Paradise Lost for Beginners: in which, with no critical apparatus, and only my own consciousness for a tool, I almost begin to read one of the greatest poems ever written

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The Japanese Garden at Calderstones, 18 August, after heavy rain

Celebrating 350 years since the first publication of Paradise Lost, tomorrow at Milton’s Cottage, readers will stage a complete promenade-style reading of the poem. I wish I could be there! So in spirit of gratitude to Milton, tomorrow I am going to make a start on  the poem and I plan to add it to my list of things I’m working here on this blog.

The event brings together three things I love, Paradise Lost, reading aloud shared among a group of people, and an ancient and lovely Grade 1 building and its  garden (filled with plants mentioned by Milton.)

For Reader Leaders running Shared Reading  groups in  care homes,  prisons or probation hostels,  community libraries, cafes, or mental health drop-ins, chronic pain clinics or addiction rehabs, Paradise Lost might look a step too far. As someone who has read in each of the above I have to agree, it is no easy sell.  But do not be daunted. This is one of the greatest works of art ever created – why not try it?

Don’t rush into it.  Take it as you’d take a trip to Everest: do some prep, get some fellow-explorers, get some tents and provisions, and get a guide.

But that’s the problem, I think. For Paradise Lost there are no oxygen tanks and very little in the way of guides. And if you chose a guide, very likely, it would be an academic guide, which would make it hard to understand, more like an engineering manual.  We need straight from the box usability.  As anyone who has ever  got a new phone or new computer or even a new coffee maker, knows, straight from the box usability is never as simple as it sounds – you will have to set aside time and brace yourself as you  learn to press the on/off switch. Where is that one/off switch anyway?

I begin by taking courage from  a line in Book 4 of the poem:

And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear, 
Light after light well us’d they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.

For me, in Paradise Lost, as in any work of literature,  I begin, unashamedly, with myself. I’m reading this to get something huge and complex in my head, to learn some things about being human, and to  go through a long meeting of minds with Milton. Only I can really do that – it is an experience I’m going to have. It’s not something someone else – however  well-versed in history, critically intelligent or well-practiced they are – can do for me.  I have within me this thing Milton calls  an umpire, ‘conscience’, and that piece of human equipment is what I’m going to use to make a start on this poem. I’m going to  ask myself what I think, I’m going to make judgement calls, I’m going to think.  You might be asking the following questions:

Question: There will be many things I don’t understand – doesn’t that matter?

Answer: Reading Milton is like (I imagine ) going to China. You have to expect there will be millions of things you don’t understand.  Don’t let that put you off.  Go!

Question: The language is difficult, I won’t be able to understand it

Answer: That’s not a question. Accept that the language is foreign to you but so what? Read aloud slowly, learn about the rhythm of sentences as you go,  and perhaps listen to other readings (you tube, bbc, naxos)  to get your ear tuned to it. Don’t panic – you’ll get into it.

Question: It’s religious and I’m not!

Answer: Again, not a question. These are simply statements of anxiety! This is the big one, though.  For  people who are not religious there’s a mental, spiritual leap to made. You have to read the poem as a story. Which is how Milton sets it up – it’s a human trying  to explain a puzzling state of affairs in the experience of the world. It’s worth reading Genesis, the first book of the Bible,  Milton’s source,  to have an idea of the differences. You read it as a story but then you let the story come to life.

For the reading, I like the old Longman edition, edited by Alastair Fowler, which is what I used for my first readings of the poem thirty odd years go. I know its shape, can remember particular pages. But Oxford World’s Classics is also good, and there are lots of online texts (I like this one with each line numbered, and this one from Dartmouth College, which has sometimes helpful  notes. Think of those notes as what mountain climbers call pitons.  You might be glad of them, other times they may seem irrelevant or even dangerous).

I’m very choosy – some parts bore me and I skip over them. I’m here for the bits that don’t bore me, that burst into life in my head and seem to offer  creative fire to make me think thoughts about some of the most difficult bits of life. That’s why I’m doing this! I need help.


Tomorrow, I’ll make a start on the opening:



This first Book proposes, first in brief, the whole Subject, Mans disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was plac’tThen touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent; who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many Legions of Angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven with all his Crew into the great Deep. Which action past over, the Poem hasts into the midst of things,presenting Satan with his Angels now fallen into Hell, describ’dhere, not in the Center (for Heaven and Earth may be suppos’d as yet not made, certainly not yet accurst) but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest call’d Chaos: Here Satan with his Angels lying on the burning Lake, thunder-struck and astonisht, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in Order and Dignity lay by him; they confer of thir miserable fall. Satan awakens all his Legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; They rise, thir Numbers, array of Battelthir chief Leaders nam’d, according to the Idols known afterwards in Canaan and the Countries adjoyning. To these Satan directs his Speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new World and new kind of Creature to be created, according to an ancient Prophesie or report in Heaven; for that Angels were long before this visible Creation, was the opinion of many ancient Fathers. To find out the truth of this Prophesie, and what to determin thereon he refers to a full Councel. What his Associates thence attempt. Pandemonium the Palace of Satan rises, suddenly built out of the Deep: The infernal Peers there sit in Councel.

