So, John Carey wants to make Paradise Lost, that grand embellishment of the Genesis story, more accessible. He believes readers today are put off not by the poem’s religious content or sexual politics or by the fact that it is written in an obsolete form but by its vast length. True, its length has always been regarded as a problem. Here’s the first page of William Angus’s 1841 abridgement, The Beauties of Paradise Lost:
The poem […] is allowed to be the finest specimen of Blank Verse in the English language […] Why then is it so little read? One reason may be, its great length, which is apt to fatigue the mind of the young, particularly as the subject is of a sublime and serious matter, rather than of an amusing nature.
Compare this with Carey, again on the first page:
A likelier reason for the poem’s neglect, I believe, is its length. Its twelve books total over 11,500 lines. Embarking on that seems a formidable undertaking, particularly at a time when narrative poems are not part of our habitual reading.
Great minds. Carey’s new version of the poem is sliced down to a third of the original length and the remaining fragments are interspersed with brief interpretative summaries and occasional commentaries. Carey, late of Oxford, is well qualified to wield the knife. He translated Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana for the Yale Complete Prose Works, and edited a fine edition of the shorter poems. He is intimate with the particulars of Milton’s theology, but is more interested in celebrating what Virginia Woolf called ‘the inexpressible fineness’ of his style.
And The Essential Paradise Lost is neatly trimmed, for the most part. Here’s how he moves from line 330 to 550 of Book 1:
or with linked thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this gulf?
Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen. 330
The devils respond to Satan’s call, and rally around his imperial ensign.
… anon they move
In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood 550
An almost cinematic transition which smash-cuts from the hero shot to a long shot of serried ranks advancing. Carey modernises the spelling and capitalisation but retains Milton’s light punctuation. Typographical encumbrances are minimised: no quote marks, no accents on metrical stresses, no italicisations or contractions. Here the devils are no longer Fall’n, but merely fallen. It is a pity to lose the suggestive squashed appearance of the elision, where the rebel angels seem to have all landed in a great heap at the end of the sentence, but in an abridged edition for students this is sensible and makes for an attractive and highly readable Paradise Lost.
What else is gone? Well, in the example above, Carey has cut the epic catalogue of devils. He is ruthless with any obtrusive generic markers used by Milton to map his relationship with the epic tradition. Extravagant similes get short shrift. In Book 1, for example, we lose the famous simile of the whale slumbering in the Norway foam (I.192-208) and the Virgilian simile of the bees in springtime (I.768-775).
Many of these cuts will go unlamented, but some do disappoint. Why leave out the episode in Book 2 where Satan encounters Sin and Death at the gateway out of Hell? This gruesome parody of a romance parable with added incest and monsterism has always had its detractors. Voltaire greatly admired the immensity of Milton’s invention, but singled this bit out as distasteful and pointless. And yet how masterly the description of the gloaming figure of Death. This is from the 1968 Signet edition edited by Christopher Ricks:
The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night, 670
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.
A shape without shape. A substance like shadow. The semblance of a crown. This is the sort of indirect language, never settling on a definite image or precise comparison, that infuriated the likes of Pound and Eliot, neither of whom were fans of the curmudgeonly old Puritan. (Pound called him ‘the worst sort of poison’.) Milton never presents his verse as pure language but sometimes the connection with worldly references is left ambiguous. He leaves a vacancy, reminding us that there are some experiences that are beyond sensibility. He creates a space, in other words, for dreaming and for speculation with the accompaniment of an irresistible verbal music.
Carey knows that Paradise Lost has not been completely neglected. He acknowledges the many tomes that continue to pour from university presses. In general, however, Carey has little time for academic criticism. In his 2012 memoir The Unexpected Professor he declares:
Reading academic Milton criticism en masse over the course of several months gave me a vivid idea of how awful most of it was – ill-written, obscure, trivial, full of misplaced erudition and calculated to repel any sensible ordinary reader.
