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Friday, 24 June 2011

The First Love Story

Fantastic, I see that the poet, Glyn Maxwell has been commissioned to turn Paradise Lost into an Opera.
I am not a fan of Opera.  I think perhaps it’s one of those early immersion pursuits and I’ve left it too late – it’s also dashed expensive - but I am a fan of Paradise Lost.  I feel about Milton very similarly to the way I feel about Bob Dylan - prepared to snap up greedily pretty much anything by or about, even if a lot of it misfires.

James Barry
Satan and his legions hurling defiance towards
the Vault of Heaven

I did book two for A Level.  It’s really good stuff.  Satan has been expelled from Heaven for insurrectional activities against God and he’s not happy about it at all.  Apart from the discomfort of the eternal fire, his pride is hurt.  His real torture is internal – a mind game that he’ll be playing till the end of time, destined to rebel, but knowing his attempt will come to nothing.  That’s why he picks on Adam and Eve.  If he can’t hurt God, then at least he can have a go at destroying God’s toys.

I won't deny some of it is boring.  For instance, the part where a sanctimonious Son of God chats with his Father about how man will fall and then be saved (by a sanctimonious Son of God), and Raphael telling Adam how the angels were thrown out of heaven - well it's not exactly Stephen King - but they are worth it to get to the parts that are, as Maxwell says, “I mean just – wow!”

To start with, there's the description of the Creation, (anyone who’s not prepared to accept the importance of this story, even as a myth, look away now). 

Let there be light, said God, and forthwith light
Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure
Sprung from the deep, and from her native east
To journey through the airy gloom began,
Sphered in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle
Sojourned the while.  God saw the light was good;
And light from darkness by the hemisphere
Divided: light the day, and darkness night
He named.  Thus was the first day even and morn. 

Don't you think it makes the King James version read a bit like Janet and John?   

But Milton's triumph is to turn the Fall into the first love story.  Adam and Eve, blissful in Paradise, are tricked  by Satan.  Where the bible can only offer illogic or at best misogyny, Milton’s first couple fall because of the very instincts that make them human.  Eve is moved by her boredom as Adam’s sidekick, and he is persuaded by love.  There are so many passages I’d like to quote – Adam and Eve’s canoodling in the garden; her convincing him she wants to go further afield and get on with the gardening on her own; his reluctance, but he won’t forbid it:

Go, in thy native innocence, rely 
On what thou hast of virtue, summon all.  

But the passage I love above all the rest, that makes me weep every time I read it, is this.  It’s the moment when Eve returns from taking the apple and tells Adam what’s she’s done.  And then this:

Lucas Cranach  Adam and Eve

Adam, soon as he heard
The fatal trespass done by Eve, amazed,
Astonie stood and blank, while horror chill
Ran through his veins, and all his joints relaxed;
From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve
Down dropped and all the faded roses shed:
I was going to stop there, but just look at what happens next:

Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length
First to himself he inward silence broke.
                O fairest of creation, last and best
Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable or sweet!
How art though lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote?

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise

Adam has a choice:  Stay in paradise, eating mangoes and talking with the tame tiger, or disobey God and face death with Eve.  You’d think he’d want a few moments to make up his mind, after all he’s only known her a few days, but it takes him five lines:

Certain my resolution is to die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

It’s tempting but cheapening it to say it’s Hollywood.  Opera is exactly the right medium.  And I like the sound of what Maxwell’s done to it.  But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to beat the original. 

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