Milton in America

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  How is it that I have fallen? How can it be permitted to end like this? How can it be permitted to begin like this? I had left the settlement. I was called to the forest. I entered the darkness. I went down into the wood, to see whether the vine flourished and the pomegranates budded. I was wandering among the pillars of trees, I was touching wreathed incense of wood and earth as the wind of green life lifted up my cloak. Such a soft and yielding darkness I had not known since I dreamed of raven down and sable clouds. I heard the names of cedar and of pine, of fir and branching palm. I touched the sacred poetry of trees.

He found a beaten track as wide as an English lane. Oh, briars and brambles, exposed and tangled roots, do not impede me. My eyes are as the eyes of a dove, washed with milk. Infinite milkiness of space. But the blind man stumbles, because he has walked among rocks. He has become lost. There is no echo around him, and he fears the presence of a marsh or swampy ground. Why have I strayed, seeking and finding nothing? This is the wilderness. In the dream of man, this is the place of fear. Druid fear. The evil things that walk by night. Oh, defilement.

Blind mouths. He turns and turns about as the night comes down upon him. I said, I will go up to the palm tree. I will take hold of the boughs thereof. I must rest in the pensive secrecy of some woody cell. I must find a harbor. But where can he find rest, except at the base of some great tree, where he sits and wraps his cloak around himself? Without the company of kind or kin, he blows upon his hands to savor his own warmth. It rains, and I hear the comfort of the showers upon the outer leaves. He sleeps, and he wanders again.

Dawn. Is it dawn? My head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my cloak, how shall I put it on? Tell me, what is the destination of a blind man in a wood? Is it towards myself? I took off a piece of bark, and I ate it. I licked the moisture from the leaves, and I drank it. I will arise and go. He treads upon living things, not without fear. The world is still a wilderness of words and sighs, like the sighing of the trees. Such heat. Such cries. Here is copulation. Here is the whispering darkness. The vines are tangled in his hair, and the rank odor of weeds surrounds me. Lechery. If I fall, I will be comforted by the slug and the spider. A whiplash of sound comes from the trees, and he bows his head in shame. He smells the earth, as ripe as a charnel house. Something is growing around me.

But now the breeze brings the perfume of fruit. All my hunger and thirst quicken at the sweet scent of that alluring fruit, and I reach out my hand to touch it. To revolve ambrosia in my palm. Delicious. No. Oh no. The blind man, he or I, is taken by the leg and hurled upwards into the air. He is snared, and hanging from a pole. Everything waits expectantly as he sways from the rope, set in an Indian trap. His dark world has been turned upside down. I am like Mahomet's tomb, he shouts aloud, suspended between earth and heaven!

Let there be light. And there was light. The word was light. The world was light. Something is happening. My head has been broken, and is now streaming with light. Light is entering my veins and moving upwards. Downwards. And now the trees are walking towards me. First seen. Creation trees. Green leaves. Emerald sky. These colours are the arms waiting to greet me. The rush of blood, my red sea, has parted the closed lids of my eyes. The blind man, swinging from the rope meant for the deer, can see. From morn to noon he hung, from noon to dewy eve, watching the colors deepen as the day advanced. I can see.
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Excerpted from Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 1996 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.