John Milton. Harold Bloom.
Abdiel Agonistes…. October 24, 2000
John Milton’s reputation has unjustly suffered a diminution during the last two centuries. The romantics, repulsed by his religious theme of the earthly pilgrimage of the soul, corrupted his poem by maliciously interpreting Satan as the hero, despite Milton’s unequivocal condemnation of Satan and his equally lucid characterization of the repentant Adam as the true hero. T.S. Eliot and those who ape his opinions also find Milton the man and his religious beliefs repellent. The poets of the modern era deride Milton because, in general, they have abandoned religious belief and turned to vague forms of idealism, as in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, and to the creation of idiosyncratic ersatzes, as in Poe’s Eureka. John Keats’s Endymion and the Hyperion poems fail as much because of their superficial content as their poor structure and execution. In Auden’s analysis, “the modern problem” hamstrings the romantics as much as Yeats or Pound. Milton never suffered from such a malady and hence the envious detestation he has received from minor poets who are unquestionably his inferiors. Milton possesses a serious vision of history and humankind that could only achieve full expression in the most demanding form of poetry–the epic. But most poets of the last few hundred years have not found themselves entrusted with such a vision. Much to the contrary, they excel in every imaginable type of turpitude and triviality that the human mind is capable of producing. Like Yeats they have often thrown together every decadent principle or superstition that has ever happened along. This sorry state of affairs has become so common in postmodern poetry that anyone who would attempt to restore epopee to its glorious heights of noble seriousness and serenity would find ranked against him every academic hack and, as Milton phrased it, every “libidinous and ignorant” poetaster who has “scarce ever heard of that which is the main consistence of a true poem.” Milton knew the “consistence of a true poem,” and both Paradise Lost and many passages scattered throughout his prose attest to it. In The Reason of Church Government he surveys the abilities of such masters as Homer, Virgil, Job, and Sophocles. Along with the modern loss of belief in God has gone his high and serious belief in the office of the poet. Equally banished from the modern conception of poetry is all respect for positive values, morals, and virtues. The story of twentieth-century literature is the abuse and misguided replacement of such healthy standards with the perversions of modernism and postmodernism. In brief, “the modern problem.”
Unlike in the work of Jacques Derrida and his academic flies, the “presence” of God is a reality for Milton. Here in the abstract Milton gives us what throughout Paradise Lost he has been dramatizing–the “principles and presuppositions” to which Adam, representative man, must obediently submit, not merely in Eden, but for the fulfillment of his life during his journey on the earthly plane. In Satan, Milton presents the picture of the rebel, almost a type of the Renaissance hero Benvenuto Cellini, who through pride usurps power and whose fundamental actions and motives have their most appropriate modern analogue, as many have observed, in the archvillains Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Such men fully embody the will to power that the nihilist Nietzsche, as Thomas Mann put it, glorified. Such totalitarian dictators were the inevitable product of the romantic fascination with Satan, as though he were a hero and not an arrogant aspirant after power. Such cultural confusion reveals itself in Goethe’s Faust as well as in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Such errors in judgment, such fundamental confusion of values, mark the modern era and set it off from the spiritually healthier times of Dante, Langland, Spenser, and Milton–healthier only in terms of possessing to a degree a unified spiritual vision that provided universal standards with which to confront the damnable deeds of their day. Far from the banal optimism of the modern era, as in Whitman, they know that the long hard way of man is through suffering and turmoil and that the assurance Michael gives Adam about future generations abides eternally: “Doubt not but that sin / Will reign among them.” Despite Freud’s “freeing” man from sin, the twentieth century proved to be the most sinful in history, precisely because the unique spiritual reality of each soul and its fundamental limitations were denied. The violent, arrogant, insidious deeds of the archvillains of modern political nihilism alone account for the suffering and deaths of hundreds of millions of people, while much of the so-called intelligentsia of the West and East defended or prepared the way for the slaughter. Whereas Virgil denounced war except as the last resort for establishing peace, modern poets have often ignored the inhumanities of our century–save for those like Pound whose totalitarianism abetted the brutalizing of millions of innocents and the early Auden who approved “the necessary murder.” Here at the end of the twentieth century when humankind still stands technologically capable of destroying much of the vast expanse of the globe and much, though not all, of its population, here when a more trustworthy political form has yet to be securely established to channel the will of the citizens of the international community, epopee must again take account of the social domain and man’s earthly journey through these immense atrocities. For by faithfully treading the dark way of horror, by weighing the modern loss of belief, humankind may begin to regain the path in the twenty-first century, and, like Dante’s persona, attain the highest summit of peace and glory.