Carey has always set himself against academic narrowness in this manner; his best-known books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) and What Good Are the Arts? (2005), both challenge elitist attitudes in the arts. And he vehemently opposes the idea that Milton can only be understood if scaffolded with explanatory glosses, footnotes and marginal annotations. But I wonder if Carey isn’t needlessly dismissive of the scholars. The best Milton criticism, much of it written by academics, is stimulating even for a non-specialist. And its upper reaches represent some of the most engaging and passionately argued literary criticism ever written.
Dr Johnson, to take an early example, is at his most brilliant on Milton. He is suspicious of Milton’s revolutionary style, and qualifies his praise with frequent objections, but he nonetheless says:
The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantic loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.
This could be the high-polish acme of Johnsonian style. Augustan critics like Johnson and Addison are useful reminders of just how strange Milton’s style can seem to readers, even on repeated readings. As Johnson writes:
Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that ‘he wrote no language’, but has formed … ‘a Babylonish Dialect’, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.
Johnson comprehends the intensity of Milton’s vision, its power to make the worse seem better, to make the devil seem like the most alluring kind of rebel, and is wary of it. But Paradise Lost has always been a bit unsettling. It almost seems to have emerged from nowhere, sublimely incongruous, like a latter-day Chartres on the cusp of the Enlightenment. Here’s Pandemonium in Book 1, Milton’s citadel in Hell:
Th’ aſcending pile
Stood fixt her ſtately heighth, and ſtrait the dores
Op’ning thir brazen foulds diſcover wide
Within, her ample ſpaces o’re the ſmooth
And level pavement: from the arched roof,
Pendent by ſuttle Magic many a row
Of Starry Lamps and blazing Creſſets, fed
With Naptha and Aſphaltus yielded light
As from a ſky. 730
That’s from the first 1667 edition, with the original spelling and typographical grotesques peeping with sly grimaces. Those sinuous, unpunctuated lines are like columnar elongations, and the sentence shifts symmetrically around the colon, exactly twenty-eight words on either side: a perfect gothic arch, ascending to a sharp point, then falling back through lamps and cressets.
This austere and soaring quality is one reason why appreciation for Milton’s grandeurs reaches its zenith in the mid-nineteenth century, with new editions of Paradise Lost illustrated by John Martin and then later Gustave Doré. It connects with that aspect of the nineteenth century which built mock Gothic monuments and churches as shrines to dream-world medievalism. It was George MacDonald, the Victorian writer who would have such a profound influence on JRR Tolkien, who said that Milton’s verse was like the sword-play of an old knight, flashing his huge but keen-cutting blade in lightnings about his head.
Of course, this image of Milton as the first master of fantasy and worldbuilding was profoundly influenced by the English Romantics. It was the Romantics who had fixed upon the enthralling figure of Satan as tragic hero. So Shelley in Defence of Poetry, published posthumously in 1840:
Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in ‘Paradise Lost.’ It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.
And it is with Milton’s Satan in mind that Mary Shelley has her Monster protest:
Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded.
The vision of Satan as a noble-though-doomed hero, a strong-minded individualist hurling himself against an absolute or totalitarian power, continues to resonate with readers. And most readers, like the two Shelleys, find it difficult to believe that Milton didn’t intend, either consciously or unconsciously, for the arch fiend to steal the show.
To Coleridge the strange unboundedness of Paradise Lost, its hellish, propulsive power, came to represent all that a poem – or any grand fiction – should do in the mind of a reader. In some ways this makes Paradise Lost the archetypal modern poem, the one work which stands adjacent to Shakespeare’s plays. It invents a new way for writing to work; that is, against its own intentionality, against its own ethical pedagogy. Here, at last, is the sense that a work of art must have its own truth, separate to and perhaps in contradiction to its moral purpose.
