Milton's Paradise Lost, a reflection

2021-02-12 @Literature

Of poetic consideration, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a stellar piece of work, though not without an issue or two.

Some background. The poem relates biblical events: at a very high level, Satan’s collapse and Adam and Eve’s transgression in Paradise.

Being a long epic (of twelve Books/Cantos similarly to Virgil’s Aeneid) and in spirit with the classic Greco-Roman tradition, you can imagine severe depth to it.

The first two Books, for instance, concentrate exclusively on the events transpiring in Hell upon the fall of Satan along with the third of Heaven’s conglomerate.

The narrative not strictly linear, later on we also receive a detailed account of the heavenly battle waged between God’s forces and Satan/Lucifer’s rebels.

The poem also foreshadows much to occur far after the creation story in the Book of Genesis, as far as into the New Testament.

Thus while the primary narrative revolves around the first several Genesis chapters, the poem alludes to events from all over the Bible to varying extent: including the Books of Revelation, Exodus, Kings, Ezekiel, Samuel, etc.

I’m not of religious mold and possess, at best, cursory knowledge of the Bible: most acquired from literature through Chaucer, Goethe, Dante, Montaigne, and other Medieval/Renaissance works. And through Milton’s epic last but not least.

In the case of this poem, whatever one’s interest in religion or the Bible, most of the poem reads in an incredibly engaging fashion. (Select parts throughout the middle felt lagging.)

There’re elements of conflict, battle, heroism, philosophical discourse, extravagant landscape and powerful dialogue.

I was blown away by the poetic narrative, the vivid imagery, the allegorical presence, the pathos, and particularly the humanity endowed upon the Biblical personages, be they of Heaven, Paradise, or Hell.

My favourite passages still concern Books I and II, the depictions of Hell, the surrounding Chaos and the cosmic geography second only to Dante, at least across my readings. Which also raises an issue:

As I’d mentioned, the first two Books narrate the fallen angel story. Satan feels remarkably human and inspires certain pathos. He reasons philosophically. I could understand what he suffers and even sympathize to various extent.

We’re introduced to Satan’s entourage: Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, Mammon, among a slew of other biblical and even Pagan-inspired deities (a frequent juxtaposition of Biblical next to the Pagan throughout the Renaissance back as far as the Middle Ages.)

The remaining ten books then slowly shift focus to Adam, Eve and the Archangels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael). Satan slowly takes the backseat as an increasingly plastic foe. Meanwhile, the remaining drama inherent to the first two books never receives a return treatment I thought it deserves.

I expound this issue only in view of critiquing the narrative as one cohesive whole. To place focus on each independent element, which I prefer anyway, it’s not much of a consequence.

Edgar Allan Poe provided similar commentary in the essay Poetic Principle: that PL works better if considered a series of minor poems: though his critique addressed a different issue, nothing with regard to narrative cohesion.

The epic poem, while potentially challenging for readers of strictly contemporary literature, should prove tractable for anyone already experienced with works leading into the Renaissance (or prior).

As far as the allusions, irrespective of your knowledge of the Bible or Evangelical texts, compared to Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, though no Sunday comic, is a considerably lighter read.

Though relative to your canon, I believe PL should be accessible to any audience bearing some patience, along with the occasional referencing of footnotes or such supplementary content.

(Which I can’t say for some of Milton’s shorter works: try the minor poems L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, or the especially confounding Lycidas. It’s over my head.)

Also, for history enthusiasts, keep in mind that Milton wrote the epic in the latter part of the 17th-century England. Naturally, he infuses the poem with subtle hints to the political instabilities of the times mixed with his own Protestant inclinations (similar to Goethe’s Faust or Dante’s Divine Comedy, though to a lesser extent.) To analyze, however, would require the mind of a more educated reader.

Questions, comments? Connect.