I call this a discussion because I don’t think it’s fair to review Paradise Lost, and I don’t think I’m credible enough to even try to review something many consider to be the best thing written in the English language. But, I did just finish Paradise Lost, and I wish to talk about it. It’s an impressive piece of Literature.
Published in 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost expands on the Christian creation mythos found in Genesis. Readers go into this poem knowing all of the major beats of it: Adam and Eve are created, a Tree of Knowledge is placed in Eden, Satan tempts Eve, Eve and Adam eat the fruit, and Eve and Adam are kicked out of Eden. Alongside the Genesis story, Paradise Lost is a commentary on 17th century politics and religion and Milton’s views on controversial topics like marriage and money.
I’ll address the elephant in the room right away: Paradise Lost is very hard to read. I wound up reading a half chapter at a time (between 15 and 20 pages) before stopping and doing something else. Chapters took between hour and an hour and a half to get through because I had to reread every passage twice, some more than that. A paragraph that was easily understandable the first go through was a boon, but still worth rereading just to make sure every intricacy was understood.
The grammar is really the biggest issue. Milton enjoys his semicolons and colons, and he’s completely fine with creating these vast page-long sentences filled with every kind of punctuation mark save the quotation mark. It’s so easy to get lost and forget what the point of a passage was simply because many go on for so long, and then you’re caught in a seven-line simile about a forgotten concept that was already difficult to grasp to begin with. The poem is frustrating to read, but so very satisfying at the same time. You feel perfectly justified in giving yourself an intellectual pat on the back after each understood chapter.
Since this is poetry, Milton will mess with the syntax of lines and reference other works, mostly religious ones. There are a few nods to Dante’s Inferno, the Bible, and various Greek mythologies, most notably Ovid’s Metamorphosis. If you’ve read any of these works, getting through Paradise Lost will be much easier; if you haven’t read any of these, be prepared to drop your eyes down to the footnotes often.
Now, with that aside, there are really a lot of fantastic elements to this poem. There’s a reason why it’s so highly regarded, though I’m not sure I agree that it’s the “best thing written in the English language.”
Milton does a remarkable job in expanding on Christian mythology. The poem opens with the narrator invoking the Muse, the same Muse (this narrator asserts) that God invoked when creating the universe. Something as simple as the idea of God invoking the Muse struck me as…just kind of awesome. Even this omniscient and omnipotent deity needs artistic help when creating.
But, Paradise Lost is most known for Satan. There’s a reason for that. Satan’s character is so interestingly complex that there are tomes of information written about him. Is he the antagonist or the protagonist? Is he a hero or a villain? Is he even sane? You could pick any point and, mostly, easily argue any reading of him. This ability to debate is the epitome of Literature, and I love it involving Satan, the evilest of evil characters.
When Satan first rebelled against God, he created Sin. Sin is personified as his daughter, whom he has sex with. Sin gives birth to Death, who then rapes his mother to create such a perverted trinity that it can’t help but rival some of the atrocities Zeus and his Greek counterparts commit. This is the kind of mythological expansion I was hoping for, and for the most part, this is the kind of mythological expansion Paradise Lost gives.
Around the halfway mark, we get a retelling of the battle between Satan’s fallen angels and God’s personal army. It’s fantastic. Despite the complexity of language and grammar, this battle still felt as epic as the poem’s genre.
Milton goes against some prescribed views on the creation order and has the fall happen before Earth is created. Satan thinks highly of himself, pride being one of the deadly sins, and is under the impression that he wasn’t created by God. God tells the angels that he created them, but there’s no empirical proof of this. When God shows up with his Son and says, “This is your new king” Satan gets upset for two reasons. One, his world view just shattered since here is proof that God can create angelic beings, and two, who is God to arbitrarily appoint some new king to rule over everyone? He wants none of it, and I sympathize with him.
Satan gathers his followers and they move to a different place in Heaven. Satan himself isn’t a good or just character, but at this point, he and his group are simply trying to create a new place for themselves. God doesn’t allow this, and so the war between good and evil rages, though who is good and who is evil is debatable. God holds tyrannical rule over Heaven, and everyone but Satan and his followers give untold praise for every little thing God says or does. Satan is the only character who isn’t a blind follower, but we are supposed to find him evil simply because God is all good. It’s a lapse in logic.
