Paradise Lost is a retelling of the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden: that’s strike one against reading it for a lot of people. It’s told in the form of a ten thousand-line poem: that’s strike two. And, it doesn’t even rhyme: strike three, yer out! And yet it’s considered probably in the top five of the greatest works of English literature, and its author, John Milton (1608 – 1674) is considered by many to be of equal standing with Shakespeare.
These reviews have never been about convincing you to read a particular book. They are intended to explain why they are considered ‘classics’. And I think I can show why Paradise Lost is held in such high regard. But be warned: I will be discussing the finer points of poetry, so bail out now if you’re not ready to begin to appreciate what I consider to be the highest of all arts.
Paradise Lost is a reworking of the biblical Book of Genesis. For those not scarred by a catholic education, the Book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the universe; the war between the angels; the expulsion of Satan from Heaven; the Garden of Eden; the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan; and the subsequent ‘fall of man’. Just your run-of-the-mill indoctrination, then.
Milton’s take on that story is unique in that he also incorporates ancient myths and literary allusions in order to clarify and elaborate on events outlined in the Bible. Milton’s purpose was to “justify the ways of God to men”. Instead – inadvertently or not – he makes almost an anti-hero out of Satan.
I won’t go over the story in detail. If you’re religious, you will be familiar with it already; if you’re not religious, you won’t take it seriously anyway. As an atheist, I skimmed over the bits on God’s creation of the universe and Earth and the plants and animals. However, I enjoyed immensely all of the bits with Satan, many of which I wish to highlight in this review, if only because they’re so much fun.
We begin the story with the former angel Lucifer – now known as Satan – having been cast out of heaven for daring to challenge the authority of God. Satan broods in Pandemonium. Today ‘pandemonium’ means ‘wild and noisy; disorder and confusion; uproar’. It’s actually the name of Satan’s palace. Then there are Satan’s fellow demons: Beelzabub, Moloch, Azazel, Belial, Mammon. I only knew about these from bad 1980s metal bands. Each has its own unique personality, as evident when they are debating their next move against God: to have another crack, or accept their punishment and get used to it, or go crawling back to ask for forgiveness. Though they realise that they are essentially immortal, they know that they cannot defeat God. However, if they can’t defeat God directly, they can corrupt his most precious creation: Man.
‘Seduce them to our party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works. This would surpass
It is revenge by proxy. But who will do it? Satan acknowledges that if one wishes to rule, one should also be prepared to represent. Only once he has volunteered do the other demons half-heartedly volunteer, knowing that they will be safely refused yet still be seen to have volunteered:
‘Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refused) what erst they feared,
And so refused might in opinion stand
His rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn…’
It paints Satan as a stand-up, take charge kind of guy, and dare I say someone you wouldn’t mind having in your corner.
Before I continue with the story, let’s get into the technical aspects of the poem. A poem which does not rhyme is called ‘free verse’. Is that still considered poetry? Yes indeed, because poetry is all about the ‘meter’: the number of ‘feet’ (grouped syllables) to a line. For simplicity’s sake, a ‘foot’ consists of two syllables.
Let’s use the first line quoted above as an example. ‘Seduce’ – two syllables - is one ‘foot’. The meter is the number of feet to a line: ‘Seduce them to our party, that their God’ consists of five ‘feet’ (equalling ten syllables). This is referred to in poetry as a ‘pentameter’: a meter of five (penta) feet. Remember, it’s not the number of words in the line, but the number of syllables, ‘seduce’ and ‘party’ each having two syllables. The pentameter is the most common meter found in English poetry.
Now the fun starts. Try saying out loud the example sentence above with an equal emphasis (or ‘stress’) on each syllable. It sounds ridiculous and robotic because that’s not how spoken language works; when speaking – and always remember that poetry is specifically designed to be spoken aloud – we place varying emphasis on different syllables, lengthening or shortening them according to the message we’re trying to convey. A line of poetry consisting of equally stressed syllables would be unrealistic, not to mention boring and predictable, as I hope you’ve just demonstrated to yourself.
Try this instead: place a greater emphasis on the second syllable of each foot. I’ll highlight the syllables to be emphasised: ‘Seduce them to our party, that their God’. This emphasis on the second syllable of a foot is called an ‘iamb’. It turns an equally stressed “ti-ti” sound into an asymmetrically stressed “ti-tum” (if that makes it easier to comprehend). Five of these “ti-tum” sounds to a line is called an ‘iambic pentameter’. Of course, there are many different stress combinations in poetry, and as many meters (numbers of feet per line). What’s important in a poem is the consistency of the chosen meter throughout the poem.
It just so happens that Paradise Lost (and much of Shakespeare) is written in iambic pentameter. Here are more examples:
‘I know thee not, nor even saw till now
Sight more detestable than him and thee.’
‘Incensed with indignation Satan stood
Unterrified, and like a comet burned…
The great 20th century American poet Robert Frost commented that writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme is “like playing tennis without a net”, i.e. easy. It’s a witty remark from a man to whom rhyming poetry seemed so natural and effortless (for this reason I would recommend Frost as the poet that the novice begin with). Yet free verse does have rules and its own logic. Take this description of Satan’s army:
‘A forest huge of spears: and thronging helms
Appeared, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: anon they move.’
It’s a powerful image (by the way ‘serried’ means ‘packed close together’ – more on strict definitions later). It also illustrates some unique features of poetry. Note the grammatical pause halfway through the first and third line (after ‘spears’ and ‘immeasurable’ respectively), reflecting the patterns of natural speech. Adding to this, note also how the first line naturally moves to the second line, so that when spoken it could sound “and thronging helms appeared”: a poetic thought does not have to stop at the end of each line. Once you understand this, you see how seemingly separate lines actually make up an integrated, inseperable whole, and that’s how you should read it.
