It seems appropriate, at the start of this particular undertaking, to utter a small prayer.
God, where do I start with this poem?
My usual quip about it being best to start at the beginning doesn’t seem quite so proper here, what with this being an epic poem and the convention of in medias res being in full effect.
Nonetheless, I’m not always a very proper person, so let’s just forget beginning with Satan recovering from his failed bid to overthrow Heaven, and go back to my freshman year of undergrad. That’s when I was first introduced to Paradise Lost, and I recall it had a bit of an impact on me. I wasn’t a very well trained reader back then (for anyone wondering, the difference between a novice reader and a well trained one is just the number of papers they’ve had to write about their reading; there’s no guarantee the more experienced reader is any better at offering insights into literature), so what I remember from reading the first two books of the poem for my survey of English literature class was that I came away feeling really bad for Satan. I mean, he fought for a cause he believed in and lost, but he was still prepared to keep fighting on after that. The guy had conviction.
Of course, then my professor explained to us in class how Satan was intended more as a parody of an epic hero whose qualities marked him as a character that should be disdained. I learned my lesson there and didn’t think any more about Paradise Lost until I was in graduate school (thanks to that same literature professor, I developed a taste for the English Renaissance that kept me from really revisiting Milton during my undergrad years).
At this point I took a Maymester course (that’s like cramming an entire semester long course into a three week period of three hour class sessions every day) on teaching English literature of the 16th and 17th centuries (five years later I still have not had an opportunity to do anything with Utopia or Dr. Faustus in a classroom). Honestly, I don’t remember if we read Paradise Lost during that class or the fall semester afterward when I took a class with the same professor that covered pretty much the same material, but as a general purpose literature course (the members of my grad school cohort who took that Maymester class together took to calling ourselves Erickson’s refugees in honor of that professor, but I, apparently, was the only one who didn’t feel enough like a refugee and so went back to experience the madness a second time). It’s not terribly important either way, but it was the first time I read Paradise Lost in its entirety.
Or at least, it was supposed to be.
If I recall correctly, I read bits and pieces of the poem, but as anyone who’s ever been an English major knows, there just comes a point where you stop trying to read everything you’re assigned (or maybe every English major doesn’t know that, and I was just particularly bad at it).
No, it wasn’t until the following year during the Maymester when I took a class on grammar (perhaps my absolute favorite class in my whole grad school experience, if for no other reason than because grammar was so ridiculously easy in comparison to everything else I studied, and I really liked diagramming sentences) that I finally read all of Paradise Lost.
Yeah, that’s right; I failed to read Paradise Lost for class, but then I got it in my head to read it on my own. For fun.
I’m such a nerd.
Part of my motivation in wanting to read the poem came from a certain feeling of kinship with Milton as a devout Christian. The subject of the Fall is a really fascinating one, and Milton’s treatment of it, being one of the most famous, had piqued my interest. If I remember right, it was the idea that Milton, like C.S. Lewis (whose space trilogy I had read only a couple years before then), treated Adam and Eve as figures fully deserving of dignity and respect who were very carefully manipulated into disobedience by Satan instead of just a couple of naked idiots in a garden. Besides that, I was still very steeped in the evangelical subculture, and a meditation on how the Fall had colored the world was one that had practical applications in my mind.
Now I’m a post-evangelical who affirms evolution. The Fall is no longer a literal event for me, but a metaphor from the second creation story in Genesis for the human condition. I still believe there’s a separation between people and God that has to do with our disobedience to him, but it’s not some kind of genetically transmitted condition that’s been passed down from a historic Adam. I don’t believe that Satan is a real creature anymore, though I think he still represents a fantastic metaphor for the very human motivations that drive us to hurt and deceive one another.
Also, I really enjoy well constructed thoughts (I did read this poem while taking a grammar class and did on multiple occasions try to diagram sentences from the poem for fun), and some of Milton’s phrases are just wonderful. I don’t think I’m a very discerning reader, but I know what I like. And I like Paradise Lost.
Let’s explore it together.