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.

Originally Published: February 24th, 2008

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.   

  1. February 24, 2008

    I've never taken a Milton course but I've read the English poetic corpus except the Paradises. I don't know why I did it. It's not that he's forbidding. I find his attitude toward life and poetry disgusting.
    The oracles are dumb,
    No voice or hideous hum
    ]]] Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
    Apollo from his shrine
    Can no more divine,
    ]]] With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
    "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity"
    (backwards brackets to indicate indented lines [Note to the Poetry Foundation: Any possibility of you investing in some easily available computer code to make line indentation easy for poetry in online typography?]
    Take or leave Christianity, there's never any religious joy in the poem, unlike with say, Smart or dozens of Christmas carols or the Bible. The only persuasive emotion is grim triumph in the defeat of paganism -- and even that is unconvincing. "Hideous hum" and "shriek" are both false, poetically and imaginatively.
    Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
    That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
    Begin, and somewhat loudly sweet the string.
    Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse; . . .
    Problems? First, and disgusting, is the vision of the muses as coquettes ("coy excuse"), horribly preceded by the threat of rape. "Denial vain" means there's no use in saying No. The mind boggles. In lesser emotionally upsetting arenas, "somewhat" is a pointless modifier -- pure iambic padding. And then there's the grotesquely, comically urinary vision of "That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring." The sacred well as outhouse. Violations against religion, prosody, and humanity in only four lines!
    His most comical iambic padding comes in "Comus":
    "And left your fair side all unguarded, lady?"
    The phrase "fair side all" is pure padding. But it does have a beefy ring. A side of lady! Also, pre-echoes of Jerry Lewis. "Lady? Lady!"
    Sorry to be so disagreeable -- but nobody I know reads Milton at all, and the opportunity to discuss him comes rarely. Everybody says that Paradise Lost is his best, so maybe I should give him another try, and some of the lines you quote intrigue. Thanks.

  2. February 24, 2008
     Marty Elwell

    There are people reading Milton, and I am one of them. While I did take a class on Milton about 12 years ago, I find PL worth picking up every now and then (even if only in bits and pieces).
    I agree that PL’s plot is entertaining and worthwhile. If Milton were truly inaccessible, I don't think such pop-culture references to PL as in Animal House would exist. "Is Satan trying to tell us that being bad is more fun than being good?" More people laugh at this joke than you would expect.
    As far as "religious joy", I don't view PL as a poem of praise. For example, there are portions of the poem depicting heaven to be a military state:
    ...Tow'rs of Heav'n are fill'd
    With Armed watch, that render all access
    Impregnable; oft on the bordering Deep
    Encamp thir Legions, or with obscure wing
    Scout far and wide into the Realm of night,
    Scorning surprise.
    and God to be an angry and vengeful foe:
    Will he, so wise, let lose at once his ire,
    Belike through impotence, or unaware,
    To give his Enemies thir wish, and end
    Them in his anger, whom his anger saves
    To punish endless?
    I find it unlikely that a writer intending to glorify God would take the time and care to humanize him and his relationships with Adam and Even and his enemies.
    Lastly, I’ll allow some padding to anyone willing to write 250+ pages of meter.

  3. February 24, 2008
     Aseem Kaul

    Entirely with you. I never took a course on Milton in college, or on poetry for that matter (my undergraduate major was Economics), but I read PL for pleasure and enjoyed it thoroughly. I'll admit to running low on stamina towards the end, and may have skipped bits of Book X, but I adore Books I to IV and read them every few years.
    As for their being no 'religious joy' in his poems - I agree - and think they are better for it. I'll take psychological accuracy over ideological clarity any day.

  4. February 24, 2008

    My wish for religious joy in Milton's Christmas poem may be somewhat anachronistic, dependent on the sentimental Christian/Christmas tradition I grew up in; except: that passage in Luke remains joyous. Glory to God in the Highest Heaven, and on Earth, peace, and goodwill among all people. Milton digs the Glory; the peace and the goodwill, not so much.
    I find no psychological acuity in his Christmas poem either. Donne and Hopkins can be psychologically acute and religiously persuasive, with a painfully won joy. Milton's god may as well be Klingon, all honor and violence and triumph. (Since Daisy put him in sci-fi fantasy terms.)
    I'll PL a shot. At least books I-IV !

  5. February 24, 2008

    p.s. I apologize for calling Milton "disgusting." The threat of rape in "Lycidas" is appalling, alarming, horrible. Other than that I have found him to be very uncongenial, but "disgusting" is too combative.

  6. February 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Great post, and a favorite subject! I worked for many years with the elderly, and used to get groups of older folks to read "Lycidas" all the way though without anything to work with but the poem itself. After they got over the initial shock, virtually every last soul "got" the poem... and added to my own understanding of it.
    Any fans here of William Empson's wild book, Milton's God??

