Reflecting upon Milton's Paradise Lost

2020-02-12 @Literature

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

For some background. The poem relates biblical events: at a very high level, this concerns Satan’s fall from heaven and Adam and Eve’s transgression in Paradise.

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

The first two Books, for instance, concentrate exclusively on the events transpiring in Hell upon the fall of Satan and the other third of Heaven’s fallen angelical population.

Later on, however, the narrative not strictly linear, we also receive a detailed account of the battle waged in Heaven between God’s forces and Satan/Lucifer’s rebels.

The poem also foreshadows much to transpire 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 chapters of Genesis, the poem alludes to events from all over the Bible to varying degrees of depth: including the Books of Revelation, Exodus, Kings, Ezekiel, Samuel, etc.

I’m not a religious person and possess, at best, cursory knowledge of the Bible. In fact, I’ve acquired most from literature, through Chaucer, Goethe, Dante, Montaigne, and other Medieval/Renaissance works. And similarly, through Milton’s epic.

Now in the case of this poem, whatever one’s interest in religion or the Bible, the poem reads in an incredibly engaging fashion. (Some parts throughout the middle felt dull, but that’s more of an exception.)

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

I was simply 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. Blown away.

My favourite passages still concern Books 1 and 2, where Milton paints Hell, the surrounding Chaos and the cosmic geography in detail second only to Dante, among what I’d read anyway.

And this also emphasizes an issue:

As I’d mentioned, the first two Books center on the fallen angel narrative. 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 all sorts of characters of Satan’s train: Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, Mammon, among a slew of other biblical and even Pagan-inspired deities. (It was common to juxtapose the Biblical next to the Pagan throughout the Renaissance and as far back 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 the foe everyone expects, while the remaining drama inherent to the first two books never really receives a return treatment that I found it deserves.

However, this is only a potential problem if you scrupulously judge the narrative as one cohesive whole, rather than focus on the poetic value of each segment independently, which I prefer anyway.

Edgar Allan Poe actually commented on something similar in the Poetic Principle: that Paradise Lost works better if considered a series of minor poems. Although his critique addressed a different issue, nothing with regard to narrative cohesion.

The epic poem, while possibly an initial challenge for readers of strictly contemporary literature, should prove tractable for anyone already experienced with the works of the Renaissance or prior.

And as far as the allusions, irrespective of your knowledge of the Bible or Evangelical texts, compared to reading Dante, Paradise Lost reads like a Sunday comic.

Hence it’s all relative to your accustomed reading. But I believe Paradise Lost should be accessible to any audience with at least a little patience and the occasional referencing of footnotes or such supplementary content.

(I can’t say the same for some other of Milton’s poetry: try the minor poems L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, or especially the 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 a more educated reader than myself.

All in all, Paradise Lost is a magical read.

Questions, comments? Connect.