Savitri Complementary Reading Group [7/31] - Introducing Milton's Paradise Lost

Originally published at:

Recorded 31 July 2019


Date/Time: 31 Jul 2019 @ 8:00 am - 10:00 am America/Denver

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We are reading diverse texts that complement Aurobindo’s Savitri, with a particular focus on Paradise Lost by John Milton; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and other writings from William Blake; and various poems by Walt Whitman, and link these readings into the Savitri reading.

Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol is an epic poem in blank verse by Sri Aurobindo, based upon the theology from the Mahabharata. Its central theme revolves around the transcendence of man as the consummation of terrestrial evolution, and the emergence of an immortal supramental gnostic race upon earth. Unfinished at Sri Aurobindo’s death, Savitri approaches 24,000 lines.

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For those interested, I have been reading an online annotated version of Paradise Lost - with the hot links directly in the text. I find this a useful way to read Milton, and the annotations are not too, too voluminous to make reading difficult. And line numbers are provided, which actually were absent in my book version…


Hi @Geoffrey_Edwards, as it turns out, tomorrow (7/31) is my daughter C.’s birthday, and we are planning on taking a day trip into the mountains, so I will miss this event but look forward to participating in the next one. I also intend to keep up with the reading and dialogue in the meantime.

You didn’t mention the required reading for tomorrow. Is it Book 1 of Paradise Lost?

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Sure, although I’m not sure we will get through the whole of Book 1 tomorrow.

Hey Folks,

I have a bit of time before work starts, and I wanted to address a few things I thought worth mentioning. They essentially pivot around notions of multiculturalism, dualism, non-dualism, and poetry analysis.

First, multiculturalism. Near the end of our discussion, when we started to talk about the difference between Christian humanist interpretations and Romantic interpretations, Geoffrey mentioned that of course there were people who were Christian humanists who interpreted PL in a certain way, and we should sort of play in the gray area between such interpretations and the more Romantic, even Gnostic ones argued for by Shelley, Blake, Empson, Bloom, et al. (Geoffrey, please correct me if I am misrepresenting your views.) This, to me, seems to represent the egalitarian postmodern view - every theory is relevant, but there are no evaluations made, no qualitative distinctions. After Geoffrey pointed this out, I said something about qualitative differences in interpretation - that some interpretations of texts are better, closer to the text,than other interpretations. This would seem to be a commonplace - a child’s interpretation of Hamlet does not come close to an adult’s interpretation - the adult’s interpretation is closer to the actual text, what is happening in the text, than the child’s. This should be obvious. But, when we talk about Christian humanists and Romantics, it’s a bit more slippery. Why is the Romantic interpretation, which I am arguing for, closer to the reality of the text than the Christian humanist?

I think it has to do with dualism and nondualism. Chistian humanists are essentially dualists - they believe in “spiritual warfare,” in which the demonological element of the world fights the spiritual, or however it is phrased - the war between good and evil. I confess that I find this hopelessly dualistic and ultimately unhelpfully confounding and confusing. Healthy forms of Gnosticism, (we can argue that the Romantic poets were Gnostics, although I would have to do more research here, it is just a hunch - Blake can definitely be read this way) are non-dual. Books like A Course in Miracles. which is thoroughly Gnostic (and, I’d argue, healthy and sane), argue that the phenomenal world itself is an illusion created by the ego, the self-sense that thinks it is separate from God - but that this ego is itself illusory, unreal. That is why the book can be summed up in the idea that “Nothing real can be threatened, nothing unreal exists, herein lies the peace of God.” When we are dualists, the truth is not really true - it is a battle over the truth, between Satan and God, let’s say. Non-dual forms of Gnosticism do not have this problem - they claim that the truth, God, Spirit, what have you, is true, and the world, the phenomenal world, is an illusion. Therefore, there is no dualistic contradiction, no sense wrangling endlessly over the whole “how could God have caused cancer, or the Holocaust, or evil?” These arguments become completely pointless in the healthy Gnostic view. I realize I am going pretty far-out here, but go with me for a second.

What does this have to do with PL? Why is the Gnostic reading better, stronger, than the Christian humanist? I would argue that PL, as a vision formed out of Milton’s imagination, represents a form of gnosis - knowledge, revelation. That is why I think it has endured for so long - otherwise it would have been forgotten long ago. I don’t know how to reconcile this argument with the details of Milton’s theology, which I know little about. But PL seems to me to be authentically visionary; non-dual Gnostic readings of it, I would argue, are closer to the spirit of the text, to what is actually happening in the epic poem, as it was written and as it was and is read now. That’s the argument I’ll hazard rn.