And this new kind of literature demands a new kind of reader. Most people remember that William Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it; but Blake also wrote Milton: A Poem in Two Books, the longest of his prophetic tomes, a bizarre work in which John Milton returns from a dreary nocturnal heaven to join Blake in the village of Felpham, entering into him through his foot. Together they attempt to repair what Blake sees as Milton’s spiritual faults, particularly regarding the nature of Divine Justice. It’s an unfathomably obscure exploration of literary influence, and yet it remains paradigmatic of the Paradise Lost effect: like no other poem, it impels readers toward an imagined revelation about Milton’s true meaning and intention, which ultimately becomes an assertion of their own literary commitments.
Hence the vigour of twentieth-century attempts to rehabilitate the figure of God in Paradise Lost. Think of Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin or Helen Gardner’s A Reading of Paradise Lost, William Empson’s Milton’s God or C.S Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost: they all claim to know what Milton really wanted to do with God, never mind what he said he wanted to do. And they pursue this with an urgency and insistence that few other poets elicit. In 1961 Frank Kermode sent Empson his essay, ‘Adam Unparadised’ and Empson replied:
Not having the text here, I have just been to the public library to see why you can’t read the description of innocent sex without thinking of the description of fallen sex, and what I find Milton had written there, in an irrelevantly crosspatch way perhaps, was KERMODE IS WRONG.
Yes, Empson is often a bit cantankerous, but never more so than when talking about Milton. All critics seem to come off as exaggerations of themselves when talking about Milton.
The question of how Milton represents God and Satan is linked with Milton’s ambition to deliberately and self-consciously answer and then transcend the entire history of literary representation in Europe:
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Such vaulting ambition is infectious: the critic wants to outdo the blind bard and pluck out the heart of his mystery. And in a modest way, John Carey shares this ambition. He, too, aims to reveal the real Milton, the essential Paradise Lost. So what is the essence of Carey’s poem?
Carey says in his introduction that he wants to keep whatever has a pre-eminent ‘poetic power’. So, for instance, we get that great simile in Book 3 which ends:
The barren plains
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany wagons light.
This is terrific poetry, but hardly crucial to the main business of the Fall. John Carey loves the poem first as literature, for the way it enlivens the senses – but he does also aim to present something of its great argument. So, much of Book 3 with the dialogue between God and Christ in Heaven stays in. Carey locates the heart of Milton’s justification of the ways of God in the fact that man and woman were made free:
For man will hearken to his glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall 95
He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all the ethereal powers 100
And spirits, both them who stood and them who failed;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
This is not rhetorically compelling, but it is philosophically and theologically interesting. God creates a being whose obedience is supposed to give Him pleasure, yet He knows from the beginning that the being will not be obedient. Yes, this disobedience gives God the opportunity to bring mercy into the universe: mercy, the highest virtue, which first and last shall brightest shine. But what, asks Carey in a brief Afterword, about the fact that Milton’s God has also foreseen that the great majority of humankind will be damned and burn in Hell? Whither mercy?
Some of Carey’s streamlining is uncontroversial. Books 11 and 12, in which Michael outlines Biblical history from the Fall to the Last Day are both severely abridged. Book 12 retains 115 lines of its original 649, while 11 gets a mere 43 of 901. Other editorial choices are more politically strategic than aesthetic. Carey, for example, denies the essential misogyny or even sexism in the poem. He is even bold enough to suggest that the poem is feminist. Why? Because Milton’s imaginary muse – the voice dictating the poem to him in his sleep – is female , and therefore Paradise Lost is, in a sense, written by a woman:
Descend from heaven, Urania, by that name 1
If rightly thou art called, whose Voice divine
Following, above the Olympian Hill I soar,
Above the flight of Pegasean wing.
