Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mining John Milton’s Poetry for the Devotional “paradise within”

~James Wardwell

As the writer of Paradise Lost and the primary cataloguer of the person and works of Satan, John Milton may not immediately seem a source of devotional inspiration. However, in as much as great devotional writing leads us to praise God and inspires us toward an ever deepening relationship with Him, a wealth of blessing can be mined from closely reading Milton’s works. Although from the first line Paradise Lost is “Of Man’s First Disobedience,” it carefully proceeds through twelve books not only “to repair our first parent’s ruin” but to also instruct them and the reader on how to by loving and obeying God gain “a paradise within, happier far” (12:587). By meditating on Milton, we might with his character Adam confess:

Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deem’d weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life. (Paradise Lost 12:561-571)

Toward an ever deepening relationship with God by thoughtful choice

Oddly, John Milton has been viewed by some as if he were not a person of faith at all, as if Christianity were just the vehicle by which he delivers his humanistic message and not the core of that message. Plainly, this is not the case. Throughout his writing, Milton intersperses clear indication that the faith he speaks of is personal. It is a matter of choice. Milton’s God says “Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will” (PL 3:173). In the end, salvation is for “all who will believe” (PL 12:407). We choose to be in relationship to God, or not.

Although Satan in Paradise Lost suggests that God threw him out of heaven, the Archangel Raphael when retelling the story to Adam makes clear that the truth was otherwise. On the third day of the war in Heaven (Book VI), the Son of God in God’s chariot drives Satan and his rebellious crew to the edge of Heaven and then stops. With the invitation of returning penitently to the fold implied as on offer, Satan chooses to throw himself “headlong” “from the verge of Heav’n” (865). Another time as the stairway to Heaven is let down toward him, Satan sidesteps and continues toward Earth to “spite” God. Most poignantly, while recognizing that his Creator gave him “bright eminence” and required no “hard” service of him other than deserved “praise,” Satan chooses to bid Hope and Good farewell and pursue a new motto: “Evil be thou my Good” (4:42-110). Pointedly, Satan opts out of an ever deepening relationship to God by his choice.

Even though Satan employs his god-given freedom of choice to break faith with his maker, for Milton freedom is essential to our salvation, for it is by choice that we accept what God provides. Speaking of Adam’s ability to “stand” against the temptation by the Devil, God asserts,

. . . I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all the Eternal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail’d;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
Where only what they needs must do, appear’d,
Not what they would? what praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid . . . ? (3:97-107)

Without choosing to follow Jesus, a possibility even Satan was endowed with, we serve “necessity” and leave God ungratified. The archangel Raphael attests that God created us with this ability to accept Him but left doing so up to us. “Our voluntary service he requires / Not our necessitated” (5:529-530).

. . . freely we serve,
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall. (5:538-540)

Certainly one of the most moving passages of Paradise Lost comes when after having eaten the forbidden fruit and before the Son of God has come to judge them, Adam and Eve choose to prostrate themselves upon the ground and confess their sin “with tears / Watering the ground, and with sighs the Air / Frequenting . . . from hearts contrite, in sign / Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek” (10:1097-1104).

Milton maintains this inviolable necessity of freedom because of an abiding faith

in our ability to reason and in the inevitability of the Truth being known. For Milton,

“reason,” our ability to think and act logically, is a corollary gift from God that enables

humanity to use freedom wisely and worshipfully. Adam recognizes “Reason he made

right” (9:352). In Areopagitica, Milton equates reason with the image of God in us. He

writes, “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it

were, in the eye” (720). He praises the triumphant martyrdom of Samson in Samson

Agonistes as the “heroic magnitude of mind.” In Paradise Regained, the Son of God

overcomes Satan’s temptations and thereby sets the path to salvation by out thinking the

