08 May 2017

Bookish Musing: A Preface to Paradise Lost

I have been thinking about how we each have certain gifts and passions for a reason - God wants us to use those talents for good in our community and around the world. These thoughts are partially brought on by my church's sermon series about discovering your purpose, to dream, and to do.

I've known for years and years how my passion circles around reading, books, and encouraging others to get excited about reading. It always has been my passion as long as I can recall. To encourage others to read well and to learn from books has always given me so much joy. In a small way, this space does that. This blog is here for the reason of encouraging others, who may stumble upon this tiny nook in the universe of the interwebs, to read good books, use their imaginations more, and rely on television and video games less for passing the time. An actively engaged imagination brings on good things as we are forced to determine truth and meaning for ourselves as we interpret what we read, and not take on what the media or a filmmaker wants to ingrain in us as truth.

So I continue to do that, and perhaps focus even more on the importance of reading, with suggestions and musings upon books I am reading to hopefully encourage others to read more. This is something I can do with what is given to me, so I will gladly do it. I will trust that God will use it for His purposes.

With all that said, I will jump into a bookish musing on C.S. Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost.

I picked this book up in Oxford at the little Catholic bookshop I always visit. Finding a C.S. Lewis book that I haven't read is quite the treat, and I have been interested in reading this book for years. The thing I love about Lewis is how he begins to build his main points from the very beginning. He doesn't jump right into a critique or analysis of Milton's Paradise Lost, but he explains what epic poetry is, so that we are more apt to understand his main points by understanding the reason for epic poems, citing many examples from previous works (ex. Homer, Virgil), and how that all somehow points to Milton's purpose for writing as he did. This is how Lewis builds his arguments so well. 

Lewis wants to clear up some matters first, which helps me appreciate the approach that Milton brought to writing the epic poem. This is how I learn so much about writing, older works he draws from, the art and philosophy of poetry, the critique of it, and the attention to certain aspects of style and content. This is especially helpful for a modern, as he notes:

From its early association with the heroic court there comes into Epic Poetry a quality which survives, with strange transformations and enrichments, down to Milton's own time, and it is a quality which moderns find difficult to understand. (pg 16)

Part of the reason why we moderns do not enjoy epic poems (or any longer poems of any kind) is because we do not understand the tradition or the context in time that they were written. We are baffled my the similes used. We get confused by the word selection, and the high language. Our criticism becomes one sided because we might only know a little about Homer from what we learned in school, and remember the dread of it, so we automatically feel the same way about Milton, for example. If we learn more about the raw materials, that is, the poet and his view, we will read the poem with a set of eyes that is placed in his time. 

Lewis also brings to light the technique of an epic, and how our modern view does not match that of our ancestors. We like dances that are basic and simple (ever been to a wedding?), and poetry that sounds like it could be uttered ex tempore, without much thought or preparation, but our ancestors were the exact opposite. They enjoyed dances that were elegant, with fine clothing, and feasts prepared with care, and poetry that was truly poetic and well-thought out.

What is the point of having a poet, inspired by the Muse, if he tells the stories just as you or I would have told them? (pg 21)

This book, to me, is so much more than an intro to Paradise Lost. It is like taking a course with Lewis on epic poetry, the reason it was written, and why it is important for us to understand the historical context and the view of the author before we criticise the work. In Milton's case, if we take out his theology from the poem, there is no point to the poem. It loses its meaning. Further, we have to understand that Milton's Christian thought comes from St. Augustine, and the telling of the Fall of Adam and Eve is based off that understanding. Many criticisms have stemmed from Milton's telling of the Fall and his portrayal of Satan. If we can understand where his thought is coming from, we can better place ourselves in the story being told.

Only thus will you be able to judge the work 'in the same spirit that its author writ' and to avoid chimerical criticism. (pg. 64)

Have there been any epic poems or longer poems that you have wanted to read but always feel intimidated by? I hope you will take it on sometime. Be patient, become engrossed in the story being told, pay attention to the context in which it was written, and imagine yourself hearing the poem being read out loud at an elegant banquet.

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