Paradise Lost by John Milton
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epic poems in the English language. It tells the story of the Fall of Man, a tale of immense drama and excitement, of rebellion and treachery, of innocence pitted against corruption, in which God and Satan fight a bitter battle for control of mankind’s destiny. The struggle rages across three worlds – heaven, hell, and earth – as Satan and his band of rebel angels plot their revenge against God. At the center of the conflict are Adam and Eve, who are motivated by all too human temptations but whose ultimate downfall is unyielding love.
Marked by Milton’s characteristic erudition, Paradise Lost is a work epic both in scale and, notoriously, in ambition. For nearly 350 years, it has held generation upon generation of audiences in rapt attention, and its profound influence can be seen in almost every corner of Western culture.
This is a reread of Paradise Lost. I originally read it in college in my Milton class. Back then, I read from a doorstop edition of Milton’s Complete Poems and Major Prose. This time around, I used Dartmouth College’s online edition.
There are a couple of hurdles to reading Paradise Lost:
First, it’s poetry, and poetry freaks people out. Especially long, epic poems. But the thing to remember is: while line breaks occur more often, punctuation still marks where thoughts start and stop. The first stanza of book 1 is twenty-six lines long and is one sentence. But there are plenty commas, semicolons, and even a couple of colons to break up the stream.
Second, much of the poem is really dialogue, so you need to pay attention to the beginnings, ends, and shorter stanzas because those are the ornate dialogue tags. In my paper edition, I annotated who was speaking and the ends of sentences.
Third, there are weird spellings for words. “Tast” instead of “taste.” There are a lot of heav’ns and flow’ds and th’s, which lend to a spoken reading. A lot of excess “th”s, and “ie”s for “y”s. I’m not saying these are difficult issues, but it one more thing to wade through.
Fourth, there are allusions galore. This might be a biblical story, being told by the actors in the midst of it (God, Satan, several angels, Adam), but Milton pulls from Greek and Roman myths, parts of the Bible that would be chronologically later, Shakespeare (I believe), and other contemporary texts in order to add depth and scope. Nothing was off-limits. I’d like to think if Milton were writing this today, he’d roll in some Lovecraftian mythos. The Dartmouth online edition is very helpful in regards to these last two points. It provides mouse-over spelling corrections and hyperlinked annotations.
I decided to read Paradise Lost again due to the FrankenSlam! challenge. It is one of the three manuscripts that the monster happens to read as his education. Presumably, these manuscripts were also Mary Shelley’s basis for the monster as a character. Given the amount of allusions that do require some familiarity with other texts, I’d think that monster might have been lost much of the time while reading Paradise Lost. Even so, there are repeated themes of parentage, sins, and punishments which the monster would find compelling.
Satan saw himself as a near equal to God and in God’s good graces until he was demoted for God’s son. His subsequent rebellion leads to punishment and more perceived slights as God places man as a higher being than Satan and his rebel angels. Later, when God punishes man with “death,” the punishment feels like a compromise being made by a capricious father. Man whines about not asking to be created at all.
Did I request thee, Maker, from my ClayBook 10, lines 743-745
To mould me Man, did I sollicite thee
From darkness to promote me,
It’s this quote that is Frankenstein‘s epigraph. I can see where the monster might by turns identify with Satan and also with man.
Personally, I generally enjoyed this reread. It’s been over twenty years since the first time and I have more stuff rattling around my head now, including a more recent reading of Frankenstein. Honestly, I find Milton is at his best when armies are heading into battle. I previously under-appreciated Book 6 when Raphael tells his side of the battle with against Satan’s angels. Satan, of course, gets all the good lines, and most of the manuscript, but this section of Raphael telling Adam about the conflict, kind of on the sly, is one of the more vivid passages.