How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: Paradise Lost

wikimedia commons, {{PD-1923}}

John Milton’s epic Christian poem Paradise Lost had been taking up space in the back of my mind for about five years, enticing me to read it, but I didn’t respond until last summer. Published in 1667, it’s the greatest work of its kind and, like Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare, one of those mountains that define the landscape of Western literature. I knew it would be an elevating read and enlightening to see for myself what the three hundred forty years of hype was all about. I started it in one anthology, then found the complete thing in a book of John Milton’s poems at a maze-like bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, Wales/England. I bought the volume, my own darling book from England, and promptly took several more months to read the great work.

Telling the story of the inception of all things, starting before time began, Paradise Lost imagines Satan’s rebellion, God’s judgment, the world’s creation, and mankind’s fall into sin. Milton wanted to write a biblical epic in the style of the ancient Greek classics and fittingly chose the creation of the world as his subject. It was published seven years after Charles II restored the English monarchy. Before then, the Puritans, under the Cromwells, had governed England in the Commonwealth. Milton was a staunch Puritan and his worldview permeates his epic, including a censure of monarchy, but apparently the Royalists were tolerant and he didn’t land in jail for it.

To be honest, I am not much into poetry. I admire people who love and quote it, but reading and therefore loving and remembering it isn’t easy for me. (If I read more, no doubt I would reverse that, but if it were easier for me, I would read more … so you see, it’s a vicious cycle.) Poetry that doesn’t rhyme, like Paradise Lost, is even harder. But, by alternating great concentration and self-permission to skim, I made it through the difficult bits and enjoyed the entire twelve books.

According to the book Realms of Gold by Leland Ryken, Milton purposefully wrote the first part of the poem, which focuses mainly on Satan and his fellow rebellious angels, in a grandiose, harder-to-understand style with many allusions to Greek mythology. This gives readers a feeling of discomfort and a repellant awe for Satan. So no wonder the first half had me crawling through at a snail’s pace! (I’d thought there might be something wrong with my intelligence.) On the other hand, Milton wrote the sections about God the Father, God the Son, Paradise, Adam, and Eve in an airier, more flowing style with simpler words, beautiful images, and allusions to biblical ideas. No wonder I thoroughly enjoyed those parts. Book VII was my absolute favorite, where the angel Raphael describes the six days of Creation to Adam. So much gorgeous imagery! Several times (throughout the poem) I was reading along and found that Milton had woven in Bible verses from the King James translation almost word for word. For example, in Book VII:

“And saw that it was good, and said, ‘Let th’ Earth
Put forth the verdant grass, herb yielding seed,
And fruit-tree yielding fruit after her kind,
Whose seed is in herself upon the Earth!’
He scarce had said when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorned,
Brought forth the tender grass, whose verdure clad
Her universal face with pleasant green;
Then herbs of every leaf, that sudden flowered,
Opening their various colours, and made gay
Her bosom, smelling sweet; …”

Seeing how effortlessly the words of the Bible flow into a poem reminded me how beautiful is the Bible’s expression, no matter the language.

I don’t have time or space for further analysis, but I heartily recommend reading Paradise Lost for yourself one day (or should I say one half-year) so that you can enjoy this God-honoring, mind-enriching poetry!

Have you ever read Paradise Lost? Do you have a favorite poet or a great appreciation for poetry?


  1. I remember the parts of Paradise Lost concerning Satan. I think you are unusual in finding them dull--for hundreds of years they have been admired as the best of Milton's work and some of the best English poetry around. But I've never enjoyed Milton very much, so you are certainly free to complain about him when I am near. :)

    1. Maybe those lines are considered the best because they're so complex? They were interesting, I suppose, when I unpacked them. :) I did find fascinating the part where each of the demons was named and their role as pagan gods in the future world was explained. I have read at least one commentator who said that Satan was the most interesting and compelling character, and I admit he is on the surface level, since he's a conflicted being ... but since I read the poem with the Bible in mind, I liked the parts about God best. :)
      Thanks for your comment, and for the permission to complain about him. ;)

  2. They're admired partly because of their similarity to the great Greek and Roman epics, and partly because Milton's signature "organ roll" sound reached its heights in them. Milton was actually a rather repulsive person (as the later poet T.S. Eliot said) and his rich command of language is one of the few things to be said for him.

    This commentator was not alone! Many people have found Milton's Satan intriguing--especially Robert Burns, who said he was the real hero. The pagan poems Paradise Lost imitated starred very imperfect, often arrogant men, so the blueprint was there for emphasizing Satan. But perhaps it was Milton's own flawed personality that made his presentation of Satan strike people as so real. Even in our own century, Star Trek TOS's character Khan quoted Milton's lines "better to reign in Hell than to serve in heaven" to express his own selfish worldview.