The Bookends article in the New York Times Book Section this week is titled, When We Read Fiction, How Relevant Is the Author’s Biography? If you’re not familiar with Bookends you can think of it as a Crossfire for Books and writing (or you could consider Crossfire as a Bookends for politics and government). I read Bookends regularly and often find the two arguments enlightening, but not always mutually exclusive. This week’s question, however, is an old concern of mine and since the article started right out referencing the New Criticism, I felt a strong need to absorb the two sides and make my own comments.
When I was studying literature many many years ago, I loved poetry. It was the sixties so William Blake was very popular (along with J. R. R. Tolkein) but my favorites were Alexander Pope, John Keats, and John Milton. You might wonder how a devout Atheist with tendencies toward anarchism and a penchant for bizarre fiction can even read John Milton, let alone declare that Milton is a favorite poet. To keep it simple: Milton is a great poet.
Even if I don’t exactly agree with his religious or political practices or even find that he was a nice guy: his poetry is great!
I was looking up something earlier and ran across a copy of Milton’s Lycidas. I read through it three times and each time became more and more aware of my life-long love of literature and a certain regret for all the aspirations I had in my early twenties that are now just a fading memory. You might have your Prufrock or your Howl, but for me it’s Lycidas. Remember how it goes …
I know you’re not looking for yet-another reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost. We all know it; we all love it; right? Well, these’s a lesson in Paradise Lost that is currently under discussion in the Sunday Book Review at the New York Times. The title of this article adequately presents the theme which we will tie back to John Milton.
Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be ‘Likable’?
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on pressing and provocative questions about the world of books. This week, Mohsin Hamid and Zoë Heller on whether it’s important that fictional characters be likable.
I invite you to read the article in the Times. True, it discusses the likability of the characters in fiction but it takes a knee-jerk turn to associate views on likability to a conflict between unsophisticated readers and stuffy academicians.
But back to Milton. Is Paradise Lost the one work that epitomizes the conflict between likable and unlikable characters? Although this would be a great time to pause and reread what is often considered the greatest poem in the English language, I will offer a simple statement about the conflict to contemplate, and then you can pull your volume of Milton off the shelf and make your own conclusion about likable characters.
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. …