Devil in debate. To summarize Milton in one colloquial admonition, in all of his thoughts

and writing he seems to be shouting “Use your head.” We sometimes seem to want to

compartmentalize our experience and live as if thinking and imagining were not spiritual

activities. To the contrary, Milton suggests again and again that God has given us minds

to be used in our quest to know Him. He recognized that Jesus had added “mind” to the

great commandment—“You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all

your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind”—thinking it an essential

agent in loving God (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Subsequently, experts in

spiritual development like Richard Foster celebrate “study,” the employment of our

intellects, as a means to an ever deepening relationship with God. Milton is of like mind

also. His characters—the archangel Uriel, Adam, Eve, the angel Abdiel, Satan, and even

God Himself—must use reason to understand information and experience and then

choose an active response thereby.

Inevitably, the use of “right reason” will discover Truth because there is one truth and it cannot be other. Milton argues for this “singleness of form” in his oratorical exercise written while at Cambridge, “PARTIAL FORMS ARE NOT FOUND IN AN ANIMAL BESIDE ITS WHOLE FORM.” Therein he concludes:

However the affair may conclude, even if I lose my cause, the cause shall not be lost, for the Truth is unconquerable and more than able in her own strength to defend herself. Nor does she need any trifling outside help to do so. And even though sometimes she may seem to be worsened and to be crushed to earth, nevertheless she maintains herself forever inviolate and intact from Error’s claws. In this she is like the sun, which often reveals himself to men’s eyes wrapped up in clouds that befoul him, nevertheless gathers his rays to himself and summons all his glory to him, and blazes forth in perfectly stainless brilliance. (612)

Milton’s confidence in Truth may be further confirmed by recognizing in the closing image the common seventeenth-century sun/son play on words (which Milton also more clearly employs elsewhere) where the word “sun” stands for the star that lights the earth and for the Son of God, the light of the world. This belief in the power of Truth and in reasons ability to uncover it, leads Milton to argue in Areopagitica for the freedom to publish anything written and against any censorship. Not only is he confident that Truth will emerge by reasonable consideration but by like processes untruth will be exposed and eventually disregarded. Sure that “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), Milton takes as imperative that we “Prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). Paul, Milton says, has set before us the responsibility to consider widely and judge, even as he and Moses and Daniel read both sacred and secular texts (726-727). Milton recalls Dionysius Alexandrinus’s “vision sent from God” as recorded in Eusebius: “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter” (727). Famously he concludes: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary” for “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary” (728).

Perhaps the most telling of Milton’s tales of freedom, reason, and truth in action is the experience of the angel Abdiel in Books 5 and 6 of Paradise Lost. Hearing that Satan and a third of the angels in Heaven are assembling in the north quarter of Heaven—leave it Satan to think that there is a space in Heaven where he cannot be seen by God—to plan “fit entertainment” in celebration of the Son’s exaltation, Abdiel goes to participate. He has that freedom and the plan sounds holy. However, hearing Satan complain of “knee-tribute” and “prostration vile” being endured by creatures “ordained to govern, not to serve,” Abdiel’s reason begins to sense a ruse (5:781, 802). He attempts to reasonably argue the rebellious angels back to worthy submission: “By experience taught we know how good, / And of our good” God is (826-827). Perilously, Satan counter argues that because he cannot remember “when we were not as now,” he must be “self-begot” (5:859-590). Abdiel correctly thinks this a damnable blasphemy and denounces it.

Then who created thee lamenting learn,
When who can uncreate thee thou shalt know. (5:894-895)

“Faithful found, / Among the faithless,” Abdiel returns to God “Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d” in the truth (5:896-897, 899). He is greeted with applause and granted the honor of striking the first blow in battle with the rebellious angels.

Toward an ever deepening relationship with God by feeling

In spite of the decidedly cerebral approach of most of Milton’s writing, he is still occasionally able to inspire his readers to an ever deepening relationship with God by the piercing emotion of his expression.

