Milton in May (erm, and June): Paradise Lost, Books 10 to 12 + Two Reading Aids

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  • Milton in May (erm, and June): Paradise Lost, Books 10 to 12 + Two Reading Aids

And so, I come to the end of Paradise Lost. If you’re still reading it, feel free to leave your thoughts whenever you do finish it. There is no time limit to this project: read at your own pace and join in when you’ve finished.

For myself, I don’t think I “understood” it any better than I did the first time I read it seven years ago. That time, I was discussing it in a classroom. This time, I read it for enjoyment. We have been discussing it online, and I’ve been trying to further discussion through relevant questions and my own comments. I’ve come to a little bit of a discovery, though: everyone reads things in such a unique way that it’s very difficult to create relevant questions and it’s difficult to answer questions about something so huge as Milton’s Paradise Lost, even if you’re the one creating the questions to begin with. I think I need to read it a few more times in my life in order to better “discuss” it in any format.

This post, then, is a bit different. I leave us all with a series of related questions. My thoughts follow the jump.

  • What was Paradise Lost about from your perspective? What did it mean to you as you read it?
  • Milton says in the beginning that he wrote it to “justify the ways of God to men” (I.26). Did he succeed?
  • In the end, what did you take away from Milton’s epic?

My Thoughts: Books 10-12 and The Entirety of Paradise Lost

I liked Book 10 but the last books kind of dropped off. I liked them, but they weren’t as majestic as the first few books, those with Satan. Was this intentional? In the commentary I read by C.S. Lewis, he suggested Milton got tired and hurried to an end, which I think is a bit silly to say. I would have to reread it myself to get the full effect. I think I got tired and wanted it to end.

For me, Paradise Lost was about obedience, choice, and consequence. Everything in the poem seems to revolve around laws and the consequences for disobeying them, as well as the wonderful example of human autonomy. First Satan, and then Eve and Adam made choices. Satan’s choice (rebelling against God) caused him to be cast out of heaven; Eve and Adam’s choice required that they leave paradise.

According to Merriam-Webster, “justify” means, in part, “to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable b (1) : to show to have had a sufficient legal reason.” Did Milton “justify” God’s plan in Paradise Lost? I think he did, but that’s because so much of what Milton suggests resonates with my own Christian beliefs. My read was a personal one.

In the Norton Critical Edition, there is commentary by Scott Elledge following the text of Paradise Lost. He says a number of things that I found useful in putting my thoughts together, so I share them here.

The consequence of eating was knowledge of a certain kind – knowledge that good could be gained only by knowing evil. … Milton recognized in perfect Adam a thirst for knowledge that is best understood as a passion for contemplating God’s works for the right purpose – that of knowing God and glorifying him. (page 470)

The poem does not convince us that Adam should be glad he fell – only that Christians maybe glad that the consequences were so good for mankind. The final justification of God’s ways is the manifestation of his grace in the redemption of man through the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. (page 471)

My person beliefs about the fall are that it was not a sin but a transgression, and that all “will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” (Article of Faith 2). That is not what Milton is saying: he follows traditional Christianity’s look at the Fall as the first sin of man. For me, though, Milton’s portrayal of God’s attitude toward Adam and Eve’s taking the fruit was similar enough that it resonated to me.

To explain: Milton’s God was not a vengeful God out to punish, but a God of laws and consequence that had the foresight to provide a second-chance plan (the Son of God) once he realized that Satan’s temptation would cause the two humans to fall. See God’s observations III, 80-134. (“I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” III, 98-99.) The Son of God’s response is at III.227-264. (“Behold me then, me for him, life for life/ I offer.” III, 236-237.) This discussion occurs before Eve and Adam take the fruit, and Satan has not yet conversed with them. I certainly thought Milton gave justification to God’s ways.

At any rate, whether or not Milton succeeded in echoing my own understandings or in justifying God’s ways, what I got out of Paradise Lost overall is a sense of overwhelming need to reread complicated things. I didn’t reread this since I sat down to write these thoughts, and my first read was so long ago (seven years maybe?) that it seems a vague memory. I feel like I need to reread Paradise Lost a number of times in order to properly respond to it. And I suspect I’ll read it again. It could bear rereading every few years.

