The Books of My Numberless Dreams

On “Paradise Lost”: First impressions

Posted on: June 11, 2007

I am only 620 lines into Paradise Lost and am already enamoured. This surprises me as it always does whenever I find myself enjoying epic poetry. The combination of its dusty, tedious image among the masses and its absence from any classrooms I entered planted the idea in my mind that I probably wouldn’t like it. But the form was married to one of my favourite sort of stories, mythology, and I desired the cachet of being versed, or at least acquainted with such works.

During my teenage Tennyson craze I lived on the high romance of Idylls of the King, unaware at the time that I was knee deep in epic splendour, nor did I consider the boost to my Literary Reader score. I never looked at reading tastes and images in that fashion until I moved here — in Jamaica one was simply a reader and while touting a classic did garner some impressed “ooooo” so did my large collection of Nora Roberts paperbacks. Anyway by the time I read the Homer epics I knew what was what, but glee at the elaborate metaphors, petty Olympian antics and graphic gore eclipsed everything else.

Paradise Lost is doing the same. It’s strange how familiar some of the lines ring — “Farewell happy fields / Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail / Infernal world” — it’s killing me that I can’t remember where I first heard/read them. Without the footnotes there are one or two lines that would have been incomprehensible but another aspect of the familiarity is that Milton often refers to Homer, particularly The Iliad (so far) and Shakespeare. The blank verse really rolls off your tongue whenever Satan speaks so it’s not hard to see why Milton first envisioned the poem as a play. John Leonard pointed out why poetry served Milton better:

The epic form gave Milton a licence to cover vast tracts of space and time. Spatially, the action ranges over the whole earth, throughout the universe, and beyond the universe to Heaven, Chaos and Hell. The action extends back in time before the creation of our universe to the begetting of the Son of God and forward to the Second Coming. Milton would have forfeited this cosmic sweep had he presented the action on a stage.

I’ve been reading it aloud, partly because it helps my comprehension, partly because the words call for it somehow. Satan’s soliloquies are too flown with grandeur and palpable feeling to tolerate being echoed silently, the words bouncing off the sides of my skull. (Bear with me, I’m in love with the language and cannot resist incorporating an archaic word or usage here and there in every day speech. Silly, I know.)

What I find most curious at this point is mine (and possibly Milton’s) warring reactions to the Arch-Fiend. He gets the first word here and cuts such a heroic, defiant, courageous figure that I can’t help but pump my fist in the air (only a wee bit if in public) and think, yeah God you big bully! But then Milton undercuts that with a description of his selfish nature here, a foreshadow of his ultimate, deserving defeat there, and I pout and think, oh, right, Satan and all that. Take a look at this passage:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee and deify his power
Who from the terror of this arm so late
Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall;

Forget the hate and revenge talk for a minute. In fact I don’t even have to tell you as I think Satan’s challenging, indomitable tone does that for you. There’s a leader one could get behind and take on all, even to death. Then he shoots himself in the foot:

To do aught but good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
as being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil,
Which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.

One is nicely reminded that one shouldn’t be cheering for him because “to do ill” is his “sole delight” and everyone knows that God’s “destined aim” ends with the devil on the losing end of that stick. The words “if I fail not” mean “if I’m not mistaken” and those words right beneath his hope to “succeed” well…things don’t look good.

But! say those two out loud and the first one still reads way better so, as of right now, I’m on his team. I wonder if God will sound as cool or if he’ll be an old fogey?

The descriptions of Satan’s army as he roused them out of their stupor, “Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell”, and subsequent descriptions created such clear, wondrous images that I googled for some illustrations, Blake’s specifically. I’ve seen Gustave Dore’s here and there but until now I was cold to them. Blake’s distinctive curves and colours suited my idea of Paradise Lost. It’s taken direct knowledge of the work to get me to appreciate his black and white art.

In the first excerpt “study of” means “effort to achieve”; “And…overcome” is ‘What else does “not being overcome” mean?’; “Doubted” means “fear for”. Annotations are John Leonard’s, from the latest Penguin Classics edition.

20 Responses to "On “Paradise Lost”: First impressions"

Magnificent, isn’t it? Notice how much time and detail he spends on Satan. It seems to me Blake was better, in the end, at making the celestial more enthralling than the infernal. Blake “revised” Milton in places, but no doubt acknowledged his genius in the process. Giants of otherworldly poetry.

Ahh, Paradise Lost–the most interesting Satan I ever did meet. It’s one of those works that I read as an undergraduate (grudgingly), and I should really go back and re-read because I would probably enjoy and appreciate it MUCH more now.

I’ve only read excerpts of Paradise Lost in anthologies. I always think excerpting from larger works to present to students does a disservice to those works. An excerpt out of context can seem so lifeless, and I often think more people avoid works they’ve run into that way than are intrigued by them.

I know what you mean about being perceived as “simply a reader.” I’ve run into that, too. Sometimes people’s own perceptions of themselves as readers can be misleading, too. I’ll meet people who are very proud that they read 3 or 4 books a year, and consider themselves very literary, or I’ll know people for years without them ever mentioning books, and then one day be invited to their house to find crammed bookshelves in every room! How can they read so much but never mention it?

