Tuesday, November 3, 2009

To Justify the Ways of Dog to Man

A few weeks ago, my work required me to reread a short section of Milton's Paradise Lost. My objective was to explain it to high school students who are struggling readers—a daunting task. For those of you who can't remember senior English, Milton's epic poem tells the story of Satan's fall from grace and his temptation of Adam and Eve. It's a slog even for the most ardent admirer of English poetry. Milton's inverted syntax, lofty language, and now obscure allusions to biblical lore and ancient Greek and Roman myth makes the poem an elaborate wedding cake instead of a humble loaf of bread. To illustrate, here's the opening sentence:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, 
Sing, Heavenly Muse . . . 

Wha?? So you can see why I was less than confident of making this poem relevant to kids raised on Hillary Duff. I myself have never been a Milton fan. All the pro-Godness. He was a Puritan after all, and we all know that the Puritans were no fun. His first wife left him after a month. Later, after he went blind, his daughters by a second marriage did the heavy lifting of transcribing and revising his thousands of words. In women's lit classes, he was always the Bad Man. Still, I had to make some money, and so to Milton I turned. 

The part of the poem I had to work with was the opening section of Book 1, in which Milton tells the story of Satan's arrival in Hell after losing an thunderous battle with God for the throne of Heaven. He wakes up with his fellow rebel angel, Beelzebub, in a fiery lake. The two are as sore and grouchy as a pair of hungover frat boys on Ash Wednesday. After much boo-hooing, they haul themselves out of the lake and onto a prime piece of Hell real estate, where they plan their next move. Until they can get back to their proper places in heaven, they will spend their existence ruling in Hell, tormenting the human race, and being a pain in God's ass. It's a classic buddy picture, with two anti-hero schlemiels who think they can regain the upper hand. What they don't know and what Milton is perfectly clear about, though, is that God is totally in control here. It is only by his will that the two bad boys are even still around. He wants them to get their game on. He's waiting to see what they will do. 

As I read this section, I had a new insight. I imagined Satan and B-bub not as devils, but as dogs. Both Roma and Muzzy get their pouts on when I toss them out into the yard while I run the vacuum cleaner around the house or let in the furnace guy. They sit on the grass and look alternately disdainful and desperate to get back inside. (Roma, of course, is Satan, the plotter and instigator; Muzzy is the side-kick who, if truth be told, would prefer to be on God's good side than be a bad doggie.) So then I wondered which character I was. Was I God who booted badly behaving dogs out of Paradise, even for half an hour? In Milton's poem, God is the ultimate puppeteer. He allows Satan and the fallen angels to exist. They are his minions. In my case, however, even on the best of days, I don't have that kind of control over my dogs. Of course, they depend on me for food and love, but their paws are all over the remote control. I spend endless hours trying to figure out how best to serve them. I don't believe that God ever got out of bed in the middle of the night to let a dog outside to pee.

The answer is that I'm their Milton, and they are my muses. I'm the one who who documents the daily efforts of a couple of mutts to be true to their natures. I hope I'm more relevant than our man Milton, however. I also hope I have better hair. You be the judges.
Ta. z


  1. You have better everything than THAT guy.

    Way to make an amusing and interesting blog post out of some really boring-ass literature!

  2. Man, reading Milton for work? Sounds like tough work! But I am glad you decipher it so easily and put it in your perspective!

  3. NO ONE has better hair than you do.

    I love the way you explained the story in paragraph 4! But I suspect this wasn't the version the client got.

    So thrilled that you are back.


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