On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he 
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail 
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. 
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss 
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? 
It’s hard to imagine deaf Beethoven, producing symphonic masterpieces composed in the chambers of his mind, but equally staggering is John Milton, completely blind by his fifties, yet dictating his epic poem Paradise Lost with its ten thousand verses. The work is so ubiquitous to the canon of literature its lines are often confused with scripture.
He was deeply bitter when he wrote a poem which has come to be called “On His Blindness.” He could not understand why God would give him both talent and desire, yet rob him of the sight needed to see the written page. He wrote
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
In the poem above, he works through the anger and ultimately acknowledges that no, it’s not about him.
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:
John Milton showed admirable personal courage in several ways.
First, he stuck to his republican beliefs even when most opted for a return to monarchy. Whatever the merits of his convictions, he held them even when it was dangerous to do so.
Second, he composed some of his greatest works after going blind.
Finally, he was willing to offend even his Puritan patrons by taking more liberal positions on divorce, religious freedom, and doctrine than most would contemplate.
Read his poetry looking for creative genius freely dealing with biblical history. Milton was willing to take creative liberties that other writers such as Shakespeare had avoided by ducking most direct allusions to scriptural stories. Compare his scope and style to that of Homer, and watch Milton do in English what Homer had done in Greek.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
The magnificent opening lines of Paradise Lost, with their echoes of Homer, Virgil, and Ariosto, announce Milton’s aim not only to equal but to soar above all previous epics. His hopes rest not only on his poetic powers, supported by his heavenly muse, but on the height of his chief argument. Whereas Virgil chose for his subject matter the foundation of the Roman Empire, and Homer told of the battle between East and West, Milton selected the creation of mankind and the opening battle of the war with their greatest enemy. Given his sublime subject matter—and, given that his story transcends all national limitations—Milton’s challenge will be to find and maintain an “answerable style” (IX, 20) across the grand canvas of his twelve books.
After the trumpet fanfare of the prologue, Paradise Lost plunges directly into the middle of its story. Although beginning the narration in medias res may be conventional, Milton still delivers a shock by his choice of where in the tale to start; or, more precisely, with whom. Epics customarily begin at a critical point in the story of their heroes. Paradise Lost opens with the fall of the rebellious angels, the critical point in the account of Satan.
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Milton has chosen Satan as the central protagonist. Not only does Satan have more stage time and more lines than any other character, he also is the subject of the most conventions associated with epic heroes. It is Satan who goes on an epic journey, fights a momentous battle, faces off with monsters, rallies his troops with inspiring speeches, visits noble courts, employs cunning stratagems, and of course, descends to the underworld.
Another way to measure the centrality of Satan’s role is to observe that Paradise Lost takes six (out of twelve) books to reach the point where the Genesis account of man’s disobedience begins. The half of Paradise Lost Milton supplements to the biblical story is not about man but Satan, and the effect of adding prequels that portray the origins of the villain is to transform the entire saga into the story of the villain.
Giving the role of epic hero to Satan commits Milton to investing his character with the heroic qualities of strength, eloquence, resolution, and grandeur. These attributes are all on full display in the opening scenes of Satan lifting himself up from the fiery flood and rousing his fallen troops to action. However, if it’s evident that Milton has found in Satan the virtues that will make him a compelling epic hero, it is less evident that his decision will allow him to craft a virtuous epic. A work of art can hardly be called virtuous if its effect is to create sympathy for the devil.
One way of discovering an acceptable moral is to disassociate Milton’s Satan from the Satan of Christian tradition and belief. Perhaps his character doesn’t represent enmity with the Creator, malice toward humanity, pernicious deception. Perhaps in Paradise Lost he stands for freedom from social conformity, fidelity to personal vision, opposition to entrenched power.
This understanding seems to lie behind William Blake’s positive assessment of Milton as “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Blake, and other Romantic poets after him, saw in Milton’s Satan a defender of liberty, parallel to Milton himself, a vigorous champion of freedom of speech and religion and a steadfast opponent of the tyranny of Charles I.
This Romantic reading is only possible if one radically underestimates how deeply ingrained the biblical drama was in the imaginations of Milton and his audience . . . and if one ignores sizable portions of the text. C. S. Lewis (in his Preface to Paradise Lost, 99) handily dispels the notion that Milton’s Satan is intended to be admired or emulated. He observes that in the course of the poem, Satan undergoes a “progressive degradation”: “From hero, to general . . . to politician . . . to secret service agent, [to peeping Tom], and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake.”
