I had my first International assignment last week, very exciting. A client had a branch in Dublin, so I used up all of my miles to bring Julie along and we got to spend a few days in Ireland. Unfortunately, it coincided with finals so I really had to scramble to keep up with all of my school work so that I could enjoy some free time over there; while I took a couple of pictures I haven't had time to go through them so the Ireland post will have to wait a week or three. I actually have my last final exam later today, for Astronomy. In the meantime, I wrote a poem and introductory essay for my final term paper in British Literature so I thought I'd post it along with some old pictures from a trip I took to Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I had a choice between just writing a seven page essay or the poem and intro essay in response to any of the works that we covered in class, and even though poetry is terrible I chose it for reasons I will explain in the essay itself.
For anyone who hasn't read it, Paradise Lost by John Milton—the main subject of my attentions here—is a dramatic rendering of the fall of both Satan and Man based on the Bible in the style of the heroic poetry of Homer and Virgil. Milton opens several chapters in his saga by breaking the third wall and appealing to his muse, the holy ghost, for inspiration that his poem might be infused with skill and veracity. He was aping the greek poets when they would appeal to the Muses in their own epics.
On Paradise Lost and Knowledge Gained
I trepidatiously chose to write a poem rather than an essay because I wanted to try my hand at a piece of Heroic poetry that did not rely on a moral foundation that I wholly disagree with. I decided on this course of action in response to the religious literature that we covered such as Doctor Faustus and Margery Kempe; however, the form and content of Conscientia Mereo, as I’ve called it, are linked most directly with John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I originally considered writing a lengthy diatribe about the problems with literature based on religious principles and how any moral content or heroic actions become corrupted by a dogmatic view of the Universe rather than a naturalistic or at least agnostic one. But I feared the arrogance of judging what is considered to be an important piece of historical literature based on more modern personal preferences and prejudices without adding anything creative to the conversation myself, and so I committed the arrogance of aping it and subverting the message instead!
The title of my poem means ‘knowledge gained,’ a would-be clunky name which is why I chose to use the Latin rather than English and it is a rather obvious play on the title of the poem that inspired it. Interestingly, mereo means ‘to gain,’ but it also means to serve as a soldier, a connotation I like in the context of knowledge as antipathy to religion. Additionally, I like the idea that anyone who would want to know what the title meant would most likely have to look it up online. It both supports an idea in my poem and further serves as ironic subtext, as Latin is a dead language formerly used in church masses, alienating parishioners who didn’t speak it. This restriction or shrouding of knowledge is a major theme of my poem; an important part of religion is the idea that things must be taken on faith, which is detrimental to gaining knowledge about the cosmos. Now that we know that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, that it started in a massive “explosion” of matter, and that humans evolved from apelike ancestors who in turn evolved from single-celled eukaryotes, scolds about original sin and the danger of knowledge are ill-suited to epic literature that would strive to inspire our imaginations and heroic yearnings rather than to keep us in our place.
To wit, the hero [Adam] in Paradise Lost is admonished by the angel Raphael to avoid seeking knowledge when he says that “God to remove his ways from human sense, / Placed heav’n from earth so far, that earthly sight / If it presume, might err in things too high, / And no advantage gain” (Milton 8.120-122). Basically, he is saying that the quest for knowledge is far above human capabilities and even if we didn’t muck it up, any knowledge attained would gain no advantage for us anyway. Rather than fighting against this arbitrary restriction as a true hero might, Adam rather meekly accepts this condescending judgment. As we in modern times can attest, the successful quest for knowledge has actually led to quite a few advantages, and it has been a heroic, generational battle to overcome those who would have preferred to keep us in the dark. The play Doctor Faustus, for example, serves as a reminder of how someone living in darker ages viewed the acquisition of knowledge when the eponymous character trades his soul for it. We are led to interpret this as a petty lust for puerile power, which of course is not true knowledge at all and is nothing more than a cheap trick meant to instill the idea that knowledge can only come at the cost of one’s salvation.
Another, more important detriment to the idea of a heroic epic is the way in which the underlying moral structure of Milton’s worldview corrupts the very concept of heroism. In book 12, the angel Michael says the son of god will come, “Proclaiming life to all who shall believe / in his redemption, and that his obedience / Imputed becomes theirs by faith, his merits / to save them, not their own, through legal works” (Milton 12.407-410). In other words, no man or woman can be a hero because Jesus is the only hero, he has used up all the heroism, and it doesn’t matter what good deeds or heroic acts that anyone else performs; we will only be judged on whether or not we believe in this man who we’ve never met from a book full of claims with no historical veracity. This hardly inspires the rest of us to live up to heroic qualities.
