Armando Iannucci in Milton’s Heaven and Hell – BBC Documentary (2009)


A frail man, old before his years, is making
a journey in flight. His work from the past 20 years has been overturned,
he’s rejected, he’s been imprisoned. Now free, he’s an enemy of the state and
he’s blind. Plague ravages London, his home city, he’s
got to get out. It could be a sad end if it weren’t for
the fact that this man has just finished writing the
greatest poem in the English language. He is John Milton and the poem is called Paradise
Lost. ‘I’m convinced that John Milton is our nation’s
greatest poet.’ Excuse me. ‘But pretty extensive field research on a bridge
reveals…’ Who’s that? No idea. Ummm… ‘..that most people…’ No. ‘…can’t even recognise
the poor chap.’ Do you recognise that man? No. If I was to say John Milton to you, what comes
into your head? Nothing. Not a thing. Has anyone here heard of John Milton? Anyone? OK, Milton is deeply unfashionable. But why? He wrote poetry from a very young age. He spent 20 years at the forefront of radical
Republican politics. Then when his cause failed he finally created
his masterwork, Paradise Lost. It’s an impressive CV, although I admit
he doesn’t look like a bundle of laughs. What image do you have in your head of John
Milton? Gloomy. Gloomy? Yes. OK. Long-winded. Long-winded. Miserable. What makes you say miserable? It’s the connotation of Paradise Lost, which
you think is going to be miserable. I haven’t read it. Actually, it’s anything but. Paradise Lost is an electrifying poem about
love and war, the fight between good and evil and an obsession
with human freedom that speaks to us now. Before I went into comedy,
I spent three years as a student at Oxford trying to write a PhD on Paradise Lost. No one was more surprised by that than me. I’d always been interested in the funny
writers, like Dickens and Swift. To me, John Milton seemed like a fun less
Protestant who wrote a vast unread poem about biblical
stories no one was interested in any more. To a fun-loving Catholic like myself that
seemed the last thing I wanted to be spending my student grant on. Then I read Paradise Lost and was instantly
dazzled. 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. John Milton mean anything to you? Yes. Yes, yes? You’ve heard of John Milton? Of course. When I say John Milton to you, oh, bless
you, bless you I’ve found someone, if I say John Milton to you what do you think
of? Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost. And have you read Paradise Lost? I have. What did you make of that? Full of energy, absolutely wonderful. I take it from your accent you’re not native
born. I’m not native born. Where are you from? I’m an Australian. So, we had to go all the way to Australia
to find someone who is enthused about John Milton. Absolutely. Standing on this frozen bridge across the
ice cold Thames. Bless you for remembering him. Thank you very much. ‘I think we should all be celebrating Milton
and celebrating his greatest poem. ‘So, before we plunge in, here’s a little
explanation of the great tale that’s about to unfold.
Paradise Lost is basically a massive dramatic retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. God makes the world, he makes our first parents,
Adam and Eve, and puts them in charge of the Garden of Eden. He tells them they can do anything apart from
eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Satan, a fallen angel, disguises himself as
a serpent and comes along and tempts Eve to eat the apple. She then persuades Adam to do so too, God
is angry and banishes our first parents from the Garden
of Eden. Paradise, it seems, is lost forever. What in me is dark, illumine. What is low, raise and support. That to the height of this great argument, I may assert… …eternal providence… And justify the ways of God to men. Milton surprises from the very start. He says he wants “…to justify the ways of God
to men”, so we’re expecting to hear all about Adam
and Eve and the Garden of Eden. But just a few lines in, we’re thrown into
a compelling vision of hell. To make it work, Milton coins new words,
phrases fresh to the English language: ‘ Satanic’, ‘pandemonium’, ‘stunning’. We join Satan, freshly cast out of heaven,
examining his new surroundings. “At once, as far as angels ken, he views the
dismal situation, waste and wild. “A dungeon horrible and all sides round as
one great furnace flamed, “yet from those flames no light, but rather
darkness visible.” This is one of the most famous passages in
Paradise Lost. I remember when I first read it how memorably
dramatic the language seemed. But now the closer you examine it,
the more you realise just how booby trapped Milton’s language actually is. “At once, as far as angels ken, he views.” This is Satan. “At once, as far as angels ken, he views.” These sounds, they are all very open, it’s
all about a view, space in front of him. “At once, as far as angels ken, he views.” Out words and then suddenly,
because the line doesn’t end there, “he views the dismal situation? “Dismal” is like a great big gate coming down. “..dismal situation, waste and wild, a dungeon
horrible…” It’s another gate coming down. “..on all sides round, as one great furnace
flamed, “yet from those flames no light…” We are led to believe “flames” is going to
give us fiery and glittery. “No light, but rather…” and here’s the
surprise, where the phrase says “..rather darkness visible.” That’s an extraordinary expression, “darkness
visible”. We can sort of see the darkness, but yet we
know we can’t see it because it is darkness. Milton’s language here is so ambiguous. And the same is true of his characterisation
of Satan, who can seem noble at times, even heroic. When Blake read Paradise Lost, he wondered
if Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Blake should have given Milton more credit –
he’s a lot cleverer than that. “One who brings a mind,” this is Satan talking
of himself, “a mind not to be changed by place or time,
“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” That’s Satan saying, “I can take words,
words that mean the opposite of each other, “and yank them together, and somehow they
will impress you, “they will make you feel that I’ve somehow
