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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Regaining Paradise Regained


John Milton's fame didn't gain much from Paradise Regained, often considered the dumb brother of Paradise Lost. (The same fate as Tasso's Gierusalemme Conquistata, incidentally.) Now, by rereading it after a millennium has passed, literally, and after accumulating a bit more of experience in the fields of literature, Renaissance, and Bible, Paradise Regained appears, at last, as the true masterpiece it is, starting from its 'mature' style, complex while crystal clear.

It probably depends on the reader's focus, e.g. without fixating on the title. In fact, Christ's mission of regaining salvation for Man by dying on the cross had already been dealt with in Paradise Lost, but PR examines another side of the issue: the perception of Jesus' identity in the eyes of those who met him and, especially, of himself -- the development of his self-consciousness. An absolutely fascinating subject, that would 'officially' emerge only in the 19th century. From this viewpoint, the poem is among the best things ever written in Christian literature, either fiction or theology. Not by chance PR, as much as PL, deserved a careful study and a powerful artistic rendition by Milton's top reader, William Blake.

Far from being 'absent,' anyway, the Cross provides the tonic note of the whole poem, the foundation of all of Jesus' answers to Satan. Another wonderful theme in PR is its insight into the whole of human history in few pages. Milton cheats when he plays the one who despises classical culture the very moment he stuffs his verse with it; and it is thrilling to hear Jesus talk about matters so different from the Gospel texts. A side effect of this is a new appreciation of Books 11 and 12 in PL, which disappointed many readers. Yes, here Milton is sometimes lengthy, etc., but his keys for the Bible are not silly at all. Paradise Regained, finally, includes some interesting hints at Medieval and Renaissance literature.

The cover page of the Collins edition, above, is a recolor version of an engraving by Gustave Doré. But especially, the picture has been turned upside down so as to have a "Messianic tree shoot" in the forefront (Isaiah 4: 2 -- formerly a root in Dore's illustration).