Milton in May Week 1: Introduction and Paradise Lost Books 1-3

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Welcome to Milton in May!

I hope you are as excited about this month’s reading project as I am.

I, personally, will be reading Paradise Lost, at a rate of about three books a week. In addition, I hope to revisit some other poems, I may read some essays, and I might read a biography of the man himself. When I was in college, I studied Milton for a semester. I read criticism. I discussed his works in depth. I am no longer in school, and my intentions this month as I revisit Milton are not college-level: I plan on reading and exploring some of his works, including Paradise Lost, for the pure pleasure of it!

You are welcome to join in by reading and/or writing about anything Miltonian this month. Each week, I’ll have a linky on this site, and you can link to any posts you write about Milton. I will also post some general discussion questions about the three books from Paradise Lost for the week. I hope this month can be an open discussion and a celebration of one of the world’s great writers. You can make your own participation be at whatever level you’d prefer, whether that is academic or not. You can write “review” posts or you can write discussion posts. If you don’t want to write your own blog posts at all, feel free to comment on your reading in the comments on this site.

After the jump, see discussion questions and then my own first impressions of this reread.

Paradise Lost Books 1-3 Discussion Questions

If you are joining in for the read-along and aren’t quite sure how to organize your thoughts, here are some questions to get you started. Of course, you need not answer these if you prefer not to.

  1. Have you read Paradise Lost before? If so, what are your impressions on the reread? If you haven’t, what are your first impressions?
  2. Epic proportions: Have you read other epics (like Homer or Virgil)? How does this compare so far?
  3. What do we learn about Milton from his first-person comments on the story he’s telling? Do you like his asides?
  4. The characters: Satan is the main character for most of the first three books. What do we learn about him? Is he appealing as the main character? Is he heroic? What do you think of Milton’s portrayal of the other devils in hell?
  5. The setting(s): So far, we see a lot of hell, and not as much heaven. What is your impression of Milton’s portrayal of the two locales?
  6. Will you continue reading?

References for the study questions (i.e., where you can go for more background and ideas): I did consult Cliffs’ Notes, which was not really any help, and SparkNotes online, which gave me some ideas. My edition of Paradise Lost is the Norton Critical Edition, so I may have gotten ideas from the footnotes and/or articles I skimmed. I also like this professor’s page of essay questions, although most of them relate to the entire book. Also, has the full annotated text, lots of commentary, illustrations, and well, just about anything you’d like Miltonian.

My Thoughts: Paradise Lost, Books 1-3

I love it so much after the first 85 pages of this reread that Paradise Lost has just replaced The Iliad as a favorite on my lists. Just as The Iliad (which I read in the Fagles’ translation) has majesty and beautiful language, Paradise Lost is sweeping me away into a world of epic proportions. Milton’s language is just perfect for me, and unlike The Iliad I won’t feel compelled to go and compare translations: this is the original! I feel like it was written to demonstrate the  power of the English language.  I’ve always felt that English was rather ugly (sorry) compared to, say, Spanish (which I studied in school). But this poem demonstrates it’s beauty.

Also, I love the religious aspect. It kind of puts Homer into perspective. The original audience of Homer understood all the “religious” references in it. It was about their own gods. It wasn’t “foreign” as it felt to me when I read it. Paradise Lost, while it does base a lot of commentary on Greek and Roman and other “pagan” traditions, it’s main focus is Judeo-Christian. That I can relate to on an incredibly personal level, and I love it. I recognize the Biblical stories as they are mentioned and I can almost locate the scriptures when Milton quotes them. (I love having extensive footnotes to refer to when I am curious to know where the scripture is to be found!)

As for John Milton’s writing, wow. I always had him in my head as a great writer like Shakespeare. But from the first page of this reread, I was struck by how opposite to Shakespeare John Milton actually is. I love reading Shakespeare, really I do. The plays I’ve read (which hasn’t been many, I’m afraid) have been impressively well written, and a perfect mingling of emotions and/or humor. Yet, Shakespeare wrote to a common audience. He was a self-educated, country man writing for the masses. It’s great: Shakespeare, amazingly, created English as we know it by his use of such an extensive new vocabulary.

Milton, on the other hand, wrote for those who had a college education. He was born to a moderately wealthy London family, educated in the classics at college, and wrote as one with a degree of educational snootiness. I mean that in the nicest way. I love both writers. Milton’s is impressive in a way that Shakespeare is not! As I read, I was reminded time and again that Milton was blind as wrote this whole thing. How one could write without a computer for editing is one thing, but to write perfect iambic pentameter blank verse without being able to even read what has been written simply takes impressive to a new level.

The subject matter makes this all the more interesting to me: it’s not just the writing or the epic style that I am loving thus far: it’s the religious perspective. As this isn’t a religious blog, I’ll refrain from going in to all the quotes I love, although I will say I love God’s comment on his creation of humans:

. . .  I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.  (Book III. 98-99)

I love how this is all about free will: and for me, that is what Christianity is about. Satan is so incredibly interesting; I had forgotten just how enticing his character is in this poem. So he still is today. Some things really never change.