come up with an argument that is persuasive? “..Make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Here is the start of spin, this is poetry
telling us what spin and argument is all about. The sort of politician who says,
“Forward to the past, let us start building our tomorrows today, victory in defeat!” It all sounds great, especially if you do
that with your finger and raise your voice, but it is meaningless nonsense. All those people are literally doing the devil’s
work. And this sort of play with language, this
use of words without really caring what they mean
as long as they sound impressive, even though the words are the opposite of each other,
ends up in the sort of pure evil that you see in phrases like
“work sets you free” on the gates of concentration camps. Milton makes us feel that we are not being
told that this is wrong, or this is bad, or this is manipulative, it
allows us to work it out for ourselves. From hell we go to heaven… …via Slough. In a Portakabin by the A4, a class of 11-year-olds are gathering to discuss Paradise Lost. I have at last put up all your pictures to
do with Milton’s description of hell. Now, we are going to pick that work up today
and we are going to look at the opposite. So, what’s the opposite of hell? Heaven. Yeah, heaven. Milton’s not ragingly popular in schools
these days. He’s often considered too difficult. But I watched this lot relish getting their
sleeves rolled up. And I had a brief go of being a teacher’s
assistant. Have you come across any strange words? Jubilee. Jubilee? Hang on, I’ve got my book here. Jubilee is like a big celebration, but I think
for someone special. Hosanna. Hosanna, it’s like a hurray, it’s like
an angel saying hurray. We didn’t know what “raptures” is. Raptures are sort of if you are really happy,
really ecstatic. We know all the rest. You know all the rest? Well, you don’t need me. I’ll leave you to it. ‘You have to start with individual words of
course, ‘but it’s the way Milton puts them together,
that’s the really stunning bit. ‘The class thought it was great that Milton
described heaven as having a “…river of bliss” running through it. ‘A river of what?’ It feels so real. But while it feels so real, it’s also difficult
to put your finger on every little detail. You came up with this phrase, “river of bliss”,
which sounds great, but you can’t actually imagine what bliss
looks like, so to have a whole river of it is like unimaginable,
yet it feels real. And I think what I found about Paradise Lost
is it’s magical like that, you feel as you’re reading it, you sort
of know what’s going on yet the more you think about it, the more
you think of it in different ways. Even when you’re 78, you still see it as
something you’re reading for the first time. I’m still learning, I’ve learnt a lot
today from going around. Thank you for teaching me more about Paradise
Lost. Thank you very much. you for coming. They are all happy to make time for the poem
in between bouts of Club Penguin and Nintendo Wi crazy golf. But what wasjohn Milton doing at their age? Well, Milton was born in the dynamic heart
of London. Here on Bread Street in 1608. His family had to work for their money and
they brought their son up in a truly urban environment. It’s not overrun with Milton memorials round
here now, so I’ve got to use my imagination a little
bit. They are actually constructing a giant 500
foot tower depiction of God. These are God’s ankles that we can see. It’s an initiative from Borisjohnson. And there we can see a depiction of hell,
the lower regions, the massed ranks of the fallen,
living in a sort of an eternal torment of pain and sadness, I think, really. Ah, at last, a sign. John Milton Passage. There it is. It’s basically. ..
It’s basically an office underpassu. ..or the road to hell, as I like to think
of it. OK, it’s all corporate and thrusting and
run on money that simply doesn’t exist but it’s still full of activity round here. Not that different from the London Milton
grew up in really. Down there, round the corner there, is St
Paul’s. Not just the church andthe school,
but St Paul’s at the time was the great thoroughfare where people would go to gossip. It was the centre ofthe book trade, it was
also the red light district. We had the Blackfriars Theatre further over
there, where Milton’s father was a trustee, and
at the time Shakespeare was putting on his very last plays. Milton’s dad was a successful businessman
and he had serious ambitions for his little boy. In the middle of his massive second defence
ofthe English people, there’s a tantalising glimpse by Milton
of his childhood, where he writes, “My father destined me in early childhood
for the study of literature, “for which I’d so keen an appetite that
from my twelfth year “scarcely ever did I leave my studies for
my bed before the hour of midnight.” He spent his nights up in his candlelit room
learning French and Italian and Hebrew, studying the Bible
and working his way methodically through all the great English classics of prose and poetry. He was, at that early age, in his own head,
trying to make himself become the great English poet that he wanted to be
and this can sometimes add to that image we have of him as someone withdrawn,
withdrawn from the world, spending his days indoors rather than outside. But nothing could be further from the truth. There was nothing prissy or priggish about
Milton. He believed that poetry should be simple,
sensuous and passionate, and that’s especially true of his description
ofthe Garden of Eden. It’s really quite a randy place. Here’s a description of Adam and Eve doing
the gardening, which you think it quite an innocent little
activity. But the description ofthe trees and the flowers
suggest that even they have only one thing on their mind. “Where any row of fruit trees over woody reached
too far their pampered boughs “and needed hands to check fruitless embraces. “They led the vine to wed her elm, she spoused
about him twines her marriageable arms.” This isjust a vine going round an elm tree
branch, but it sounds like they’re at it like knives. “She spoused about him twines her marriageable
arms, “and with her brings her dower the adopted
