John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language, yet it seems to be fading slowly from public view. Who could write a new national epic?
This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In 1868, the writer John William De Forest coined the term “The Great American Novel” to describe an epic in prose that would “paint the American soul”, capture national ideals and manners, and help unify the United States after the Civil War. He hoped such a thing could be written soon, since the country seemed too immature yet for a real epic, in verse. But can there be such a thing as a prose epic?
Prose is a written simulation of someone’s speech. A character from a novel may enter folklore, such as Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield; yet he always remains the author’s property. Prose fiction has evolved into a solitary, private pleasure that is the creation of a single writer’s imagination. But if a national myth is to hold people together, then it must transcend the author’s individual experience no less than that of the audience.
Walt Whitman almost had the right idea. The prose introduction to his 1855 collection Leaves of Grass was intended as a blueprint for poetic literature that would celebrate his nation and its virtues. This introduction inspires awe; but Leaves of Grass is itself a mess. Like his compatriot Ezra Pound, Whitman was a great poet who never composed any great poems.
He had brilliant ideas, lovely phrases, piercing insights, and all the material for great poetry; but he had no idea how to communicate any of this in recognisable verse. Most of his epic vision of America remained trapped inside his head.
Today we usually encounter poetry in print; but verse is fundamentally a recording technology that is older than prose, or even writing itself. It originally developed as a means of accurately remembering words in their correct order to enable them to be repeated out loud. Metre, rhythm and rhyme are not merely ornaments: they are devices to ensure that poems can be easily memorised, then shared vocally in the way that songs are.
The scope of a poem depends on the poet’s subject, his ambition, and the size of the audience. A love poem needs only one person to hear it (even if the poet secretly hopes she will repeat it to all of her friends); an epic must be large enough to contain a story that tells its listeners how the world they live in was created, on a local, tribal, or national scale.
A heroic epic embodies the most admirable elements of the national character. Homer depicted the wily but principled Odysseus in the Odyssey, and the proud warrior Achilles in the Iliad; both heroes demonstrate, in their different ways, what was noblest about the ancient Greeks, and served as an inspiration for — and tribute to —Homer’s original audiences. An epic does not necessarily need a hero; but it ought to inspire heroism.
Paradise Lost, the English national epic and the greatest poem in our language, was first published in 1667. And yet it seems to be fading slowly from public view, even as a school text. Meanwhile, the kingdom for which it was composed is increasingly out of touch with its own history. The time may be ripe for a new national epic. But who would compose it?
John Milton (1608-74) was an unlikely candidate for English national poet. Early in life he seemed destined for the Church. But when he left Christ’s College, Cambridge in the summer of 1632, aged 23, he went into retirement at his father’s house, and spent the next five or six years devoting all his time to reading. When a family friend castigated Milton for his apparent idleness, he replied that he was diligently preparing to serve God.
Milton soon showed what he could achieve with his first ambitious work, Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634. It explores the beauty of chastity in sensuous, erotic verse that is wholly untainted by lust. Milton never fled from temptation, because he regarded it as an important test of mettle: as he later wrote in his pamphlet Areopagitica (1644):
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
For all Milton’s emphasis on virtue, he was not a prude.
Milton actively contemplated composing the English national epic for decades. By 1640, he had narrowed down his list of possible subjects to: 53 stories from the Old Testament; eight from the New Testament; 33 from ancient English history; and five from Scottish history. Yet even at this stage it was obvious that he was most interested in the story of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Paradise.
Paradise Lost transforms a simple narrative from the Book of Genesis into a grand, twelve-book pageant
Paradise Lost transforms a simple narrative from the Book of Genesis into a grand, twelve-book pageant that is fully the equal of Dante’s Divine Comedy or the heroic epics of antiquity. Milton’s epic tells a story that unites all Christians, reminding us that we are descendants of Adam and Eve, whose susceptibility to temptation and disobedience of God brought death into the world.
Adam is the hero; he and Eve are recognisably English in their gentleness, tolerance — and the guilelessness that leads to their fall. The story would almost be a tragedy; but Paradise Lost is a profoundly Christian poem: one of Milton’s aims is to remind us that we still have hope of salvation, even if this is by no means guaranteed.
Milton’s ear for the music of the English language has never been equalled. When you read passages from Paradise Lost aloud, it seems less like a poem than an orchestral score. This is the work of a uniquely powerful imagination: the picture Milton creates of Paradise, and the happy life of Adam and Eve before the Fall, is completely convincing. In Book Four, we glimpse this contentment through the sad, angry, envious eyes of Satan. When he sees Adam and Eve kiss, he recoils from the sight, seething with jealousy.
Far from being the hero of Paradise Lost, Satan is a cruel villain. But Milton allows him to be seductive and sympathetic in ways that have misled readers for over 350 years. Milton did not identify with Satan, as unwise commentators have suggested; rather, he drew on his own worst qualities — vanity, insecurity, self-pity — to depict how a once-beautiful angel warped and corrupted his virtues through the sin of pride. Satan’s true hideousness only comes out in Book Ten, when he triumphantly announces to the demons in Hell how he has succeeded in corrupting Man. Satan and the fallen angels are reduced to mere snakes, as ugly as sin, hissing at each other in Hell — as sure a sign as any that these are not the heroes of this epic.
When Paradise Lost was published, Milton’s peers instantly understood the magnitude of his achievement. John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate announced: “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.” Yet Milton was not obviously the man to help reunify the nation after the bloodshed and chaos of the English Civil War. Not only was he a notorious political and religious extremist; he had cheered on the execution of King Charles I.