I haven’t written a lot about the context of the poem itself, but I certainly look forward to reading more. Next week I’ll try to focus on writing about the context of the poem itself and my impressions, rather than gushing so much about the epic itself.

Have I convinced you to join in the read-along this month?

Reviewed on May 3, 2010

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.

  • Oh wow, I forgot it was May already! I haven’t read Paradise Lost properly since 2005 or so, and I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. Thanks for hosting this readalong!

    Re: the Shakespeare comparison – I always group them together in my mind too, which is odd because they haven’t got much in common really. I’ll be keeping Shakespeare in mind when I’m reading; I’m curious to see how I feel they compare to each other.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: Wise Children, Angela Carter =-.

    • Jenny, that’s what surprised me too: why do I group them together when they are so different! I hope you enjoy rereading it. I hadn’t read it at all since 2002(?) so I was very overdue for a reread.

  • I’m planning to read along, but I just got the book on Saturday night, with not a lot of reading time between then and now, so I’m just around the middle of Book 1. I bought the Barnes and Noble edition, just because the print was more pleasing to my eyes. It is very nice though to not have to pick a translation! I’ll check back to this post again when I’m caught up.
    .-= Shelley´s last post on blog ..The Brothers Karamazov: Wrap-up =-.

    • Shelley, yeay for not worrying about translations! I hope you’re enjoying the beginning — feel free to give us updates at whatever points — I just liked the idea of three books a week for my own pace.

  • Nobody writes epic poetry anymore. Too bad too. I read portions of Paradise Lost in college but never had to read the whole thing. I loved what I did read though. I should probably get around to reading all of it someday. But in the meantime, I will just enjoy your posts about it 🙂
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Library School Update =-.

      • Rebecca, who’s going to read these modern epics!

        Poets do write long, narrative poems today. But the audience for poetry is so small. It’s not that there aren’t enough long poems – there aren’t enough famous ones.

        I haven’t read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which has some readers. I can recommend Seasons on Earth by Kenneth Koch, a parody of Orlando Furioso, and The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill. These are are personal stories, though. Since Romanticism, poets have turned inward. Wordsworth’s Prelude is suffused with Milton. It’s meant to be the epic of one man, an epic of consciousness.
        .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..Then all at once he began speaking loudly, quickly, nervously, gesticulating and decidedly in a frenzy. =-.

        • Amateur Reader, fair point. I guess, since I’m not a memoir reader, etc., maybe these inward long poems wouldn’t interest me as much. I’ll just have to stick with the old epic poems!

  • I have to join you on this read along. Last week, I read All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, a YA novel in verse. After I finished it, I was thinking about novels in verse, which are enjoying some widespread popularity among teens and young adults. I was trying to think of some classic novels in verse, but all I could think of was epic poems like Paradise Lost, The Illiad, and The Odyssey. I couldn’t decide if these poems are actual precursors of today’s novels in verse, but it made me want to read one, and I thought I’d pick Paradise Lost because I’ve never read it before. Then I saw a tweet about your read along. Yeah for serendipity.
    .-= Kim´s last post on blog ..Breaking the Fast – The Monday Missive =-.

    • Kim, I do hope you find this a pleasant experience. I haven’t read the YA novels you mention. It sounds like an interesting way to introduce poetry to teens, though! Let us know how your read of Paradise Lost goes!

  • I will enjoy reading your posts on Paradise Lost even though I decided not to re-read it myself. I’ve read it twice, once as an undergrad and I loved it, and once for my master’s and I kept getting bored that time. I think that because I had just started working full time in the business world and I was having a hard time with focusing on poetry, which isn’t my favorite genre to begin with. The first time I read it, it was in a Wester Civ class everyone at my college was required to take sophomore year that was a year-long joint English and history course (which was a 6-hour course each semester) that I LOVED. It was wonderful to read everything chronologically, while geting an in-depth look at the history of the time as well. I tend to connect him more with Homer, Virgil, and Dante than Shakespeare because of that. I would actually like to re-read Dante, so maybe I’ll do that at some point this year.
    .-= Lindsey´s last post on blog ..Unclutter Your Life in One Week =-.

    • Lindsey, I’ve been connecting him with Homer in my mind too, a lot. I haven’t read Virgil yet, but this is getting me in the mood to read the Aeneid! I’ve never read Dante either. So much I still need to read!

  • Rebecca: I’m with you. I’m only on Book II, but plan to have a post before Monday, recapping my journey thus far with Milton.
    I’m reading a copy of Paradise Lost in The Complete Milton, a textbook that I had from college. Like your Norton’s edition, it has lots of footnotes, which help flesh out the text immensely — although many of the lines stand on their own, like the one you quoted. See you later as I continue reading here.
    .-= Unfinished Person´s last post on blog ..Music you shouldn’t have going through your head when you’re getting ready to go to church =-.

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