clusters to adorn his barren leaves.” It’s a whole marriage ceremony just going
up a tree. I was looking for another passage, but on
the way I came across this, which is a description of Eve serving dinner
to the archangel Raphael. It says here, “Meanwhile, at table Eve ministered
naked “and their flowing cups with pleasant liquors
crowned, O innocence deserving Paradise! “If ever, then, then had the sons of God excuse
to have been enamoured at that sight,” “but in those hearts love unlibidinous reigned,
“nor jealousy was understood, the injured lover’s hell.” That’s a description, basically, ofthe angels
in heaven potentially lusting after Eve. But we’re told by Milton that they didn’t
because they were nice and they hadn’t fallen. Milton makes his celestial creatures so human,
so tangible. He even dazzles us with details ofthe angel’s
digestive systems. The archangel Raphael comes and visits Adam
and Eve inthe garden and tells them the story while he sits and
has dinner with them. Yes, in Paradise Lost angels can eat food. There’s a description of how food is broken
down within angels’ digestive tracts, then emitted as a sort of celestial gas. “Tasting, concoct, digest, assimilate and
corporeal to incorporeal turn.” That’s the very first depiction in English
literature of angel farts. Now, I don’t know how seriously you are
meant to take it. Milton is depicting a slightly crazy world,
a world that’s slightly hippy, really. Nothing is quite what it seems. Milton, I think, is like some Hollywood producer
taking the story ofthe Bible, the word of God, the word that at the time, when he was
writing, he was told, he was indoctrinated to think
was literal truth. He’s taking that story and he’s chucking
a lot of it away and re’writing bits of it for himself. He’s making the Bible in his own image. Now, that’s an incredibly daring thing to
do. It makes it much more human,
but it also makes it a little bit more… ambitious, arrogant, dangerous. In 1625, John Milton went up to Christ’s
College, Cambridge. It was a rather boorish place, and Milton,
the sensitive poet with long hair, didn’t fit in. He hated it and when he left he moved back
in with mum and dad. And they moved here. Horton in Berkshire. Milton was now a jobless 20’something living
with his parents inthe middle of nowhere. Milton wrote to his old school friend, Charles
Diodati, that he was having a great time here. He was given a chance to think, to read and
to write. But I just wonder whether that’s him being
slightly too defensive. I’m not sure… I’m not sure he would want to have died
here. Soon there are signs of restlessness. In an early poem called Lycidas, Milton rages
against corruption inthe Church. Later he began to loath the bishops and denounce
the interlinking of Church and state. Milton wanted to determine his own relationship
with God, he didn’t want anyone else telling him how
it was done. Something happened in Horton that may have
stirred him further. When his mother died, she was buried here
in St Michaels, but the wrong way round. Her gravestone was criticised by Church of
England inspectors who wanted to enforce uniformity, but the Miltons never did turn the grave the
right way round. I like to think that Milton’s contempt for
the bishops, which happened round about this time,
may well have been the product of theological enquiries going on in his own head,
and conclusions he’d come to anyway, or may well have been set off
by this little petty dispute that was going on,
being told that his mother’s remains were buried squinty. It can be the personal things that radicalise
a young mind and galvanise it against authority. john’s mind was bubbling, he needed to getaway. So, in May 1638, aged 29,
John Milton sailed off in search of himself, making his way to Italy
and beginning what must surely have been one of the most pivotal experiences of his life. It was, to use one of Milton’s enduring
expressions, a journey to “fresh woods and pastures new.” The first city he spent any significant amount
of time in was Florence. He was enraptured by it. For Milton to see all this for the first time,
especially after coming from…you’ve seen Horton,
the contrast must have been startling, quite dramatic. And here in Florence suddenly for Milton the
Bible comes alive. God is built large and painted fresh and vivid
in stone and on canvas. But so is flesh, vast pink puddles of flesh,
painted on Renaissance ceilings, and hanging from tapestries and carved from
stone, in gardens and public squares. This whole city is a celebration not just
of spirituality, but ofthe human form, of humanity,
in an intensity that Milton would never have experienced before. It must have completely transformed his whole
conception of what you could do as an artist. Here, finally, he seems happy. He makes friends, he attends private academies
with the city’s wits. He reads them poems he’s written in Latin
and Italian and they love them. They still do. Well, thank you very much for reading out
the Milton, it sounded beautiful. Thank you. Of course, it was in your honour. I’ve got the English translation here. “Since I am a young simple and candid lover,
in doubt how to escape from myself, lady, “I will devoutly give you the humble gift
of my heart.” It is very sort of romantic. very romantic
because this is a sonnet not to a real woman, but to love, love itself. That’s interesting in that at that age his
most passionate stuff, most emotional stuff was expressed in other
languages. Maybe he didn’t want people back home to
know. I don’t know. Who knows? Paradise Lost was finally published almost
20 years later. But it may have begun life here. Around now Milton makes some tantalising early
notes on Paradise Lost as a five’act drama. He may have been further inspired by an extraordinary
meeting”. ..because in Florence, the young John Milton
met old, blind Galileo, the revolutionary astronomer. The meeting may have taken place here at Galileo’s
villa, where he was under house arrest for challenging
the traditional teachings ofthe Catholic Church. Galileo wasn’t afraid of experimenting,
of asking difficult questions and offering up answers that shook the establishment. I think in that respect he was a kind of role