In addition to skimming some of the Norton Critical Edition end matter, I also read a few others books this month as I read Milton.

John Milton by Neil Forsyth

Neil Forsyth admits that his work is not a definitive biography. It is, after all, less than 250 pages. In his introduction to John Milton: A Biography, Forsyth writes:

I have tried to transmit to as wide a readership as possible the result of the scholarly researches of others, along with some of my own opinions. My task, as I saw it, was to write a biography of Milton that would excite readers who might merely be curious. (page 7)

I found this biography to be perfect for my needs. If anything, it lacked details on Milton’s personal life, but given the fact that this was 400 years ago, I suspect such things are hard to prove. As it was, it gave a great overview of Milton’s life, with his works placed in to a historical context. Since much of what Milton wrote was political and I am not familiar with his era, this was very helpful for me. I highly recommend this biography if, as he writes in the introduction, you are curious about Milton the man and his era.

A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis

Just as the biography of Milton gave Milton’s politics context, C.S. Lewis’ Preface gave context to Milton’s format (the epic) and religion (Christianity). Although I am Christian, Milton’s and Lewis’ Christianity follow different precepts, so I appreciated the background. That said, while I enjoyed Lewis’ commentary overall, I found it incredibly dry. I read about 120 of the 140 pages, skipping some parts of more boring chapters. There were quotes I enjoyed as I read that helped me put Paradise Lost into context, but I neglected to mark them and can no longer remember them.

The most interesting parts were C.S. Lewis’ opinion chapters on the specific characters in Paradise Lost. He is very emphatic on the fact that Satan is not a hero in this text. Satan was, I would say, the most interesting character, but I’d have to agree with Lewis on most points that he was not the one we’d like to spend any time with. He was a bit too selfish to be pleasant. At any rate, Lewis’ literary criticism is not what I’d recommend reading if you want commentary. He put some things into context, but it was a slog to get through.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I totally fell off the Paradise Lost wagon. I think I had too much going on to devote the time it takes to concentrate on such a complex work. I expect it will be the same with Pilgrim’s Progress, which I’ve been trying to get into and failing. The problem is I don’t see myself being “unbusy” within my lifetime! Ah, sigh.
    .-= Lisa Guidarini´s last post on blog .. =-.

  2. I am intrigued by Lewis’s insistence that Satan is not a “hero” in Paradise Lost…I can see insisting that Milton didn’t intend him that way (although I think it’s arguable), but I guess I’d take a more “Pierre Menard”-ish line & say that a hero exists wherever the reader finds one, you know? Milton’s Satan was definitely a hugely influential hero to Byron & many of the Romantics. And Milton surely sets him up that way vis-a-vis the tradition of epic poetry…
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..The last books standing =-.

    1. This is Blake’s line, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, right: “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 Devils party without knowing it.”

      Those last three words are great literary criticism.

      Rebecca, if you want to see more of what I was babbling about last time, take a look at the Robert M. Adams essay in the Critical Edition. Just brilliant.
      .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..How astonished he was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus – the startling Comte de Lautréamont =-.

      1. Amateur Reader, ok, off to find that essay. I didn’t read much of the end matter this time around, but I’ll go find it since you mention it.

  3. I’m crushed that CS Lewis’s commentary wasn’t better for you! It’s one of my favorite authors on one of my favorite pomes! How could it not be wondrous?

    I’m still way behind, but my memory is that I absolutely agree with you about the later books lacking the majesty of the early ones. It’s just harder to make God interesting, when He’s all-knowing and all-powerful and all-good – there’s only so much of that I can take at one time!
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: An Abundance of Katherines, John Green =-.

    1. Jenny, I think it wasn’t memorable to me simply becuase it was all opinion on something I was starting to get tired of. (oops did I say that outloud?!) I agree it was harder to make God interesting. Selfish Satan was pretty interesting.

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