One more thing: John mentioned at some point that we should abandon theories and just experience the poem itself. While I applaud the sentiment, I confess I am a bit skeptical of this idea. When I was an undergraduate and taking my first class in reading poetry, our professor had us read a textbook about poems, and in one chapter, I remember vividly, there was a diagram of a bird, with its various parts broken down. The author of the textbook pointed out that many people would argue that to analyze the parts of the bird would make us experience the bird in a diminished way somehow, take away from the immediate suchness, the aesthetic reality, of the bird. But the author, whose name was John Frederick Nims, pointed out that those interpretations are themselves theories about reading, and that those theories are probably not really right. He then said that, the more we analyze poems, like anything else, the more we appreciate them - the more the complexity and depth of the poem meets a complexity and depth of thought and feeling in us. It is impossible to view the world without a theory about the world. What we actually think essentially show us the world we see. Thought and perception, in other words, are very tightly enmeshed. For these reasons, I think we should definitely talk about theories regarding poems. We should also of course experience the poems. But to say that we can read a poem shorn of theory, to me, seems somewhat misleading, fwiw.


I just realized that more than 500 books by, edited and occasionally about Bloom are on the Internet Archive for free, for anyone interested. You can find most if not all of the Chelsea House imprints, the sheer quantity of which is overpowering. Also, fun to see early covers of the critic’s book from 60’s. Enjoy! (The best results come from an advanced search, with “Bloom, Harold” in the creator field.)

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I’m sorry if I made such an unclear statement. What I mean is we need to read the poem first and have a direct experience before we end up in theory. Otherwise, we could just read theories about Milton and skip reading the poem. We can study the maps, who needs a territory? And also we need to read more if not all of Milton before we can even make sense of those meta-theories. I am all for theory but who decides which one’s are better? Some one who has never read the poem? The early poems set up much of what is happening in *Paradise Lost.*It is a gigantic echo chamber, profoundly enigmatic. And it requires stamina to get through it as we demonstrated today. It is very intense and demanding. I fear this poem is beyond the attention spans of most readers. Our attentions, in my view, are extremely fragmented. I hope we can do some remedial work. Learn to catch the rhythm, than catch a cognitive framework. We can make a frame, break a frame and then trans-frame. For me, this is more like performing in an opera, than studying a copy of the score in isolation.

I have turned to critics after I have tried to read a poem and gotten lost. I have turned to a handful of critics that I trust. So, I am appreciative of the critical function but it is not greater to me than the poet.

I would like to know what Andrew thinks of Milton, rather than what Andrew thinks of Bloom. We each of us can oscillate between commitments. I am just allergic to ideology, maps without territories.

Where do you want to start, Andrew? You are free, of course, to read every critic who ever read the poem and then read the poem. Go for it!

I make it a practice never to read a review of a book I want to read or a movie I want to see. If I have someone else’s views installed I can almost never have a fresh response to the text. I may already have a theoretical orientation that is mixed with other movies, plays, and poems I have absorbed. I can explicate these much more clearly when I have a text embodied, I have breathed it, not just read it from the neck up.

I can after immersing myself in the textures and tones and affects of a work move, between that text and other works, and that text and multiple critics. Most of the concerns of critics are about meta-theories than about the actual writing of poetry. And I read Bloom and other critics not for opinions but for style. Bloom has an engaging style and he actually made some observations in his long lectures on Shakespeare that pointed out some features of the plays ( which I can recite from memory for several hours) that have surprised me.

Under-meanings, queer variations, subtexts, are not theory free. I would say there is a way of reading, that includes gut, heart, and head. That is what I felt was strong in our work today. And we can always revise and update our responses.

Thanks again, Andrew, for you energy and insight. I hope I have made a more complete response than the one you picked up from me in meet up today.!

This is myself as Satan. I would rather reign in hell (…)


I think this points to something super important about reading and writing. You say you would like to know what Andrew thinks of Milton. Sure - but who is Andrew? As a reader? For that matter, who are you? I’d say that we are, as readers, composites, strange eclectic fusions, mergings, twanglings, of our favorite writers, the writers who have taught us, shaped us, reached us across time and space, and formed our way of thinking. This is, alas, Bloomian territory as well, what he calls “influence.” His most famous theory, the “anxiety of influence,” argues that to be influenced by another writer - truly influenced, contaminated, changed - is to feel anxious, because one’s self is not one’s own. This seems to me palpably true, and I can’t read anything pretty much, at this point without somehow drawing upon Bloom and Ashbery in some sense for poetry, or for that matter Philip Roth for the novel, or Wilber for psychology and philosophy, or, in music, Dylan, etc. ad nauseum. We really do invent our parents. When we do, we cannot escape them. Should we try? When we quest after “original” or “immediate” experiences with and interpretations of literature, we are ourselves beholden to a certain way of thinking about literature, which of course has been argued a bazillion times throughout history and culture. So what makes this stance any more original? If this raises the question, then what does it even mean to be unique, original? I’d say that can only be answered through gnosis, through the experience, expression and knowledge of our own quixotic selves. Such a gnosis is not separate from those who have influenced us - it has happened because of, directly owing to, such influence. To try and somehow be a self apart from our influences would be catastrophic and pointless, a waste of time. I wrote a longer review of Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism recently which addresses some of these issues, here it is:

Essentially, what I’m arguing for is an actual honest, though perverse and profoundly ambivalent, relationship to our literary tradition, to what the past has given us - what Bloom, (again Bloom!), calls “belatedness,” which he has been arguing for for more than four decades.

