhaps this reflects the disillusionment of the Puritan movement Milton was part of. They had tried to change the world in the English Civil War and it had all gone horribly wrong. They hadn't restored paradise and were sometimes closer to chaos, and, now King Charles II had returned, they were in a sticky situation. Because of this, there was a tendency for them to turn inwards, away from public affairs to their own private spiritual experiences. Many recent readers find this withdrawal unsatisfying.
But this passage doesn't have to be read that way, since it is in the context of the promise of a future restoration of the world to be brought about by 'the woman's seed' (XII.607), meaning Eve's descendant, Christ. The world will once again be made new. But not now, not yet. The 'paradise within' is not a substitute for the new paradise to come, it is a foretaste of it. But we will need to be patient. There's a long road ahead.
David Parry is a PhD student at Christ's College, exploring ideas of
language and communication in seventeenth-century English Puritanism. He is
loving living in a big house by the river with 26 people from 15 countries
and is kept busy emailing the graduate students of Christ's College - both
of these communities feed very well. Occasional diversions include
blogging, taking photos and playing the tuba.
Milton's religious context
Milton and the Bible
Plot Summary: Book VI