model for this young poet from England. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s depiction of
God inthe heavens seems almost scientific. It has a curious distancing effect. I am just looking here at Milton’s description
ofthe heavens in Paradise Lost and it is very mechanistic, scientific, very
rational, physical description of how the heavens work. It’s almost like Galileo is trying to not
only describe, but explain the movement ofthe stars and ofthe
angels. He describes here,
“Meanwhile, upon the firm opacous globe of this round world,
“whose first convex divides the luminous inferior orbs,
“enclosed from chaos andthe inroad of darkness old, Satan alighted walks.” “Opacous globe”, “convex”, “luminous inferior
orbs”, its like walking through a museum yet this
is a description of the division between heaven and hell. The same mechanistic language applies to Milton’s
characterisation of God. Whereas Satan gets all the good speeches,
God comes dangerously close to sounding incomprehensible. This is God talking about how if Adam and
Eve are going to eat the apple and fall, it’s their own fault, not his, even though
he knows in advance that they are going to do it. It’s all about him trying to explain away
his foreknowledge of their sin. God says, “Their will disposed by absolute
decree or high foreknowledge, “they themselves decreed their own revolt,
not I. “If I foreknew, foreknowledge had no influence
on theirfault, “which had no less proved certain unforeknown.” I’ve no idea what that means. I’m sure you don’t either. I’m not sure you’re meant to. It’s a very, very elaborate, long-winded
justification by God in very abstract theological language of his
whole system. Now, Iam intrigued as to why Milton writes
about God and heaven like this. It’s a little bit…dull, really, it’s
a bit boring. Is it because he feels a little bit guilty
about how carried away he got with himself and his own powers and abilities in describing
Satan earlier on. He was almost too good at describing evil,
and as a penance, has he decided to be a little bit less ostentatious in describing God? I can’t quite accept that. I was once asked on a Radio 1 programme why
it was I gave up very early thoughts of becoming a priest. Part ofthe reason I said was of theology and
religion and interest in spiritual matters, no’one
had actually explained to me why it was that jesus had to die to save mankind. I had heard that phrase again and again, and
in church services it’s assumed that you can understand it. But I couldn’t and I couldn’t find any
actual explanations to why that happened. I said inthe programme that no doubt in saying
that I’d get lots of letters and I did. And these are all very, very well meaning
and understanding attempts to resolve my dilemma. Someone here says, “I was surprised to hear
you couldn’t understand why God had to die for our sins. “God doesn’t have to do anything, that is
what being God means.” Another one here, it says, “The short answer
is Hebrews 21.” Someone sent in a diagram, someone else said,
“Please find enclosed brochure distributed byjehovah’s Witnesses,
“you’ll find the answers on pages six and seven.” So, the answer to the question is don’t
ask the question. Yet in Paradise Lost that’s precisely what
Milton does. He is so ambitious, he says he’s going to
write things that are unattempted yet in prose and rhyme. He’s going to justify the ways of God to
man. Yet he doesn’t. His God is a dull God. Is that deliberate? Does Milton write a boring God because God
bores him? I wonder whether in the battle in Milton’s
own head between the theologian andthe poet, the poet was beginning to win out. John sailed back to England in 1639 andthe
rumblings of discontent that had started back in Horton began to get
a lot louder. He didn’t like the way the country was being
run. So, he did something about it. He put his poetic ambitions to one side
and plunged into politics. Print was exploding in the 17th century, like
the web is today. A revolutionary way to get your message to
the masses. Milton seized it by the horns. As the civil war against Charles I gathered
on the horizon, he began writing political pamphlets,
a one man opposition, interrogating values and challenging beliefs with radical Republican
thinking. Milton’s most famous pamphlet is this, Areopagitica. It’s his passionate response to new laws
designed to ban the work of pamphleteers like him. Areopagitica is the most perfect expression
in English of the defence of freedom of speech. It’s the greatest attack on state censorship
that has ever been written. He starts by arguing, the books in themselves
always have something of intrinsic merit in them. If we ban a book we might ban something that
is important that we don’t know the implications of yet. He says here, “Books are not absolutely dead
things, “but do contain a potency of life in them
to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” And he gets more and more passionate, he argues
vociferously the value of any book there is and in quite a violent and aggressive way. “As good almost kill a man as kill a good
book.” Basically what Milton is saying is that our
freedom to think, our freedom to engage in political and religious
thought is nothing unless we have the ability to meet
head on our opponents. Unless we are challenged bythe opposite point
of view, there is no way we can test how firmly we
hold our own opinions. Areopagitica is fundamental to Milton’s
work and to our interpretation of that work because in it Milton, for the very first time,
manages to articulate what the point of Milton is. It’s to write because writing has a point. As battles raged across the country, Milton
fought his civil war with words. ..
..arguing vociferously against the status quo. On January 30th, 1649, King Charles I was
executed. The Republicans had won. Oliver Cromwell took control and he hired
john Milton, whose revolutionary ideals and language skills
made him the perfect Secretary for Foreign Tongues. Basically, Milton was in charge of an embryonic
Foreign Office, but the nation’s hearts and minds were not
yet won. The new regime needed to exploit one of Milton’s
other gifts, the ability to write fiery, brilliant polemical
