It’s been twenty years since I read any of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In 1992 I was a college sophomore in Major British Writers I, and selections from Paradise Lost were on the syllabus. I know that I did the reading; I also know that I neither understood nor enjoyed what I read, and the paper that I wrote was probably awful and certainly careless. When I got my essay back, I saw marginal notes from the professor pointing out where I’d misquoted Milton; I remember thinking “How could she have noticed? This poem is about a million lines long, and she notices that I get a word or two wrong?!”
I hadn’t yet fallen in love with poetry, because I had not yet learned how to read it. It was the following semester (in Major British Writers II) that poetry “happened” for me, because my professor read the poems out loud to us. Robert Browning, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins - the music of poetry sank in, deeply, and after that I continued to read poetry and find the ways in which it showed me the world in new ways, and showed me the truth of my own heart.
But apart from teaching the sonnet “On His Blindness,” I never returned to Milton. I’d filed Paradise Lost under the heading “Works of Literature That Are Somehow Important But Certainly Not Interesting.” With so many other things to read, why go back to a poem I’d found dull?
Then I started to get some inklings that the failure was mine, not Milton’s. C.S. Lewis, whose writing has been and is so important to my own life and work, intensely admired Paradise Lost and even wrote a book about it: A Preface to Paradise Lost. As I began to read and study Charles Williams, I realized that Milton was extremely important to him as well.
This past winter, I had a Miltonic paradigm shift. I was visiting my friend Malcolm Guite in Cambridge, and in the course of an afternoon’s conversation about poetry, he pulled out a copy of Milton’s poem “Comus” and proceeded to read aloud to me a long extract from the poem.
I was spellbound. Here was music, philosophy, wit, beauty - wow!
And so when I got home I read “Comus” for myself - and loved it. But it wasn’t just that I’d been encouraged to read what I’d formerly dismissed: what made all the difference in my encounter with the poem was that I had heard the poem being read with vitality and understanding; the words had been incarnated for me, given to me in all their richness as something to be savored and rejoiced in right now as a present experience -- the complete opposite of ‘studying’ an ‘important poem’ and ‘understanding its significance’ and the like. A quarter-hour of hearing Milton read aloud that way opened the door to understanding his poetry in a way that countless hours of reading books about Milton’s poetry never could.
I knew I needed to read Paradise Lost - and now I wanted to as well.
But this time, I also knew I needed a friend to help me engage with the poem. So I turned to Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost - because although Lewis is dead, through his writing he is almost as present to me as a living friend. He loves the poem; he tells me why, and he explains how I can best come to love the poem too: by understanding what it is. It’s an epic, not a lyric: to enjoy it, I should read it in long stretches, feeling the sweep of it, being caught up in it - not stopping to analyze or linger over particular lines or images. Each of the poem’s twelve books has its own arc from beginning to end, and within each book there are long scenes of description or action, and long speeches by various characters, all of which are much more powerful if read through steadily - a book or at least a half-book at a time.
And that is how I have been reading Paradise Lost - and oh, it is a delight.
Reading it in a steady flow gets me into the rhythm of the blank verse and the music of the language, so that Milton’s words call up vividly in my imagination the scenes he describes: war in heaven, with Michael the Archangel leading the heavenly hosts against the rebel angels; the creation of the world and all its creatures, with the animals bursting forth from the womb of the earth; the conclave of Satan and the other fallen angels, each in their own twisted way attempting to justify their place in hell as better than heaven.
Reading it steadily has also helped me see the spiritual depth of the poem. If one reads just short extracts, Satan seems to have a certain grandeur and dignity; “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” seems almost plausible. But the grand sweep of Paradise Lost builds up, layer by layer, a clear-eyed and vivid picture of Satan that shows us the enemy of God as a constant liar, a vindictive spirit who would rather destroy anything he cannot rule, a narcissist who constantly returns to his self-created grievances with pettish indignation. It is a powerful picture and a chilling one, because everything that Milton puts into his character of Satan can be found close to home, in the human heart.
Now that I’ve been swept up by this grand poem, I know I’ll be back again, many more times: this, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, is not a book to read once and then shelve for another twenty years. I look forward to those future readings: all the more so, because now I know that I am reading in the glad company of friends: past, present, and future.
For your listening pleasure:
- NPR Books: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97831678
- University of Cambridge: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/collection/668015