Below is a short extract taken from my "Guidebook to Paradise Lost" to give you a sense of what you will find in it, and how it might help you.
Paradise Lost is such a huge artistic endeavour, such a difficult and challenging poem to read and study, it is nigh on impossible to do so without a careful and detailed consideration of how it strives in its first lines to engage the reader. For this reason we will begin this study with a detailed analysis of the invocation which opens the poem. In these first twenty-six lines, Milton promises much. The question of whether he delivers or not is one of the chief pleasures facing any student new to the poem.
If, like many contemporary students of English literature, you find almost everything about the lengthy statement of intent that opens Paradise Lost, grandiloquent and something of a shock, don’t be either surprised or deterred. The latter half of the twentieth century has enjoyed and promulgated poetry in education that is, in even the simplest respects of length, syntax, structure and prosody, often the complete opposite of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in the English language. In more complex respects too, the late-twentieth-century poetry that contemporary students are more likely to have encountered, following the English literature curricula set by examination bodies, is often self-consciously biographical, secular, political or introspective. It is worth noting that even in Milton’s day, the sheer cultural scope and scale of his poem were extraordinary. And should you extend your studies into Milton’s life, you are likely to conclude that this is undoubtedly what he intended and hoped. He was a man of remarkable intellectual ability who, faced with an impressive choice of paths to follow, chose writing, and specifically poetry, as the form of expression best suited to convey his deepest held ideas and beliefs to a world he believed was in dire need of them.
Given the parameters of the historical knowledge you may have from wider reading about Milton himself, and the period of English political turmoil through which he lived and indeed figured prominently, the most effective way to study Paradise Lost is by engaging with it entirely on its own, astoundingly ambitious, terms. In these first few lines Milton declares his intention to ‘justify the ways of God to men’: to explain to a European audience made up of warring Catholics and Protestants, the very nature of God’s will, as experienced by his greatest creation, man. The term critics most often use to describe this intention, ‘theodicy’, was coined by a close contemporary of Milton’s, the German courtier and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his book Théodicée. This describes an attempt to resolve the contradiction that a good and kind God could either create or allow evil: a metaphysical dilemma as real for many Christians today in a troubled Global Village as it was in seventeenth-century Europe with half the planet yet to be discovered. If you doubt Milton’s sincerity in this, the entire poem will only ever feel like a rather curiously drawn out fairy tale, or at best religious mythology.
The mythical quality and connotations of the poem are something students are often quick to observe and one can see why when, in these first few lines, Milton makes one biblical or classical reference after another. Although Oreb, Sinai and Siloa may seem entirely unfamiliar, the prevalence of both biblical and classical references throughout the entire poem should impede neither your engagement with its ideas nor your enjoyment of it as poetry. Milton was a man completely steeped in the languages and literature of his era, the Greek and Latin of ancient playwrights, historians, poets and philosophers, the Hebrew of the Bible and the emerging strength of English as a language able to articulate difficult concepts previously reserved for these more ancient tongues. He was, without doubt, a brilliant Latinist.
Milton consciously chose to create, in English, a poem to equal the great epics of Virgil and Homer, and the later European epics like Spenser’s The Fairie Queene and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Allusion to classical and biblical writing is the invisible warp thread on which the visible, intricately beautiful tapestry of the entire poem is woven. Without its poetic antecedents, Paradise Lost could not exist, and a serious student of Milton will undoubtedly at some point feel the need to read and study those great works too. However, our immediate need is to find a way to read this delicate, complicated tapestry with understanding and pleasure, and, at this point, the opening passage.
One of the difficulties readers of Milton experience is his use of lengthy, convoluted sentences that challenge you to keep pace with the flow of ideas and imagery as clauses and phrases build and play with one another. Poetry is a kind of music, and however odd it might seem to you as a student, there really is no better way to relate to a poem than as a listener. In the absence of an audio version, or someone reading aloud, it may be helpful to read through difficult sections or sentences aloud to yourself. However you choose to approach your study practically, what matters is that the fundamental unit of meaning – which Milton’s education had equipped him to construct with great skill and art – the sentence, does not dissolve into a series of vaguely or intuitively related clauses or phrases more in the manner of an impressionist or mannerist poem.
One of the most successful tactics I have used when teaching poetry to students who are used to far shorter, self-contained sentences than the first sixteen lines we have to deal with here is to concentrate on using the punctuation as an entirely trustworthy guide. You might not fully understand or even partially understand the verse at first, but by trusting to the conventions of skilful editors and the often subtle effects of English punctuation you will find that some sense or a particular meaning will often suddenly strike you, when a less disciplined reading will have failed. More precisely, what this technique often uncovers, in sentences made up of several dependent clauses, is the main or dominant verb, in this case the ‘Sing’ of line 6. So the poem opens not only with a clear statement of its grand subject matter, the Fall and consequent possibility of Christian salvation, but with the epic poet’s conventional appeal for divine inspiration familiar to readers since Homer. But ‘Sing heavenly Muse’ (6) also conflates the poet and Muse in one united voice, a striking claim for the reader’s attention and respect. If we view this epic merely as the imaginative construct of a particularly creative and literate, seventeenth-century scholar and republican, then we underestimate both the poem and the man. Paradise Lost is Milton’s great project. Although he began writing poetry as a very young university student, and continued until his death aged sixty-six in 1674, Paradise Lost sits at the heart of his life’s work and his religious faith.