Friday Faves: Paradise Lost by John Milton

Each week on Friday Faves I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction. This week’s book is shared by William Yeoman, Books Editor at The West Australian.

Puritan poet and pamphleteer John Milton’s Paradise Lost, that sprawling blank-verse epic of love, betrayal and war on a massive scale that attempts “to justify the ways of God to men”, has the reputation for being a bit of a borefest. It’s anything but, and is among my top ten books of all time. Why?

Every great story has a memorable hero and a memorable villain. In Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, Satan is both. Not that Milton, who took Oliver Cromwell’s side during the English Civil War, intended it that way: the poet William Blake said Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.

Milton’s Satan is the ultimate rebel; as Joseph Wittreich says in Why Milton Matters: “Paradise Lost was the text the Hell’s Angels packed away in their hip pockets.”

Satan is also a mass of contradictions: beautiful yet scarred, immortal yet tortured by existential angst, evil yet sometimes remorseful, perfidious yet loyal. And what better advice to an adolescent than his, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”?

I remember first coming across Paradise Lost in a library while I was at a Catholic boarding school. Of course it’s supposed to be a religious work with political overtones but I felt like I’d discovered somebody’s porno mag hidden between the Bibles and theological dissertations, such was the rush of excitement.

The effect was lasting. A couple of years later, I was skirting fleeces for a bunch of shearers down south. In the evenings we’d drink beer and watch Bruce Lee films; but at nights, sleeping under the stars in the back of dad’s ute, lines like “Him the Almighty Power/Hurled headlong flaming from th’Ethereal Sky” would come flooding back to me, their power undiminished.

Poetry is language at full tilt, with grammar, diction and syntax all pushed to their maximum potential. As a result, you too are pushed to your maximum potential. Poetry forces you to think not only laterally but every which way, leaving cryptic crosswords and Sudoku for dead.

It’s true, most people, especially teens, find poetry boring, unless perhaps it’s embodied in rap. As the poet and critic Randall Jarrell once ironically said of Paradise Lost: “The ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it — instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the 10 dullest books he has ever read.”

But the point of the above quote is that the reader in question hasn’t actually read it. For much of Milton’s 400th birthday in 2008, schools and universities throughout the world were engaged in Milton marathons, nonstop readings of Paradise Lost, winning new fans for the poem in the process. As one undergraduate at an American university said: “It’s a really cool story, which I wasn’t expecting.”

[Satan] spake: and to confirm his words, out-flew

Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs

Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze

Far round illumin’d hell: highly they rag’d

Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arm’s

Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war,

Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n.

William Yeoman is Books Editor and Senior Arts Writer for The West Australian newspaper. He has been a chair at the Perth Writers Festival and the Melbourne Writers Festival, MC at the Geraldton Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival, a judge for the TAG Hungerford Award and a keynote speaker at the Public Libraries WA 2011 Biennial Conference.

Are you of the shudder and dismiss school when it comes to giant poetic works?Or can you appreciate the thrill of Milton?I admit to being one of the former, but after reading this, I’m thinking of having another go.

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Friday Faves  Paradise Lost by John Milton   ANNABEL SMITH

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