There is a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost that, for me, has begun to eclipse the poem’s central drama of temptation, the love story of Adam and Eve, the polymorphous Satan (Lion! Tiger! Toad!)—even the cannons and the mountain-throwing that goes on in heaven.
In Book III.29-134, God the Father turns to the Son and explains the relationship of temptation and grace, justice and mercy, between himself and mankind. “So shall my glorie excel,” concludes God. And then God utters this line:
“But mercy first and last shall brightest shine.”
I once heard the poet Fanny Howe talk about the effect the word “God” has on a text; Howe says that the word “God” destabilizes the language around it, as it is an unknown factor; “God” calls our assumptions of reality and language into question (read Howe’s Lives of a Spirit for a more eloquent discussion of “God”). Howe writes,
“She felt like a face in an illuminated manuscript, who couldn’t get off the beautiful page about G-d.”
I find this interesting because, like nesting dolls or boxes, our language rests in more language, our selves in other selves (or people). One of the more unimaginable feats would be a contextless world. Hercules, by comparison, merely had to slay and obtain objects existing in the world—he never had to get out of the world, or get beyond language.
What I’m driving at is that, if you were to rest the drama of Paradise Lost in the context of mercy—the context that is, accord to Milton’s God the Father, “first and last,” alpha and omega, eclipsing, bookending, you get it—it is a different poem. It is brighter; the poet’s blindness is even less dark. We, as readers, might even be able to understand the fall in a fortunate light. But in day to day life, the quality of mercy, that context for all of God’s works in our lives, is as evasive as peace (which, Denise Levertov notes in her poem “Making Peace,” is threatened by a negative definition: the absence of war). And it is consistently simpler to be Sherlockian than merciful, simpler to let our minds judge something or someone—weigh them, sort them out—rather than to let any given situation go. Even more difficult is the act of active mercy, the mercy that reaches out into the danger of the immediate, unpredictable moment. Mercy rubs shoulders and offers hands with an intimacy denied by mere judgment.
Levertov, in “Making Peace,” calls peace “that different fulcrum.” She reminds her reader of the possibility of switching out whatever old ruler for life, old balance for weighing good and evil we have been using. It’s like some divine swap meet where we all bring our rags and walk away with love on our hands, our minds.
Mercy, like peace, is needed not just for the health of a community, but for the health of our selves—out of which community is built. I was recently startled out of my usual place of judgment by the words of Reese Witherspoon, who reflected on motherhood and the recovery of postpartum health: “You just have to be gentle and patient with yourself.”
Moms, Dads, and my word, writers: “You just have to be gentle and patient with yourself.” And gentle with your family. And your texts. And the books you haven’t read this week. And the ones you have half-read. And your son’s new teeth. And the absent spouse. And the manuscript that has not made itself manifest on your desk like you wished it would.
Mercy first and last shall brightest shine. God said that, and he said that in someone else’s poem. It will get written: that letter, that poem, that chapter. Or it will wait, and keep. To quote the mercy-filled lines of Saint Julian of Norwich via T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”