prose. And it was to take him to the very centre
of political power as Oliver Cromwell’s chief propagandist
and effectively the new British Government’s spin doctor. Milton was 41. He had always been a solo
maverick now he was paid to spin for Britain. He even became a Government censor at one
point, exactly what he’d railed against in Areopagitica. In Westminster, reality bites. I’m just interested in the fact that he
suddenly went from being a public idealist to someone who was then inthe heart of power. What does that do to your ideals? People lose their evangelisms, they lose the
ability to be able to… paint a big picture of where they are going,
what they stand for. You struggle to ensure you’ve got an anchor,
that you are holding onto what it is you came into do, why you are there. Was there a bit of that with Milton, that
he’d like to be on the inside and the outside at the same time? I’m sure. We all have a bit of that. Yes, I really don’t want to draw the parallels
between you too strongly. I’m not a Milton. As they say, he’s no Milton. I just wonder how Milton would have felt as
the Republican cause began to fail. You think you’ve got somewhere and there’s
a change. You know, the banks collapse or something
calamitous like that. What you would have been arguing becomes meaningless
in the public view and you get swept aside as his arguments were
at the time. Yes. After 11 years of justifying the word of Cromwell
to men, Milton wasn’t just out of a job, he was persona
non grata. The Republic was finished. The Monarchy was restored under Charles II. Milton must have been wondering, had it all
been worth it? In Paradise Lost, there’s an enormous set
piece battle in heaven between God’s side and Satan’s forces
who revolt because God’s created his son, the Messiah. But Milton seems to be telling another story
here. “Strange to us it seemed at first, that angel
should with angel war and in fierce…” “Angel should with angel war”. This is a civil war, Milton’s absolutely
clear about this, you get the parallel, you get the meaning,
what he’s describing is a civil war in heaven. But who is Cromwell and who is Charles, that’s
the problem. You can’t tell which is which. Here’s a description of Satan. “Satan with vast and haughty strides advanced,
came towering armed and adamant and gold.” He’s described there as someone very regal,
someone aspiring to kingly authority. Is Satan Charles? Is he Charles or is Satan what Cromwell was
like at the end Cromwell’s reign, because Cromwell aspired to be like a king. Didn’t want to call himself a king so was
crowned Lord Protector. And then Satan, speaking to his troops,
speaks almost a defence of liberty and freedom from authoritarian rule
that is like a standard argument for Republicanism. “For orders and decrees jar not with liberty,
but well consist, “who can in reason then or right assume monarchy
“over such as live by right his equals. “If in power and splendour less, in freedom
equal.” These are the arguments ofthe Republic movement. In a parody of modern warfare, Satan and his
crew invent gunpowder. Then the other side come up with a really
unique weapon. It reaches the point of absurdity
when the good angels decide they’re going to come up with a better weapon. Hills! They are going to go and run and pick up hills
and mountains and drop them on Satan and his troops. “The arms away they threw and tothe hills
light as the lightning glimpse they ran. “They flew from their foundations, loosening
to and fro, they plucked the seated hills “with all their load, rocks, water, woods
and by their shaggy tops uplifting bore them in their hands. “Amazed be sure and terror seized the rebel
host when coming towards them “so dreadly saw the bottom ofthe mountains
upward turned.” It’s quite, quite ridiculous,
it’s a grand, magnificent, huge custard pie fight going on inthe sky. Its all very entertaining as I’m sure Milton
meant it to be, but he makes this war so absurd that I actually
find this part ofthe poem rather unsettling. He’s almost questioning the whole point
of war. Given what he’s been through and given the
disillusionment he’s felt, in his head he’s almost coming at the poem
saying, “Was all that just a complete waste of time
from start to finish? Was the whole civil war, doesn’t matter
which side you were on, was it all pointless? When you read Paradise Lost, you start questioning
everything. While he was writing it, Milton knew he had
lost his political battle, but he was also coming to terms with an inner
tragedy ‘ that he had gone slowly, agonisingly blind. What happened to you when you lost your sight? Blindness forces you back into yourself. You doin a very real sense lose the world. I suppose what I miss most, if that is the
right word, would be the printed page and the human face. Both of those disappeared. And both of those were absolutely vital to
Milton, weren’t they? Absolutely. Was your loss of sight a sudden thing? No, it was very gradual, like his. And that in a way makes it more desperate. My dream life became extremely vivid. I was alive in a wonderful world of colour
and action at night. When I woke up, everytime I woke up, I went
blind again. But the face is very important, the loss ofthe
face. You mention a poem he’d written about that. That’s right, yes. He wrote this sonnet in memory of his second
wife, Katherine, who died very suddenly not long after childbirth. Sonnet19. “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint… “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint, brought
to me like Alcestis from the grave, “whom joves great son to her glad husband
gave, rescued from death by force though pale and faint. “Mine as whom washed from spot of childbed
taint. “Purification inthe old law did save, and
such, as yet once more I trust to have, “full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
“came vested all in white, pure as her mind, herface was veiled, yet to my fancied sight,
“love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined, so clear, as in no face with more delight. “But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
“I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.” Oh! It’s just that last line, it’s $0… “I waked, she fled and day brought back my
