Thursday, January 14, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/14/16: Paradise Lost Book 1 by John Milton

The English had a wonderfully musical twentieth century. But historically, they are not a particularly musical people. They didn't need to be. Their poetry was all the art music they required. A nearly unbroken six hundred year tradition: Chaucer, Wyatt, Spencer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herbert, Marvell, Cowley, Donne, Herrick, Milton, Crashaw, Dryden, Raleigh, Sidney, Pope, Gay, Smart, Addison, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Clare, Tennyson, the Brownings, Meredith, Swinburne, Gilbert, Arnold, Hopkins, Carroll, Hardy, the Rosettis, Kipling, Houseman, Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Graves, Auden, Hughes, Larkin, Hill. If one then counts the oral poems of earlier centuries like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and King Arthur, and then the anonymous religious poems and carols of the Middle Ages; and then poets from the other countries of Great Britain like Yeats, Wilde, McNeice, Heaney, Thomas, Burns, Scott; and then American poets like Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Crane, Hayden, cummings, Poe, Silverstein, Angelou, Plath, Longfellow, Pound, Bishop, Ashberry, Bradstreet, Lowell, Warren, Rich, Merrill, and Warren, to say nothing of the oral beat poets and the American-Anglo popular music poets and the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals. And then you have colonial and post-colonial English poets, Walcott, Atwood, Soylinka.... And then one has to appreciate the poetic qualities of the nearly-as-long prose tradition in English.

When you consider all this together, the English poetic tradition begins to look like the single most glorious cultural achievement in world history. English is now the lingua franca of the world - no doubt it's due in part to England's imperial rule (and then America's), and the endless font of scientific discovery and technological inventions of both countries, and their long traditions of free inquiry and open discourse. But both countries were able to be endlessly inventive in part because of the endlessly fecund evolution of their language. While both Northern and Southern countries on the European continent stayed true to the Latin and Saxon roots their languages, England, a territory apart from Europe, allowed for a free intermingling of the two cultures as nowhere else, and thus developed a language that combined the richness of both linguistic families. The glories of the English language have to be part of what makes those who speak them so open to new ideas. A reader fortunate enough to bear witness to such imaginative flights allows his own imagination to take flight, and expands what her mind thinks possible.

It's an incontrovertible fact that one of its greatest glories is Milton, and particularly Paradise Lost. And yet I've struggled with Paradise Lost since college, never actually finishing it. Its greatness is there for anybody who puts their eye to Milton's pages, but the work is just too high-flown, grandiloquent, bombastic, ambitious. I think it's impossible to not hold the power of this extraordinary epic in awe, I also wonder if it's impossible to love.

The sheer grandeur of Milton's vision is unlike anything you will ever otherwise read. You get all the brimstone and seraphicus of Dante, all the fantasy of Homer, all the musical beauty of Shakespeare, but coupled with action scenes of such proto-cinematic splendor that hardly anything in cinema can equal their vividness; and all the more powerful for taking place in the unlimited realm of one's imagination. I'm amazed that so few directors have approached Paradise Lost as a potential epic - in this age of computer animation of infinite possibility, it cries out for a director of sublime visual imagination.

But for god's sake, where is the humor? The humanity? The occasional relief from this obdurate heaviness? Everything is so existentially important and spine-chillingly thrilling that there is no room to be moved. The ultimate difference between Shakespeare and Milton is not in their capacity for greatness, but in their capacity for smallness. Shakespeare scales down so beautifully that he can portray the human as easily as the sublime. In Milton, there is only sublimity, and unvarying grandeur doesn't seem that grand after a while.

Milton, like Dante and Dostoevsky, are the respective poets representing their Christian sects. In the Divine Comedy, Dante the Catholic presents us with a fixed hierarchy of sin and virtue for all time. Dostoevsky was no poet, his prose isn't even particularly poetic, but as a devout follower of the Orthodox church (in its Russian incarnation), he believes that this world means nothing without mystical communion with the next, and submission to tradition - which is more important than any authority. Dostoevsky meant for The Brothers Karamazov to be just the first volume of a two volume work: The Life of a Great Sinner,  and in the second half there shouldn't be much doubt that he'd have detailed the mystical eschatology of his Orthodox belief.

If Dostoevsky and Dante represent Orthodoxy and Catholicism, then Milton is THE Protestant among poets. He's so Protestant that his vision is heretical even to Protestants. Even more than Dante, Milton clearly meant for his epic to be a kind of Third Testament. It is an epic about the dawn of time itself and how all things come to be the way they are, much of it perhaps takes place even before Genesis.

When you hear this poetry, you immediately realize that this is nearly as much music as poetry. When the poetry of hip-hop claims itself as music, how can we argue with them when good poetry itself has so much musical quality?  When this poetry seems so arch and dramatic, so like music, what point is there to add music? To set it to music is almost beside the point. At the end of his life, Haydn wanted to set Paradise Lost as an Oratorio. Even if a great composer could, Haydn would have been utterly the wrong composer for this material. Haydn, that supreme portrayer of the human and small, could never have adopted to Milton's scale. The composer Milton cried out for was Wagner.

The speaker here, Anthony Quayle, was certainly a great actor. But Paradise Lost calls out for still greater. Quayle has great moments, and is as good as you'll find online, but he's is not sensitive enough to the nuance: this poetry requires an actor whose phrasing has all the subtleties of a great musician: it demands nothing less than Gielgud, Olivier, McKellan, Hopkins, James Earl Jones...

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