Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tracing Paradise, Dawn Potter's Milton.

Tracing Paradise, Two Years in Harmony with John Milton is a book with an amusingly contradictory title. It sounds like Dawn Potter intends to write an unqualified tribute to Milton. Page 1 reveals otherwise: Harmony is a cacophonous place in Maine, and Dawn Potter has anything but undying love for the author of Paradise Lost.

The background to the book is quite mind-blowing: one day, having decided that she had never liked Milton, Dawn Potter sat down to write out the whole of Milton’s epic. (She didn’t actually write the book out, she typed, but that in itself borders, as she suggests herself, on lunacy). As a “rickety and ramshackle reader”, following Woolf’s “common reader”, with no specific academic training relating to Milton, Tracing Paradise looks at the flaws and successes of Milton’s poetry: as it appears to a modern, down-to-earth, non-Protestant female mind. In other words, the book questions Milton’s misogynistic, religious, heavenly and out-of-date world view. As a Miltonist, I found Dawn Cooper's struggle with Milton fascinating. It was refreshing to hear a voice neither singing hymns to the master nor damning him unreservedly, but asking simple questions as she wrestled with angels. There are parts of Paradise Lost, such as its patriarchy, that continually trouble me.

The result is an oddly beautiful book. The uncompromising nature of Milton makes him make enemies even today. His religion is unpalatable to some. His blank verse is incomprehensible to others. He is a master (that is the right word) who provokes antagonism. At times, Dawn Potter’s views are encouraging just by their directness. Yes, Paradise with its easy gardening bears no resemblance to a hard farming life in Maine. There is something lethargic about Milton’s imagination at times. Equally, how valid are the continuous parallels between Maine and Paradise Lost? Why should there be any similarity? Dawn Potter lives in a fallen world where life does not follow the music of the spheres.

Tracing Paradise is a divided experience for anyone who has read Milton in depth. Dawn Potter misses much in the poetry. But then, no more than many worthy tomes published recently to celebrate the 400 years since his birth. Her readings are general, chunks of blank verse hang like unEdenic slabs of meat inside the book to illustrate simple points. There is little close reading. At the same time, Dawn Potter’s prose is graceful and full of vivid imagery and human detail. Her poetic nature shines out continuously. She writes evocatively of the poet’s craft and the work of life:

“Imagination is a poet’s lead rope, yanking us by the nose into collision with words, thoughts, sounds.”

“I have learnt, for instance, that my life is not my own: I am the handmaid of my children; I minister to their demands; I deny my yearnings in service to theirs.”

As a meditation on life and imagery, Tracing Paradise is a wonderful common book. Each chapter asks for a cup of coffee and a warm fire late at night, with a moon through the window, and hoar-frost on the glass. As a study of Milton, the book is barely a primer. Ultimately, however, the book is worth buying and reading and savouring because of its human intelligence. I think I might still prefer to sit and talk with Raphael, which could be a character flaw, but Dawn Potter, I have to admit, is the better talker and observer. It is a long time since I looked forward to reading a chapter a night, just to feel the pleasure of words.