I honor this praxis, but I do not partake of it myself. I actually refuse to see a movie if I haven’t checked its review, or at least its rating on Rotten Tomatoes or elsewhere. I just do not want to waste my time - I do not want to have another Eddie Izzard experience. So I rely on movie critics I trust. I don’t go to many movies now, for whatever reason, but for some time I relied on A.O. Scott’s evaluations, from the NYTimes, also the movie critics for the New Yorker. If this seems as though I’m saying I am unable to form my own stance on film, poems, whatever, I’d say fine, but at least I don’t need to sit through Guardians of the Galaxy 11. To be less silly, we do not have time to master every discipline and art form. Critics are there to help guide our choices and our evaluations, though of course, we are always free to disagree - that’s what makes it interesting. I am not arguing for some wholesale swallowing of the kool-aid - I think I mentioned this, but I cannot stand Hart Crane, who I find to be a sort of over-mannered T.S. Eliot, and think this is a blindspot in Bloom’s reading, as he started reading Crane at a very young age and I’m not sure if he can separate his reading from these early experiences. However, I can also say that, after reading some Ginsberg and Plath, and finding it very vacuous, Bloom articulated my own intuitions about these poets in a way I would not have been able to do. To put it yet another way, there is no artwork without a conversation about the artwork. To be an “informed media consumer” (apologies for the phrase) is to participate actively in this conversation. This is what criticism is for.


And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

This poem changed my life. The bottom of the sea is cruel. Deep enigmas here. Bloom is a great help.

I agree that some of Ginsburg is vacuous. Howl has way too many words but I love the mood. Plath is a morbid fascination (…) Her German accent is very good. Have you ever heard her read from her work? She is hyper sardonic. One of the damned. Also, her memoir is witty.

Hart Crane would agree with you, Andrew.

We should, I suppose, be careful what we ask for. Even if we have big differences in our approach ( and I am often inconsistent) I value your opinion. Sincere opposition can be generative. And it is a risk to get to know someone through the exploration of texts but it is a worthwhile endeavor. This culture work is never neat and tidy or completely finished. There is always something left unsaid. And I hope we will continue to articulate differences that make a difference!


I’m like Johnny (@johnnydavis54) on this, I avoid reading too much ahead of time, although I am not a purist. I do rely on recommendations by friends, etc., but I won’t read an extensive review ahead of time. In fact, this is a lesson I applied to my entire career as a scientist. I would develop my own ideas about a subject before I went to the literature to see what other people had said. I found many times that my ideas may have paralleled existing scholarship when I eventually did look things up, but that quite frequently I discovered ideas that hadn’t been picked up. I don’t think this would have happened if I had read the literature first.

Regarding your comments about good ideas or readings or interpretations versus bad ones, I am largely in agreement with you. I have had a successful career as a scientist, and if I had applied no critical judgement into good science versus bad, I never would have achieved much. Rigour is important to me, regardless of what one is examining. But rigour also has a down side, it can blight creative efforts if applied at the wrong time. Rigour is a process of bringing things to fruition, but not so much for beginnings, where one needs to be sensitive to emerging ideas even if they lack rigour. It all depends on context. So there are times where I apply rigour and there are times when I do not.

Also, completely in agreement regarding the dualistic nature of traditional Christian thought. Regarding the Gnostics, I have long respected these ideas, but I also think that Gnostic thought can also be dualistic, though not in the same way as Christian thought. It is often associated with Manichaeism, which is decidedly dualistic - the world is divided into a good, spiritual world and an evil material world. I know there are Gnostic scholars who don’t slave themselves to that idea, and the Gnostic focus on knowledge, as you point out, Andrew, is also really interesting, but Gnosticism requires a nuanced reading of things. I think Blake was non dualistic, but not necessarily Gnostic. He had his own conception of the world, it is one of the things that makes Blake so interesting, he didn’t really fit into any of the schools of thought, either before or after his era…

Love that photo of you, @johnnydavis54, so satanic in the best sense of the term!


I enjoyed riding the Miltonic wave into hell with everyone. And I look forward to Blake next time. It is intriguing how these three poets wrap around each other like that old serpent around the Tree in the Garden who enchanted the mother of human kind. I am also interested in your Body Map essay. I hope you will share it. I am very interested new body mind methods.