  7. February 24, 2008
     John Blackard

    Daisy-- I agree that it is a shame Milton's Paradise Lost isn't read much outside of the college classroom. The epic, operatic grandeur of it is amazing. I admit that I look at Blake's illustrations of Paradise Lost more often than I dip into Milton's blank verse:
    John Blackard

  8. February 24, 2008
     bill knott

    ... I used to try to listen via a walkperson to a tape of the
    first couple books of PL as read by the British actor Anthony
    but irritatingly he didn't read the linebreaks which
    made me usually snatch the earphones out in exasp.
    Can anybody recommend a good recording of it, one
    that honors each and every blanking great Miltonic line?

  9. February 25, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Thanks for posting this!
    I'm a bit shocked here... Surely a professor of 18th century literature cannot seriously call Milton "virtually unreadable"? Surely students at Princeton of all places can handle a little complication in their syntax? I never took a college course on Milton--I wasn't an English major--but we did read a good section of it in high school, and I think the class all found the psychology of Adam & Eve & Satan pretty fascinating, even if we didn't get every reference (for which, anyway, now in an age of Google--much less footnotes--is there any excuse?). Sure, there was difficulty, but it was rewarding difficulty. As readers have we all got lazy? I sometimes think that looking at a lot of contemporary poetry, where even if it is radically "innovative", the syntax is hardly more complex than Go, Dog. Go!
    I wouldn't exactly call Milton's English "normal" though--so much of the structures and syntax are essentially Latin--but it is certainly intelligible as English.
    My interest in PL was renewed in translating Lucretius, since it was clear to me that M. must have been quite heavily influenced by L.'s style and subject matter. In a way, this is odd, because L., as a near-atheistic materialist and believer in free will, is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Providential Puritans. But at the same time he seemed to hold an enormous appeal. Even in the passages you quote here, I hear a lot of L.:
    O goddess, from you the winds flee away, the couds of heaven from you and your coming; for you the wonder-working earth puts forth sweet flowers, for you the wide stretches of ocean laugh, and heaven grown peaceful glows with outpoured light.
    Anyway, the point being, I've been dipping back into PL in that sort of scholarly interest, and I do find myself getting caught back up in it--and always deligthed to rediscover how readable it is! You make me want to reread it cover to cover now...

  10. February 25, 2008

    Wouldn't hearing the linebreaks get old after a while? Like watching a whole movie with a bad DVD that makes it pause every 3 seconds....

  11. February 25, 2008
     J.E. Stone

    Hooray--how great to hear a cheer for Paradise Lost! Book I, in particular, is my favorite. I've taught Book I to high school sophomores, and they loved it, for all the reasons Daisy cites. What language! What syntactical feats! What villains! What great description! What vividness! I have a cousin with a degree in international relations (not an English major) who also reads PL for fun.
    Of course it's readable, no less so than Shakespeare. And no one's talking about getting rid of him. Shakespeare's comedies are incredibly difficult to understand--the jokes depend oftentimes on puns and other word play that rely on much older, defunct meanings of words, or on an understanding of Renaissance culture. I've frequently been the only person laughing during the production of a Shakespeare comedy, and I live in a major metropolitan area with a highly educated population.
    Ban Shakespeare's comedies! Save Milton!

  12. February 25, 2008
     Don Share

    Bill, I've not heard them, but there's an audiobook of P.L. by Ralph Cosham... and excerpts can be heard on one by Samantha Bond just out on Naxos, in their "Great Poets" series.

  13. February 25, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    We live in the age of DVD extras. With the wide variety of online resources, Paradise Lost is the ultimate Google poem. In fact the whole poem could hyperlinked. And it could inspire the dawn of new technology--a multihyperlink featuring the shades of meaning you wish to explore.

  14. February 25, 2008
     Don Share

    Aaron, great point! Here's one useful hyperlinked version.

  15. February 25, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    With respect to Mr. Knott's observation about his Quayle (perhaps related to Dan?) recording not observing the ends of lines ... not bothering with them is the sort of thing Mr. Pinsky advises in his book The Sounds of Poetry. Frankly I think it is a balancing act and a good poem let's you know how to read it. I don't hear the poetry in the strapped-on, sing-song-breathy-poet-voice readings and I don't hear it in the ones that rip through it like prose. Can't say I have an alternative to recommend. One of the latest is by Ralph Cosham which came out a little more than a year ago.

  16. February 26, 2008

    John--I'm not sure asking a writer not given to religious joy to express religious joy makes a lot of sense. It's like asking Hemingway to put in more adjectives, or something. I mean, you may prefer a lusher writer than Hemingway as a matter of taste, and a more rapturous writer than Milton, but not doing Christian joy, or adjectives, is not a fault. As for his attitude "to life"--don't forget Milton's anti-censorship prose pamphlet, "Areopagitica" not to mention his complicated and interesting approach to theology and to his characters. I think you're reading pretty ahistorically in the passages you cite. As for the supposedly padded line, "And left your fair side all unguarded, lady?" without looking up the line, it sounds to me like he's not talking about leaving the side of her body, but rather, leaving being beside her, whom he finds fair. It's rather compressed, not padded.
    I don't know the recording Bill's talking about, but it sounds miserable. The lines in Milton are load-bearing walls, and a lot of the aural excitement comes from all that mass straining to contain itself while pouring onward down the page. You wouldn't want an end-stop for each line, but you do want somebody who understands he's reading poetry, and acknowledges what's going on in the language.
    Alicia--Not really on topic, but do you know James Richardson's poem "A Suite for Lucretians"? It's in his new & selected volume, Interglacial. I think you'd really like it.