That’s from Book 7. He also argues that Eve is shown to be superior to Adam because in Book 4, moments after waking into life, she runs away to marvel at her own reflection in a pool of water. Carey claims in his introduction that her first reaction to Adam is instinctive ‘revulsion’. Really? Here’s what Milton’s Eve says:
[…] I espied thee, fair indeed and tall,
Under a platan, yet methought less fair,
Less winning soft, less amiable mild,
Than that smooth watery image: back I turned… 480
Not exactly revulsion, not unless Carey meant a mere turning around or drawing back. Carey is not the first to propose Paradise Lost as a feminist poem avant la lettre, and, yes, the poem is deep and complex enough to support all sorts of counterintuitive readings, but his argument here is unconvincing. Perhaps Carey only meant to encourage close reading and critical thinking, but he has cut the text to suit his reading. For example, he eliminates Eve’s declaration in Book 4, a passage which has infuriated generations of women:
O thou for whom 440
And from whom I was formd flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head, what thou hast said is just and right.
For wee to him indeed all praises owe,
And daily thanks, I chiefly who enjoy
So far the happier Lot, enjoying thee
Preeminent by so much odds, while thou
Like consort to thy self canst no where find.
And he also leaves out the passage in Book 5 where Eve plays submissive hostess, serving an Edenic meal to Adam and their angelic guest. It was this passage that prompted Charlotte Brontë in Shirley to write:
‘Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not.’
‘You are bold to say so, Shirley.’
‘Not more bold than faithful. It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards …’
Is Carey suggesting Paradise Lost must be feminist because it is a great poem? To be sure, Eve is not simply Adam’s sequacious other, but no power of serpentine eloquence will convince me that she is anything but subordinate in this poem. If that means it is not a great poem, then so be it. And yet, surely, even in its chauvinism, Paradise Lost is exceptional. Think, for instance, of the line of twentieth-century feminist literary criticism, beginning with Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, that has set itself against Milton, so-called first of the masculinists? Think of the influence of a book like Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, in which Milton is a key antagonist. Other seventeenth-century poets like John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick are all, arguably, just as vehement in their patriarchal biases; but it is Milton that has most attracted feminist critics and researchers, and against Milton which the most influential and creative work has been written.
The computer game Fallout 3 is set in blasted world populated by monster mutants, cyborg sentries, irradiated behemoths and well-armed thugs. The year is 2277 and nuclear war has wiped out most of humanity; a few grim survivors cling on, drifting through a wasteland of shattered concrete and burned-out ruins. In many respects, it’s a typical first-person shooter game. There are a lot of baddies to kill and a lot of different guns to kill them with. But there are also plenty of imaginative details and hidden surprises for players with the time and inclination to explore this vast virtual canvas. In one out-of-the-way corner, for instance, you can chat with a decomposing merchant in a ghoul-haunted museum. Apparently, the museum has boxes of an old book called Paradise Lost in an underground storeroom. ‘It’s about a guy who goes to Hell,’ explains the affable zombie. ‘Pretty interesting stuff.’ She gives you a copy, and you can even read some of the great speeches, including Beelzebub’s lament for the loss of Heaven in Book 1. It’s not an important feature of the game, but the symbolism is interesting. It’s an acknowledgement of lineage: a nod to the first of the great post-apocalyptic fantasies, the poem that transfigured Hellenic and Hebraic myths of humankind’s decline into the most sublime fiction.
The fantasy and science fiction element of Paradise Lost continues to appeal to many modern readers. It inspires the same fascination as more modern world-building (or world-destroying) epics. This is most palpable in the war in heaven episode, where immortal angels hack at one another with swords of impossible keenness, where angelic blood stains celestial armour, where wounds heal instantly but the agony persists. Then there’s the scene where Satan and his minions invent a kind of celestial incendiary, blasting the forces of the archangel Michael. Here’s how Carey handles it:
The first day’s battle ends, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage, and the armies separate at nightfall. During the night Satan teaches his followers how to manufacture gunpowder and forge cannon out of materials dug from heaven’s substrata. When the second day’s battle begins the first volley of the devils’ artillery causes havoc among Michael’s warriors.