Perhaps by the nature of the form, Milton’s sonnets yield multiple moments of emotional inspiration. Sonnet 7 whines with the frustration of arriving at the age of twenty-three without feeling he has accomplished anything in grateful response to God’s goodness. The sonnet ends confident in God’s ability to do through the young poet all that needs to be done.

All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task-Master’s eye. (13-14)

Still a subtle unease reflected in the designation “task-Master” echoes in the tangle of the rhyme of the last six lines. More surety of future success might have been elicited by leaving the struggle in God’s hands instead of simply observing that he is watching, expectantly.

In Sonnet 19, Milton considers the spiritual trauma of the physically afflicted, in his case by blindness. Having felt God calling him at a young age to write an epic poem and a tragic play in the prophetic vein “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation” (669), Milton went blind long before writing his epics, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain’d, or his tragedy, Samson Agonistes. Compounding his complaint, he suggests that he went blind from overusing his eyes in preparation for these God-given tasks. As Samuel Johnson would observe nearly a century later, these were tasks ill-suited to a blind person. The pity of Milton’s plight resonates in the length and emotion of Samson’s reinflicting his own wound as “eyeless in Gaza” (SA 40). The ancient Hebrew hero describes the affliction as

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,

Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse

Without all hope of day! (80-82)

The pain of physical blindness is reiterated at the end of Milton’s last Sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint,” where in a dream he sees his newly deceased wife, “Rescu’d from death.” The clipped phrasing of the last line, “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night,” drives home the dagger twisting poignancy of his only being able to see in his dreams.

Aggravating the physical handicap are the spiritual implications. Milton mouths Samson’s complain, when “Light the prime work of God to me is extinct,” I am “Myself my Sepulcher” (70, 102). In the opening to Book 3 of Paradise Lost, like he did with Samson, Milton seeks inner illumination. Although “thee I revisit,” he moans, “thou / Revisit’st not these eyes” (3:20-23). The apparent injustice of his service with his reward seems to goad the poet. Yet he prays “Shine inward . . . that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight” (3:52, 54-55).

The tone at the beginning of Sonnet 19 might be labeled strident. The poet complains in passive voice how only halfway through his life his “light is spent,” that is, he’s blind. Alluding to the parable of the talents and the fear he has of not fulfilling the master’s expectations, his plight is compounded by the high calling he feels to write and the seeming impossibility of doing so as a blind person. He’s “useless.” Yet he feels “more bent” to present a “true account” to God, balancing his gifts with his accomplishments. Exasperated, he sarcastically queries “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

The real inspiration of Milton’s experience of blindness comes with the reassurance that matches his anguish. In Sonnet 22 to his blind friend Cyriack Skinner, Milton encourages his former student:

Yet I argue not
Against Heav’n’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer
Right onward. (6-9)

In Sonnet 19, after the persona’s aggressive opening salvo toward God, “patience” pacifies him with the assurance that God is in control and lacks nothing that we must provide. In the service of this God, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” While prepared and desiring to do his bidding, his servants, even those without physical afflictions, may actually do nothing and still please Him.

Leading the reader in Praise and Worship

In addition to helping the reader to an ever deepening relationship with God, as a poet of devotional value, John Milton writes expressions of worthy praise and worship to God which the reader can join in with. He writes hymns, prayers, and descriptive passages so endowed with the beauty of the Creator as to inspire appreciation for the poet and gratitude to God. Milton has the ability to take what we think and feel about our Lord and say it as we wish we could, and better. In Alexander Pope’s words, Milton’s praise and worship is “what e’er was thought and ne’er so well expressed.”

Milton honed his skill at hymn writing by translating nineteen psalms into English meter and rhyme. His first great poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” is a hymn of praise. Written at the age of twenty, it is “a present to the Infant God” (16). It admiringly extols the convergence of the season, the peace of the Roman world, the primary elements and all of the natural order to facilitate the entrance of “Our great redemption from above.” After dismissing the shepherds’ “silly thoughts,” he praises the Savior’s birth with music and light. He does all this with a playful youthfulness fitting to the divine comedy of incarnation. Most of the poem champions the “smiling Infancy” as already claiming superiority to the plethora of alternate gods.

Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew. (227-228)

Although addressed to Eve, Adam’s first words in Paradise Lost tellingly extol his Creator’s goodness.

Sole partner and sole part of all these joys,
Dearer thyself than all; needs must the Power
That made us, and for us this ample World
Be infinitely good, and of his good
As liberal and free as infinite,
That rais’d us from dust and plac’t us here
In all this happiness, who at his hand
Have nothing merited, nor can perform
Aught whereof hee hath need . . . (4:411-419)

After even somewhat wistfully praising God for the “one easy prohibition” to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as their only opportunity to show grateful obedience, the first man is awestruck by the overbalance of “Dominion giv’n” them. He concludes “let us ever praise him, and extol / His bounty” (4:436-437).

In addition to hymns of praise, Milton writes prayers that praise. He peppers his epic with invocations to divine assistance. Books 1, 3, 7, and 9 of Paradise Lost each opens with one such prayer. Although this repetitious is not, the practice of seeking the aid of the nine Greek muses of writing is conventional. Milton, however, makes clear that the ancient muses are “an empty dream” (7:39) and that what he has to say is so important that only the aid of the “Heav’nly Muse” who inspired Moses to write the Torah can proffer him aid (1:6-10). In the opening to Book 7, Milton prays to Holy Spirit who he says is the meaning behind the name Urania: “still govern thou my Song, / Urania, and fit audience find, though few” (30-31). For the believer, this prayer inspires. Milton has invoked our God to empower his words. Such a prayer cannot lay void. “So fail not thou, who thee implores” (38).

It would be hard to exceed in beauty and power Adam and Eve’s Edenic prayers. Their evening prayer in which they give thanks for “this delicious place,” their productivity, happiness, “mutual love,” “abundance,” and “promis’d” posterity impresses with its economy (4:724-735). Their morning prayer, which they utter in unison, displays at some length “prompt eloquence” (5:153-208).

These are thy glorious works, Parent of good,
Almighty, thine this universal Frame,
Thus wondrous fair; thyself how wondrous then!
Unspeakable, who sit’st above these Heavens
To us invisible, or dimly seen
In these thy lowest works, yet these declare
Thy goodness beyond thought, and Power Divine:
Speak yee who best can tell, ye Sons of Light,
Angels, for yee behold him, and with songs
And choral symphonies, Day without Night,
Circle his Throne rejoicing, yee in Heav’n;
On Earth join all ye Creatures to extol
Him first, him last, him midst, and without end. (153-165)

Continuing, they praise God for the elemental created order as that which teaches them His praise and ask that He correct them if they miss an opportunity to praise Him. They conclude,

Hail universal Lord, be bounteous still
To give us only good; and if the night
Have gather’d aught of evil or conceal’d,
Disperse it, as now light dispels the dark. (205-209)

Finally, Milton leads the reader in praise and worship by describing our God’s creative actions with detailed admiration. Noteworthy of such passages is first description of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Although arguably misogynistic in the gender roles Milton ascribes to the pair, “The image of thir glorious Maker” shines in them both (4:292). “Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude” appear in both. The carefully detailed description of their hair beautifies them both (301-311).

