February 27, 2012

Beginning Lent with Paradise Regained

This year, Lent coincides with the more intensive part of my thesis writing. Luckily, the main focus of my work right now is Milton's Paradise Regained, a poetic account of Christ's forty day stint in the wilderness. First published along with Samson Agonistes, the brief epic celebrates the negative virtues of renunciation and resistance, as the Son of God proceeds through the trials of Satanic temptation. As with all of Milton's most rewarding poetry, it presents a story that appears deceptively simple and morally obvious; but, like its Old Testament counterpart Samson Agonistes (which reinterprets Samson's last moments of captivity through the medium of classical tragedy), Paradise Regained has a strangeness all its own.

At the heart of this poem is the problem of relating to God without treating him as a calculating evil genius, a cosmic salesman, or (the most tempting of all) an instrument for personal gain. Rather than offering an easy set of moral guidelines or applications, the poem puts its emphasis on the uneasy posture of interpretation, an active disposition that throws the world of appearances into a state of radical contingency. Gone are the totalizing grandeur and the aesthetic pleasure one encounters Paradise Lost. That fertile Garden with all its harmonious comforts has been replaced by a desolate wilderness, cut off from human community. This is no simple exercise; it's a spiritual warzone. Here, rather than on the cross, is where Milton's Jesus defeats Satan and recovers paradise for humankind.

In 1816, William Blake began work on 12 illustrations for Paradise Regained. I'll be posting more of them, along with some further thoughts on Milton's brief epic, as Lent continues. This pair corresponding to the first temptation (below) gives you a sense of the dialectical movement that the poem establishes over and over again.

The First Temptation

Christ Refusing the Banquet Offered by Satan

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