Writing about Heaven

I had my last final today, in Literary Traditions II (where we read Dante’s Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and an assortment of lyric poetry). Which means school is finished, at least until late August. I’m still in my dorm; I’ll probably go home Thursday or Friday.

Anyway, the essay I wrote for my Lit Trad final was about how Heaven is portrayed in the works mentioned above, and how it is contrasted with Earth. I actually rather liked my argument, so I’ll outline it here in brief.

Essentially, I would like to say, it is impossible to portray Heaven in a large literary work (such as the Commedia or Paradise Lost) in anything like a completely accurate way – and that to try to do so is base foolishness.

Now, because Heaven is so far beyond our understanding, it can only be described by comparing it to this world, contrasting it to this world, and saying that it is beyond our understanding – Heaven is like {X} ({X} being some pleasurable action, say, sex, or eating chocolate, or… you get the idea), Heaven is more pleasurable than {X}, Heaven is pleasurable in a way that transcends {X}. These are same three ways in which we can describe God, by the way, according to my 12th grade World Religions teacher who happened to be a Hungarian Cistercian monk.

In a large literary work, however, these ways are not really enough. You can’t set an entire book in Heaven if you can’t even describe Heaven adequately.

Dante recognizes this, I think; in his Paradiso, he essentially says, “this is not what Heaven is really like”. All of the events of the Paradiso are a grand pageant put on for Dante by the souls in Heaven to try to convey some idea of what it is like, but Dante does not pretend that what he describes is what is actually in Heaven (unlike in the Inferno and Purgatorio, in which the conceit is that Dante was really there and really saw what Hell and Purgatory are really like).

Milton follows Dante in some things, such as the battle between the angels and the rebels, which Raphael says he can describe only through metaphor. In others, however, he tries to actually portray Heaven; most egregiously, he writes grandiloquent speeches that God the Father supposedly actually gives. These are in my opinion among the worst parts of the poem. They make God into a merely human character. You simply cannot do this and expect Heaven to remain even kind of plausible – it turns Heaven into merely a human kingdom ruled by a benevolent dictator, and when you’ve done that, Heaven has little to no appeal.

There’s a great quote from W. H. Auden (from Secondary Worlds: The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, if you’re interested – a good read) that says, essentially – if anything, it is this, not Milton’s portrayal of Satan, that makes him “of the devil’s party without knowing it”, as William Blake said. There seems to me to be some truth in this. In any case, it certainly made it so Milton failed to “justify God’s ways to man”, as he set out to do.

That’s just one of the many reasons I much prefer Dante to Milton.


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