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)
Book Two: (The Council in Hell)
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.
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" ?
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
The book closes with the building of Pandemonium. Examine this
as an example of allegory.
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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