… down they fell
By thousands, angel on archangel rolled,
The sooner for their arms – unarmed, they might 595
Have easily as spirits evaded swift
By quick contraction or remove; but now
Foul dissipation followed and forced rout;
Nor served it to relax their serried files.
What should they do? 600
It’s a stunning effect, the way Carey’s prosaic summary opens onto a baroque vista of myriad tumbling angels. Carey is certainly appreciative of the poem’s overwhelming weirdness. In his memoirs, he recalls his first undergraduate encounter with Paradise Lost:
his characters weren’t human in the way Shakespeare’s are, partly because they speak that statuesque language I’d noticed in Samson Agonistes, and partly because, like characters in science fiction, they lack the realistic surroundings that make people seem real.
Harold Bloom noted something similar in the introduction to The Western Canon. And it’s true that much in the poem seems to pre-empt the modern taste for computer-generated special effects. Think, for example, of the scene in Book 4 where Satan transforms into a succession of animals as he spies on Adam and Eve. It’s a sequence which should appeal to a modern audience used to seeing the shape-shifting villains on the big screen.
But there is also the grand sound of the poem that distracts the mind from the want of human interest, the lack of realistic surroundings, and demands something new from the reader, something beyond the templates provided by Hollywood. We see this in the way Milton uses exotic proper names. Some of these are classical allusions, others Biblical, and others refer to more distant legends and mythologies. Whether or not the reader knows immediately this or that reference, there is an instant effect on the senses and the imagination which has something of the charm of fantasy and science fiction:
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song
What on earth are Sion and Siloa? Is the Shepherd of Sinai cousin to the Traveller from Tralfamadore? Where is Oreb? In the galactic neighbourhood of Orthe? Where does Paradise Lost transport us if not back to childhood, a vast back-recoiling literary engine, and the thrills of make believe.
At least, that is effect on a first reading. On a second or third attempt we might see deeper, follow up the allusions, study the etymologies, pull apart the text and study how it works, but we shouldn’t deny the immediate thrill of reading Paradise Lost with new eyes, the magic and the sense of otherness, of encountering an imagination that suggests every conceivable universe. This is one reason why it is important not to go too far in standardising or clarifying the text, especially when preparing an edition for younger readers. Too many explanatory notes impinge on the necessary oddity of a language – that Babylonish dialect which has always been archaic – concocted for the most extravagant of melodramas. In this, John Carey’s Essential Paradise Lost is excellent, and seems to me to strike the ideal the balance.
Yes, Paradise Lost is still read today. It is the progenitor of the fantasy and science-fiction tradition through the epic tale it tells of the founding Judeo-Christian myth. Tolkien and Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, George RR Martin and the rest are the aftermath. But there is a good chance that Carey’s new edition will lead even more readers to its splendours, to wonder at its tragic action, epic music and transcendent strangeness.
Bethesda Game Studios. 2008, Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks. PC.
Blake, W. 1978, Milton: A Poem by William Blake, Edited by KP Easson & RR Easson, New York: Random House.
Bloom, H. 1994, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Brett-Smith, H.F.B. (ed). 1921, Peacock’s Four ages of poetry; Shelley’s Defence of poetry; Browning’s Essay on Shelley. Oxford: Blackwell.
Carey, J. 2014, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. London: Faber & Faber.
Empson, W. 2006, Selected Letters of William Empson, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Johnson, S. 1925, Lives of the English Poets. Volume One, London: JM Dent & Sons.
Gilbert, S & Gubar, S. 1979, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.
MacDonald, G. 2014, Delphi Complete Works of George MacDonald. Series Five Book 14. Delphi Classics.
Milton, J. 1968, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Edited by C Ricks. New York: Signet.
—1873, Paradise Lost in Ten Books. London: Basil, Montagu, Pickering.
—1841, The Beauties of Paradise Lost: With Rhetorical Pauses and Emphases. Edited by J Angus, Glasgow.
Shelley, M. 1996, Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, New York: W. W. Norton.
Woolf, V. 1953, A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. London: The Hogarth Press.