Saturday, April 2, 2011

John Milton: Paradise Lost

For my weekly post about University, I couldn't help but talk for a minute about Paradise Lost, since I enjoyed the course so much. Sorry if I bore you, but I absolutely love this poem.

John Milton is the author of Paradise Lost, the greatest English epic. The poem is 10,565 lines long, divided into 12 books. It tells the story of Creation, Adam and Eve and the Fall of Mankind. At UPEI there is a whole course devoted to it which I’m taking this semester and absolutely loving. There is just so much in it; Milton’s poetry is excellent and the religious questions which he raises stimulate a lot of discussion in class.

What I love about Milton is how he writes Satan. Satan is completely evil, yet he still appears heroic and almost noble. This is my favourite passage from Book 1: (lines 249-263)

… Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells! Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time!
The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same
And what I should be: all but less than He
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free. The Almighty hath not built
Here for His envy, will not drive us hence.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!

Who, after reading that, could not admire Satan just a little? That’s what Milton does so well. He takes the worst ‘bad guy’ of them all and makes him interesting. In doing this, he shows just how easy it is to mistake evil for good. Think of Hitler, and how he deceived all the Germans.

Some people like Paradise Lost because they like how Satan is a ‘good guy’. I like it for precisely that reason. Milton writes him so well that people think he’s good when in fact they’re completely wrong. Throughout the whole poem Satan remains an interesting character with several fascinating speeches.

I strongly suggest that everyone should read some of Paradise Lost. It’s referenced in numerous other stories (C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew  and The Screwtape Letters as well as the new YA novel I Am Number Four of all things!) and is a great addition to your literary education. As my professor says, it is ‘dense, allusive, soul-toughening, but not dull.’ 


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  2. I appreciate you posted this a long time ago but hope you haven't lost interest in Milton. In this day and age, it is great to find anyone with youth on their side, who can actually engage with him. You are absolutely right about Milton's characterisation of Satan. It's a total misreading to see anything seriously admirable in him. Again and again Milton identifies his dominant failings, envy and pride. My favourite quotation has always been, "Freely they stood: fell who fell."