Thoughts on Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost is not for the fainthearted. John Milton was not messing around with simplistic approaches to his project when he decided to jump in and dictate his thoughts about the fall of man. This is meaty reading that requires alert attention and a willingness to unravel some archaic language use. Like many classics, there are numerous volumes available to read and all are not equal in quality, or similar in approach.

The copy I read is hosted at Dartmouth University. You can find it here if you’d like to get started now. Plan on spending the entire month ’cause it’s slow-going – or at least it was for me. Oversaturation. I gather from the extensive nature of the Dartmouth website that Milton’s works are a favored sport amongst the student body or at the least, someone’s specialty in the English department. Someone with power. That or the university enjoys torturing students with old literary escapades.

I thought I’d read Paradise Lost a lifetime ago in secondary school but after sitting through all TWELVE books of the entire read, I’m forced to conclude my previous experience involved an excerpt. I look back on that sample with increased fondness now. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really. This is one whopping big poem and so it’s broken into smaller chunks (Books 1 through 12), for better management, one would suppose.

The original work was published in 1667, so perhaps the format has something to do with the penchant of publishing to produce small readable volumes in a serialized fashion at the time. I dunno. Doesn’t really matter. It’s a whopping BIG poem, did I mention that?

William Blake, Temptation and Fall of Eve

Epic poetry deserves respect. It requires dedication and hard labor to produce in quantity without forced lineation and ridiculous convoluted language-use. Milton is adept with the form and obviously well-versed in his subject matter. Regardless of which position you find yourself in regarding his arguments, it’s a wonderfully rich journey.

I read the whole darn thing but don’t quiz me on it because there were parts where my eyes crossed, my mind went numb, and I may have forgotten to blink for long periods of time. The verse has a cumulative effect somewhat like a snowball rushing down the side of a mountain, picking up speed and debris until the reader is swallowed by an avalanche of linguistic imagery. Great word usage. Awesomely overwhelming deluge of Biblical content. If you enjoy ecclesiastical debate and dissecting prose, well this is a volume you’ll be wanting to check out for yourself.

Most classic literature (especially those works that appear regularly in educational curriculum), often have a wide range of support materials available to assist the curious in better understanding context. I think Paradise Lost may own a majority of market share when it comes to this sort of stuff. You may be wondering, like what kind of stuff? Well…like this comprehensive everything-you-need-to-know site, and this companion exhibit featuring 17th century culture, and this study guide which includes quizzes and tests, and these cliffnotes…and this book-by-book plot summary and analysis…and this novel-guide in simple English. And since Dartmouth doesn’t have a lock on academics obsessed with this particular work, don’t forget these study questions from Stanford University. Or this critical reading by a real critic.

Gustave Dore, The Heavenly Host

See what I mean?

These people are bonkers for Milton. It’s not that Paradise Lost isn’t interesting. It is. It is also a demanding read that requires solid background knowledge of culture, place, theology, timely context, and politics. One of the reasons there are such a plethora of support materials is because many students and members of the reading public lack comprehensive grasp of most of those necessities, myself included.

The language is beautiful. The poem is particularly lovely read aloud and a reading partner is a wonderful addition to the endeavor. Make certain you decipher the “argument” at the beginning of each book because that’s what the content is a response to…and it helps to gather a sense of why Milton undertakes his discussion with such fervor.

If you haven’t tried the full length experience, give it a shot. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth trying. When was the last time you read an epic poem? Twitter doesn’t count. Not even if you string all those tweets together. The Paradise Lost archive is an excellent place to start, a sort of one-stop-shopping for all things Miltonesque.

Let me know how it goes. We can commiserate.

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  1. #1 by Angela Wallace on September 1, 2012 - 9:58 pm

    “Twitter doesn’t count,” lol. I read Paradise Lost in college. I remember the imagery was very vivid…but don’t quiz me on it either. Beowulf is my favorite epic poem though.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 4, 2012 - 11:26 am

      I’m actually fond of most epic poems. The form is fascinating and the translations get all wonky…try looking for a translation of a translation. My favorite is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Beowulf was good too, I always had a soft spot for Grendel. I can’t remember which story it was, but I also liked the fellow (Culcuhryllain?), who turned himself inside out in his beserkrage.