Non serviam!

God is a bully, actually — but the deck is stacked against Satan, his being so selfish and all. How are the endnotes treating you?

Robert my curiosity about Blake’s Milton poem has certainly sky rocketed since I’ve started to read this. But your point on Blake’s strengths perhaps explains why I find Dore’s take on Hell more compelling. Thanks for commenting.

Andi I sincerely think that there are some works that do not generally benefit from classroom treatment — Paradise Lost would be one of them. But maybe that’s just because I wasn’t made to be an English major.

Dewey oh I can’t imagine someone having a room crammed with books and not want to talk about them all the time. The reading comprehension exercises in my English Language classes involved a lot of excerpts but it was never of — actually I now remember an anthology featuring an excerpt of a D.H. Lawrence poem. But more often it was only of novels or short stories I think and it was good enough for the exercises but I don’t remember ever being intrigued by any of them.

Ted oh, let’s not talk about the endnotes. I’m resigned to them now, and the poem’s quality is blunting the worst.

Great into! I’ve never read this poem right through, though I definitely mean to at some point. It’s interesting that you’re reading it aloud. Once my English department had a day-long performance of Paradise Lost – all the academics took turns reading aloud. Apparently most of the academics groaned at the prospect, but then really got into it and it was hugely popular and great fun.

I’m glad you are having fun with this! You’re almost making me want to go back and read this myself — I read most of it for an undergrad Milton class, although I think even there I didn’t read the whole thing. I read it dutifully at the time, but could perhaps really enjoy it now.

You’ve made me keenly interested to find a copy and read this myself – as if I needed more things to read at any given moment. But your enthousiasm is infectious and I love the idea of Satan being more interesting and convincing. Please do say how you get on with God!

Oh how I adored PL in college. My high school teacher didn’t do it justice, but my college professer made it so must more interesting. We devoted several weeks to it and really picked it apart. It’s strange really, I’m not really one for poetry, but I really love epic poetry. I’ve been thinking I’d like to reread PL, and The Faerie Queene, again and to see how much you are enjoying it makes me want to read it even more. Like Andi said, most interesting Satan I’ve ever met.

I love the idea of imani carrying Idylls of the King next to a Nora Roberts book… Ah well, one grows up and into grander things, though “long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

Meli a full day of Paradise Lost read sounds fantastic (if it works out). It’s great that they all chipped in even if they thought the results would be less than stellar.

Dorothy W oh I’m glad I’m having fun with it as well. I was more than half worried that it would be dull and soporific. I do shudder at the thought of having to read anything like this dutifully. How lucky are the ones who have a really good time with books like this in class.

Verbivore I’m eagerly awaiting God’s appearance. I’m dying to know how I’ll react to him. You’ve certainly been getting through a lot of the classics that every readers puts on their TBR list but never quite gets around to — I bet the Milton would be another feather in your cap.

Heather wow, I’m rather impressed that any high school actually attempted teaching it in class. But hooray for you having a better time of it in college. I’ve never read The Faerie Queene before but I think that Milton alludes to it in PL (I forget at the moment). I should buy it, I see it on bargain sale all the time at Chapters.

Marly I was attracted to both for similar reasons — all that sweeping romance, although Tennyson had the edge as everything was bittersweet. I confess that I love your reactions to my confessions of past dabblings in popular fare.😉 (I got that Singer story collection btw! Still no hat yet.)

🙂 Imani, I don’t know that I would say they attempted TOO hard. I think we just studied the part with Satan and Eve in the garden with the apple. And The Faerie Queene is excellent. When my professor read it aloud it was just beautiful. He had the perfect voice for reading.

I love the fact that you read it outloud. I do that when I read Homer – until my voice gives out and I have to continue silently. Epic poetry just begs to be read outloud.

Have you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses? (You mention that you like mythology) It was so beautiful that I immediately fell in love with it, not to mention in love with Ovid.

I only read some parts of the Homer epics out loud because I knew I was massacring the names; I’d always forget how to five minutes after I looked it up.

I haven’t read all of Ovid only an excerpt or two but I do intend to. I always feel as if I’ll never read enough books. I’ve touched on Greek classics but barely anything on the Roman side besides myth retellings.

My mom gave me the glorious, annotated Norton version before I left for college.🙂 I love it. Like you, I almost always read it out loud. I’d love to find a really good book on cd of it…..can you imagine working out to Satan’s speeches? lol

Your mom has great taste. Hmm, I wonder how that would work out, jogging to poetry. I’m going to be conservative and say I wouldn’t mind Sir Ian McKellen narrating it. I could listen to him read signs all day.

Paradise Lost sucks! Not really, but I felt that someone needed to offer an alternate perspective — Satan would want it that way. So would Blake.

And also, PL not benefit from classroom treatment? Imani, you should have to take a class while you read it so you can avoid all the embarrassing platitudes. I’d try to cut back on passive verbs too, if I were you.

For the opening lines. You probably heard them in “the Song of Joy” by Nick Cave,

That may be, Perry. I’m not a huge Cave fan but my bf is. Thanks for commenting!

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