Before God even creates the Earth, Eden, or the Tree of Knowledge, he knows Adam and Eve are going to fall from his graces. He is all knowing. He sets up these other characters to fall, and then he demands a blood sacrifice to make up for this fall. God creates the rules and the playing field, so when he sets up a doomed game and demands blood as punishment, it’s hard to view him as anything but maniacal and tyrannical.
As Satan continues to spiral downwards into evil, he asks himself why he finds pleasure in what he’s doing. He has no answer. He’s stuck in a mindset of misery and woe, and all he can think of is spiting God and God’s creations. Now, Adam and Eve are firmly given free will, but nothing is ever said of the angels. I read this as God controlling Satan’s mindset and forcing him into a role that must be played, whether Satan is really willing or not. Yes, I very much sympathize with Satan and his plight.
Depending on your own values and convictions, you’ll either side with Satan or God. When looking at Satan, God, the Son, Adam, and Eve, I couldn’t help but side with Satan as the better character in both motivation and cause. To me, God came off as a complete tyrant, the Son is a tool, and even before the fall, Adam is a sexist who objectifies Eve. Eve’s really the only truly good character in the poem, and she’s the one to make the gravest mistake and doom mankind to sin. It’s tragic on her part, yet I’m glad Satan succeeded. God needed to be spited, and that’s the only way Satan could get some kind of revenge.
Your mileage will vary, and that’s the beauty of this poem.
Surely the intent wasn’t for God to come off as a dictator; Milton himself was quite religious as was the time period, so the fact that God can be read as the evil character really makes Paradise Lost special. From beginning to end, the reader will never know which side is truly good and which is truly evil, and JSTOR is filled with back-and-forth debates in the form of lengthy essays on the topic.
I guess my only real problem with Paradise Lost is with the sexism. Adam is created first, from thin air, but Eve is created from Adam. She’s already one step removed from God and therefore less holy of a being. She’s beautiful, and Adam objectifies her on numerous occasions. She’s looked down upon in terms of intelligence, and even says something along the lines of “I’ll not listen to this conversation as it’s for the minds of men and not women” before walking away. After the fall, she’s made a second class citizen and isn’t allowed to listen to the conversation between Adam and Michael.
The only reason she falls in the first place is because she gets so fed up with her station that she wants to split up in hopes of overcoming temptation and proving herself. She fails in this, as we all know, but it’s sad that this is her motivation. The sexism is somewhat expected giving religious views of patriarchy and the time period, but it’s no less disgusting all the same.
I could easily go on as there are so many things to discuss. I haven’t even touched on the narrator of the poem, who may or may not be Milton himself. Usually the narrator of a poem and the author are separate, but there’s plenty of evidence to show Milton as the narrator. This fact would change how the reader views some of the information given, and that in itself is another puzzle for literary scholars to debate.
I’ll end here. Paradise Lost is good and bad at the same time. I do not think it’s the best thing written in the English language simply because it’s so difficult to understand. At points, reading it felt like a chore, despite the fact that I was reading this poem for entertainment. The last two chapters also feel kind of phoned in, with the angel Michael telling Adam about the future. Chapter 11 is a quick narration of all the events that will happen in the Old Testament, and chapter 12 gives some of the events that happen in the New Testament. Adam and Eve go on their merry way after that. Yet, Satan himself is such a compelling character, and the book seems to be a kind of intellectual food. Never have I finished a piece of literature and willingly looked up scholarly articles on it to see what other people thought. There’s a lot to enjoy, but more importantly, Paradise Lost makes you think.
If you’ve ever had an inclination to pick up the poem, do so. If you don’t think it’ll be your cup of tea or have never even contemplated the poem, then it’s probably worth a pass. It’s more work than fun to read at times, and time is a precious commodity. On the whole though, I had fun with it, and I’m glad I stuck it through and finished.