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men


Finally: Paradise Lost  translated…




Silas Marner Day 28: I want more Dolly

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Agapanthus and Red Hot Pokers at Kew. 

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 15 today.  Yesterday’s post was continuing that slow read –  in chapter 14 – but today I’m speeding up a little. I’m thinking about how I time things when running a Shared Reading group. Not everything goes at the same speed. sometimes Shared Reading is a slow canal boat, sometimes a walk, but sometimes you get in the car and go fast.

People who have read with me a lot will say, ‘You don’t time things! You always go slowly!’ and I have to admit that’s true in the sense that I’d be happy to spend two hours going deeply into some lines… but then to make up time – and not get bored –  I’m going to rush past lots of other stuff.  Whole chapters sometimes. Whole books of  Paradise Lost – the war in Heaven, pah! But these lines, from Book 4, seem worth staying in for an hour or two:

                                                             for now
Satan, now first inflam’d with rage, came down,
The Tempter ere th’ Accuser of man-kind, [ 10 ]
To wreck on innocent frail man his loss
Of that first Battel, and his flight to Hell:
Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt, which nigh the birth [ 15 ]
Now rowling, boiles in his tumultuous brest,
And like a devellish engine back recoiles
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stirr
The Hell within him for within him Hell [ 20 ]
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place:

Paradise Lost is in my mind because Megg sent me a notice about @Milton’sCottage ( and I’m excited by the idea of their all-day reading aloud of Paradise Lost coming up on Sunday,  the 350th anniversary of the  poem’s publication. Hurray!

I’m going to read  some lines from Paradise Lost here on this blog so I can join in, in spirit. But that’s Sunday! Jane – get back to today’s text.

So deep slow waters, getting to the bottom of things, then  the passing over. We left Silas dressing the baby, and now I  float through the rest of the chapter – where Silas gives the baby his mother and sister’s name, Eppie (Hepzibah) and we’re into chapter 14.

As Silas becomes Eppie’s parent, we turn back to Godfrey, still trammelled in his inability to be honest:

There was one person, as you will believe, who watched with keener though more hidden interest than any other, the prosperous growth of Eppie under the weaver’s care. He dared not do anything that would imply a stronger interest in a poor man’s adopted child than could be expected from the kindliness of the young Squire, when a chance meeting suggested a little present to a simple old fellow whom others noticed with goodwill; but he told himself that the time would come when he might do something towards furthering the welfare of his daughter without incurring suspicion.

Do you find yourself judging Godfrey? I do. I get angry with him and I dislike his hiddeness ,and yet I can’t help identifying with him, too.  He’s here father but the  exigency of class and Godfrey’s desire to married to Nancy Lammeter override that. He’s weak! ‘He dared not’… but he comforts himself with the thought that he might ‘do’ something later. And George Eliot pushes it a bit further, go on, ask yourself, those things you’ve left undone, do they bother you?

Was he very uneasy in the meantime at his inability to give his daughter her birthright? I cannot say that he was. The child was being taken care of, and would very likely be happy, as people in humble stations often were– happier, perhaps, than those brought up in luxury.

It is easier for Godfrey to assume all’s well ( and it is, luckily for Eppie). Do you sense an edge of self-pity in his thought that those in humble stations are often happier than those brought up in luxury, such as himself ?

That famous ring that pricked its owner when he forgot duty and followed desire–I wonder if it pricked very hard when he set out on the chase, or whether it pricked but lightly then, and only pierced to the quick when the chase had long been ended, and hope, folding her wings, looked backward and became regret?

I don’t remember the story of this ring – have to look it up in the notes. But I haven’t got any notes here this morning, so I’m guessing – as I would do in a group, if our books had no notes,  this is a reference to some myth or fairytale  but George Eliot is  putting the metaphor of that ring into reality:  when do you feel the pain of putting your own desire before a duty?  Probably not at the moment of  indulging the desire  – which she calls here the chase, the hunt –  but much, much later, when it is all over when ‘hope’ becomes ‘regret’. Ouch.

George Eliot is going to show us that change from ‘hope’ to ‘regret’ in Godfrey – and as her work as novelist unfolds, in many, many people – but it is going to take some unfolding. It’s going to take time. Meanwhile, with a lucky escape behind him (lucky for him that his wife, the drug-addict Molly, died before she could expose him) and the prospect of marrying Nancy before him, he is feeling pretty good;

He felt a reformed man, delivered from temptation; and the vision of his future life seemed to him as a promised land for which he had no cause to fight. He saw himself with all his happiness centred on his own hearth, while Nancy would smile on him as he played with the children.

And that other child–not on the hearth–he would not forget it; he would see that it was well provided for. That was a father’s duty.

The key word here is ‘felt’.  He felt a reformed man but he was not a reformed man,  nothing had changed. He is lying to himself, tricking himself, lettinghimself off. He is not ‘delivered from temptation’ – he’s had a narrow escape but he hasn’t resisted or fought temptation in any way. He just got lucky. Now the promised land  of Nancy is going to slide towards him with ‘no cause to fight’.  He’s not going to win a life, he’s going to get it, but with very little effort.  Easy living. And as for Eppie –  not recognised as one of his own children, not playing on his own hearth – he’ll salve his conscience. He won’t feel bad. He will let himself off the hook. He’ll be at ease.

Next chapter  takes us forward 16 years, so we’ll stop here for now.

Phew, that Godfrey Cass has got me into a pretty bad temper. I need more Dolly Winthrop!


Silas Marner Day 27 : A Quickening and a Growth Mindset and then Dress That Baby!

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Some growth mind set yellow flowers at Kew – at least tewn feet tall – what are they?

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 14, at the point where Dolly Winthrop is offering to  help Silas in looking after the child. I want to read this chapter very slowly, stopping to think a lot about Dolly, and why she matters as a human model. Why do I love Dolly Winthrop so much? She’s astute and quick, which is deeply attractive, but it’s her loving kindness, too, that pulls me towards her. Here is Silas, not just a bachelor, but an oddball, who has been called a witch and probably worse, in the village and is known to have fits; what does Dolly see? A human creature vulnerably roused to life by caring for a baby;

 “Eh, to be sure,” said Dolly, gently. “I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children. The men are awk’ard and contrairy mostly, God help ’em–but when the drink’s out of ’em, they aren’t unsensible, though they’re bad for leeching and bandaging–so fiery and unpatient. You see this goes first, next the skin,” proceeded Dolly, taking up the little shirt, and putting it on.

“Yes,” said Marner, docilely, bringing his eyes very close, that they might be initiated in the mysteries; whereupon Baby seized his head with both her small arms, and put her lips against his face with purring noises.

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

Dolly’s general observations about men are undercut by specifics she has observed and noted, (‘I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children’). There’s also the loving ,uncritical ‘god help ’em’ which seems to forgive or at least generously accept the general ways of things. But what I really love here is the inconsequential conversational meander from men being bad at leeching and bandaging ‘so fiery and unpatient’ with barely a full stop between her kind instruction to Silas, ‘You see this goes first, next the skin.’

She’s teaching and talking, talking partly almost to herself. Silas  has so much to learn – not just about the baby, but about being in a room with another creature, about conversation. Everything in this scene feels to me tender, almost raw, there’s something almost baby-like about Silas himself, he is a creature just born into this new part of life.  How lovely to have Dolly alongside. When the baby grabs him, she takes it as a clue:

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Is Dolly imagining here, with an instinctive growth mindset, what will happen to Silas as the years of raising this child unfold? She is a parent herself. It’s the thought – that Silas might want, need, to say he has done for the baby from the first, that I find so moving. Dolly imagining the pride and sense of achievement Silas will build. I know right now that she is going to be a good friend, a guide, to him through whatever lies ahead. This generous – you take it – act is an act of belief. A less tactful, or a less sensitive, or a less feeling intelligence, would simply have dressed the child, instructing Silas verbally.  But Dolly trusts him and hands over.

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

I’d want to reread Silas’ trembling  ‘something unknown dawning on his life’  and ask my group have you ever had that feeling of something irrevocably serious in your life? Can we imagine how that feels?

My group will say things like:

I felt like  when I made my wedding vows.

I felt like it when I got my divorce papers someone else will laugh.

I felt it  when I got my diagnosis, though it wasn’t a happy feeling like this is, it was like, oh, this is my life now.

I felt it when my first child was born.

I’d want to think about how those feelings felt and whether or not we can think when we are feeling so much. I’d want to look again at the words in the paragraph;

Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child.

Silas is thinking  (gold/child/child/gold)  and feeling (gold/child/child/gold) at the same time. We know he loved the gold, felt warm companionship  when he gazed on the faces of the coins. But the word ‘love’ isn’t here, we only know, and he only knows, it is ‘an emotion mysterious to himself’. It is deeper than language or thought, this exchange of one love object for another. And dressing the child, taking parental responsibility for her, soon elbows complicated  language-less feeling aside.  In the next sentence he is dealing with baby’s gymnastics. So life pushes us on.


Things being Brilliant at Kew

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Agapanthus and Echinacea  in  The Broad Walk Border at Kew

Yesterday I went to Kew Gardens to attend the People’s Postcode Lottery Gathering 2017 – imagine a family and friends  party on a large-scale, with third cousins from every part of the  country and others flying in from much farther flung places, catch-up chats, meeting new people, delightful sausage rolls, very hot in the conservatory – phew –  and instead of the bouncy castle,  an inspirational speaker in the form of  Jonathan Peach to remind everyone to be the best version of themselves they could be, ‘every day is a best pants  day’.  That certainly gave me something to think about, and  this morning I surveyed my underwear drawer with new eyes.

I had set out early from my friends’ place in Highbury by overground train, intending to arrive early – the gathering was to start  about 11.00, and Kew Gardens  opens at 10.00. I’ve never been there before so was hoping I’d get an hours walk in before the day started to enjoy the Great Broad Walk Border. And so I did! Imagine you are an LFC supporter visiting Anfield for the first time, or a clothes maniac at British Fashion Week. That’s how this gardener felt at Kew,  drunk on it,  physically light-headed, overwhelmed with  delight.

Talk about inspiration. The word must be about fresh spirit –  I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary. Yes – inhaling, breathing in, being breathed into…I felt the great work of Kew inspiring me like lovely  great heady lungfuls of air.

I haven’t managed to do for my garden what this blog has helped me do for reading and writing –  developing (an almost) daily practice. My poor garden, love it as I do, suffers from lack of my loving time and attention – I’m so intermittent! But  seeing those borders –  the art of horticulture at the height of  energetic excellence – hugely encouraged me.

I don’t expect Jonathan Peach got out for a walk during the day,  but if he had, he’d have seen something being brilliant, made by the brilliance of a very dedicated team: I saw  lots of staff and volunteers working. But I also thought about the people I couldn’t see right now – the planners and plantsmen and women, the marketeers and accountants, the cleaners,  who had made ‘Kew’ happen. The Walk was big enough not to seem busy, but there were plenty of visitors at 10.10am. Gorgeous to see how many small children were enjoying the flowers.

I loved the plans/180 drawings that allowed me to  read the names of everything in each section of the border. I imagined someone working on the plans and later when Jonathan spoke about ‘right to left’ thinking, I remembered those plans.

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Plan of one section of the Great Broad Walk Borders

I remembered in my early twenties reading a short story by Virginia Woolf, ‘Kew Gardens’.  You’ll find it here. I remembered the blank puzzlement the story provoked, and when I reread it  this morning,  I felt some of that again. I read  everything Virginia Woolf ever wrote in my early twenties – she was a woman writer! I wanted a role model! But she was so posh! I don’t know if I realised that at the time, how class-bound she was… how far-off and other-world. She was writing about worlds I had  never imagined, never seen. Kew Gardens! And those people strolling. Somehow this connects to the odd sense of relief I had when I visited D.H. Lawrence’s childhood home in Bestwood – the two up two down terrace was just like the house my grandparents  had lived in, at  Eldon Terrace, Neston.  I can remember  a strong feeling of  connection –  he knows about my life. Not a feeling I usually seek in literature – at least not in that top level  way, we worethe same boots  kind of way.  This is something to think about another day.

When I reread the story this morning I  thought, she has caught some of that sense of life-connection between the flowers, the snail, the people, as if the people are part of the life of the gardens, moving in and  through them:

The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed. The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and then to see that the children were not too far behind. The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go on with his thoughts.

I liked very much the lens moving from close up minutiae to expanded horizon, like the almost scientific observation of the snail:

In the oval flower bed the snail, whose shell had been stained red, blue, and yellow for the space of two minutes or so, now appeared to be moving very slightly in its shell, and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled down as it passed over them. It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it, differing in this respect from the singular high stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it, and waited for a second with its antennæ trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture–all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal. Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.

And the procession of passers-by is still there –  first these Americans, then this grandfather and the three little girls, now two  nannies with  blond  babies in buggies, now an Indian family taking many pictures, here a serious photographer very close to the Coneflowers,  there an old lady reading on a  recessed bench, and now me, on my way to the Gathering…

I’d mentioned Pope yesterday and Clare  responded to remind me both of  Virginia Woolf and  the wonderful dog Diogenes in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. That  made me think I might sometime read  things about dogs here…meanwhile  I enjoyed the statue of the White Greyhound of Richmond, and here he is, outside the Palm House:

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A meeting at Kew

View from a friend’s flat into a London garden.

I’m travelling to Kew this morning and no time for daily practice but thinking of the couplet Alexander Pope had engraved on the collar of a dog he gave to the Prince of Wales…

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;

Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?