As a small index to how much our society’s attitude to Christianity has changed in the past half-century, in 1941 a Princeton University English professor published a book with Princeton University Press addressed specifically to Christian ministers. I have referenced this book throughout my half-century career as a teacher and writer, even using adaptations of its title, Poetry as a Means of Grace, to good effect.
In his opening chapter, the author offered a piece of advice for ministers (and by implication all church leaders and literary laypeople) that makes total sense: we should claim one author as our own, specializing in that author the way a literary scholar might. I would extend this bit of practical advice to include the possibility of choosing a single masterwork for detailed attention over a lifetime (though I do not thereby discourage wide reading).
With this advice in mind, I commend Paradise Lost as a candidate for lifelong acquaintance. Having written my dissertation on Paradise Lost, having taught Paradise Lost as many as two hundred times, having written articles and books on Milton, and having attended and spoken at Milton conferences, I love Milton’s masterpiece more now than ever. And it is a love I wish to share.
From Pulpit to Poetry
Paradise Lost was written by John Milton in the middle of the seventeenth century. From childhood, Milton was theoretically destined to become a minister. In anticipation of that, Milton stayed on at Cambridge University to earn a master’s degree. But then an obstacle derailed his intended clerical calling.
Milton was a Puritan by conviction, and as such he was not welcome as a pastoral candidate in the state church. Milton himself spoke of having been “church outed by the prelates,” meaning rejected for parish ministry by the governing Anglican hierarchy.
Milton scholars have long debated the question of when Milton abandoned his intention to become a minister, and the best conclusion is that he never did abandon his ministerial calling. As Jameela Lares argues effectively in her book Milton and the Preaching Arts, he simply changed its venue from the pulpit to poetry. In a prose passage where Milton discusses this, he places the vocation of the Christian poet “beside the office of the pulpit.”
And he bore some fruit of the pulpit. Out of the mass of commentary on Milton that I have read, my favorite sentence comes from the testimony of someone joining Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia who began his testimony with the statement, “I was led to the Lord by John Milton.” Paradise Lost was the work that had been instrumental in this person’s conversion.
Higher Than Real Life
Before I discuss the content of Paradise Lost, I need to begin where C.S. Lewis began his landmark book A Preface to Paradise Lost. The necessary starting point is the genre to which the poem belongs. That genre is the epic.
Epic was considered the most important literary genre from antiquity through the seventeenth century. It was an exercise in grandeur — a long narrative poem having the stature of a book. Its aim was scope — so much so that literary scholar Northop Frye dubbed epic “the story of all things” (The Return of Eden, 3). Similarly, C.S. Lewis claimed that an epic sums up what a whole age wants to say (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), 339).
An epic tells a story (and in fact many stories), but its way of telling a story is different from what modern readers are accustomed to. The successor to the epic as a species of long narrative was the novel, and what was particularly new about the novel was its realism. The novel gives us a slice of life in the everyday world. Epic, by contrast, is myth — a story of supernatural characters, events, and places. So the first thing we need to expect as we come to read an epic is myth rather than realism.
One further way in which epic springs a surprise on us is that it is poetry. We expect long fictional stories to be written in everyday prose. In the history of literature, that is a recent development, coming on the scene with the rise of a middle-class reading public in the middle of the eighteenth century. Epic is a hybrid of poetry and story, and we need to give equal attention to both.
Milton’s Theological Story
In keeping with epic scope, the story that Milton tells is the entire span of history from eternity past to eternity future. The first main event is the war in heaven and the expulsion of Satan and his followers. This is followed by God’s creation of the world, Adam and Eve’s life in paradise, their fall from innocence, a survey of fallen human history, redemption in Christ as the means of reversing the destruction ushered in by the fall, and the eschaton. All of that looks familiar, of course, because it is the story of universal history as the Bible presents it.
“The story that Milton tells is the entire span of history from eternity past to eternity future.”
The first time I taught Paradise Lost, a student handed me a paperback copy of the Puritan Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in Its Fourfold State. He offered no explanation, apparently assuming that the relevance of Boston’s book would be evident to me. It was. Boston’s paradigm of human nature in its perfection, fallenness, redemption in Christ, and glorification in heaven gives shape to Milton’s story.
Milton famously said that he intended his epic to be “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation.” There is edification as well as enjoyment in reading Paradise Lost. The big ideas with which Milton’s imagination worked are as follows: the centrality and sovereignty of God; the great conflict between good and evil in both cosmic and human spheres; the necessity that all creatures choose between good and evil; humanity’s unavoidable dealings with God; obedience to God as the great requirement in life, with disobedience being the essential nature of sin; and the fact of human sinfulness and the atonement of Christ as the antidote to the fallen condition.
Those are the big ideas, but there are many localized ideas as well, such as the nature of the good life as pictured in Adam and Eve’s life in paradise.
Come and See
Many added helps for engaging this poem could be given.
I could tell you Paradise Lost is what literary scholars call an encyclopedic form — a collection of discrete units within a superstructure — and so it doesn’t need to be read straight through. Or, I could warn against discouragement from the poem’s abundant allusions to both the Bible and classical mythology, which the first-time reader may not (and need not) understand.
But my intention in this article has been to open a door and entice you to an in-depth encounter with Paradise Lost. And perhaps the final note to strike is that Paradise Lost is a world with beauty and horror to be seen.
“The literary impulse is to show rather than tell — to incarnate and embody rather than discuss abstractly.”
Milton’s epic deals with many theological ideas, as discussed above, but the literary impulse is to show rather than tell — to incarnate and embody rather than discuss abstractly. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr correctly claimed that “we are far more image-making and image-using creatures than we usually think ourselves to be, . . . and are guided and formed by images in our minds” (The Responsible Self, 151).
This is how we need to read Paradise Lost — not as a collection of ideas but as a story with characters, settings, and events, and as poetry comprised of images, symbols, and metaphors to be seen and enjoyed. He did not expect us to read his epic in the same way we read the more than twenty volumes of expository prose (including a systematic theology) that he wrote. There is a “value added” aesthetic element to literary writing, and we need to relish it.
So will you take the effort to read it? If you do, you may share the sentiment of the towering literary scholar Frank Kermode. He wrote some fifty books on the major movements and authors (including Shakespeare) of English literature, yet reserved his highest praise for Paradise Lost, calling it “the most perfect achievement of English poetry, perhaps the richest and most intricately beautiful poem in the world” (Romantic Image, 196).