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1. Cracking the Code of Milton
Reading Paradise Lost (Book I) for All It's Worth
You don't have to go very far in reading secondary literature on PL to run across statements that describe it as "one of the most beautiful works in world literature" or say that it is "considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest poems in the English language." Yet, despite the kudos regularly accorded PL, it presents significant obstacles for new and veteran readers alike. Among the obstacles are Milton's biblical and theological references, his allusions to classical mythology, his use of archaizing English even in the 17th century, the daunting length of the poem, and the way that the story continually "backtracks" in order to pick up important details of the overall narrative Milton wants to tell. In addition, the thick descriptions, frequent similes and inverted word order make it impossible to "speed read" the poem. Thus, though renowned, PL and its study is an intimidating prospect for the 21st century reader--even for one whose native language is English. It is, I imagine, the literary equivalent of running a marathon. You need lots of training, endurance and drink along the way...
Difficulties in Reading PL
Examples of the problems for readers of PL are strewn throughout the poem like the Rebel Angels that lay scattered in piles on the Lake of Fire in Hell. One example will have to suffice here. At the beginning of Book IV Milton turns his attention to Paradise, the Garden of Eden and the first attempt of Satan to seduce Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. The story would have been a familiar one to anyone in the 17th century, and is still known in the twenty-first, but teachers cannot assume that students really know well the first three chapters of Genesis. But that really isn't the major obstacle in approaching Book IV. Milton begins Book IV with an image taken from Revelation 12 of an angel crying out in warning to the inhabitants of the earth that Satan is about to unleash a fierce attack on the earth. This attack would happen at the time of the birth of the Messiah. But the language of Revelation 12 itself is ambiguous, because some of it suggests a Satanic attack on the child when newly born while other of it proposes an attack at the end of time. In any case, Milton mentions the language of this story twice in the first several lines of Book IV not to talk about the events of Revelation 12 but solely to focus on the nature of the warning given there and not given to our first parents in the Garden of Eden. That is, he invokes Revelation 12 as if to say, "I wish there had been the same kind of warning to our first parents in Eden as the inhabitants of the earth received in later times--of Satan's malefic plans." We need this explanation to get us through the first ten or so lines of Book IV. Unless a student is incredibly diligent, s/he will just "skip over" the first several lines, missing the energy and method of Milton as s/he does.
Such "difficulties" with Milton can easily be multiplied. You will have to trust me on that one at this point.
What To Do? (i.e., What Others Have Done)
Editors of PL generally handle this difficulty in one of three ways: (1) produce a PL edition with few notes and with these notes intending to clarify Milton's language; (2) produce a PL edition with copious notes, with the notes focusing not only on clarifying language but showing Milton's various literary indebtednesses, whether to the Bible, theology, classical mythology, geographers of the seventeenth century or other medieval and ancient sources; (3) produce "summaries" of each of the books of PL, as well as an overall summary so that students at least can "get their bearings" as they read.
But there are significant problems with each one of these approaches to PL. Let's begin with (3). This is the format for popular online material, such as Spark Notes. If you examine one of those essays, let us say the one on Book I.28-end of Book I, you get a readable, useful essay that reviews for you the flow of the narrative and the leading points of each speech or action in Book I. Yet, you are left completely in the dark regarding what any poet or writer will tell you is essential to appreciating an author--the images developed, the words selected, the intimate details of the action. Spark Notes are useful, to be sure, but not if you seek to follow the mind of Milton and really comprehend the literary energy and ambition of the poem. They skim the surface. They give you an overview of the land from 30,000 feet.
Approach (1) has its advantages, too. One of the leading examples of this approach is Prof. Christopher Ricks' edition in the Signet Edition. Ricks provides a brilliantly helpful essay orienting us to Milton as a writer of epic poetry, but his notes are of the "clarification of language" type. To choose a page at a venture, page 74 presents Book II, lines 133-171. There are only three notes for these 39 lines of Milton's text. The notes tell us that the word "belike" in line 156 means "no doubt," that "impotence" also in line 156 means "lack of self-restraint" and that "amain" in line 165 means "with all speed and force." Helpful indeed in order to get the most basic understanding of the words, but not illuminative at all regarding Milton's literary indebtednesses. Thus, one can read the poem fairly quickly while missing about 90% of it.
In order to redress this lack, approach (2) exists. This way of considering PL offers a variety of editions, ranging from the impressive recent Variorum edition, which is outside the price range of nearly everyone except libraries, whose copies always seem to checked out to professors or have been stolen, to more accessible versions such as the 2008 edition in the Modern Library Edition edited by William Kerrigan or the very popular edition by Prof. Merritt Hughes in the last generation. Some of the insights in these editions are priceless and the scholarship is impressive. Yet the impressiveness of the editions, often marked by more extensive footnotes than lines of Milton's poetry on a page, manages to slow down the reading of PL so much that you aren't quite sure if you are reading a poem or reading a commentary. Well, in fact, you are reading both. This activity sometimes produces great insights but often it results in choppy reading, extremely slow-going and, ultimately a mind divided. Even the most eager student feels that the modern commentary "overwhelms" Milton, and his voice as a poet is all but lost. Milton remains an inaccessible mystery, and the student is submerged with data.
What These Essays Try To Do
I try to avoid the pitfalls of these approaches to PL in these essays. It doesn't aim primarily to simplify to clarify a few words of Milton's language, though I spend a lot of time in these essays speaking of his words. Nor does it try to provide an encyclopedic tool that gives us all the literary indebtednesses of Milton, though I try to be faithful in that endeavor. What I do here is to provide a literary "companion" to PL that closely follows and brings alive each unit of text of Book I so that PL becomes more accessible and pleasurable to student and scholar alike. I do so not through extensive textual notes nor through 20 page "chapters" on various topics in PL, but through a series of "mini-essays" that illumine, challenge, probe and reveal. They are especially designed for those who would like to be brought not simply into the general flow of the text but into the very turns of Milton's phrases. These essays are designed to present Milton's authorial energy, linguistic brilliance, theological insight, human appeal, literary dependences.
In order to "crack the code" of Milton, you must go "line by line" as well as "section by section." You also need the "big picture summary." These essays provides all three. But because it provides all three, and tries to do so with faithfulness to the text, I focus at first only on Book I of PL. I need the length of an entire (modern) book to make sure that I was carefully capturing most of the significant issues in Book I. But by presenting Milton in this way, through many short probing essays rather than through copious textual notes, Milton not only comes alive to us, but you, the reader, achieve a sort of "breakthrough" with Milton so that you have a method and energy to consider Books II-XII. Once you learn how to read Milton in the way suggested in these essays, you will find yourself probing the text far more deeply and coming up with insights far more compelling, I am convinced, than simply using textual notes in the various editions of PL. Make no mistake, however. I am grateful for all the work of literary and textual scholars before me, beginning with Addison's essays of 1712 and Thomas Newton's first Variorum commentary in 1749. Their suggestions are often incorporated into many of my mini-essays.
My hope, then, is that these essays will enable you to discover the riches of PL, pehaps for the first time. Your life will be enriched through patient effort to understand PL. Much of English literature and poetry will be a snap for you once you have cracked the code of PL. You can bank on it.