In the true style of Epic, Book I contains a lengthy description of the construction of Pandemonium, Satan’s palace in Hell. Before he gets stuck in, though, Milton issues this warning to his readers:
“And here let those / Who boast in mortal things, and wondering tell / Of Babel, and the works of Memphian kings, / Learn how their greatest monuments of fame / And strength, and art, are easily outdone / By Spirits reprobate, and in an hour / What in an age they, with incessant toil / And hands innumerable, scarce perform.”
Basically, “Don’t be so pompous – next to this, your attempts at grandeur are pitiable.” This caught my attention because 1. I hadn’t been expecting admonishment against making stuff and 2. it reminded be of ‘Sailing to Byzantium‘ by W.B. Yeats. It’s one of his later poems and focuses largely on his frustration with his own mortality. Young people annoy him and his ageing body annoys him so he has “come / To the holy city of Byzantium”, which is sort of an afterlife but also a state of mental preparedness for the afterlife.
Yeats asks to be gathered “into the artifice of eternity”, as if, on one hand, eternity is a false concept but, on the other, we are empowered to contrive it by making stuff that will stick around after we die. “Once out of nature”, he is determined to take “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make” – to become immortal. In Paradise Lost, however, it’s pretty simple: Pandemonium makes all evidence of human achievement seem laughable.
Perhaps the discrepancy lies, then, in the sorts of human endeavours each poet is talking about. Yeats describes “Monuments of unageing intellect” and, honestly, I’m not sure what that means. I do know what “monuments of fame / And strength, and art” are: I’m picturing elaborate architecture covered in mosaics and big, shiny statues of war heroes, built in celebration of classical values (see Greek kleos and Roman imperium).
I think Yeats’ inclusion of the word “intellect” suggests that in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ “gold” is purely metaphorical – a way of talking about the longevity of poetry; Byzantium is a city built out of words. Yeats’ fantasy, “to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium” could allude to Greek oral poetry, which, against all odds, survives to this day – with an immeasurable influence on Western culture. Yeats was, after all, totally preoccupied by the legacy of his poems*. Meanwhile, Milton makes his lofty ambitions clear from the beginning: his “adventurous song…with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’Aonian mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
So perhaps I can conclude that Milton and Yeats are in agreement: they believe that language has the power immortalise people in a way that artefacts – even ones made of inert metal – never can.
*If you want more evidence of this, have a look at ‘Easter, 1916‘ (about the consequences of the executions after the Easter Risings) and ‘The Second Coming‘ (general eschatological anxiety) – they’re kind of prophetic and it creeps me out a little bit.