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A Bluffer's Guide To Great Books: Paradise Lost Book One, by John Milton
Milton was a very erudite man and it shows. At the heart of his narration of the fall of Satan, Adam and Eve, is a rich, dense web of metaphor and allusion that enriches the basic story and sheds light on its implications. Drawing on myth as much as the Bible, Milton paints a vast picture of Hell, Heaven and Earth; Paradise and Fall. The poem, divided into twelve books, is written in blank verse - in other words, each line in this instance contains ten syllables and doesn't necessarily rhyme (iambic pentameter) e.g.
Who first se-duced them to this foul re-volt?
Giulegud & Richardson read a speech of Satan from Book One
Briefly, the poem opens in media res, with Satan and his rebel angels recovering from their expulsion from Heaven in the 'penal fire' of Hell. Satan rallies his troops and declares that it is 'better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' He plots to ruin God's new creation - Earth and Man. We later hear of the War in Heaven, meet Adam and Eve and witness the Temptation and Fall.
Here may be found a more detailed synopsis.
Gustav Dore's Illustrative EngravingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Consider this short description of the fallen angels, typical in it's vivid recreation of the scene in metaphorical terms as well as its biblical allusion and resonance:
"His legions--Angel Forms, who lay entranced:
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High over-arched embower; or scattered sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed
Hath vexed the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o'erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursued
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carcases
And broken chariot-wheels."
Instead of an image of fire and brimstone (there is hardly any need for that - the physical horror of Hell is already well-established) or just a vilification of the rebels, Milton evokes the pathos of the fallen angels by likening them to fallen leaves reminiscent of those to be found in the heavily wooded Vallombrosa monastery in Etruria - a place, oddly, of Christian peace and beauty.
Perhaps more fittingly, the second image evokes the destruction of Pharaoh's army on the Red Sea - an example of divine intervention.
It is safe to say that this passage is entirely characteristic of the whole book.
The Devil's Party
Milton's stated intention in writing Paradise Lost was to 'justify the ways of God to men,' although he seems to have done a better job in creating one of literature's best anti-heros - Satan!
Shelley describe him admiringly as 'the promethean apostle of human regeneration' while Blake noted: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
Whatever Milton's intentions, most critics agree that the import of Paradise Lost is nowhere as straightforward as Milton might have liked.
As a leader of the Revolution that saw the execution of Charles I, his head may have told him to bow down to authority, but his heart would appear to be in the rebel camp.
Not all the controversy surrounding Paradise Lost concerns Milton's portrayal of Satan.
Almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece, it nevertheless has its detractors, T.S. Eliot ('A note on the verse of Milton') being the most prominent.
On the other hand we have C.S. Lewis (A Preface to 'Paradise Lost') and Christopher Ricks (Milton's Grand Style) both weighing in on Milton's side.
The following article provides some eplanation of the debate: C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and the Milton Legacy: The Nativity Ode Revisited, which, It should be noted, is over Milton's poetic style and barely touches on religious or political matters (if at all).
More modern critics include Stanley Fish (Surprised By Sin; How Milton Works), reviewed by A.D. Nuttal in the LRB.
An adaptation by Adrian Mitchell of Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost - a Lecture from Yale
- 9. Paradise Lost, Book I - YouTube
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