Finding Paradise Lost

Poetry is not a literary format I readily enjoy. For me, sitting down with a Shakespeare play lends itself more to boredom and frustration than anything else. However, I happened to marry an English major who practically adores the seventeenth-century poet John Milton. After hearing Shannon explain the intriguing premise of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, I finally agreed to read through the poem with her.

Having finished, I can heartily say two things. First, there is no way I would have ever completed the poem without Shannon as my guide; she constantly provided explanations for the epic similes, archaic language, and Renaissance spelling. Second, and maybe paradoxically, I heartily believe that Paradise Lost is one of the greatest poems ever written in the English language, worthy of study and admiration. It is rather like digging for gold: hard and dirty business, but providing a wealth of reward.

Why do I enjoy Paradise Lost so much? One reason is the mesmerizing nature of the story. Milton took what we know from the book of Genesis and fleshed out the details so convincingly that the characters come to life. I felt like I knew Adam and Eve after reading the poem. Their pleasant perfections are so beautifully described that I got a greater sense of just how sad and tragic the Fall really was. Milton’s work may not be historically accurate in every way, but I would not be surprised if at least some of the extra-biblical events he portrays actually took place. What Milton imagines in this poem fits wonderfully within the framework of the Scriptural narrative.

Another reason I like Paradise Lost is because of its theological richness. It may not be flawless, but it brilliantly addresses or illustrates such doctrines as the nature of Satan, the nature of man, the glory of the gospel, the beauty of marriage, the goodness of sex, the perversion of lust, and the difference between law and gospel. In particular, Adam and Eve’s romance radiated the intoxicating nature of marital love. Their innocence and enjoyment of pure, unadulterated pleasure gave me a higher view of God’s institution of marriage—and it has helped me to enjoy my own marriage even more.

Milton has crafted a true masterpiece, of which I am now a huge fan. And since studying this poem has provided me with such joy, my wish is, if at all possible, to encourage others to peruse and enjoy Paradise Lost as well. Toward that end, I have decided to blog through all twelve books of the poem, focusing on the passages and topics that stuck out to me.

Before getting started, I need to make several clarifications. First, I will be writing about this poem from an amateur’s perspective—albeit, with the help of my wife (and her Masters in English). I am no scholar and this blog series is not designed to be comprehensive. (If you want to explore Milton’s epic poem from a literary—and Christian—perspective, I highly recommend A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis.) Each of my blog posts will consist of two parts: 1) a simplified summary of the book’s contents (based on Milton’s own summary contained in the poem), followed by 2) my meditation on the doctrines and narrative elements that I found particularly interesting. If there are any Milton scholars out there who notice inaccuracies or mistakes in my posts, the fault lies with me alone.

Second, I will be using a version of Paradise Lost with modern spelling. Thus, the phrase “justifie the wayes of God to men” (Book 1, line 26) becomes “justify the ways of God to men.” This will make our study much easier.

Third, the format of the poem itself. The poem does not rhyme; rather, it is told in blank verse (the same format used by Homer and Virgil), with each line consisting of ten syllables. As an epic poem, Paradise Lost begins in the middle of the story—Satan awakening in Hell after being cast out of Heaven. As the story progresses, the first half (including the angelic rebellion in Heaven and Satan’s expulsion) is told via flashbacks.

If you would like to follow along with an online version of the poem, I would recommend either the Dartmouth College Milton Reading Room text or the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF) text. The Dartmouth version has the original spelling, but it also includes a summary of each book and a plethora of study notes throughout. The ELF version has updated spelling, and the entire text is searchable, allowing the reader to search for a word or phrase with ease.

Many books, plays, and movies claim to be one of the “greatest stories ever told.” I am inclined to think Paradise Lost is one of the rare stories that actually deserves such a title. I hope you will join me over the next several weeks as I attempt to explain why.