A month or so ago, Sophie Gee wrote approvingly in the New York Times Book Review about the movie adaptation of Beowulf and about Philip Pullman’s use of Paradise Lost for his His Dark Materials series. I haven’t seen the former or read the latter but think I’d probably like both. Gee calls both classic texts “virtually unreadable.” I’ll grant Gee Beowulf since it’s effectively written in another language (though various translations and a performance by Benjamin Bagby are both pretty good ways to access the original)—but Paradise Lost?
Gee, an assistant professor at Princeton who specializes in the 18th Century and who has written a very fun-sounding novel called The Scandal of the Season, which tells the story behind Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” writes in the NYTBR that Paradise Lost is “in ‘normal’ English, but its blank verse is so densely learned, so syntactically complicated and philosophically obscure, that it’s almost never read outside of college courses.” She also says Milton intended to make PL difficult because “he wanted reading to involve active intellectual labor as much as pleasure.”
It’s true I’m the only person I know who has never taken a course in Milton and who has read Paradise Lost (two-plus times) for fun. (Anyone else out there? Could we start a support group? Maybe Christian Wiman? Here’s his essay on reading “Milton in Guatemala” which also appears in his book of essays Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.) In any case, it's also true that Samuel Johnson’s mot on PL— “none ever wished it longer than it is”—is apt enough. Still, whatever Milton’s intentions and Gee’s own reading difficulties, PL is a great read.
Gee treats Paradise Lost as if it’s nothing more than its ideas, which is, unfortunately, how a lot of teachers approach poems. But PL has a great plot, good guys you may love to hate, attractively creepy bad guys, weird fantasy worlds and eyepopping special effects. If the language is sometimes old-fashioned—sure, it takes a few minutes to get used to—so do many things—it’s exactly the kind of stagily vivid language fantasy nerds and gamers love to parrot or parody.
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chained on the burning Lake…
Book I, ll 209-210
A little funky spelling and an inversion of the most common kind, along with some capitalizations, but nothing outlandishly complicated as to syntax there or most places in the text. There are, however, plenty of freaky monsters. When Satan leaves hell to try again to take over the universe by ruining God’s latest creation, man, he has to battle his son, Death, who resembles an enormous turd:
…The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb…
Book II, 667-669
There are massive battles. The good and rebel angels chuck mountains at each other:
From thir foundations loos’ning to and fro
They pluckt the seated Hills with all thir load,
Rocks, Waters, Woods, and by the shaggy tops
Uplifting bore them in thir hands…
Book VI, ll. 643-646
I agree with Gee about popularization. Paradise Lost should be a video game. It should be made into a graphic novel with the language intact running through it. Maybe it already has been. Is it philosophically obscure? Sure, but so are lots of things. Measure for Measure. The Matrix. Or, much better than The Matrix, the recent brilliant Korean monster movie The Host. PL is also psychologically authentic. “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell…” says Satan, famously, in Book IV, l. 75, which is, as we know from Lowell’s appropriation of the line in “Skunk Hour,” a good description of depression, or self-hatred, or both, or just the human condition in general. There’s even something for lovestruck post-feminist grrrrlies (and boy-ies) in the story of Adam and Eve. Who hasn’t had a crush, or true love, that feels this way? Says Eve:
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest Birds; pleasant the Sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful Ev’ning mild, then silent Night
With this her solemn Bird and this fair Moon,
And these the Gems of Heav’n, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest Bird, nor rising Sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flow’r
Glist’ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful Ev’ning mild, nor silent Night
With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon,
Or glittering Star-light without thee is sweet.
Book IV, 641-656
Which pretty love song also, by the way, happens to be an example of epanadiplosis, a rhetorical figure that begins and ends with the same word, and ravels and unravels the formulation in between the two. I read that in a footnote. One doesn’t need footnotes, however, to see that Milton’s ostentatiously extended metaphors are ravishing without ever being merely decorative. Satan’s fellow demons’ joy in the presence of their leader is compared to complicated weather:
As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North wind sleeps, o’erspread
Heav’n’s cheerful face, and the low’ring Element
Scowls o’er the dark’n’d lantskip Snow, or show’r;
If chance the radiant Sun with farewell sweet
Extend his ev’ning beam, the fields revive,
The birds thir notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest thir joy, that hill and valley rings.
Book II, ll. 488-495
I mean, wow. Did the light just change in here? Twice? I don’t know very many poets, let alone general readers, who read Milton either—but they should. There’s much to be learned from him.
Maybe it’s because of Milton’s Puritanism that some associate him with forbidding austerity, when he’s nothing like austere—not in Paradise Lost (or Lycidas, or Comus, or L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, or Samson Agonistes)—and not all that forbidding either. Maybe it’s just that he’s been assigned into forbiddingness by well-meaning college teachers. Assignments have a way of taking the joy out of reading, it’s true, especially if your professor gives you the advance impression that you’re going to find it difficult.
I suppose one offputting thing about Milton is that, Baroque poet that he is, he’s both deeply serious and show-offily fancy. A strange combination, but to me, tremendously appealing. This might be a time with more of a taste for Mannerism or for the lingering simplicity of 20th Century plainspeak. But shouldn’t Milton appeal to anyone who likes, say, Paul Muldoon, or Frederick Seidel, or Derek Walcott—or for that matter the novels of Zadie Smith? These all seem possible examples of the modern Baroque.
Gee’s right: when popularizations and modernizations of classics are good, they’re awfully satisfying. But I can’t see why praising them should require falsification of the original to make that point.
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.