My first Miltonic encounter was in my school library at the age of 17. I had been told by well-meaning teachers that if I wanted to consider going to Cambridge (something I had not done prior to them suggesting that maybe I might want to…) I could improve my chances by reading outside of the curriculum. Now obviously, I read a huge amount outside of the school curriculum, but it was largely the works of modern fantasy authors; it was the works of Terry Brooks, Anne McCaffrey (who sadly passed away this week), Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Tad Williams et al that populated my bedroom’s bookcase. Cambridge, no doubt, would demand a more erudite palate. And so it was with some trepidation that I took down Paradise Lost from the shelves in the library and sat alone at a table in my lunch hour, grappling with Milton’s unusual sentence structure – I had never encountered anything like it before; even Shakespeare was more coherent to my 17 year old brain – and flicking back and forth to the notes to discover what the references were to, that were clearly escaping my untrained intellect. Very quickly, I discovered that this was not working for me. It felt too much like a chore and I couldn’t get any sense of the narrative, having to pause, turn to the back of the book, find the note, and turn back, and still not knowing exactly what the poet was talking about. So I turned to my trusty technique that has served me well thus far in academic career: suspension of disbelief. Or, more accurately in this case, suspension of any kind of troubled questioning, or reaching for meaning.
The poet Keats puts it better, as Philip Pullman, whose bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials is itself a retelling of Paradise Lost, knows well: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This, to me, seems perfect advice for anyone encountering a difficult work of literature for the first time. Sometimes you just have to let go of the frantic literary analyst that’s trying to break free and just let the force of the poetry itself carry you along. And nothing does this more effectively or beautifully than Milton, in my humble opinion. You can stop ‘irritably reaching’ for the meaning of each and every word, image, metaphor, intertextual reference – and just listen. In fact, even as a 17 year old, I found myself almost automatically turning to reading the poetry out loud, because it slowed me down and stopped me from panicking about how I didn’t understand anything, that I was clearly too stupid to even consider applying to Cambridge, and that there must be loads of other teenagers out there who were better qualified, smarter, more erudite than I.
In the end, I only managed to get through the first four books of Paradise Lost before I went for my interview, but I was still able to sustain a lively and enthusiastic discussion of epic heroes; the interview itself felt more like a cosy chat, ensconced on a sofa that I immediately sank so far into that I despaired of ever getting out again. We talked about the Romantics’ perception of Satan as the hero, and discussed the wonderful imagery and language in the ‘Hell’ books (I had wallowed lengthily here, and only just made it to Adam, Eve and Eden in the fourth book). Of course I also mentioned my love of fantasy, myth and legends, and we talked about Arthurian literature and Irish folktales too, which turned out to be a lucky coinciding of interests, because my interviewer was one of the principal figures in the small but wonderful Anglo Saxon Norse and Celtic department at the university.
I owe a lot to that poem. I wrote my first ‘Cambridge’ essay, a crazy and somewhat directionless epic of its own, on Paradise Lost, comparing it with Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am grateful that my Director of Studies didn’t laugh when he read it – with the benefit of hindsight, I know that to pull off such a feat successfully would be so far beyond the realms of an undergraduate student in her first week of studies (having encountered Dante for the first time, no less), that attempting to write such a thing was probably on a level with the vaunting ambition of Milton himself. Except that I have nothing, and never will, on his command of language and poetry! Nevertheless, I have continued to enjoy Paradise Lost (I have since, thankfully, read the whole thing, several times – one of the most enjoyable being the marathon reading aloud session at the ES last semester, in which a group of students and teachers took on the challenge of reading the entire poem in one day) and I know that I have still really only skimmed the surface of what it has to offer. I am now writing my Masters thesis on Philip Pullman’s reinvention of Milton’s great tale, and I am still as enchanted by it as I was almost ten years ago.