Book Review: From Virgil to Milton by C.M. Bowra

From Virgil to Milton by C.M. Bowra

Bowra takes on four the great epics of the European literary tradition: Virgil’s Aeneid, Camões’s Os Lusiadas, Tasso’sGerusalemme liberata, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. His examination of each one individually reveals both the distinctive features of each as well as what unites them all.

As he exposes in his commentary, Western epic is essentially a study in heroism. It is a means by which the sort of man which any culture or period holds as its ideal can be exhibited and celebrated. While each of the heroes in each of these epics hold certain virtues in common — courage, for instance, is an universally valued virtue — there are at other points some fascinating differences.

While both Virgil and Tasso, for example, are especially focused on painting their picture of the ideal man, and this ideal man is in both instances a warrior and a leader, Virgil’s picture is of a man who is stoical and war-weary while Tasso’s exhibits a more vigorous, passionate sort of person. Both Milton and Camões depart somewhat from the study of the individual in favor of another pattern; in Milton’s case this is the movement of the conflict in an epic from the historical and national to the eternal and cosmic and in Camões’s case the focus is on an national rather than a personal type.

While his commentary is always insightful, I particularly appreciate Bowra’s principles and approach. In contrast to the bizarre bulk of literary analysts and critics today who chop and trounce their way through the great works of literature by using them as a launching point for second-rate psychologizing or else eliminating the individual element altogether in favor of attributing the existence of each work to its historical, material circumstances, Bowra allows the author to speak for himself. He takes the author as a whole man, as a complex amalgam of heritage, experience, and, what is often forgotten, creativity and chosen originality, and attempts to discern what it is the author is telling us, including both what he desires to tell us and what the tells about himself and his circumstances without conscious intent.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the classics of literature, especially to those interested in epics.

Song on May Morning (by John Milton)

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
    Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
    Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
    Woods and Groves, are of they dressing,
    Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcom thee, and wish thee long.

To kill a book

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great losse; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the losse of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole Nations fare the worse.

John Milton, Areopagitica

Adam and Eve’s first love

… unanimous, and other rites
Observing none, but adoration pure,
Which God likes best, into their inmost bower
Handed they went, and, eased the putting-off
These troublesome disguises which we wear,
Straight side by side were laid; nor turned, I ween,
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity, and place, and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids increase; who bids abstain
But our destroyer, foe to God and Man?
Hail, wedded Love, mysterious law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else!
By thee adulterous lust was driven from men
Among the bestial herds to raunge; by thee,
Founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure,
Relations dear, and all the charities
Of father, son, and brother, first were known.
Far be it that I should write thee sin or blame,
Or think thee unbefitting holiest place,
Perpetual fountain of domestic sweets,
Whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced,
Present, or past, as saints and patriarchs used.
Here Love his golden shafts imploys, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile
Of harlots—loveless, joyless, unindeared,
Casual fruition; nor in court amours,
Mixed dance, or wanton mask, or midnight bal,
Or serenate, which the starved lover sings
To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.
These, lulled by nightingales, imbracing slept,
And on their naked limbs the flowery roof
Showered roses, which the morn repaired. Sleep on,
Blest pair! and, O! yet happiest, if ye seek
No happier state, and know to know no more!

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV, l736-75

Review: Milton

Milton by John Milton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m ashamed to have to admit that although I have had a copy of “Paradise Lost” sitting on my bookshelves for nearly a decade this is the first time that I have read it from beginning to end. I attempted a few times, but was put off by the first few pages and their prodigious references to various mythological figures. My own lack of knowledge on the details of Greek mythology coupled with the abundance of footnotes in the copy I owned deterred me from reading more than a few pages deep each time that I tried. I think it was finally finding a copy without footnotes that convinced me to read the entire epic poem as well as Milton’s other works, and I must say that I was more than pleasantly surprised to find the poem extremely engaging. I don’t think there are many poems that can be described as “page turners” but this is one that without a doubt can be so described. I could hardly put it down and finished it in only two days; this, after almost a decade of being unable to make it past the first several pages!

What makes “Paradise Lost” simultaneously engaging and yet in another sense quite disturbing is that it re-mythologizes the de-mythologized creation story of Genesis as well as the overarching soteriological scheme of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis, and much of the Judeo-Christian tradition, consists of a de-mythologized version of the ancient Middle Eastern worldview. One of the things that makes Genesis such a remarkable work is its place in comparison with, for example, the Babylonian creation story in the “Enuma Elish.” Milton ignores this de-mythologized structure and introduces a new mythological overlay for the Genesis story. This is fine — this is, after all, an epic poem — but must be recognized for what it is. If his mythologized theology is taken too seriously, we end up with a bizarre distortion of the biblical story. The Father’s introduction of his Son in heaven, for instance, brought to my own mind the scene from the Austin Powers movies in which Dr. Evil introduces Mini-me to his compatriots. Watch the scene and read that portion of “Paradise Lost” sometime when you have the opportunity; the resemblance is uncanny.

I found the politics of “Paradise Lost” also very interesting. I’m entirely unfamiliar with Milton’s political opinions aside from what he elucidates in the “Areopagitica.” I would guess, though, from “Paradise Lost” that he was a monarchist deeply suspicious of democratic and republican ideals. Satan continually makes reference to “liberty” and “equality” as his guiding principles in opposition to what he views as the servility of those who recognize the monarchy of God and render him due honor. The entire strain of thought here reminded me of the quote attributed to the 19th century Russian priest St. John of Kronstadt, “In heaven there is a monarchy and in hell there is democracy.”

Also striking was Milton’s take on sexuality. The passage in which Adam and Eve engage in marital relations for the first time (before the fall, remarkably) is a beautiful celebration of sex between a married couple in love. His treatment of sex after the fall (essential animal lust) stands out as an important contrast with this pre-fall love. C.S. Lewis once remarked that he believed the nature of the original sin to be sexual as sex seemed to be that part of the human appetite that is most distorted post-fall. I would have enjoyed seeing his opinion on Milton’s treatment of sexuality.

The most fascinating aspect of the book by far is the insight it offers into the psychology of the devil, and, by association, all who rebel against the throne of God. Milton’s insight into the mind of the evil one is rivaled in literature only, perhaps, by Lewis.

Overall, I recommend reading “Paradise Lost” and I assure you that, if you can get past the difficulties of antiquated English and frequent mythological references, it is a wonderful read.

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