After nearly two years, I have finished Paradise Lost, and along with the great Dr. Johnson, do not wish it longer than it is.
But I also recognize at least some of the merits of the poem. So where Johnson says “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again,” I would like to remind myself what kept me going through what at times felt like a slog.
I was impressed, for instance, at Milton’s ability to create a kind of physics for Heaven and Hell. His prelapsarian cosmology is one of his major feats in this poem, and it’s plausible to think that in this Miltonian astrophysics, the tossing of Satan and his minions from heaven is itself the Big Bang.
Some of the verses I enjoyed:
I thence invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
that with no middle flight intends to soar
above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Instruct me, for thou knowst; thou from the first
Was present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dovelike satst brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
that to the height of this great argument
I may assert the eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men
[to which Housman replies in his poem ‘Hughley Steeple’ “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man“]
The mind is its own place, and in itself
can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
I find a note that at some point I muse that Satan is a Creationist, a trope for fundamentalists. I’m obviously trying to keep myself amused.
Those bad angels……
….down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the plain;
A multitude, like which the populous north
Poured never from her frozen loins, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the south, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands.
[my note; sweeping forward to unsettle civilization as barbarian hordes ever have, as fundamentalists do now]
His Puritan disgust comes through in line 370-372,
‘Oft to the image of a brute, adorned
With gay religions full of pomp and gold
…For spirits when they please
Can Either sex assume, or both; so soft
and uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with join or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape the choose
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfill.
[just like ideas]
In temples and at altars, when the priest
Turns atheist, as did Ely’s sons, who filled
With lust and violence the house of God
(fallen angels, fallen men…but in another poem Milton calls Presbyterians the sons of Eli)
Satan’s standard is beautiful:
“The imperial ensign, which full high advanced
Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind
with gems and golden luster rich imblazed,
Seraphic arms and trophies:”
There is the suggestion of God on other planets [but no, I’ve misread it – he’s hinting at the creation of humans] –
“There went a fame in heaven that he ere long
Intended to create, and therein plant a generation , whom his choice regard
Should favour equal to the sons of heaven;
He works so many allusions from the roman and greek myths in that there are times when he seems to be celebrating paganism.
An addendum on the poem: Heroic Milton: Happy Birthday, a somewhat pedantic essay from the New York Review of Books that summarizes several of the works put out in honor of Milton’s 400th birthday last year.