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John Milton

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Title: Paradise Lost
Author: John Milton
Year: 1674

I find it somewhat difficult to approach texts held in very high esteem by a lot of people, especially if the work is considered a classic of some kind. On the positive side it can be said that these works often have at least some sort of merit that makes them worthwhile, even though that aspect might not tally well with my own preferences. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most highly esteemed works in the English language, which made me tremble a little before reading it. Would my taste be in line with legions of scholars, readers and critics?

It turned out I had no reason to worry. I have read the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. I bought it because I thought extensive comments would be needed in order to understand anything at all (as in some Shakespeare I have read, a good guide is essential). This proved not to be the case. Paradise Lost is written in iambic pentameter, familiar to me since studying Macbeth. The verse is somewhat tricky and the grammatical composition is ofter far from obvious, but I still felt that this text is something that is possible to read without much help. More than that, it is enjoyable to read, even when missing most of the good bits because of sheer ignorance.

The story is taken from Genesis. Satan has rebelled against heaven, and, defeated, has been cast down to hell, where he plans his revenge on God. Knowing that he cannot win outright war against an omnipotent power, he sets about corrupting one of God’s creations, mankind. He persuades Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, leading to her and Adam’s expulsion from Paradise.

There are many interesting aspects of this epic poem, many more than I care to note here. On the whole, the poem is extremely well composed in every imaginable way. Reading  critique on the poem afterwards further deepened this impression. Everything seems to have a meaning, from the composition of the verse to the choice of words. I find it somewhat troublesome that the comments in the footnotes are a bit too scarce and about the wrong things; I would have liked to have more on what I just mentioned (technical details) rather than explanations of the grammar. I read most of the poem aloud and it sounds nice as well.

All of these positive things were to be expected. However, I did not expect Paradise Lost to be truly interesting when it comes to actual content, but it was. Following Satan’s soliloquies and the discussions of Adam, Eve and the angels is intriguing. There are many accurate and thought-provoking portrayals of human nature, something that sounds like a cliché, but is true in this case. Also, they feel relevant today, more than three centuries later, because they are indeed discussions of the essence of being human.

I feel I should spend more time on Paradise Lost than I have done so far, but it shall have to wait. I have other things on my mind at the moment. Still, this Norton Critical Edition contains many essays and musing on the text, so it will be easy to know where to look for more next time (I did not read all of the essays this time around). I am very impressed by Milton thus far, much more impressed than by Shakespeare. It feels good to be able to appreciate a genuine classic straight away, but I still feel that the true greatness lies beyond my understanding at the moment, so four tentative snails will have to do for John Milton and Paradise Lost.

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