Thursday, July 1, 2010

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Author:  John Milton
Originally Published:  1667
This Edition:  Barnes and Noble 2004
Introduction and Notes:  David Hawkes
Length:  442 pages
Source:  Bought from BN
Challenge/Event:  Milton in May

Personal Enrichment Factor: 4/5

Disclaimer:  If I have not comprehended correctly any part of this epic poem, or interpreted any aspects of it in error, it is only as to be expected from a descendant of Eve, as "all higher knowledge in her presence falls/ degraded, wisdom in discourse with her loses discount'nanc'd" (VIII, 551-553).

Maybe Milton is right--I should just give up on trying to read this high-brow, intellectual stuff.  Perhaps my feminine faculties can't handle it. But it calls to me sometimes, and I can't resist discovering for myself those works deemed as "literary masterpieces" by those who are in the know (both male and female, Mr. Milton.)  Here are a few of my thoughts, however skewed they may be, on my first reading of Paradise Lost, with some clumsy attempts at citing books and line numbers:

On Eve:  Man, I had such an urge to go burn a bra while reading this!  I know nothing more could have been expected of Milton given the time and place in which he lived, but it was hard for me to see Eve, the "fair defect of nature" (X, 891), get slammed over and over and over.  Her only redeeming quality according the rest of the cast--she's easy on the eyes.  But even her beauty is twisted into a dig.  She is "too much ornament, in outward show/ elaborate, of inward less exact" (VIII, 538-539). Go ahead and say it, Milton--you think she's a dumb blonde.  Eve, "th'inferior in the mind and inward faculties (541-542),  is only  looked upon favorably when she accepts her place as the "weaker" beside Adam.  After partaking of the fruit, Eve considers withholding it from Adam,  to "render [her] more equal, and perhaps,/ A thing not undesirable, sometime/ Superior" (IX, 823-825) to him.  She just wants a little respect, I think.  But fears of "another Eve" (is this our very first almost love triangle? Are you Team Eve #1 or Team Eve #2?), convince her to share the fruit with Adam.

On Adam: I feel kind of bad that I don't have too many thoughts on Adam as he is presented in the poem.   With his leanings towards falling prey to Eve's feminine wiles as "from about her shot darts of desire/ Into all eyes to wish her still in sight"(VIII, 62-63), it's hard for me to not to place him (and his relationship with Eve) in the context of contemporary stereotypes.  Once he and Eve partake of the fruit, the blame game begins.  Why, oh why, Adam asks, did Eve have to be created?  Wasn't there another way to "generate Mankind? (X,895).  But then she weeps at his feet, he remembers how beautiful she is, and decides to make his way in the world with "that bad woman."  I almost can't wait until she beats him up during childbirth.

On Satan:   Despite his grand introduction, he's not a really a heroic figure--he's a just pawn. Any power he has is derived from the Omnipotent One he is fighting against.   When he does get a bit of an inkling of the futility of his grab for power, he ignores it.  It's like a compulsion for him.  Even when "horror and doubt distract/ His troubled thoughts"(IX, 18-19) and he admits that "pride and worse ambition threw [him] down" (40),  his abhorrence for any act of submission and his vain pride drive him in his efforts to thwart God's plan for Paradise.  He is so proud of himself that in persuading Eve to partake of the fruit, he will have destroyed in one day what took The Almighty almost a week to build.  Does he really think that's the end of the story?

On the poem as a whole:  Without going into my religious beliefs, I should note that my thoughts are directed only at Milton's depiction of these characters.  Much of the poem is beautiful and his ideas about free will are right-on in my book. I could have done without the hundreds of allusions and comparisons, and learned to skim through areas where I detected lots of proper nouns.  But it was worth it to find several nuggets of striking poetry and stunning images.  There are potentially many things to discuss, and debates to be gotten into, but one thing is undeniable--it is amazing that the blind Milton dictated this mammoth epic poem to others to transcribe, including his daughters.  I have to admit if I had been one of his daughters, I might have been tempted to edit a little bit.  He would never have known!

Here's a quote that I have taken to heart:

That thou art happy, owe to God;
That thou continuest such, owe to thyself.
(Book V, line 520)


  1. Well I take my hat off to you. Paradise Lost is not something I could ever imagine reading myself. However I found this review absolutely fascinating and funny.

    Thanks for reading it and sharing your thoughts from one who is far less brave :)

  2. Some of the value of reading the classics is to see if you agree with the experts. But you don't have to! Can't blame you on this one, either. The excerpts I read in school were more than enough for me. You're probably in pretty elite company for having taken it on.

  3. Wow. I can't even imagine getting through Paradise Lost. Good for you!

  4. I loved your take on Paradise Lost! (I felt a similar reaction, as I recall, altho I've tried to block out the experience of this read, lol.)

    Especially love your suggestion that the daughters do a quick edit. Or maybe his other transciber was a mysoginist and now the world will never know that Milton actually worshipped women?

  5. I don't think I will ever have the gumption to try reading Paradise Lost myself, so I really enjoyed reading your responses to it!

  6. I love that quote. I liked a lot of the quotes taken little by little but I'm with you that it was a LOT all together. Although I still feel like I didn't "get it" I don't really feel I could read it again any time soon!

    Milton's perspective of Eve didn't bug me that much for some reason.And I hear you on both Adam and Satan. Adam was horribly boring and Satan was quite....full of himself. He gets taken down a few notches in Paradise Regained, which I also liked (but most others seem not to).

    Anyway, thanks for reading along too!

  7. Here is my one connection to Milton: In Animal House the professor is teaching Paradise Lost to a class who could care less. Then he goes ahead and sleeps with one of his students. That's it.

    However, your ending quote is very powerful, and I love it. I think I'll wait a bit for this, after Dante's Inferno, just as you need to wait for Dante after this. ;)

  8. Wow. I am impressed. I may have to add this to Books I Will Never Read. I'm not so good with epic poems and I know I couldn't get through all the Eve-hating.

  9. Mel,
    I'm not sure if I ever would have read it without Milton in May at Rebecca Reads. I get excited when there are others who are interested in tackling these "adventurous" reads, and I didn't want to miss out!

    I'm just in it for the experience and don't even consider myself worthy to make a judgment on it's merit like the experts. I'd love to think of myself as "elite" though :-).

    I just read your post about your favorite intimidating books, and there are some I can't imagine getting through. Maybe I'll have to try Catch-22 again. If I can read Paradise Lost, I can read anything, right?

    Loved your thought on a male transcriber possibly changing things up a bit. Maybe Milton had it right after all and we'll never know!

    I like reading reviews for books I know I'll never read. It's like really short Cliff's notes. I'm glad you enjoyed mine!

    I'm so glad you celebrated Milton and gave me a nudge to read this. I tend to be sensitive to women's issues in everything I read, so it was inevitable that I would notice it in this. It didn't ruin it for me or anything, just made it interesting. I'll have to see Satan put in his place in Paradise Regained!

    I have never seen Animal House, but that sound pretty funny, especially after reading it! If I ever read Dante, it will probably be a year long project.

    I don't blame you! I have a few on my list of Books I Will Never Read. But every once in a while, I feel rebellious and read one!

  10. I read Milton one summer for a grad class and was impressed as I had thought it was going to be excruciating but found it brilliant in a highly detailed kind of way. It is the stuff of multiple readings I think. And instructional assistance certainly went a long way too! :)