To counter these problems, there were two main things I wanted to accomplish in Conscientia Mereo; I wanted to show that the search for knowledge was the true heroic stance, and I wanted to illustrate that what these Christian writers interpret as morality is actually quite immoral when presented in a slightly different context and is therefore problematic when proposing a heroic epic based on such a foundation. I chose a Luddite father-figure as the stand-in for God, a curious young daughter and her brother for Adam and Eve, and an estranged Uncle as Satan. My underlying idea was that God kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden for the crime of disobeying an arbitrary rule designed to keep them in their place would be a shocking abuse of power in any other framework. And this is without even taking into account the appalling idea that the entire future race of man are to be punished for this crime as well, shouldering the burden of the choice between irrational belief or infinite punishment for a finite crime.
Whether or not I succeeded is definitely up for debate. Perhaps if I had years to perfect the language and more space to flesh out the story, it might approach something like a respectable attempt. However, in trying to adhere to pentameter and in getting quickly to the point in each “scene,” I believe that I have at the very least made a statement worthy of consideration regardless of my skills as a poet. I've chosen to begin with my own appeal to the Muses; it seemed important to carry on that particular epic tradition in my own humble way.
The Muses of old are now hard to find,
ancient spirits and ghosts, all lost their shrouds.
In the age of cause and effect, the Gods
and aether are replaced by the sciences.
Thus, should my fare fall short of the poets—
the bar that serves Homer, Virgil, Milton—
I’ve no one to thank and no one to blame;
the vision dies alone, unseen, my own.
And yet in such times, ever there are found
those who shun and loathe the light of the truth
and still prefer the comfort of leaving
their reason on some unnatural plane.
The brothers lived in a happier home
before the rift. Raised in a Luddite way,
taught to fear change and to hold to the old.
The elder learned well, the younger did not.
He’d questions and doubt, fire troubled his blood.
And when the manse passed on to the firstborn,
the new ruler of small places declared
an end to all inquiry. “In my stock
the book is the law, I’ll hear nothing else.”
Young Hob took this ill and started a plot,
shut up in his room, his spirits burned hot.
“His house it may be, yet also my home.
My preferred way in my life is my own.”
A battle ensued between wits and might,
and bad blood is e’er bitter with brothers.
It ended of course in the way it must;
the heir remained, and the contender shunned.
Hob left for a terrible place, alone
a job at McDonald’s, and his new home—
a two room apartment and five bunkmates.
Yet even in his anger and defeat
he thought to himself, “at least I am free.”
Time passed and things got better, as they do
Hob went to college, Summa Cum Laude.
Now in the meantime two children were born,
their names were not new but old as the Earth.
The father, still fearing all change, raised them
on a diet of old legends and tales.
He schooled them at home and kept them closed in—
“My garden is all you shall ever need.
Go out and play, but I warn you right now
wander not astray, great are the evils
for which you are prey, and all things but one
I can help you forget; the internet.
Ask me not what it is, and no one else
avoid it like fire, to touch it is death.”
He told them these things because knowledge burns
and births awful questions from which he’d turned.
This went on for years, they learned without peers
and all that he told was all that they knew.
Until came a time with her Pa away,
no longer a girl, a woman near grown
lovely to see, a travesty to hear
incomplete knowledge of all she held dear.
She raked in the yard and when she looked up,
A man in a car was watching her work.
He opened the door and gave a small wave:
“Hello there young lady, how do you do?”
“I’m feeling just fine, who the hell are you?”
“I once lived in this home, ages ago.
By any chance, is your father about?”
“He’s gone for the day, but just leave your name,
I’ll tell him you called, now please go away.”
“I’ll do you one better, here’s my email…”
Suffice it to say, one question hatched more,
by end of the day, her brain was aflame;
she knew that Pa's wrath would cause her some pain.
First she said nothing; she thought she’d combust,
'til one restless night, to brother she said:
“Did you know the Sun is really a star?
Our forebear’s not Adam, but a monkey?”
“What story is this? A children’s fancy?”
“No brother, it’s real, my eyes are opened.
I’m terrified, true, but Pa lied to us.
Here look at this, old Hob gave it to me.”
She showed him her phone and accessed the Net,
and taught him to use Wikipedia.
“Any question or thought, type it in here—
smaller in size but worth a thousand books.”
Horrified yet drawn, and fearing Pa’s wroth,
he asked her “just who the hell is old Hob?”
“He lived in this house, ’til Pa kicked him out.
He came to make peace, but something I said
made him quite angry and say we’re ill-used,
that no child should live in fear of the truth.”
Hesitant at first, but fear giving way
to a flame squelched down hard by years of shame.
Time lost in the night, an orgy became,
question and query turned into a game.
When Earth came around and greeted the Sun—
eyes blurred and minds buzzed—new day dawned within.
Caught by surprise when Pa opened the door:
“Oh my dear children, you’ve betrayed my love.
The day that I feared has finally come,
Just as I’d warned of, you’re banished from home.”
Cold, out on the street and shivering bright,
twinkle in her eye she said to him now,
“After Pa’s ‘love,’ there’s no fear in the night!”