However, it is unnecessary to read to the end of the epic to ascertain Milton’s judgment. Even in Book I, where Satan is most impressive, he is introduced as an “infernal serpent” (I, 34) filled with the ugly vices of envy, hatred, and guile, and the narrator interrupts the account several times to remind the reader that Satan’s plans are futile, serving only to bring on himself “treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance” (I, 220). From the outset, Milton’s Satan is a fiend and fool.
Milton’s design, which caused him to cast a fiend as his hero, becomes clearer when one recognizes that the association between Satan and epic heroes cuts both ways. It not only—dangerously—points out the possibility of heroic virtues in Satan, it also—discerningly—points out the possibility of satanic vices in the epic heroes. With his moral senses trained by Christian truth, Milton can detect more than a whiff of brimstone in Achilles’ “sense of injur’d merit” (I, 98), in the guile of Odysseus, in Aeneas’s lust for “Honour, Dominion, glorie, and renoune” (VI, 442). Although Milton can be said to be following the tradition of epic one-upmanship, he achieves it not by creating a more impressive hero (as Virgil does) but by creating a despicable and damnable hero who throws into doubt the whole concept of heroism.
Although Milton’s approach to heroism in Paradise Lost is primarily critical, he does go on to offer glimpses of a greater heroism in God’s Son, in Abdiel, and particularly in Adam, who demonstrates “the better fortitude of patience and heroic Martyrdom” (IX, 31–32). Adam’s surprising heroism consists of patiently enduring his fallen state and accepting that his roles as husband and father will be his part in God’s design to bruise the serpent’s head. Paradise Lost also sets the stage for the Son of God’s “deeds Above Heroic” in Paradise Regained (I, 14–15).
In the final account, Milton’s epic transcends previous works not by its eloquent style or by its sublime imaginative creations but by its simple moral: trust and obey.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a noted Christian author and speaker. She has written several books, including The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation. She is a frequent contributor to Christian and religious publications such as Christianity Today and Beliefnet.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
YE flaming Powers, and wingèd Warriors bright,
That erst with music, and triumphant song,
First heard by happy watchful Shepherds’ ear,
So sweetly sung your joy the clouds along,
Through the soft silence of the listening night,—
Now mourn; and if sad share with us to bear
Your fiery essence can distill no tear,
Burn in your sighs, and borrow
Seas wept from our deep sorrow,
He who with all Heaven’s heraldry whilere
Entered the world, now bleeds to give us ease.
Alas! how soon our sin
Sore doth begin
His infancy to seize!
O more exceeding Love, or Law more just?
Just Law indeed, but more exceeding Love!
For we, by rightful doom remediless,
Were lost in death, till He, that dwelt above
High-throned in secret bliss, for us frail dust
Emptied his glory, even to nakedness; 20
And that great Covenant which we still transgress
And the full wrath beside
Of vengeful Justice bore for our excess,
And seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day; but oh! ere long,
Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.
According to Luke 2:21, the infant Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day after birth, as Torah requires. New Year’s Day has many other associations for people now, but it has a long history as the Feast of the Circumcision, now more commonly called the Feast of the Holy Name.
In the early Christian church, circumcision was a topic of great debate and division – so much so that Jewish common language characterized people as either “the circumcised” or “the uncircumcised” (i.e., the godly versus the ungodly). The Apostle Paul (who worked primarily among the Gentiles) taught “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Art: The Circumcision Of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens (1605), Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Vienna, Austria
Milton’s poem is held to have been written in 1633, on or about January 1, the day commemorating the event in the church’s calendar which it treats. Using the stanza from Petrarch’s canzone to the Blessed Virgin, it celebrates Christ’s circumcision, looking back to the Nativity and forward to the Passion. Milton feels and tries to convey the pain which Christ felt: “He who with all Heav’ns heraldry whilere / Enter’d the world, now bleeds to give us ease”. Using the historical present tense, Milton draws the connection between circumcision and the Passion explicitly when he says that in submitting to the rite Jesus thereby
… seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day, but O ere long
Huge pangs and strong
Will peirce [sic] more neer his heart.
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).