The journey began as many tandem road trips in the modern world do, with two husbands behind the wheel of their respective vehicles and each wife beside him texting back and forth and pinning images to Pinterest. At a roadside Starbucks near Austin, the configuration changed. My wife Laurie and Mike’s wife Lisa hopped in my station wagon, freeing me to sit in the passenger seat of Mike’s rental car with a paperback edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I started reading aloud. Bumper stickers in the Texas capitol encourage passersby to “Keep Austin Weird.” That January afternoon, we did our part.
Mike would be teaching Books 1 and 2 to a group of thirty-odd students the next morning, and while he’d taught the poem before, a refresher never hurts. For me this was the first reading since a hasty grad school skim. Paradise Lost is much better than I remember. For one thing, I actually follow most of his references. (Half of them, anyway.) All my reading life was preparation, it seems. I’ve been training for Milton the way runners train for a marathon.
Milton is bold. Virgil appropriated Greek culture for The Aeneid, and Milton does likewise, claiming the whole of the classical world for his epic––only in place of Odysseus or Aeneas he casts none other than Satan, that bad eminence, and treats him very much like a hero. Book 2’s council in Pandaemonium, the city of devils, is straight out of Homer––or perhaps Tolkein, ending as it does with Satan embarking on a quest none of his peers have the courage to undertake. (When we reach that part of the story, I actually substitute Frodo’s words for Milton’s: “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” It works.) This sleight-of-hero calls into question so many ideas that resonate: The desire to be free, to be captain of our souls, to rule rather than serve, and to make a name for ourselves. These are noble virtues, but coming from Lucifer, you have to wonder.
The next morning in class the story of our drive-time reading comes out. The students are embarrassed for us. They worry, too, that this pair of middle aged men is a warning: continue down the path of literature, and this is what you will become, a declaimer of verse, out loud and unashamed.
Somewhere toward the end of the class discussion, Mike puts me on the spot. Do I have any thoughts to share? “Maybe Milton is giving us a reason to ask whether the things we admire most,” I say, “are a testament to the fact that something’s gone wrong with us.” The story of the fall, in other words, is written in the tales not just of our sinners, but of our heroes.
And then I tell them to read next week’s assignment out loud the way blind Milton intended. They look back at me, doubtful. Twenty years from now they’ll understand.
(Art by William Blake, Satan Addressing His Potentates)