  17. February 26, 2008
     Susan McLean

    I first read Milton in high school, took a course on him during my freshman year in college, and later taught him regularly in a British literature survey course in college. He's someone I find personally uncongenial but poetically impressive, and each time I teach him I have a few students who really fall in love with PL. For me, many of his lines are unforgettable--hear them once and they become part of you forever. PL is incredibly cinematic in how it tells the story--for a blind writer, he certainly was visual in how he told the story. The weight of all that learning is often oppressive (in a way that it usually isn't in Shakespeare, for instance, who also is full of allusions), but the passion in the lines is undeniable.

  18. February 26, 2008

    It's line 283 in Comus. Comus has found the Fair Lady alone in the forest:
    Co. What chance good Lady hath bereft you thus?
    La. Dim darknes, and this leavy Labyrinth.
    Co. Could that divide you from neer-ushering guides? 280
    La. They left me weary on a grassie terf.
    Co. By falshood, or discourtesie, or why?
    La. To seek i'th vally som cool friendly Spring.
    Co. And left your fair side all unguarded Lady?
    La. They were but twain, and purpos'd quick return.
    Co. Perhaps fore-stalling night prevented them.
    La. How easie my misfortune is to hit!
    Co. Imports their loss, beside the present need?
    La. No less then if I should my brothers loose.
    Co. Were they of manly prime, or youthful bloom? 290
    La. As smooth as Hebe's their unrazor'd lips.
    Comus is a masque, and masques were formally comedies, so maybe the bantering iambic rhythm would play fine in a bantering mood, I'm not sure. There are some lovely passages in Comus, and some powerful lines in Lycidas.
    Contrary to what I mistakenly said before, I don't require joy in my Christian poems. "Batter my heart, three-personed God" (Donne's Holy Sonnet 14) is hardly joyous -- but it is moving. It's just -- "hideous hum" and "hollow shriek" are bad propaganda poetry; if you like the propaganda, fine, but it's still bad poetry. I am curious to read Empson's account of Milton's Christianity. And I will give P.L. a shot. Thanks again.

  19. February 26, 2008
     Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

    If this is Gee's opinion of two of the greatest, most important works of literature, I absolutely would not want her teaching my children about literature. Her attitude expresses everything that is wrong with higher education in this country. In fact, I have come to realize that it is because of people like her teaching literature that I have had to play catch-up ever since I graduated with my Ph.D. There should be no excuse for having someone graduate with a Ph.D. in the humanities who has not read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy . . . I could go on and on, but that's the bizarre situation I was in and am still working to rectify. Fortunately, I am motivated to catch up on all the things I was made to miss, but how many, especially those not majoring in the humanities, will do that? Yet Gee is out there "teaching" students literature -- in fact, teaching them to hate it.

  20. February 27, 2008

    I just want to make clear that I'm not criticizing Gee's teaching--I've never been in her classroom, so can't judge--nor am I indicting all of higher education, which is too various a beast to characterize easily. Like Gee, I'm all for popularizing classics, especially when the popularizations are good art in their own right. As I said, I simply don't think you need to falsify the original to do so. I think there's room for both. As many of the comments above indicate, lots of people, including teenagers, find Milton, gasp, fun! I do agree that it's a shame many schools have thrown out core curriculum/great books courses, though I certainly sympathize with the politics behind doing that. I've done a lot of filling in, myself, since I was an undergrad (never a grad) in the late 80s. The advantage, as you point out, is that one appreciates it so much more when one reads because one feels like it, not because it's assigned. Isn't there a scene in Hard Times where learning is ground into the children so mechanically that it becomes meaningless and garbled? I'm guessing that Gee's against that sort of teaching, and so am I.

  21. February 27, 2008
     Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

    I just find it hard to believe that anyone can effectively teach something when they have the attitude toward the work Gee has. I find it very likely that bad attitude is going to be passed on. I have no sympathy with the politics behind throwing out the great works - precisely because that's going to be the result. Why can't we rather be more inclusive rather than be exclusive? I never had the great works of the West replaced by the great works of the East (I had to read those on my own too) or the great works of men replaced by the great works of women. Rather, I found that great works in general were replaced with contemporary garbage (which were also typically written by Western white males -- so I don't know what the big change was really all about, in the end). With the exception of The Great Gatsby (which I loved from the get-go), high school teachers mostly assigned the worst garbage they could find. I wasn't assigned much that was good until college, and all of that was 19th and 20th century works. I got the real garbage in grad school.
    Personally, I'll all for popularizing classics. I thought that the Beowulf film was an attempt to tell the "real" story behind the myth, resulting in a bit of a diminution of the hero, but that it was overall okay. I also think that "Troy" failed precisely because they tried to give it a Hollywood ending, where the bad guys all got theirs, even though they defeated Troy. Too bad, because they cut themselves off from an interesting sequel with Agammemnon. Still, if these movies got some people to go out and read the works, then I'm all in favor of even a bad movie.