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John Milton is regarded by many as the last of the classical poets, before the Romantic movement of the late 17th century began the perpetual admiration/rebellion crisis of influence that still exists with the modern obsession with parody and deconstruction. Paradise Lost is an epic poem published in ten books in 1667, later amended by the author to a twelve book version in 1674 just prior to his death. It remains one of the most revered and studied poems in the English language, surpassed only by Miltons immediate precursor William Shakespeare.
Milton was always convinced that he would produce the greatest epic poem of the English language, and despite the attempts of Alfred Lord Tennyson a century later, the lofty and momentous subject matter of Paradise Lost aided by Miltons rigidly structured blank verse has ensured the blind puritans immortality in the English literary canon.
OF MANS FIRST TRESPASS
Inspired by the ancient classical poets Homer and Virgil, Milton had planned to write his great English epic on the greatest English legend, the story of King Arthur. But as he matured, the importance of writing a fundamentally Christian epic, something to rival and even exceed the achievements of the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans, led to him choosing the ultimate subject: Gods creation of the universe, Earth and man, and mans Fall in Eden.
The twelve books of Paradise Lost expand greatly upon Genesis, the first book of the Bible, featuring a great deal of artistic license in elements that Milton added to increase the drama of the piece. Although Paradise Lost is primarily a poem of discourse and reasoning, Milton begins with a war in heaven between the followers of God and the Rebel Angels led by Satan, the most visually impressive of all the Angels that may or may not have been created by God. Satan is cast down to Chaos, a region below Heaven and the universe, and along with his followers he build Pandemonium, his hellish palace from which he can plan his revenge.
The other protagonists of the play are Adam and Eve, in the sections of Paradise Lost that will be familiar to those brought up as Christians. God made Adam, the first man, in his own image, but once Adam confessed his loneliness and desire for a counterpart of equal intelligence, God created Eve from one of Adams ribs. Book 9, the most widely-known book of Miltons epic, sees Satan, jealous of the humans blissful lives in a Paradise they have not earned, possessing a snake and tempting Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the only fruit forbidden to the humans by God. Once she takes a bite, Eve descends into a more recognisably human character, embarrassed by her nudity and feeling fear and jealousy for her actions that she blames on others. Scared to take the blame by herself, and possessive of her beloved Adam, Eve tempts Adam with the fruit, stating: Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe.
But what if God have seen
And Death ensue? Then I shall be no more
And Adam wedded to another Eve
THE FORTUNATE FALL
Miltons goal with Paradise Lost is to justify the ways of God to men, explaining the reasons for Gods actions in a way in which he feels no other poet would be capable. One of the endless paradoxes of the Bible is that an all-knowing God created fallible, fickle man and woman, and was surprised when they betrayed him. An omnipotent creator would know that his creations would fall, and the closing books of Paradise Lost reflect this:
Then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days
Adam is shown the future of mankind, up to the sacrifice of Jesus for the worlds sins, implying that this was all part of Gods master plan. After all, if Adam and Eve had not betrayed him, how could be show them humility and forgiveness? Even Satans actions could not have gone unnoticed, independent and wily as they seemed, informing Miltons readers that all the trials and tribulations of life are simply part of a greater goal. Reassuring words for readers in perhaps the most turbulent and dangerous part of Englands history.
The political agenda behind Paradise Lost is also fairly clear when applied to Miltons time. The civil war in heaven, leading to the punishment of those who dared to try and seize power from an aristocratic leader, mirrors the struggle of Oliver Cromwell and the supporters of democracy, for which many of the traitors were later executed on the Restoration of the monarchy. Milton managed to escape this fate thanks to the support of his friend Andrew Marvell, but his limited fortune suffered immensely in reparation payments. The character of Satan can be viewed as Milton without claims that the poet was, as William Blake put it, unconsciously of the Devils party, but the convincing arguments over the quest for knowledge do indicate that, placed in the position of Eve, Milton would make the same decision. Miltons Satan is even prepared to make his dismal situation positive: a heavn of hell, a hell of heavn.
