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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 5 -- VIRTUE AND TRUTH -- THE EPIC --

Reading Assignment:

Note: Books I, II, IV and IX are included in the Demaria text, pp. 42-130; supplement your readings from the on-line Paradise Lost from New Arts Library.

    John Milton: selections from Paradise Lost 1667, 1674

    Book One: (The Invocation; Satan and Hell)

      ll 1-374; 523-798

    Book Two: (The Council in Hell)

      ll 1-505

Also read the headnotes to each book for a statement of the "argument." Read the notes provided on the handout for a summary.

DUE: Weekly Post #3 for England and Wales groups


Paradise Lost is probably the most important work we will be reading this semester, both in terms of the scope and significance of its literary achievement and because of its influence on the history of literature thereafter. We will discuss the work in five classes. This first class will be devoted to understanding Milton's project, interpreting the characters and appreciating the arguments presented, with particular attention to books I and II.

Milton's PL comes to serve as one of the most influential "origination myths" of western culture. In other words, for centuries PL has provided a compelling narrative to explain our human condition.

Generally stories with greatest explanatory power stay with us longest. Rather than suggest that this means PL is "true" we might consider why it has been so compelling for so long. Why is Milton's poem so enduring?

Recall Birenbaum's distinction between the naive reader and the sophisticated reader, and keep in mind that in order to appreciate Milton's work, we have to think of it both as a story that appeals to us and as a conscious construction of art.

Challenge yourself to read the Biblical passages that Milton builds his epic upon. See Paradise Lost for excerpts from both the King James Bible and a modern bible to compare. What do you learn?



Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


As you read the poetry, always aim for comprehension first. Milton's diction and epic similes can sometimes lead the mind away from the narrative he is developing. You need to pay careful attention to what Milton is doing in every line.

To get an overall sense of the poem and its contents, read through the arguments for all twelve books and/or view the summaries and questions and answers on the Paradise Lost Study Guide.

1.

Read Milton's note on "The Verse" of PL, page 42. What is the heroic measure of English verse? Why does Milton reject rhyme here? What impact does this have on the poem?

Lines 1-25 constitute what is known as the "invocation." Who does Milton invoke in these lines and to what purpose? How does Milton establish the tone of the poem?

What is it he pursues? What is his great subject?

What does he mean by saying he wants "To justify the ways of God to men" ?


2.

Note Milton's commitment to literature as argument. Every one of the character's we meet in this epic can argue eloquently. In some cases, the more eloquent the speaker, the more corrupt the argument. (How does this help exemplify the problems identified by Sprat, by the way?) Watch how Milton draws you in as a reader, asking you to agree or disagree with the views presented. By doing so, Milton forces you to commit yourself in mind and spirit. Monitor your reactions to the text, and note where you find yourself most engaged.

The action of the poem begins in medias res, in the midst of things. What is going on in the first book? How does Satan feel about his new situation? How do his reactions change over the course of the book?

Based on Satan's speeches in this book, how would you describe his character? Why does he see God as a Tyrant? What does he resolve?

The book closes with the building of Pandemonium. Examine this as an example of allegory.


3.

The council of hell in Book Two gives us a view of the main devils in Satan's troops. How do their individual speeches characterize the devils? Which of the responses is most compelling to you? Why?


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