So hand in hand they pass’d, the loveliest pair
That ever since in love’s imbraces met,
Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters Eve. (321-324)

When Milton first describes Eden, the beauty of that “delicious Paradise” “to the heart inspires / Vernal delight and joy” (4:132, 154-155). The “odorous sweets” that rise therefrom stupefy and momentarily incapacitate even Satan at the onset of his destructive mission. But perhaps the most stunning of Milton’s descriptive praises come in Raphael’s creation account burgeoning in Book 7. The words pronounced by God in Genesis recur almost unchanged but the archangel elaborates in such detail as display the beauty of creation and the Creator. For Milton, God’s providence is manifest in beauty. His augmented creation account climaxes on the sixth day with the creation of “the Master work, the end / Of all yet done; . . . ”

. . . a Creature who not prone
And Brute as other creatures, but endu’d
With Sanctity of Reason, might erect
His Stature, and upright with Front serene
Govern the rest, self-knowing, and from thence
Magnanimous to correspond with Heav’n,
But grateful to acknowledge whence his good
Descends, thither with heart and voice and eyes
Directed in Devotion, to adore
And worship God supreme who made him chief
Of all his works: (7:505-516).

Before the reader can rush to judgment, thinking this descriptive praise too high for even a prelapsarian human being, Milton brings in his God to remind us that the creature is so highly revered because he was created “in the image of God / Express.”

A Surprising Conclusion

In spite of the suspicion that Milton held a slightly lower than orthodox view of the person and work of Jesus, some of Milton’s words concerning the Christ serve as a fit conclusion to an examination of his inspirational value as a devotional writer.

Hindrances to this conclusion abound. The fact that Milton rarely refers to the second person of the Trinity as Jesus or designates Him with the title Christ may reflect the poet’s discomfort with the fully God, fully man puzzle. In Milton’s thought, Jesus often seems more an ethical example to be followed than a God/man whose sacrificial death and resurrection expiates the sins of the world. As a young man trying to write a poem on the passion, perhaps as a companion piece to his nativity ode, Milton found himself “above the years he had” and never finished the poem. Paradise Regain’d is about the Son of God’s victorious verbal joust with the Devil, not His death and resurrection. And, although His incarnation is referred to there, in Paradise Lost the Son comes to earth only to judge Adam and Eve and expel them from Eden.

Nonetheless Milton does on occasion inspire with his portrayal of the Son of God. In Book 10 of Paradise Lost, near the only use of his name in the poem, the gentle “Jesus,”after judging the guilty pair, takes the form of a servant and compassionately clothes not only their outward nakedness but also their “inward nakedness, much more / Opprobrious, with his Robe of righteousness” (183, 221-222). Too often Michael’s mission in Books 11 and 12 has been denigrated as an unnecessarily overextended dénouement to Paradise Lost. His essential, two-fold mission is to impact the pair with the consequences of their sin and to buoy them with the hope of the “History of the seed,” so that they may leave Eden choosing their way to a new “paradise within.” That History culminates in the Christ event, “Proclaiming Life to all who shall believe / In his redemption.” It is a full scale, kerygmatic declaration of the gospel, “A gentle wafting to immortal Life” (12:356-465) and leaves Adam “Replete with joy.”

When, in Book 3 of Paradise Lost, God sees Satan headed to tempt “frail” humanity and by His omniscience knows that they will succumb, He asks who will go on humanity’s behalf. Heaven is hush until the Son of God volunteers.

Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck his rage (236-241).

This plan by which “Heav’nly love shall outdo Hellish hate” so moves the poet that when the angelic chorus celebrates Christ’s act in song, he throws off epic constraint and joins in the worship.

No sooner did thy dear and only Son
Perceive thee purposed not to doom frail Man
So strictly, but much more to pity inclin,d,
Hee to appease thy wrath, and end the strife
Of Mercy and Justice in thy face discern’d,
Regardless of the Bliss wherein hee sat
Second to thee, offer’d himself to die
For man’s offense. O unexampl’d love,
Love nowhere to found less than Divine!
Hail Son of God, Savior of Men, thy Name
Shall be the copious matter of my Song
Henceforth, and never shall my Harp thy praise
Forget, nor from thy Father’s praise disjoin. (403-415; emphasis added)

Milton rarely veered from this commitment to celebrate God’s praise in writing. Perhaps through the sacrificial death of Jesus, he too found as he offers to his readers a “paradise within, happier far.”

Work Cited

Milton, John. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes.

Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1957.