Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The semester has begun . . .

. . . and I'm wondering why more graduate students don't want to read all of Milton's Paradise Lost.

Who can resist a poem that begins:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

These 26 opening lines to Paradise Lost, Book 1 should entice anyone, right?

Apparently not.

Students take one look and think, "Twelve books of this stuff? Twelve books in one poem? Why does it take so long to justify God's ways?"

Length raises suspicions that God's ways are not easy to justify, maybe not justifiable, and likely don't justify the effort.

The good new is that Milton takes his time because he's got a great story to tell.

Actor John Basinger knows this and has taken the effort not just to read the poem but to memorize and perform it.

In December 2001, he gave a 3-day, one-man performance of all twelve books at Three Rivers Community College. He plans to give another performance of all twelve books on December 9, 2008, the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth. Meanwhile, anyone interested in tapes or discs of his 2001 performance can contact him by email:

I would bet that his performance justifies the effort.


At 10:52 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm not surprised students would be underwhelmed by the notion of reading twelve books of Milton's Paradise Lost. I love the poem, don't misunderstand me. But, I've never seen any devotion to study displayed by South Korean college students, especially if one looks at it as advocates of "lifelong or continuing" education do. South Koreans just don't see reading the same way some post-graduation western people do.

For what it's worth, though, I would de-emphasize the religious angle of the poem and stress Milton's commnetary on war. I would emphasize Milton's role in the civil wars, and how his criticisms of the royalist party influences his depictions of the rebellious angels, God, and Adam's fall. Also, recalling that the poem became a bestseller because of the risque portrayal of Adam and Eve, I would emphasize Milton's unorthodox views on love, particularly, his view that relationships dispel loneliness. I don't see why using some of the remarkable illustrations designed to color scenes, particularly by the Romantics, as useful also. Milton, for all his unorthodoxy, today looks threadbare again. He definitely was not, nor will not be, the last author to use sexual imagery and glorifications of evil to make a moral point. But, for these students especially, I think you should give Milton's Satan and Eve all the glory to turn students' heads.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, J.S., for the excellent suggestions. I'll give them some thought and perhaps use them in future course descriptions:

When Adam delved
And Eve span,
Who was then
The gentleman?

Find out precisely what sort of 'delving' and 'spanning' were going on in that pleasure garden of earthly delights.

What the devil was Eve up to when she wandered away from Adam?

Want to know what was really going on between Eve and that 'snake' under the tree of 'knowledge'?

Then, sign up for Milton's Paradise Lost.

It'll open your eyes!

At 2:42 AM, Blogger Hypersonic said...

Jeff, you should write back cover blurbs. I'm still plodding the Paradise Lost after about 15 years. I delved back into it because of some research I'm doing on Gnosticism.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Alistair, here's a site that might interest you:

Gary A. Anderson, "The Fall of Satan in the Thought of St. Ephrem and John Milton," in Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 2000).

It's not about Gnosticism, but it shows how Milton used an old story of Satan's rebellion that was also known in Judaism and Islam . . . and likely in Gnosticism as well.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Hypersonic said...

thanks Jeff but that link seems to be dead. I can't explore it further because I'm having a problem with my browser.

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Alistair.

For some reason, the pasting isn't working, but I failed to notice in my previous comment. Here it is again, broken up so that it will fit:

You'll need to copy both lines, then paste them together (but if your browser isn't working, you might still have a problem).

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Hypersonic said...

Thanks Jeff, it now works fine and I'll sit down and read it as soon as I finish Aquinas.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I couldn't resist the poem, as I read it to my class as we turned to Genesis 1-2 last Thursday.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scot, thanks for visiting my humble blog.

Yes, Milton is really great . . . for all sorts of reasons.

But you surely didn't read ALL of Paradise Lost to your class . . . did you?


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