I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon in the garden with my eldest son. We were staking tomatos mostly. I was holding the twine for him; he was cutting. I was tying up the tomatos; he was clipping random plants. I was weeding; he was adding specimens to the snail house that he has constructed out of an old planter.
As we were working, a neighbour of ours, who used to play the piano at the church where I attended as I child, and who taught music lessons to my wife for several years, wandered by on his way to the library. He stopped to talk, and I noticed that he was holding several critical commentaries on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, including C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost, which is often issued separately from the text that it is supposed to preface, and which is one of the very few works of criticism that I can say I actually enjoyed reading. We talked very briefly about the commentaries, most of which he disparaged, and about Milton’s poem itself, which he praised very highly.
When he had resumed his walk and I had resumed my gardening, I was left thinking about how strange a thing it was to find someone who was actually reading Paradise Lost, not to teach a class, not to complete an assignment, not to pass an exam, but just to read it. The same observation could be made of just about any canonical literary work more than a few decades old, of course. It would have been just as strange if my neighbour had been reading Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queene or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. What was disconcerting about this observation, however, was that it revealed how much I had myself begun to regard these texts as confined to the realm of the classroom. It was not only my cultural expectations that had been surprised by his reading practise but my personal expectations as well. I suddenly recalled how powerfully I had experienced Paradise Lost myself, and I was alarmed to see the extent to which I had allowed myself to confine it to an artificial role in an artificial curriculum. I had forgotten why I had read Paradise Lost in the first place, forgotten why I still believe that others should read it, but I have remembered now, so let the next few paragraphs stand as the beginning of a self-correction.
To read Paradise Lost is to experience words as force and as power. I am awed by its pompous, thunderous, resonant, grandiloquent voice with the same kind of awe that I have for Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or William Blake’s illustrated mythopoetic creations. It is not necessary to like these works only to experience them. They hold something audacious and fearful. They do not hesitate to speak on behalf of gods and devils, to claim the place of the prophet and the seer. They place themselves apart, in the space between heaven and hell, earth and sky, good and evil. They speak a language that others fear to speak, a language of angels and demons and spirits and heros and immortals.
To write and speak and create and compose like this is presumptive in the last degree. It is to assume the role that all creators secretly desire and yet fear to hold. It is to be as like to God as God will allow. It is to invite adulation and ridicule. It is to be called a prophet and a heretic. It is to be consigned to the space between spaces that is opened up by their creations, to inhabit this space that is nowhere, to be considered a little lower than angels and a little higher than fiends.
When I read Paradise Lost, whatever its literary successes and failures, it is because it allows me to stand in this place too, even if only for a moment. It is because it can make me recall this place, years later, in the heat of the sun, standing among the tomato stakes of my garden. It is because Milton’s garden of poetry and myth makes my own garden somehow wilder and stranger, somehow truer and richer. It makes this garden of mine, for an instant, strain beyond itself toward the space that separates it from the divine.