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Along with John Rumrich and Stephen Fallon, I have been editing Milton's complete poetry and selected prose. (1) I find that he is in certain respects a new poet for me because editors must forfeit the luxury of skipping things.
That was indeed a confession. Although I have taught Paradise Lost many times, and probably read it through from beginning to end more than thirty times, possibly more than forty times, and read slowly and carefully certain passages in the poem--let's say, on average, four or five per book--countless times, to prepare to teach them or write about them, still, despite more than thirty-five years of donating quality-time attention to Milton, I have done my share of skipping. I am guilty of several varieties of it. Sometimes I just plain skip--stop reading, turn a page or two, and resume. Sometimes I lapse into skimming, where the eyes look at all the words and the dull mind issues a blanket confirmation of their sense, but no reflection takes place. As an editor looking back on my carefree days of skipping and skimming I realize that specific kinds of passages inspired these habits of inattention. I often skipped, for example, those dense geographical surveys bristling with the names and place names of many languages, packed with telescoped summaries of world history. There is only one such passage in Paradise Lost, when Adam and Michael first arrive at the summit of the Mount of Speculation in Book 11, but Milton is warming up for the vast temptation of the kingdoms in Paradise Regained. I doubt whether there is a poetry more lavishly pedantic, more trying to annotators, and less to the taste of modern undergraduates. Does the former skipper now discern merit in these stretches of exhibited book learning, which have no doubt inspired some of the deepest yawns in the history of reading, which Johnson perhaps had in mind when he famously said of Paradise Lost that no one ever wished it longer than it is? He does. I can only say, with the crazed excess of a belated convert, that there are whole new kinds of poetry in Milton's most-skipped passages.
Here I want to write about a section of the poem that I used to skip altogether as a young Miltonist, though I began to attend to it in some detail just before, as its editor, I sank fully into both its particulars and its broadest implications. (2) Perhaps other students of the poem have also given it wide berth. I speak of the most ambitious animal metamorphosis in Paradise Lost.
Milton had experimented with such a thing once before in Comus, where the tempter's liquor has the power to change the human countenance into "some brutish form" (70). The conceit of Milton's masque has certainly met with its share of approval over the centuries, sometimes from surprising quarters. I recently came across a (for me at least) new and entertaining example of this popularity. In New Orleans, under American rule in the first half of the nineteenth century, the celebration of the old French Catholic pre-Lenten holiday of "Mardi Gras," or "Fat Tuesday," had deteriorated from its initially communal form. The well-to-do attended posh balls; others drank in the streets. In 1857 six prominent gentlemen announced that they had formed a semi-secret society called the Mystical Krewe of Comus. Like Milton's villain, they claimed to be descendants of Bacchus and Circe, and for the Mardi Gras would present three floats and a tableaux: now, for the first time in some while, everyone would be in the streets. After the interruption of the Civil War, other "krewes" arose to offer their own parades and ceremonies; it is to this day how Mardi Gras is organized. But the first floats drifted out of imaginations formed by Milton's masque. Comus and his crew of animal-headed midnight revelers are reborn in the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, which must be added, however improbably, to the legacy of our greatest Puritan poet.
But Milton's second attempt at animal metamorphosis, in Book 10 of Paradise Lost, where God transforms the devils into a nation of hissing reptiles, has little of the charm of Comus. It is hard to imagine it as a Mardi Gras float. In fact, it is hard to imagine it period, I suspect because the episode triggers profound antipathies. The likes of Arthur Rackham would not touch this picture, and with one exception, the classic illustrators of Paradise Lost shunned it to a man. The exception, unsurprisingly, was Dore, a specialist in the dire who rarely refused the opportunity to etch a serpentine monster. (3) It seems to me that Dore was not at his best on Milton. While the plate does capture in the silence of a picture the sudden terrible din of hissing, Satan is not effectively placed or posed. He looks like an old man in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts; the serpents seem too few and too indistinct. To my knowledge no other visual artist has ever rendered the scene, a fact for which I am deeply grateful.
Not that the presence in Paradise Lost of this repellent metamorphosis should seem altogether surprising. "Snakes," observed a momentarily shaken Indiana Jones. "Why did it have to be snakes?" Because he exists in an homage to Hollywood action serials set in distant continents, some of whose characters wear pith helmets--that's why. And Milton is of course doing epic. Alastair Fowler terms the profusion of snakes "A common horror in epic," then cites Vergil, Lucan, Vida, Tasso, Phineas Fletcher. (4) I'm sure the list could be extended. Why, for example, leave Spenser out? He has snaky places.
A horror, then, of a kind often found in epic. The serpent metamorphosis is among the incidents in the poem from which, on the first time through, we possibly "shrink with horror," in Johnson's words, and become inclined ever thereafter to skip it outright. Johnson went on in the next paragraph to declare that "Pleasure and terrour are indeed the genuine sources of poetry." (5) That may give us pause: could the creation of passages that readers to some significant degree want to skip be a sign of "genuine ... poetry"? Before addressing such a question, I would insist that the recoil I felt as a young Miltonist, the recoil that I suppose to be a fairly typical response to the proliferating serpents...
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