Paradise Lost; Readers Found

I half-read and half-slept through Addison and Steele’s The Spectator in my third year of college. It was my lifestyle, not the text that failed to keep me awake. Nonetheless, I recall an appreciation for the project–two wig-donning Englishmen writing a daily on arts and culture. (For today’s readers, The Spectator would have been a blog.) Perhaps I recall less of Joseph Addison than I do of the kindness and patience of my professor, Wayne Martindale. Truthfully, I have would not (and have not, until now) read The Spectator but for his satisfaction. I did, however, keep it on my bookshelves for two decades.

In the last week I have stumbled upon Addison’s contributions to The Spectator twice … once in a discussion of his aesthetics of “wit” and again in the Norton Critical edition of Paradise Lost. I don’t think I will read the entire collection, nor even merely the Addison contributions, but there’s a familiarity I now have with Addison’s voice. He seems younger than me (in truth, he wrote most of The Spectator at exactly my current age), but there is a kind of youthfulness, a mixture of arrogance and wayfinding, in his writing that I would not have heard as a young college student. I will not attempt to explain this realization, as he did not explain many of his assertions in The Spectator.

One of these, as I see it, mostly unexplained assertions can be found in his appreciation of a passage from the first book of Paradise Lost, lines 789-797:

Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest Forms
Reduced their Shapes immense, and were at large,
Though without Number, still amidst the Hall
Of that Infernal Court. But far within,
And in their own Dimensions like themselves,
The great Seraphick Lords and Cherubim,
In close recess and secret conclave sate,
A thousand Demy-Gods on Golden Seats,
Frequent and full—

Writing in No. 303, Saturday, February 16, 1712, he finds here a kind of beauty–by which, I think he means: the combined impact of imaginative invention and appropriate “signifying”. This is, perhaps, Milton’s “Judgment” that he praises earlier in the paragraph–superior judgment that the poet should think to include such a fitting description. Addison writes:

As soon as the Infernal Palace is finished, we are told the Multitude and Rabble of Spirits immediately shrunk themselves into a small Compass, that there might be Room for such a numberless Assembly in this capacious Hall. But it is the Poet’s Refinement upon this Thought which I most admire, and which is indeed very noble in its self. For he tells us, that notwithstanding the vulgar, among the fallen Spirits, contracted their Forms, those of the first Rank and Dignity still preserved their natural Dimensions.

In other words, the demons shrunk themselves in order to crowd into the cramped quarters of their new temple. However, true to their deceitful and self-important characters, the most powerful demons hid themselves in a secret room and gave themselves the luxury of size and space. Greed and pride and deception, all at once.

It may be that Addison found the “Refinement” admirable because it reminded him the world we all know so well, a world in which the rich and powerful reward themselves with what they see as their just entitlements–think of the “golden parachutes” for the CEOs of failing corporations. Perhaps, Addison (like Milton) possessed a deep suspicion of the Catholic church. Perhaps the presence of a priestly “conclave” in a demonic temple, made Addison scoff with delight–a kind of partisan snickering. In any case, I do not begrudge him his pleasure.

Milton’s poetry, here, is indeed excellent … although it is far from one of my favorite passages in the poem. The fact that one reader three hundred years ago read these lines, admired them, and shared them with his friends gives me more delight. Here is the power of a shared text to draw readers together (even if to disagree) across time and space. But it was not Milton, as a great as he was, that sustains this gift; rather, it is Joseph Addison, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Bush, Stanley Fish, Gordon Teskey, Wayne Martindale and many more readers, writers and teachers. Thus with “wand’ring steps and slow” the story of Paradise Lost has made its journey from reader to reader. So shared, it is, therefore, partly an antidote to alienation. Of all that is lost, readers find readers of the poem.

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