      Now I want to add some of these to my reading list!

  2. #3 by Ali Dent on September 3, 2012 - 9:25 am

    Angela, Beowulf is one of my favorite books and definitely my favorite epic poem. Our group hasn’t read Paradise Lost yet but it is on our calendar for reading in December and discussing and project presentations for January 7. Lesann, this is a great post. I like it that there is so much to read about it on line. It helps me to read these things beforehand.

    • #4 by S. Thomas Summers on September 3, 2012 - 3:41 pm

      Beowulf is wonderful. Such a powerful influence on our culture. And I love to hate the big bruiser.

      S. Thomas Summers
      Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

      • #5 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 4, 2012 - 11:33 am

        Beowulf is another epic poem with a big fan club. I haven’t read it in decades so I think I’ll add it to my list and revisit the crowd. There’s something about the bloodthirstiness of the old epics that ever fascinates.

    • #6 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 4, 2012 - 11:31 am

      I’m always torn about what to read beforehand. Too much informaton predisposes my understanding of the story, but not enough means I miss important context. Paradise Lost has a wealth of information and depending on your level of familiarity with the content, can be very useful in stimulating discussion and exploring themes. There’s a ton of great ideas for teaching the poem and I didn’t even list all the secondary school stuff. Have fun!

  3. #7 by S. Thomas Summers on September 3, 2012 - 3:31 pm

    I teach portions of Paradise Lost. Weighty, wonderful stuff.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

    • #8 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 4, 2012 - 11:32 am

      You hit the nail on the head when you said, “weighty, wonderful stuff.” There is so much detail in the poem that it’s no wonder I’d never been asked to read the entire thing in school. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  4. #9 by Matthew Wright on September 4, 2012 - 3:52 am

    Wonderful post! I confess I have not read ‘Paradise Lost’ (yet). But it’s intriguing what epic poetry can inspire. I’ve been reading ‘Wulf’, by Hamish Clayton (Penguin) – a novel that takes the epic Saxon poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and re-casts it as the (true) tale of Te Rauparaha (New Zealand’s ‘Shaka Zulu’ equivalent) and the notorious ‘Elizabeth’ incident of 1830. An extraordinary piece of writing that blends epic poetic structure with real history and the modern form of the novel.

    • #10 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 4, 2012 - 11:37 am

      Epic poetry is a form I greatly admire – partly because it’s such an old technique. I’ve never read Wulf and Eadwacer (I love the names!), but will add that one to the list as well. I think it’s fun when somebody is clever enough to take older literature and weave it into modern narratives and contexts. The technique is difficult to pull off but when it’s done well, it’s lovely.

      I know nothing about the “notorious Elizabeth incident of 1830” but I’m too intrigued to stop now…off to find out the details!

  5. #11 by ewgreenlee on September 4, 2012 - 1:30 pm

    I find myself reading Paradise Lost over and over again. It is a hard and slow read, one that will certainly challenge the mind of a reader. It was only after completing the Inferno that I had built the curiosity to tackle the poem, other complex epics, and non-canonical works such as the books of Enoch. From those works and the complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien, I spent ten years writing my own epic tale.

    Make Paradise Lost one of your life’s bucket list items. It is very well worth the time.

    • #12 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on September 7, 2012 - 12:17 pm

      Thanks for commenting, ewgreenlee. I agree that Paradise Lost is a book to revisit…there’s so much content that it’s an overwhelming read to try in a single venture. My brain hit oversaturation stage and I’d realize I hadn’t really tracked what I’d read in the previous two pages…stop, regroup, startover. I like books that are challenging though – they’re a nice change from just a fun read. What a grand undertaking, to write your own epic! =)

      • #13 by ewgreenlee on September 7, 2012 - 12:52 pm

        Although I consider my mythology a low level read, it is has been more fun than an undertaking. As with Paradise, I do want the reader to reflect on a deeper meaning to mortality and immortality. I am on book number four of nineteen, which deals with the first corruption of a mortal and eventual fall of a complete world.

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