Finally, note that the third line contains eleven syllables; though for the sake of variety and interest some variation to the meter is acceptable in poetry, it is more likely that the ‘u’ in ‘immeasurable’ would be ‘scudded’ or not stressed, so that it would be pronounced as the (four syllabic) ‘immes’rable’.
Technically, it could be written:
‘A forest huge of spears:
and thronging helms appeared,
and serried shields in thick array of depth immeasurable:
anon they move.’
But there’s no order in this. And that’s the aesthetic and technical challenge of poetry: to fit the content into a coherent and logical structure. All great art is created withing constraints: the physical limitations of a painter’s canvas; the natural light of the landscape photographer; the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure of a pop song. For poetry, that constraint is the meter.
Paradise Lost of course also employs other typical poetic devices, such as alliteration (underlined below) in the section where it is describing the gates of Hell:
‘Hell bounds high reaching to the horrid roof
And thrice threefold the gates; three folds were brass.’
Note that ‘horrid’ originally meant ‘bristling’. Paradise Lost is also a lesson – or a reminder - in the specificity of language, and highlights how definitions change over time. My copy has 160 pages of notes (the poem itself runs for 288 pages), explaining the meanings of antiquated words and phrases as well as obscure or forgotten mythological and literary allusions:
Amazed: led through a maze
Fluctuates: moves like a wave (e.g. a snake)
Reluctant: struggling; writhing
Rare: spread out at wide intervals
Despised: looked down upon
Interview: mutual view
Remember these definitions next time you are reluctant to become involved in a complicated interview.
But back to the story. Satan must escape Hell so he can search for Man. The gates of Hell are guarded by Sin (a woman’s torso on a snake’s body) and Death (a dark, shapeless mass of evil). Satan is completely perplexed by Sin yet, like two alpha males, recognises the threat that Death poses. Nevertheless, Satan is prepared to square off with Death, even though he probably can’t win. Again, you can’t help but admire Satan’s commitment. Satan’s strategy is to convince Sin and Death to join him in his mission to corrupt man. Sin agrees and opens the gates of Hell for Satan to exit. But it’s not that simple: Hell is not merely directly below Earth, and there follows a long section on the physical layout of the universe. If anything, it’s an intriguing (and amusing) insight into the popular 17th century understanding of space.
Of course, God, being omniscient, is aware of Satan’s plans. And Satan knows that even if he were to ask God for forgiveness and be welcomed back into Heaven that he (Satan) would probably try it on again – and God knows it, too:
‘This knows my punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace.’
In other words, Satan is not going to give God the satisfaction of refusing him. Again, you can’t help but admire Satan’s honesty (and I hope that some of you have noted the perfect iambic pentameter of those lines).
Satan makes it to the Garden of Eden, and there is an extended description of the Garden and of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge and all that stuff. God sends down some of his angels to warn man. There’s Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel (‘the warlike angel’), but also Uzziel, Ithurial and Zephon; it’s strange that the former names are still popular today, whilst the latter are not.
Satan tells Gabriel that even if he (Satan) were taken back to God in chains, Gabriel himself is burdened by far heavier chains, for it is better to better to be ‘Free, and to none accountable; preferring / Hard liberty before the easy yoke’. It echoes what is perhaps Satan’s most famous line, and probably of the whole poem: ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven’. It bristles with defiance and utter disdain. You can’t help but admire it.
There are fantastic descriptions of the battle between the angels and Satan’s legions:
‘…for wide was spread
That war and various; sometimes on firm ground
A standing fight, then soaring on main wing
Tormented all the air; all air seemed then
Satan, as you’d expect, is front and centre in the action, telling the Archangel Michael:
‘Not think thou with wind
Of airy threats to awe whom yet with deeds
Thou canst not.’
In other words, you talk a big game, but you can’t back it up with action.
But Michael does injure Satan, though he does not kill him, and it is then that Satan realises he (and all other angels and demons) are immortal. And yet they may still feel pain, so why not continue the fight against the angels? The solution is better weapons, and the demons invent cannons and gunpowder. Not to be outdone, the angels come up with an even bigger weapon:
‘From their foundations loos’ning to and fro
They plucked the seated hills with all their load,
Rocks, waters, woods, and by the shaggy tops
Uplifting bore them in their hands amaze,’
The angels are literally lifting the tops from mountains and hurling them at the Satan’s legions: ‘With mountains as with weapons armed.’
After the battle, Satan retreats to Hell to await any potential initiates from the world of man, and the story peters out with a few more biblical tales – how God created the universe and Earth and man and all the plants and animals and all that stuff - which I skimmed over.
Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
There’s an admirable stoicism in those last three lines: it’s not where you are, but how you view it.
Is Paradise Lost a triumph of style over substance? After all, it’s essentially a remake of an older story. Ah, but like the recent trend for remaking old movies, it’s how the story is told; I didn’t care at all for the descriptions of how God supposedly created the universe and everything in it, but I did admire how Milton conveyed it. It’s a triumph of both artistic intent and endeavour.
Understanding iambic pentameter is the key to (finally) appreciating Shakespeare. For a general introduction into poetry and its myriad forms I cannot recommend highly enough Stephen Fry’s (he of Blackadder and Q.I. fame) The Ode Less Travelled.