Making it compulsory to study Paradise Lost during my first year of University seemed both terrifying and cruel. It was a text which I had heard praised so highly, yet one with a fierce reputation for being extremely challenging. Suffice to say, I went into those initial lectures with a great amount of trepidation.
But then my lecturer starting reading.
The passion in her voice, her almost manic recital of Satan’s speeches, blew my young mind away. I was hooked, almost from the moment she started speaking. Perhaps it was hearing the words brought so vividly to life which enabled a piece of her passion to infuse itself into my own mind. Whatever the reason, I listened completely enraptured. During that module we only studied a small selection of books from Paradise Lost, and so I had always been eager to read the piece in its entirety for true clarity. Growing tired of my own excuses for putting it off, I finally went back into Milton’s world.
If, like me, you are not particularly religious, then you might think this book is not for you. That’s understandable, and is something I also thought at first. Yet, this book is about so much more than religion, or what the Bible teaches us. Yes, it tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven and his success in tempting the origins of mankind into sin, but it is also about so much more than that. Pride, sin, morality, ambition, faith; all of the themes within this epic poem run much deeper than its seemingly religious surface. Additionally, it is also an interesting tale which Milton tells, and something which would entertain both religious and atheist individuals.
I always think that some people are surprised when they realise that Paradise Lost is actually a poem and not a piece of prose or a novel. To be precise, it is an epic poem which follows in the tradition of the ancient epics such as those written by Homer. It is not a rhymed poem, but one written in blank verse (no rhyme scheme but a regular meter). This can be greatly off outing for many people. Poetry is certainly not to everyone’s tastes. However, because of the fact it isn’t rhymed, and the extremely literary writing style, I found myself experiencing this much more as a piece of prose than anything else. If you are still put off, try reading a section aloud and following the words as a narrative as opposed to a poem. I cannot express how much I think this epic poem benefits from being recited aloud. Perhaps I am biased after hearing my lecturer speak with such vibrancy, but the poem really does rise to whole new heights when you say each word.
My favourite parts of Milton’s work, and the parts which would one hundred percent benefit from being an oral recital, are Satan’s speeches. Satan as a character was by far the most interesting aspect of the poem. To think that he was once regarded so highly, that he held a place within the brightest of places, and yet he was able to sink to such deplorable depths was fascinating to read and also study. He is a character bound up in his own complexities; someone you know you should hate but someone you also find yourself inexplicably drawn to. After Satan’s initial fall from hell, when he wakes and tries to rally his troops once more, you are able to see how Satan initially persuaded so many to join his rebellion against God. He is an extremely seductive speaker. His choice of words, the things he promises and the unspoken desires he verbalises, all seduce those around him. I will always remember how my lecture once described his characters as resembling an excellent politician, someone who knows exactly what to say to achieve his own ends. That had always stuck with me because it is so accurate!
The seductive air which hovers around Satan is also brought into more of an obvious example through the personification of Sin, whom Satan meets as he attempts to leave the boundaries of Hell. She tells Satan that ‘out of thy head I sprung’ (p. 52 l. 758), and ‘such joy thou took’st/with me in secret, that my womb conceived/ a growing burden’ (p. 52, ll. 765-777). There are clearly strong sexual connotations, specifically of the illicit kind, surrounding this encounter, especially when it is realised that Sin is actually Satan’s daughter, and together they conceive Death, their son (who also rapes his mother)! The seedy, incestuous nature is clearly an exaggerated example of how the act of sinning is so horrific.
Milton is a brilliant writer, and there were so many phrases and examples within this poem which shine such brilliant light on life and show his understanding of it. One in particular which I loved stated that ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself/can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ (p. 11, ll. 254-255). I thought that was so brilliant, how he was able to acknowledge the power of the mind in a time when such studies were so rudimentary. It shows so obviously that he is well aware that things can be wholly influenced by your state of mind, and is very clued in to the world around him. I also enjoyed a sentence which Satan speaks, saying that it is ‘better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven’ (p. 11, l. 263). The phrase is just saturated with his ambition, but is also unsettling because it is something I think everybody can understand to some extent, and almost allies our own selves with the devil.
I have to be honest and say that the bits which did not centre upon the fallen angels were not as interesting as the bits which did. They failed to grasp my attention quite as much, especially where Adam and Eve, and God himself were concerned. I think this is also interesting, as it suggests that as a person we are closer to identifying with the sinful and flawed Satan as opposed to the original blissful state which Adam and Eve exist within. There are also continuous references and allusions made to the Ancient traditions, especially mythical Greek characters. I can understand that Milton was a great admirer of these works, and wanted to bring this to his own work both in the very form of the poem (epic poem, blank verse), but also in its substance. Sadly, this did grow to be quite tedious, and I did bore of constantly having to read the footnotes to discover who Milton was referring to in each instance.
Thankfully, my edition was brilliant in the fact that it had such extensive footnotes to further explain the individual parts of the poem. The edition I read was the Oxford World’s Classics, which I would always highly recommend for any text which can appear quite academic. They are brilliant at breaking down sections and giving you the right amount of explanation.
Whether you enjoy reading Paradise Lost or not, I think we must always remember just how skilled a man he must have been to finish such a momentous task. At the time of writing this, Milton was actually completely blind, and so the entire thing was written through diction. It’s hard enough today to write something on a laptop where we have the benefits of word processors and the editing process. How he succeeded with such a challenging task when he had to rely on other people to write down his thoughts is simply amazing. The contextual value here is also to be noted. We must remember how much of a vital role religion played in society, and how firmly religion was established in the foundations of day to day life. Something which follows a biblical story, released in the 17th century was always going to resonate strongly with such a religious audience.
What are your thoughts on Paradise Lost? Has anyone else read it?
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics