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…




One thought on “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

  1. Jennerist August 19, 2017 / 10:12 am

    Brilliant ! I’m excited to join you. I read Paradise Lost for the first time in the last year or so and much of what yu say resonates with me…was utterly terrified of it. However once in and with persistence (which I did need) I loved the rhytym and some sort of meaning/power became felt even more than understood. Through that feeling more of a desire to understand emerged. will be following along as you read with great interest. Thanks !

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