Sunday, August 31, 2003


Why reading John Milton intimidated me is something I don't quite understand. It just seemed like so much WORK. But, wasn't reading The Faerie Queene equally daunting? Many of my favorite works and authors are seventeenth-century -- John Donne's poems, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Katherine Phillips' poems, Ephelia's Female Poems (1683), and the poetry of the brilliant Mexican nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The English poets mentioned earlier are for the most part, cavalier and metaphysical writers.

John Milton seemed to me to be very militant and political -- perhaps that was part of the aversion I felt. I don't like "revolutionary" or "religious" poetry as a rule -- and especially not poetry that obsesses on the theme of crime and punishment (with an emphasis on the punishment).

The rage, the pain, the drama -- acck!! no thanks!!

In contrast, when I first discovered John Donne, who wrote earlier in the same century, I was fascinated by the intensity of the longing for unity -- the promise that striving for unity -- to long to enter into a state of unity would lead to perfection -- an almost out-of-body experience. It's transcendental and holds with it a kind of philosophy of enlightenment. Yes, that really speaks to me.

Being tormented and castigated for disobeying - for daring to question ... well, that never quite resonated with my own experience. As a teen-ager, I tended to be a people pleaser -- not a rebel without a cause, or an angry young grrrl (or angry young man). I also tended to fantasize about transformation, change, and "breaking through to the other side" through art, self-expression, or literature. I like the idea of human nature in all its radiance.

In revisiting Milton's Paradise Lost, I am finding (to my surprise), that many of the elements that so fascinated me in Donne and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz:

1. It is through paradox and the juxtaposition of opposites that we know a thing

2. Transcendental Longing is possible only in a hierarchical universe

3. Unity is a mental state -- it leads to illumination and profound insights into the nature of the human condition

4. The body is a vast dungeon of suffering and limitation -- it must be transcended

5. Abandonment and separation are primary existential conditions

6. Paradise Lost is the quintessential saga of the "angry young man"

7. John Donne appeals to individuals who are hyperaware of their essential helplessness with respect to passion, love, natural forces