But Milton the poet was wiser than Milton the man. However reckless or destructive his political positions might have been, he had the courage and humility to recognise, albeit tacitly, that he was disastrously wrong. The story he chose to tell taught him to acknowledge this: Paradise Lost makes clear that any rebellion against God’s order is rooted in sinful pride, and leads straight to Hell. If composing this poem did not amount to an act of repentance and reconciliation, what does?
In the eyes of the Romantics, Milton’s air of defiant integrity made him a hero. But they were too self-centred to grasp the true nature of his accomplishments; they could not understand the love or fear of God that drove Milton’s art. Paradise Lost was less a direct influence for them than a vague source of inspiration that they did not always study with care, no matter how much of the text they knew by heart.
In the decades following the French Revolution, the very idea of unifying national myths seemed controversial. And not merely among revolutionaries. Artists and writers began to turn inwards, experimenting with new ways of seeing and depicting the world, as part of a search for meaning in increasingly unstable, fragile societies. This helped many of them cope with growing doubts about the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the coherence of the universe. Amid all this uncertainty, who could swallow Milton’s uncompromising Christian piety, or his unquestioning reverence for the classical tradition?
The nineteenth century produced no competition for Paradise Lost. William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1798-1805), a spiritual autobiography in verse, adopts a Miltonic style and cadence to describe the growth of his vocation as a poet. Only a writer could consider this a suitable subject for an epic.
Lord Byron’s magnificent Don Juan (1819-24) is one of the greatest long poems in English; but Byron would have laughed at the idea that he had it in him to compose a national epic. As for the great Victorian-era poets: they were all too crippled by doubts (religious and otherwise) even to think about poetry on a national scale. Matthew Arnold settled for exotic stories like “Sohrab and Rustum” (1852); Lord Tennyson retreated into private fantasies in his epic-length The Idylls of the King (1856-9; 1868-74); who knows what Robert Browning was doing in his long narrative poems: The Ring and the Book (1868-9) is a masterpiece, but to what purpose?
The one poet who might once have had the confidence to create an epic of the British Empire was, of course, Rudyard Kipling; the closest he came was the novel Kim (1901). Kipling knew his audience well; they would never have tolerated anything as grand as an epic. But with the outbreak of the Great War, the moment seemed to have passed for high art on such a scale; Eliot’s prophetic The Waste Land (1922) may have helped kill off poetry itself, at least as a popular art form.
The Modernist movement gave us poems such as Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966), which was Modernism’s last gasp. But Modernists’ explorations of subjectivity were better suited to intellectualised soul-searching in semi-autobiographical prose, as with Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27) and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924).
Modernism was largely exhausted by 1930, as can be seen in Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse in English (1973). Yet Modernist principles, and the movement’s essentially anti-Christian worldview, ended up informing the work of even the most original and iconoclastic anti-Modernists, as can be seen in V.S. Naipaul’s novels from In A Free State (1971) to The Enigma of Arrival (1987), and Larkin’s own lyric verse from the 1960s through to the 1980s.
“Experimental” literary and artistic movements have a habit of colliding with their own internal contradictions and collapsing on themselves. Yet the wreckage left behind by these movements often ends up as the focus of study in schools and universities, to the point where many of us have no idea how to look at any other sort of art or literature, particularly from earlier periods of history.
But we cannot base a healthy culture on the morbid self-doubt and neurotic obsessions of writers and artists whose projects ultimately fail — or worse, the scholarship of academics who devote their lives to studying those failures.
Young writers today are lucky: they lose nothing by turning their backs on the past 20 — or perhaps 80 — years of English literature. Or the whole twentieth century. Modernism and its progeny turned literature away from non-specialist audiences. Poets ended up producing work for an ever-shrinking readership that gradually degenerated into a few isolated circles of would-be writers, all desperately scrounging for Arts Council funding and Creative Writing fellowships.
Young poets today must rebuild a popular audience for their work. This might take a while. Poets will have to learn how to perform their verse effectively in front of live audiences made up of normal people whose faces they can see. But if you, a poet, can convince 25 people to fill half the seats in a pub theatre every night for a fortnight, and pay to hear you recite an hour or two of your own poetry, then you will already have a much larger non-captive audience than any professional poet.
Epic is rooted in myth, which is the part of history that leaves no record behind; the poet’s duty is to reconstruct this in the form of a dream which should be at least as convincing as a nightmare — even if the intent is not to make the audience sleep with the lights on for a week afterwards. The epic poet composes his work with the hope of uniting as many listeners as possible. At the end of Paradise Lost, Eve sleeps while the Archangel Michael reveals to Adam how mankind will eventually be redeemed; then Adam goes to wake up Eve, and finds her stirring. She says:
Whence thou returnest, and whither wentest, I know; For God is also in sleep; and dreams advise, Which he hath sent propitious, some great good Presaging, since with sorrow and heart’s distress Wearied I fell asleep: but now lead on; In me is no delay; with thee to go, Is to stay here; without thee here to stay, Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me Art all things under Heaven, all places thou, Who for my wilful crime art banished hence. This further consolation yet secure I carry hence; though all by me is lost, Such favour I unworthy am vouchsafed, By me the Promised Seed shall all restore.”
Then the Archangel leads them out of Paradise, and the poem ends:
The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
Poets of tomorrow should meditate on these words: Milton is showing his successors how to proceed.
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