RHYME: THE INVENTION OF A BARBAROUS AGE
The introductory note to the verse of Paradise Lost sees Milton condemning the use of rhyme in poems, especially epic poems, for its constraint on the writers message. Rhyme is fun, but in Miltons view, many works of genius have been hindered by their strict adherence to such structures. Dantes Divine Comedy, the Italian Christian epic to rival Milton, does suffer in places for its rhyme, and this is multiplied by those English translators who find it necessary to work the Italian into rhyming English verse.
Miltons blank verse still conforms to a ten syllable iambic pentameter, and his elaborate similes and obsessive allusions to other classical works make reading Paradise Lost a difficult task. Even more confusing is his refusal to use words appropriated from other languages without using them in their original meaning. Paradise Lost may remain a book for scholars and students, but its revision of the Fall is fascinating and helps make sense of an otherwise rather simplistic attempt to explain how women are the inferior sex.
To thy husbands will thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule
Sadly, seventeenth century John Milton was as sexist as the rest of them.
"Milton was of the Devil's party without knowing it," William Blake In the movie National Lampoon's Animal House, an English Literature professor nicely underplayed by Donald Sutherland admits he finds John Milton's Paradise Lost heavy going. "I think Milton is just as boring as you do," he tells blank-faced students during a lecture. "Mrs Milton thought he was boring too." It's a scene which neatly sums up John Milton's popular reputation today - dull and unreadable. In part it's a cross of his own making because he was a strait-laced Puritan who seemingly knew everything except how to party. Saying that his life had its moments. 1) Milton went blind and composed poetry at night by calling out lines to his trusty servant 2)He advocated divorce at a time when it was deeply unfashionable 3)He approved of the execution of Charles I. 4)He was a friend of Cromwell and held high office in the Commonwealth Milton's no-nonsense lifestyle is mirrored in much of his epic work Paradise Lost, a Songs of Praise for the mind. In 10 chapters Milton tries "to justify the ways of God to man" by detailing "man's first disobedience" or how Adam and Eve came to munch that apple. It's the book of Genesis when Genesis today = rock band to most people. If the subject is old hat, so too is the way the book is written. Mile after mile of blank verse, its like the reading equivalent of motoring up the M1. So why bother with a 350-year-old bore? Why not consider Grand Theft Auto, wap-enabled mobiles or Posh and Beck. Well, because of the Devil. The Nameless One steals PL's superb three chapters - 1,2 & 9 He is an exciting, romantic anti-hero in the mould of Byron and Wuthering Height's Heathcliff. For instance in Ch1 he and his "horrid crew" are thrown out of Heaven into a l
ake of fire after waging war on God. "Against the throne and monarchy of God He rais'd impious war in Heav'n and battle proud with vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal sky with hideous ruine and combustion down to bottomless perdition." No-one can fail to be moved by the grandeur of such lines - and the bravery of Satan. Next, he defiantly rallies his troops with a speech straight out of Shakespeare's Henry V. "What though the field be lost? All is not lost. The unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate and courage never to submit nor yield." It's the Lord of the Rings for grown-ups once you get past the rich language. Here's some more: "Princes, Potentates, Warriers, the Flower of Heav'n, once yours, now lost, If such astonishment as this can seize Eternal spirits; or have you chos'n this place after the toil of Battle to repose Your wearied virtue, for the ease you find To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav'n? Or in this abject posture have you sworn To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood With scatter'd Arms and Ensigns, till anon His swift pursuers from Heav'n Gates discern Th' advantage, and descending tread us down Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe. Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n." "He spake: and to confirm his words, out-flew mllions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze far round illumin'd hell: highly they rag'd against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arm's clash'd on their sounding shields the din of war, hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav'n." "But I should ill become this Throne, O Peers, And this Imperial Sov'ranty, adorn'd
With splendor, arm'd with power, if aught propos'd And judg'd of public moment, in the shape Of difficulty or danger could deterre Me from attempting. Wherefore do I assume These Royalties, and not refuse to Reign, Refusing to accept as great a share Of hazard as of honour, due alike To him who Reigns, and so much to him due Of hazard more, as he above the rest High honourd sits?" There follows more helpings of deadly dull theology until Ch9 when we return to the devil sneaking up on Eve, turning himself into a serpent and offering her his Golden Delicious. Give it a try.
The odds are that you won't read this text at all unless you are studying English literature - it's old, it's all in verse and the subject matter doesn't grip people as it once did. Its possible of course that you have an independant passion for literature, in which case you probably won't need much help. Most students approach this text with fear and trepidation on their hearts, and for good reason. It isn't easy going. Firstly, it's about contemporary with Shakespeare, so the language is archaic and often perplexing. Secondly, it is very heavily based on the Bible. Many of us these days haven't read the Bible and consequently do not have the background Milton asusmed all of his readers would posses. Thirdy, we aren't up with the philosophical debates of the time, and therefore struggle to make sense of them. The plot: Paradise Lost deals with the war in heaven between the angels loyal to God, and Satan's followers. There's some good dramatic mountain hurling type combat before Satan and his cronies are cast into the depths. Once in the void, Satan and his crew set about building themselves a realm to inhabit. Satan breeds in some fairly disturbing ways to beget various horrors that he can inflict on anyone else. Meanwhile, God is busy with creation. Satan is intensely jealous of God's new pets, man and woman, who enjoy the garden of eden. To thwart God, Satan sets about leading the two humans astray. This is much as you get in the Bible. God evicts Adam and Eve from Eden and they go forth into then world to suffer their punishment. The structure: The verse is broken down into sections, like chapters, which makes it far easier to read (you get sensible places to stop for one.) Some people love verse writing, but most find it very hard to get into - you can find yourself going 'te tum te tum te tum' with the rhythm and not absorbing the words at all. All I can say to this is
that it does get easier with practise. Buying a copy with good notes is vital if you hope to make sense of the many refernces, both to Christian myths and classical ones. It takes a good deal of unwinding. Themes: There are some questions about Milton's attitude to Satan - God is a distant, unfriendly figure, whereas we get to spend a lot of time with Satan, and to develop some pity or even empathy for his condition. Milton has been accused of being pro Satan, and there certainly is grounds for this. Sex: Satan does a lot of unpleasant begetting, and it is the knowledge of sex that really undoes Adam and Eve. Sex as a theme was very popular with the Elizabethans - some of the poetry from that era is utterly obscene even by modern standards. (mail me for the gory details, can't print it on a family website.) The nature of God: This is the one most people come unstuck with because its no longer a burning philosophical question. I'll walk through the theories. If god is all powerful and all knowing, then he consciously makes Satan as a being who will fall, and does exactly the same thing to Adam and Eve. This means that god is not a very nice bloke. If God knows everything, then everything must be fixed and humans can have no free will, because god already knows what will happen, so you can't chose to do anything else. free will and predetermination represented big debates for Elizabethan thinkers. If God does not know everything, then he isn't an all knowing deity, which does weaken his status somewhat, and might even mean that Satan could end up being as powerful. This is equally true if God is not all powerful. If you think about it, God cannot simultaneously be totally good, all knowing and all powerful. The combination of any two fits the avalable evidence, but all three together does not. Finally, is it better to regin in hell or serve in heavan? An int
eresting dilema that Milton never manages to fully resolve. I read this text because I had to, and I doubt I will read it again. It is interesting, but hard going. If you get time, try to read as much of the Bible as you can first - especially the Old testemant creation bits as this really will help you.
John and Bill (a.k.a John Milton and William Shakespeare) were both Ben Elton’s of their time. You might think that Shakespeare and Milton are old cronies who wrote in funny English which no one can understand, hundreds of years ago, about love and boring wars. Well, breaking news here, they both also had a wicked sense of humour and questionable morals? They were Damion Hirst’s of their times. Controversial. We love controversy and we, as a human race, are curious enough to want to find out what all the fuss is about. Then more likely than not, we’ll judge the controversy for ourselves and say, “What the hell was all the fuss all about?". So why talk about Bill when I’m supposed to be just talking about John? People are more likely to have read or watched a William Shakespeare play, than read Paradise Lost. If you’ve read or seen a Shakespeare play, do you remember the first time? A Shakespeare virgin, trying to make sense of what the idiot was going on about. Then after the first act, it began to sink in, you suddenly realised what Shakespeare was going on about when he talked of the “the Black Ram is tupping your white ewe” (Othello, incidentally). Even the Elizabethans were sex mad! Milton in Paradise Lost is maybe not quite so humourous but he certainly questioned many aspects of religion and caused a bit of a stir in 17th Century Britain. Paradise Lost is a retelling of the Creation story from the Bible: the creation of earth, Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. Instead though it is isn’t just a brief re-hash of the Book of Genesis version, but an epic poem which goes into great detail about God’s justifications, the role of Satan, and in the process Milton created a few new words for the English language (Pandemonium, the name of Satan’s Palace, was a made up name by Milton). I won’t start by re-iterating the story of Adam an
d Eve. If you were all good boys and girls you went to Sunday school, so will know it. What Milton does in Paradise Lost though, is present the seedier side of life in the Garden of Eden. Satan, in his quest to spoil God’s plans, watches the hanky-panky between the couple and contemplates: “whom I thoughts pursue // With wonder, and could love,”. Mmmm, even Satan has problems with the love ‘thang’. Milton’s epic arouses many questions about religion, sexuality and good/evil in general. In Paradise Lost Milton goes to great pains trying to understand and gives reasons for why God created Adam and Eve, when He knew they would fall. A posing question for you as well. Doesn’t it sound a bit bizarre that Eve was having sex with her husband, father and brother (think about it)? So what can Milton’s Paradise Lost have to offer us, modern readers? Ok, most people reading Paradise Lost will read it only because they have to for academic study, but I have to admit that like most fiction, there is a relevance and enjoyment to be gained. Here I’m going to advocate that literature of the likes of Paradise Lost, is read for a good reason, not just by English students but by anyone who wants to gain an insight into work which challenges them. Take for instance, Shakespeare. His works are now more mainstream than ever, with big-budget films being based around his plays and the man himself. People, who don’t have to read Shakespeare for any particular purpose will pick up a Penguin edition of one of his plays, and enjoy it. Not only because he was a brilliant writer but because his plays are challenging and an achievement to read, and also because much of the subject matter transcends time and becomes relevant to our society. Hey, just trust me on this. Paradise Lost is not an easy read, but if you love a good story and you have an analytical mind then try it. Recomme
nded text: Norton critical Edition (Gives plenty of background to attitudes to the themes at the time of writing; critical essays on Paradise Lost; and extracts from the Bible).
As I had to study books 1 and 2 for my English GCSE I guess I was made to read it. I don't think I would have otherwise. It is very hard going in places and tends to be full of unusual words and phrases. I did enjoy reading about Lucifer and his army of avenging angels but found it very hard to get into. The epic is divided into 12 books and tells the story of Satan and his followers being thrown out of heaven and how they plan to take over the world and heaven as well. Milton describes his scenes and characters very well and the book is full of discriptions. I would advise people to read it just for the experience of the pictures that it conjurs up in your head but not to be too alarmed if you find that you can't get stuck into the story for hours and hours. Plus the fact that it is written in poem form could have something to do with it.
Counted as one of the greatest poems in the English Language, I found this extremely heavy going. There are some increadibly moving, epic passages (notably Satan's revolt in Book2, and Eve's temptation book 9) but other parts can be insufferably dull. The style is hard to get used to as well, possibly becuase Milton chose to construct his sentences as if he was writing in latin rather than English. And the heavenly host are so perfect that they are hard to identify with, which makes it difficult to identify with them as characters. Satan and Eve are far more interesting because they suffer from faults that real people can identify with, such as Pride and a longing to better yourself.