night.” just so monosyllabic and sparse, as well. I remember what you were saying about”. Every time I woke up, I was blind again. In Paradise Lost, Milton says he wants to
tell us of things invisible to mortal sight. One of his greatest poetic revelations is
the way he writes the Fall itself when Satan tempts Eve to eat the fruit of
the tree of knowledge, the single thing God has forbidden her to
do. So, we come to the moment itself, where the
fall of man occurs. “So saying her rash hand in evil hour forth
reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate.” That’s it, that’s the description, it’s
all over in, what, two lines. Four words even ‘ “she plucked, she ate,”
four monosyllables. That’s it. Milton, who has a great command of all the
biblical stories and myths, great powers of rhetoric and language, great
flowing monologues and soliloquies and great epics. It’s all down to, “she plucked, she ate.” The sheer devilish bravery
in attempting something so bold like that is absolutely gobsmacking. If this was a Hollywood film,
there’d be a slow motion move ofthe apple up to the mouth and great swelling orchestral
climaxes. Probably a close up ofthe teeth and maybe
a camera from inside the mouth watching the apple come closer and the greatjaws
shut. But, no, “she plucked, she ate,” that’s
it, work it out for yourself, that’s all I’m going to say, “she plucked,
she ate.” It’s the most momentous moment in history
according to this poem, and yet it’s given and delivered inthe barest
of lines, “she plucked, she ate.” Great! Milton wants us to understand that Eve freely
chooses to eat the apple. It’s entirely her own responsibility. The narrative is gripping. When Eve comes to visit Adam, he can see what’s
happened, she doesn’t have to tell him, he can see
that the one thing he hoped wouldn’t happen has happened. “Adam, soon as he heard the fatal trespass
done by Eve, “amazed, astonied stood and blank, while horror
chill ran through his veins, “and all his joints relaxed. “From his slack hand the garland wreath for
Eve down dropped and all the faded roses shed. “Speechless he stood, and pale
“till thus at length, first to himself the inward silence broke.” It’s the energy, the life has gone out of
him. The sounds are sort of empty ‘ “down dropped
and all the faded roses shed.” the rhyme…slows down to a very, very stately,
quiet end, and then “speechless he stood,”
after all the language and talk of speeches and rhetoric, “speechless he stood.” Then, just as suddenly as Eve ate the apple,
so does Adam. “For with thee certain,” he says, “my resolution
is to die.” They are the tragic couple, they fall but
they fall together and their world changes forever. Out in the real world, john Milton was in
grave danger. He was an unrepentant Republican who had defended
the beheading of Charles I, but now Charles II was on the throne, Milton
was on the wrong side. He couldn’t take any chances. Milton went into hiding, he let London conceal
him. It really is a bit of labyrinth, little lanes,
little alleyways, where no’one could see him. This is Bartholomew Close, hidden somewhere
in this area, up some dark little stairwell, Milton was bundled away by his friends. But seeing it for the first time does make
you realise how frightening it must have felt to have been…
..pushed away from your home to somewhere strange. And inside knowing that all you’d fought
for, all you’d written about, all that you’d worked for and believed had
been overturned. King Charles II issued a proclamation on August
13th 1660 declaring that many of Milton’s pamphlets
were tantamount to treason. He ordered them to be publicly burned. Milton wrote in Areopagitica that you might
as well kill a man as kill a good book, and yet now his works were being burned outside
the Old Bailey and many of his associates were being put
to death. Soon the new regime caught up with Milton
and they threw him inthe Tower of London. He was a political prisoner. Milton was blind, far from his friends and
family, trapped between four walls with only his thoughts
for company. Can you imagine what must have been going
through Milton’s mind and personality being imprisoned? Inside him, what would have been happening? My experience having spoken to prisoners,
whether from Guantanamo or Northern Ireland, is that they often question things
in a way that they’d never done so before. I think Milton’s experience would have been
something similar and particularly because. ..
I think when you are unable to express yourself to anybody other than the four walls round
you, that makes you sharper, it makes you want
to express more, it makes you want to do it through writing
because your words will be written and recorded forever. And why perhaps the result that he turns rather
than to polemic or to memoir, turns to poetry. I remember the prisoners from the Arab world
in Guantanamo would write amazing poetry to express themselves. I had been held in solitary confinement
so I didn’t know until I met some near the end of my time in solitary
that we had all come tothe same conclusion. Poetry had been written in Guantanamo in English,
in Arabic, in Pashto, in Farsi, in Turkish, and people had come to their own conclusions
as to how they wanted to express themselves and it seemed like the common denominator
was poetry. Released from the Tower after a couple of
months, with no charges to face, the poetry finally flowed from Milton. He had been thinking about Paradise Lost since
his early 30s. Now at 53, with an extraordinary series of
life experiences behind him, Milton was at last able to focus on getting
the poem out of his head and onto the page. Living a quiet life somewhere here on Bunhill
Row, known then as Artillery Walk, that’s exactly what he did. Milton claims that the words to Paradise Lost
came to him as divine inspiration inthe middle ofthe night, in his dreams. Whether that is true or not, we do know Milton
would rise very early in the morning with vast chunks ofthe poem already composed
in his head. The problem was he was blind and he would
have to wait until a member of the family stirred
