Saturday, February 29, 2020

Michael Cavanagh's "Paradise Lost: A Primer"

Michael Cavanagh (1942–2017) was the Orville and Mary Patterson Routt Professor of Literature at Grinnell College. He published Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney's Poetics, as well as poems in The Heartland Review, The Sewanee Review, The South Carolina Review, Rattle, The South Dakota Review, and elsewhere.

Cavanagh's last book, Paradise Lost: A Primer, was edited by Scott Newstok, the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare.

Newstok applied the “Page 99 Test” to Paradise Lost: A Primer and reported the following:
I was away from Grinnell College in the fall of 1993, when Michael Cavanagh offered his biennial Paradise Lost seminar. After I returned to campus, I envied my classmates, who regaled me with accounts of his contagious joy at the marvels of this poem. Given the laughter and insight I’d gained from his other courses, I lamented that I had missed my only opportunity to hear him revivify Milton.

He gave me a second chance. Some 15 years later, paralyzed at the prospect of teaching my own first Milton seminar, I begged him for advice, strategies, assignments, shameless shortcuts. His gently prodding emails that summer’s day persisted throughout the semester, bolstering my confidence. I would have drowned without him.

The timing was fortuitous. Having completed Professing Poetry, his study of Heaney’s prose, Cavanagh was drafting this book. Milton was on his mind. Over the next decade, he continued to share chapters with me. While he never explained why he elected to call it a “Primer,” I believe he modestly intended it to be not the last word on Milton, but rather something to “say first”—to prime you for reading, just as we prime a pump, or apply a primer before painting. In Milton’s era, primers were manuals for literacy or prayers, designed to be clear, concise, companionable. The instruction and delight that characterized Cavanagh’s classroom similarly suffuse his pages. He shared Marjorie Hope Nicholson’s conviction that “to know the poetry of Milton is to have a liberal education.”

Following an abrupt series of strokes, Michael Cavanagh passed away in 2017. I’ve helped his family edit the manuscript, which I’d long admired for its practicing poet’s sense of craft. As Alastair Fowler wrote of completing C. S. Lewis’s book on The Faerie Queene, “My aim throughout has been to make a readable book.”
[Joseph] Summers’s appreciation of the scene of Eve and Adam’s matins is a great example of how to read Milton. Paradise Lost, he says, is pervaded by a sense of delight in alteration for its own sake. As we learn in the next book, even in the all-light precincts of Heaven, the angels create “grateful vicissitude” (6.4–8)—a changing-light show in a cave—for no purpose than to amuse themselves. If this is not a sign of the intricacy of Milton’s universe, I don’t know what is. Likewise, because Milton values change, Adam and Eve pray in “various style” (5.146), that is, in an irregular manner, and the things they praise in God’s creation, from the angels circling God’s throne, to Lucifer, to the sun, the moon, the clouds, the winds, the falling waters, to the birds, are all in motion—are in fact celebrated because of their motion. In keeping with this idea of motion, the song ends by invoking the dispersal of dark at dawn, but the rhythm of the earth dictates that the dark will come back—just as Satan, chased off by the angelic guard, also will return. He has a place in our world, just as darkness and “error” are part of the Garden, and “wanton”ness is an attribute of Eve’s hair. Adam and Eve proceed to their day’s “rural work,” and, if we are tracking the poem, we notice already another sign of change and growth (5.211). Early in Book 4, we are told that toil in Paradise exists only to make refreshment more refreshing, that nothing is really required of Adam and Eve but that they keep God’s one commandment (4.411–39). But then Adam hints that their activity is a little more onerous than he suggested earlier. The garden’s alleys, Adam says, “mock” the labors of him and Eve and “require / More hands than ours” (4.628–29). Now in Book 5, we begin to sense something more like real work that Adam and Eve must do:

On to their morning’s rural work they haste
Among sweet dews and flow’rs; where any row
Of fruit trees over-woody reached too far
Their pampered boughs, and needed hands to check
Fruitless embraces
. (5.211–15)
Page 99 of Paradise Lost: A Primer is characteristic in two ways: for its generosity, in praising another critic’s reading; and for its genuine delight, marveling at the poem. I hope other readers come to share this delight.
Learn more about Paradise Lost: A Primer at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue