Thursday 13 March 2014

Paradise Lost by John Milton

                                                                           "Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the Oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
                                                                                Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme."

Samuel Johnson declared that Paradise Lost is "a poem …… which respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind ….."   It is a poem about the rebellion in Heaven and the ejection of the fallen Angels; it is about the Garden of Eden, the deception of the snake, and the fall of Man.  But it is much more than all these points, separately and as a whole. Just as Satan falls into the depths of the burning pit of Hell, Milton delves into the depths of the human Soul and conversely soars to the heights of the God of Heaven, weaving a tapestry of images and profundity that will leave the reader amazed and speechless.  Initially, the reader believes he is following Milton's lead, not realizing until later that he is part of the tapestry itself and Milton's words have become part of his soul.  

John Milton's Cottage
courtesy of Old Skool Paul (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

In this poem, Satan's actions are especially shockingly compelling as we follow his fall from Heaven, his brash, swaggering leadership of the fallen angels, and then his quest to best God to get his spiteful, yet senseless, vengeance.  We think of Hell as a place, full of fire and brimstone, burning and torment, and while Milton gives Hell a location in this poem, it is much more than that.  Satan carries Hell inside him.  It torments him, not only with thoughts of rage and hate and revenge, but almost more effectively with thoughts of despair, regret and impossible hope.  Conflicting emotions scrape and tear at him incessantly.  For him, Hell is not external; it is an internal condition from which he cannot escape.

Milton's superlative crafting of the character of Satan has led many people to believe he was perhaps too successful, making Satan the most exciting and heroic character of the poem.  William Blake stated that "the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the devil's party without knowing it".  It is certainly true that Milton intimately understood "the devil's party".  Like us all, he experienced sin within himself and within others:  rage, treachery, deceit, the desire for power, etc.  And with his astonishing talent, he was able to craft a character that is perhaps the most Satan of all the Satans in the history of literature.  Milton's Satan is capable of tricking not only Adam and Eve and angels, he is able to trick the reader of Paradise Lost as well, in such a subtle manner that certain readers admire his bravado, respect his machinations, and feel sorry for his plight.  While Milton's brilliance in this area of the poem is breath-taking, it is also unsettling.  C.S. Lewis in his lectures on Paradise Lost, approaches this issue in a dexterous manner, saying that if the reader chooses to admire Satan, he must only realize what he is admiring:
"No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from this place, nor shunned, nor hated ---- he only thought himself impaired.  In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige ….. 

……… Satan lies about every subject he mentions in Paradise Lost.  But I do not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he had almost willingly imposed on himself ……

…….  What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.  This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.  And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at this own bidding  …..

……. the design of ruining two creatures (Adam & Eve) who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy (God) whom he cannot directly attack ……

…….  From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake  -------  such is the progress of Satan.  This progress, misunderstood, has given rise to the belief that Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error.  But such an unerring picture of the 'sense of injured merit' in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident.  We need not doubt that it was the poet's intention to be fair to evil, to give it a run for its money ---- to show it first at the height, with all its rants and melodrama and 'Godlike imitated state' about it, and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality."

Depiction of Satan
Gustave Doré (1866)
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the beautiful images painted amid the stark reality, Milton seems to rush the end of the poem, packing the whole Old Testament into the last two books and surprisingly uses a more direct narrative instead of showing the reader with his usual subtle yet beautiful verse.  Lewis remarks on the lack of genius in the last books in comparison to the earlier wonderful artistry of the poem:

"It (Paradise Lost) suffers from a grave structural flaw.  Milton, like Virgil, though telling a short story about the remote past, wishes our minds to be carried to the later results of that story.  But he does this less skillfully than Virgil.  Not content with following his master in the use of occasional prophecies, allusions, and reflections, he makes his two last books into a brief outline of sacred history from the Fall to the Last Day.  Such an untransmuted lump of futurity, coming in a position so momentous for the structural effect of the whole work, is inartistic.  And what makes it worse is that the actual writing in this passage is curiously bad.  There are fine moments, and a great recovery at the very end.  But again and again, as we read his account of Abraham or of the Exodus or of the Passion, we find ourselves saying, as Johnson said of the ballad, 'the story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind'.  ……….  If we stick to what we know we must be content to say that Milton's talent temporarily failed him ……."

Yet even with its flaws, Paradise Lost is an epic that is at once majestic, beautiful, poignant, tragic and instructive.  It opens a window into the Biblical story of the fall, allowing the reader to live the experiences and emotions first-hand.  What a task Milton took on and how well he succeeded!  I predict this read be my favourite of the year.  My feeble summary only covers the surface of its significance; you will only have to read it yourself to discover its grandeur!

Further reading:
         A Preface to Paradise Lost - C.S. Lewis
         Charles Williams Selected Writings (contains an essay on Milton)


  1. This was a massive achievement reading Paradise Lost and writing several reviews. I enjoyed your comments but had difficulty connecting to all the quotes. During such a reading adventure I was curious what your 'personal feelings' were while reading. Often I need just to shout out ( on paper) : "this is too much...I need a cup of coffee!" Again, this was quite a challenge, congratulations for reading "Paradise Lost'!

    1. Ah yes, during read-alongs because I'm giving so much information, I do tend to try to leave my personal feelings to my comments because I don't want to sway people one way or another; I hope that they will be able to experience the book on their own terms. I do think I give my personal feelings at times but perhaps they are more "cloaked" for this reason.

      I think also because I tend to have extreme reactions either way that often mellow after I finish the book (because I've understood it better), I like to wait until the end to sum up how I've felt about it. I'm struggling with Candide (a present read-along) because I'm having strong feelings about it the further I read, yet I don't want to colour anyone else's experience and honestly, I'm not sure I'll feel the same by the end of the book. So I'm holding onto those feelings until I flesh them out more, KWIM?

      I actually found this process pleasurable so the posting was not overwhelming at all. My absolute enjoyment of the book helped as well. Milton's portrayal of Satan was mind-blowing. Yes, his other characters perhaps weren't as amazingly formed but honestly how easy would it be to portray characters with personalities you've never experienced in situations that are completely foreign. So in spite of these limitations, he did a great job with characterizing Adam and Eve, God and the Son. His verse is just beautiful and it was such …. well, it felt like an honour to get the chance to "visit" Eden and experience what it possibly could have been like, even it was just a taste of all of its glories. Satan's relationship with his fallen angels and their twisted and, at times delusional, reasoning was fascinating as well.

      Thanks for your comments, Nancy ……… glad you stopped by! :-)

    2. I truly enjoyed your comments with a 'personal' touch. Sometimes I feel the same way, it is an honour to read Zola and discover his talents. I'm the opposite as to writng about a book. I have to continually write down my thoughts while reading. It is a spontaneous reaction and I don't want to lose. Paradise Lost is still a huge challenge for me. I read some of the quotes and was intimidated by them. Still one should not overlook this chef' d'oeuvre de la littérature. I remember a quote I read once....."if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough"! Paradise Lost scares's time to change that,

    3. Oh, when I read, I definitely jot down my personal thoughts with questions and often big exclamation marks.

      Paradise Lost certainly isn't an easy read but, taken in chunks it's not too overwhelming. There were definitely parts I had to re-read to figure out what was going on. But I know now that the next time I read it, it will be much easier. Just to make you feel better, it scared me before this read-along, which is why I'd put off reading it for years. Now that I've finished my first read of it, I'm asking myself, "Why on earth did I wait so long to read this book?!" So, there you go! :-)

  2. Great post! I love your selection of quotes. You can tell from your comments that you were moved by poem and it made an impression on you. Both in your comments on my blog and here, you've had some very interesting insights about Satan that I never would have realized. It was such a pleasure to read Paradise Lost together, I hope you get the opportunity to join us for Madame Bovary.

  3. Thanks so much, Ebook ……… I really enjoyed doing the read-along with you and our conversations. You made so many great observations in your posts that really got me thinking.

    I am soooooo tempted by the Madame Bovary read-along. I have a few days off coming up so if I can clear my schedule a little it might just be doable. It would be lots of fun to join in!

  4. Hello cleopatra, I have nominated you for the Liebster Award. I know that you must put a lot of time into each and every post because your reviews are always very thorough. I have been inspired to read quite a few of the books you have reviewed. I also appreciate your participation in my read-along. Congratulations! Here is the link to learn more about the award:

    1. Wow, Fariba! Thanks so much and also for your kind words. I will check it out.

  5. Your comments here really make reading Paradise Lost sound enticing--yet I usually shy away from poetry. I know from reading Dante though, that the epics aren't necessarily as intimidating in reality as the perception may be. Maybe I'll get to this one eventually...

    1. Oh, if you've read Dante, you should do fine with Paradise Lost. What is nice about PL is that most readers already have the outline of the story so you just have to concentrate on filling in the details.

  6. Cleo...your review made me so want to go back to college and get my Classical Poetry Professor take a look at it. I remember Lewis's essay on Paradise Lost and I remember completely disagreeing with it. I argued and we can do this over mail or some other form than over your blog, if Saturn in Paradise Lost is "a villain', he is a villain of the same genre as Macbeth and Hamlet. I agree he is flawed, but is it really so despicable to question the status quo. Furthermore isn't Milton and The Old Testament God a bit of a Fascist in not allowing freedom of speech and fair voting (you know what I mean!) and finally like we all know hell was something Saturn carried with him - really if I had to carry "hell", I would ensure I gave back 'hell' to the one who gave me and somehow this was my reading of Paradise Lost. Excellent review! I am so IMPRESSED! I know of so FEW people who have ever read Milton "voluntarily"!!! You rock Cleo!!

    1. I really appreciate your thoughts and will have to mull them over. I would really need to go back and read MacBeth and Hamlet (I'm reading this at the end of the month) to compare though, but I will definitely keep this in mind. (in fact I think I'll be moving MacBeth up on my reading list).

      I think when I was reading PL, along with the story, I was trying to take into account who wrote it. There is a hierarchical structure in heaven, which mirrored the monarchical structure of Milton's times. When comparing his political embroilment with Paradise Lost (and Satan), I think, that is why Blake questioned if he was of the devil's party. But monarchists also distinguished between a ruler and a tyrant, so I think Milton made a choice politically, yet never meant Satan to be heroic. He was actually trying to communicate how appalling he was, but perhaps did too good a job. And getting back to Satan, he didn't just say, excuse me God, I think things are unfair; he started a war. And not just a war because he wanted a few changes, but a war because he wanted full power. So I don't think God's response was at all unfair or unexpected. And THEN, just because he lost the war he wants revenge and then revenge on two innocent people just to get at someone else. I think that's despicable. God didn't give Satan hell, Satan gave it to himself, all from the choices he made, which was another fascinating aspect of the poem.

      I think Milton's portrayals of God, the Son and Adam and Eve, were weak, especially the former two. But for what he attempted in its scope, I say "Bravo"! I think the result is excellent.

      Thanks for you kind words! I always enjoy hearing your comments!

    2. I agree with you on the political coloring of the PL and I am completely aligned with you that use of innocent for any means is completely despicable and of course I am never saying Saturn is a "GREAT GUY"...I just feel that well God was kind of a autocratic demanding entity despite good intention ...I don't know...maybe Milton was drawing a parallel with Cromwell where too much of good can be bad ...but yes...I do agree that Milton's portrayal of God was weak, which inherently made Saturn's character stand out...