or a friend came to call and ask them to write it down in the form of dictation. So, it was a complex, complex task, one that
he had to absolutely focus all his attention on. And while that was going on, another great
drama came along. Plague was engulfing the city. The poet, his family, and his precious manuscripts,
the sum of his life’s work, had to get out of town. The Miltons sought refuge here, Chalfont St
Giles in deepest Buckinghamshire. It’s no Stratford upon Avon, there isn’t
a Milton industry here. No Satan sausages, no Adam and Eve toby mugs,
but Chalfont St Giles is the hub of the very modest Milton tourist trade
because its home to the only house he lived in that’s still standing. While Milton was here he gave a copy ofthe
Paradise Lost manuscript to his friend, Thomas Elwood, a nervous moment
for any author. Milton called for the first copy of Paradise
Lost, handed it to Elwood, and if you did, just as we’re talking about
this, if you press the little button by the fireplace
there. Yeah. RECORDED VOICE: He asked me how I liked it,
and what I thought of it, which I, modestly, but freely told him. Thou has said much here of paradise lost,
but what has thou to say about paradise found? He made me no answer,
but sat some time in a muse. Then broke off that discourse, and fell upon
another subject. What a rude man! After all that work. I’m just amazed bythe reaction ‘ you spend
all that time writing and say, “What did you think?” “That’s all very well, but have you got
anything else about paradise? How about the sequel?”
and Milton just goes, “Right, OK, yes, fine.” I know. Writing it and coming back. We’re lucky to have that. That all happened here? That all happened here, in this very room. Milton had to wait two years between finishing
the poem and actually publishing it because the Great
Fire of London decimated the city’s print trade. Paradise Lost finally came out in 1667 and
it looked like this. I’ve never seen inside a first edition of
Paradise Lost. It’s very, very exciting. “Man’s First Disobedience, and the fruit
of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste brought death…” This is great. But what you get is a sense of how compact
the poem is. The publisher, Simon Symonds, said to him,
“We’ve noticed it doesn’t rhyme.” The thing… Rhyming couplets at the time Milton was writing
was very popular and he’s been asked by his publisher to
put in a justification for why it doesn’t rhyme. So Milton writes a defence ofthe fact that
the poem doesn’t rhyme. I say defence, it’s really just a very big,
articulate wah to those who do use rhyme. “Rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true
ornament of poem or good verse, “in longer works especially, but the invention
of a barbarous age “to set off wretched matter and lame meter. “Graced indeed, since by the use of some famous
modern poets “carried away by custom, but much to their
own vexation, “hindrance and constraint to express many
things otherwise “and for the most part worse than else they
would have expressed them.” So he is basically saying,
“Sod rhyme, I don’t need it. “People who use rhyme are using it as an easy
way out “to get round the fact that they can’t push
their creativity in other directions.” How exciting! Sorry, I’ve started reading it now, which
I imagine is bad television, but I can’t help myself
because I’ve got Milton’s first edition in my hands, so I’m going to read it. Milton spent his final years completely absorbed
in writing and thinking. He produced many more great works of poetry
and prose in a short time. He died in November 1671 and is buried here
at St Giles, Cripplegate, inthe heart of London, the city in which he
spent the vast part of his life. It’s not much of a shrine so l suppose the
best way to remember Milton is by reading his words. The ending of Paradise Lost is Milton’s
masterstroke. It’s a beautifully simple piece of poetry
about Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden
and walk out into the real world, our world. These are the closing lines of the poem. Listen how everything goes not pitiful, not
subdued, but accepting and quite noble
in how this couple take on their fate, accept their humanity, all that they have
got left, and face the fact that this is what they have
to deal with for the rest of their lives. “Some natural tears they dropped,
“but wiped them soon, The world was all before them,
“where to choose Their place of rest, and providence their guide. “They hand in hand with wandering steps and
slow, “Through Eden took their solitary way.” The epic religious verse of heaven and hell,
war and battles, now disappears. What we are left with are these bare words. “They hand in hand with wandering steps and
slow, “Through Eden took their solitary way.” It’s a very daring ending here for Milton
to have used, because it is so intensely secular. There’s no mention of God and angels in
these last few lines. It’s all very earthy,
an anticipation ofthe life Adam and Eve are going to lead without those fixed certainties
of religion. There aren’t going to be any more visits
from angels. Instead, they have to make their own way out
in the world. I think it’s because in the end Milton didn’t
want to justify the ways of God to men, he wanted to justify the ways of men to us. He wants to leave us with that final image
of an intensely human couple, a couple who have to make their own choices
and decisions, a couple who are fallible. The final effect of getting tothe end is to
want to go back to the beginning and read it all again. This is because Milton puts us in charge. At the end of the poem he lays down his pen,
the florid language disappears, and he wants us, like Adam and Eve,
to go out into the real world and to deal with it. I never did finish my PhD on Paradise Lost. Maybe that’s because the poem defies any
definitive interpretation. After everything that Milton went through,
he’s urging us to keep examining things, to keep celebrating our freedom to think for
ourselves as sentient, fallen human beings. If you want to be inspired, disturbed,
confronted with your failings and reminded of your strengths,
if you want to read what it feels like to love and to be free,
then you have to, you simply have to read Paradise Lost.

