Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Review: "Paradise Lost"

On 30 April 1756, 20-year old John Adams wrote in his diary "A hazy, dull Day. Reading Milton. That mans Soul, it seems to me, was distended as wide as Creation. His Powr over the human mind was absolute and unlimited. His Genius was great beyond Conception, and his Learning without Bounds. I can only gaze at him with astonishment, without comprehending the vast Compass of his Capacity."

Sounds about right. I've been enjoying Paradise Lost for several weekends now, in the recent Modern Library edition (William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen Fallon, eds.). Each Saturday and Sunday morning I went out into the kitchen, away from the computer and other technological gadgetry, to read without distraction. Milton both deserves and demands this treatment, I found: the poem is complicated enough that to try and read it any other way would have been impossible, and it is brilliant enough that I wanted to savor it to the fullest.

The editorial introduction provided a good and thorough background into aspects of Milton's work, including brief discussions of the poem's publishing history, the author's worldview, the linguistic styles and effects deployed in Paradise List, and the critical controversies the work spawned. Beyond this, the unobtrusive but more than welcome footnotes throughout were very helpful.

I'll spare the plot details, since they are well known (if not to you, try here or here). What most impressed me about Milton's tale was his utterly brilliant use of the English language. The cadence and the rhythm of his words held me in thrall from start to finish; there were times when I couldn't help but read the lines out loud to hear the way the words rolled together, sometimes striking against each other, sometimes merging so gracefully it seemed almost musical. His depictions of the fall of Satan and his minions and their re-emergence in Hell is riveting: the language is beautiful, but the imagery is positively terrifying.

Fully deserving of its reputation. A poem to wonder at, by an author to gaze at with astonishment.