It was the headteacher of a local Primary School who, as an off the cuff remark, said in my earshot, "We've even got boys reading poetry now." My hackles rose as I spontaneously thought, "Why SHOULDN'T boys read poetry?!" I then realised that I didn't. I had only read poetry (with one or two big exceptions) because I had been obliged to do so by the fact that they were set texts. When I thought about whether I actually enjoyed poetry, it occurred to me that I probably didn't - certainly not since adolescence. Maybe as an intellectual exercise demanded by a course, but not for real pleasure. So, chastened by the Headteacher's remark, I jumped in the deep end. I picked up "Paradise Lost". "Many wise people have said that this is a good book," I said to myself. "So, let's see." I had done some of it at school (and found it difficult). In the back of my mind, I had a strong expectation that I was going to find the darned thing excruciatingly boring. I was astonished to discover that I was wrong. I actually finished up reading the whole thing FOR ENJOYMENT. I had not believed it possible. Here are a few tips: 1) For at least the first 15 minutes of each session that you read it, read it ALOUD (even if only in a whisper). Work out how to make it understandable if read aloud - imagine reading it to a friend who's never heard it before. This helps you to get used to the enormous sentences. It literally helps you make sense of the whole thing. 2) It doesn't matter if you don't "get" all of the allusions and similes - I certainly didn't. Don't be phased by the underlying scholarship. I'm not even sure that even Milton expected that you should be able to spot all of the allusions - he makes their sense understandable even if you don't get the nuances. So, keep going and don't resort to the footnotes (if you
9;ve got them) unless you really need to. Mind you, if you do "get" an allusion or simile, you will be very struck by the subtlety and power of his choice. 3) Remember, there are real people behind these characters. I was surprised to find that my favourite book quickly became Book 2 - the demons' debate in Hell after their expulsion from heaven and after they have built their palace, "Pandemonium" (yes, Milton invented the word). The debate is conducted with astonishing dignity and each argument is astonishingly persuasive - until you get the next argument which politely tears it to ribbons. If you cut out the demonic allusions and read it to somebody with no previous experience of the book, they would be hard pressed to guess that this was a debate between demons in hell. This is how Parliament OUGHT to be. If you chuck into this Milton's own considerable experience of the highest political levels of his day, you get a clue to the whole incident. 4) It has real weak spots. I just couldn't help smiling at the descriptions of the War in Heaven - they throw mountains at each other. The last two books are strangely poor - he really loses his stroke. But there are moments even in these which are astonishing: Abdiel's refusal to go along with Satan's army, the description of a lone voice refusing to go with the crowd, is breathtaking. And the fact that he is alone sort of brings home to you the tragedy of the fact that terrible acts of evil (holocaust, massacres) all too rarely have people who stand up and say, "I won't do this." Millgram's experiment about cruelty and conformity makes it clear why there are all too few Abdiels. 5) Don't expect "purple passages". Some poems give you a kick out of a couple of lines or a turn of phrase. "Paradise Lost" isn't like that. The big effects are all in the broad sweep, not in the detail. School does not teach us to ge
t into narrative poetry, so you tend to come to "Paradise Lost", which is a marathon, having been only taught how to sprint. Change your pace, and you will be astonished.
He is a poet from a rural area in Western Australia who is now resident at Oxford, having, he says, been denied permission to emigrate to the United States. Still a young poet at 37 years, he has received praise from many reviewers and critics, perhaps most notably from Harold Bloom, whose comments seem to feature on every new book of Kinsella's, including his recent, 'Visitants.' This volume contains poems written from his early youth and from every book of verse he has published from 1980-1994. It is a very useful introduction to the poet's work and quite quickly the reader is awed at the breaktaking range of styles and forms Kinsella is more than competent with. He is a highly experimental poet and this alone justifies an anthology of his work at so young an age. This book will conciliate you with Kinsella's individual works. I do not wish to detract from the text by mentioning other poets - this is a mature poet and a strong poet. I recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry and language