Analyze Books I, II, IV, V
Paradise Lost is might be considered 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 two 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, II, IV, V.
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 the 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?
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 1817. 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 characters we meet in this epic can argue eloquently.
In some cases, the more eloquent the speaker, the more corrupt
the argument. 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 readings in books IV and V reflect, perhaps, the best known of the biblical stories
that Milton adapted, the creation of Adam and Eve. For this reason, it is particularly
interesting to compare the selections from Genesis with Milton's text. See
Paradise Lost for excerpts from both
the King James Bible and a modern bible to compare.
How does Milton characterize Adam and Eve through their speech?
What is Adam like? What is Eve like? In particular, what does
Eve's memory of her birth suggest?
How does Satan react to Adam and Eve's love? What is the allegorical
signficance of this?
Note Milton's description of the domestic bliss of Adam and Eve.
In particular pay attention to the lovely lines of Eve: 635-658.
These lines can be read alone as a love poem. Note how this
exemplifies the different forms of poetry incorporated into the epic.
Milton's description of their connubial love is quite famous
-- next week we will compare this description of sex with what follows after
the Fall in book nine. What argument does Milton make in
favor of wedded love?
Consider the last lines I asked you to read in Book IV: "Sleep on / Blest pair;
and O yet happiest if ye seek / No happier state, and know to know no more" (773-775).
What does the poet's admonition suggest about the state of bliss /paradise? How
might this relate to God's prohibition on the Tree of Knowledge? Given that
the purported knowledge to be gained is that between good and evil, what does
this prohibition (and admonition) have to do with
the presence of evil (ie. why does God allow evil to exist
in paradise? Or at all for that matter?)?
Eve's dream in Book Five is important in terms of the action
of the poem and the characterization of both Adam and Eve.
What does the dream portend? Why does it upset Adam so much?
What is his reaction? And what does his reaction tell us
about his character?
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