Monday, July 20, 2020

Paradise Lost by John Milton

I’ve read some Milton before. I remember the sonnet that begins “When I consider how my light is spent” from either a high school or college class. I’ve even read sections of Paradise Lost before. But I’d never read it in its entirety until recently. After reading Confidence Man by Milton and Palimpsest by Valente I was in the right mindset for dense language. I dip into my poetry books regularly, but I hadn’t lately. I listened to some lectures on Blood Meridian that mentioned how the Judge from that novel was in part based on Satan in Paradise Lost. Someone on the Coode Street Podcast said that people who enjoy fantasy who hadn’t yet read Paradise Lost should do it. Since I’m trying to read mostly books of which I have unread copies this year it seemed like the perfect time.

I read most of this aloud to myself, and that alone, especially in the early books or chapters was a great experience. It really gave me a better grasp on the language. Once Blake’s idea that Milton was “of the party of Hell” because he made Satan more interesting than anyone else in Paradise Lost got in my head, I couldn’t shake it. I think I can say that I probably would have found the early books much more interesting than the latter anyway, but I can’t be sure. And Satan certainly reads like a protagonist for the first third of the book. Even before I started watching Milton lectures on YouTube I could really sense the tension between Milton’s Puritanism and his obvious identification with Satan in the poem. And the guy on that podcast was right: so much imagery in fantasy either comes from this or at least was prefigured by this. There are battle scenes that as described could be from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Given the book’s influence on theology and Christian Apologetics (the purpose of the poem was to “justify the ways of God to Man using the free will argument*), it makes sense that its influence on fantasy is overlooked.

As much as I loved the first third of the book, I'm not ashamed to say I found the rest a slog. I’m enjoying the lectures that are revealing things I missed, but the actual reading of the back two thirds was borderline tortuous. And these lectures are highlighting the density of allusions in the book. I doubt that most people in Milton’s day could have gotten all the allusions either. A lot more than I did on my own to be sure, but part of the book is Milton showing off his erudition to the detriment of the work.

It’s also worth mentioning, that despite a surface attempt to give culpability for the fall to both Adam and Eve, the book very much blames Eve.

The language is as good as its reputation. Reading those early books out loud was a great reading experiment and if the rest was as interesting story wise, this would almost be automatically canon for me. As it is I would recommend reading the first 3-4 books out loud and then pass on the rest.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 50/75

*Though that is certainly complicated by his identification with Satan and the fact he doesn’t convincingly shake the idea of God’s foreknowledge as causal.


  1. Glad to hear your thoughts on it! I personally think the poem's best parts are in books 9-10 and the very end of 12, but will readily admit that anything narrated by Raphael is not the poem at its most interesting. Milton is much better at playing off Dante and Spenser than he is off Homer, and the middle four chapters definitely strike me as the most Homeric. 11 and 12 are a little more interesting because there's a whole theory of history hidden in the poetic summary of Biblical stories, but despite that it remains a long poetic summary of Biblical stories, and whatever interest it holds is very much dependent on the reader's interest in Milton's skill at poetry.

    Sounds like you've already done a good bit of secondary research into this, but if you want to read more, C.S. Lewis's book-length "Preface to Paradise Lost" is available online, and worth skimming:

    I'd especially recommend the chapter on Satan, which is probably the most entertaining refutation of the "Satan as Hero" interpretation I've read.

    1. I missed the notification for this comment. Sorry. For a long time I couldn't get the comments to work, so I didn't catch this.

      I have a copy of Lewis's preface that I haven't yet read. I should get to it soon while this is still relatively fresh in my mind. Or at least read the bits about Satan as hero, though, as I said, I definitely bought it as I was reading the poem. Granted I had been primed pretty heavily for that!