58 thoughts on “Armando Iannucci in Milton’s Heaven and Hell – BBC Documentary (2009)

  • Milton's is an ultra paganism, because the only heroes he has are gods; whereas in Homer and Virgil the only heroes are people; so that Milton views people with less sympathy or admiration than a pagan poet would. This however is not because Milton is a Christian, rather it is because he is proud Milton.

  • I had no idea that John Milton was a good postmodernist! Armando's interpretations of Milton are so anachronistic that its ridiculous. He attempts to turn Milton into a secular humanist, which he most definitely was not. That might be what Armando takes away from Milton's work; but it is evidently not Milton himself.

  • GREAT QUESTION.! Jesus not only did not have to die but he could have died of anything. He could have died of sickness. This is why I am not Christian. It is clearly just a story and is meant for dramatic effect. Would anyone pray to a God who dies of sickness rather than being a martyr?

  • I'm surprised. I thought it was well known. I love all fictionalised Christian hell mythology so this was always a pull to me.
    I always thought it was a staple. Even more so since Se7en and The Devils Advocate

  • About the critique 26minutes in, we read on:

    I formd them free, and free they must remain,
    Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
    Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
    Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
    Thir freedom, they themselves ordain'd thir fall."

    It makes sense to me. In my words, for God's design for the human, Free Will is essential. Even if it's known that humans will destroy themselves with it, and hence His creation with it, He will not change this design.

  • Creation is not dull, look at the night sky, observe the differences of the animals, one man sees the abstract painting and meaning in a moment, another man can spend his life in vain and see nothing in a lifetime, therefore he declares life to be a nothing. Look at the night sky and know there is no dull God, behind creation.

  • Thank for this. I've had paradise lost on my shelf for over 10 years on my shelf and have read a few passages but needed something to spur me on. This might just do it.

  • Man is flawed and weak but he still must strive to gain a real knowledge of his true “self.”___ “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.” – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, Baha'i Faith

  • Areopagitica is among history's most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression. Many of its expressed principles have formed the basis for modern justifications.

  • Dude, not cool! In the 4th minute you tell us spoilers that Eve will eat the apple 🙁 I am only in book 6, so now I know what will happen!
    :p

  • Satan waking up with a Hell of a Hangover? Great quotes? Creation? Angels throwing MOUNTAINS at each other? Its a great book to be read many times. I just want to see a movie now with angels throwing mountains at one another.

  • Why do people always mistake that "THE FRUIT OF THE FORBIDDEN TREE" is an APPLE…???It is not mentioned as an Apple in the Bible.It is mentioned as a Fruit.

  • I love it when he sits with the 1st edition and just starts reading it; the excitement is palpable and contagious!

  • Blake did give him more credit, he was consumed with Milton, he did a whole series of paintings just for Paradise lost, loads in fact. Blake himself wrote an enormous poem called Milton; i have a copy of one edition from 1907.

  • Why is "darkness visible" so clever? It's just like looking at anything in the color black. Its being dark doesn't make it invisible. Just thought Armando's excitement about this phase was strange.

  • I love John Milton as well other great poets like John Keats, Percy Shelly, Homer, Dante Alighieri, and etc. Let, it surprise people to learn that I am an American with only a high school degree.

  • Today's world is as it is because the Classics are discarded for nice glossy garbage. Perfectly suited for The New World Order. Most modern human beings don't realize that Hell is being without Classical Archetypes to guide human behavior…nature abhors a vacuum therefore we must figure out what has replaced the Classical Framework of the Western Psyche.

  • I find Milton's politics and religion very contemporary and compelling. Lannucci seems to reject religion; however, I found his descriptions wanting me to explore the ties between Milton's Republicanism and Christianity. I think it is relevant to today’s NWO ambitions of Satanic hidden societies. His religious spin on the garden of Eden is contemporary with today's revisit of the fallen angel theories.

  • Ridiculously hysterical. We are not so stupid that we need this hype. And of course a person with eyesight can see darkness…I've had enough of this ego trip after 7 mins.

  • Why would Milton presume a globe? Nowhere in Genesis or the entire bible does it ever suggest a globe spinning and whizzing through a never ending universe at impossible speeds! The bible tells us the earth is stable and fixed, until judgement day, with a firmament dome above!
    But apparently we aren't to take Gods word literally, even though He makes it clear when He uses allegory!
    And before people attack my comment, and say Im 'against science, which Im not, science proves the earth is flat!
    Ask yourself (without looking up the answers), what speed the 'globe' turns on its axis, and the speed it hurtles forwards through the universe, whilst orbiting the sun? What speed does the sun travel?
    Because to find my belief in a flat fixed earth as described by God something worthy of mockery, you must be very confident in the globe model you defend.
    The luminaries travel around above the earth surface. We are the centre, the firmament is Gods footstool,
    try to debunk the flat earth. I did, and couldnt do it. God used the flat earth truth to bring me and millions more back to him!
    This is after satan used the globe lie and its ridiculous 'big bang' explanation to make millions fall away from God!
    Oh and to rub salt in, and insult God further, he got the fools to teach children they evolved from monkeys! Its so absurd,! And they still teach this theory as fact despite zero evidence.

  • I am an Algerian born man who is fond of the British poets and authors such as : the great poet John Milton, William Shakspeare , Charles Dickens, Jane Austen,charlotte bronte , William Wordsworth, Joseph Conrad, Anne Bradstreet and many other great writers who shaped the English Literature . However I am deeply flabbergasted at hearing some British born young people who don't know John Milton. That's a shame!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Were those primary school children being taught Paradise Lost? when I was their age I was studying Lord of the Flies😂

  • What ever happened to Michael wood quality of documentaries??? Now they’re all dramatic and can’t stick to the point.

  • To my surprise and delight I recognized a Milton quote in what might be considered an odd place;
    https://youtu.be/WBKs8JAzjo8

    Though considering the songwriter, Sakis Tolis, who is a polyglot, I should not have been surprised perhaps.

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