I felt this was a great session. I really enjoyed it; it brought the poem alive for me on a higher level. You guys really transmitted something of the gnostic energy of the poem. My third ear felt the flames and groans of direst woe!

Delicious, yes. Visionary, yes—in ways that become even more striking toward the end of the book.

First, there is the heartbreaking, so nearly human image of Satan—who still has something angelic about him. His luminosity is only eclipsed.

… he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. […]

He shows sympathy for his comrades:

[…] Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

Perhaps my favorite image of the whole Canto:

Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek,

And then he is so overcome with grief he cannot speak:

Thrice he assayd, and thrice in spight of scorn,
Tears such as Angels weep, burst forth: at last [ 620 ]
Words interwove with sighs found out thir way.

But where I feel Milton is truly prophetic is in his description of Mammon’s mobilization of the demon army into an industrial-scale, hyper-efficient operation smelting massive quantities of gold extracted from the pit of hell and essentially 3D-printing a mansion for their conclave—and filling it with art! That is nuts, if you really imagine it. (Seen approximately couple hundred years before the industrial revolution.)

And the last bit is the kicker. How do hordes of fallen angels all fit into the mansion for their confab? They magically shrink into their “smallest forms” and " own dimensions." Like Alice.

If I catch some free time and demonic energy this weekend, I will record a rehearsal of one of those latter passages.

Regarding the “Romantic Gnostic” vs “Christian Humanist” readings of PL—I thought @AndrewField81’s observation that each approach is not merely an interpretation, but also in a sense implies a lifestyle was very interesting. It’s actually close to what I mean and have been trying to convey in terms of an “ethical aesthetics.”

We mix up morals (as a set of judgments) and ethics (as a lived praxis), and also mix up ethics (as an area of moral inquiry) and ethics (as a code of behavior). I suggest that aesthetics could be thought of as a “lifestyle”—as an ethic or ethos (or practice)—which may or may not conform to any standard moral code, may indeed achieve maximal idiosyncrasy precisely by following an internal ethical compass.

As it happens, I am a romantic gnostic married to a Christian humanist, and we make it work. I look forward to participating in the Blake séance next time around, and we’ll talk about another kind of marriage.


From Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. This is one of the most powerful and profound books of literary criticism I have read in awhile. You can rent a copy of it for a month on Amazon for around 7 bucks. Beginning to think Blake is essentially the tutelary spirit of this whole Cosmos Cooperative “project,” at least in lieu of its emphasis on the visionary and visionaries. I am just taken aback by how good the book is. I am seeing and experiencing Blake (and Frye) in an entirely new light.


William Blake Archive, described as

A free site on the World Wide Web since 1996, the Blake Archive was conceived as an international public resource that would provide unified access to major works of visual and literary art that are highly disparate, widely dispersed, and more and more often severely restricted as a result of their value, rarity, and extreme fragility. A growing number of contributors have given the Archive permission to include thousands of Blake’s images and texts without fees.


one more thing - this is a note Blake wrote in the margins of a book of aphorisms by Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss poet, theologian, and other things:


I’m leaving it here just so we are sort of clear about the dangers and temptations of associating Blake’s “energy” or “delight” with some form of sadism or immoralism. This is very far from the truth, though I was also sort of leaning in this direction and feeling confused, before I started reading Frye. Thanks! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:



I just watched the video from the first session on Milton. How fun! How lively! Thank you, Friends. I’m looking forward to joining on Wednesday.


Hey Everyone,

On my dinner break I went outside to enjoy this beautiful autumn day, and I had taken with me to work a book of Shelley’s poems, so I sat down on a bench and decided to read some of Shelley’s “Adonais,” an elegy for Keats. I was thinking of Keats because of his “To Autumn,” which is just as, if not more perfect than this particular autumn day, or any autumn day for that matter. Anyways, I didn’t read far when I came across this fourth stanza from “Adonais,” which essentially is a good example of how utterly inescapable Milton was and is, for us but also the Romantics. Shelley says it better, writing of Milton’s passing and legacy: “he went, unterrified, / Into the gulph of death; but his clear Sprite / Yet reigns o’er earth; the third among the sons of light.” (I guess the other two sons of light, i.e. great epic poets, according to the notes, are Homer and Dante.)

For the love of this poem, especially during the season it makes so vivid, intense, sensuous, gorgeous and alive, here’s Keats’s “To Autumn”:

And, for all those literary sleuthers out there (I think Bloom once called these echo-obsessive people, like me, “carrion-hunters” :joy:), notice the marvelous similarities between the last seven lines of “To Autumn” and the last seven lines of Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” which is arguably his first great poem (he has many). Here’s “To Autumn”:

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Here’s the last seven lines of “Sunday Morning” (the whole poem is really worth reading and rereading):

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail

Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;

Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.