Paradise Lost – Mother Culture November 2017

Mother Culture selection for November 2017

Milton’s Paradise Lost is an undisputed pillar of the Western canon, taking its place alongside the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. A classical scholar, Milton admired the old Greek and Roman bards and he revered the epic form. He knew that the heights they had achieved with stories tracing the City of Man were but a foretaste of the summit to be gained by using the epic form to trace the incomparable proto-story of the glorious City of God.

   Never, perhaps, has the English language been used more nobly, never has blank verse taken on such stately measure. Milton does not make pictures for us, like some poets, like Spenser, for instance; he sings to us. He sings to us, not like the gay minstrel with his lute, but in stately measured tones, which remind us most of solemn organ chords. His voice comes to us, too, out of a poet’s country through which, if we would find our way, we must put our hand in his and let him guide us while he sings. And only when we come to love “the best words in the best order” can we truly enjoy Milton’s Paradise Lost . . . — Henrietta Marshall, English Literature for Boys and Girls

Again, we must answer the question of why we include an English classic in our study of American Culture. First and foremost, we must remember that for well over 150 years, the American colonists considered themselves Englishmen; they brought their literature with them when they came, and they treasured it as part of their heritage. Furthermore, for the early American colonists, survival alone was struggle enough. The physical labor required to sustain life and carve out homes in the wilderness—and subsequently, to wage a War for Independence—left little time for leisurely pursuits. While there are poetry and stories dating to the earliest days of our nation, they remain quite British in style; it was some time before a distinctly American literary style began to emerge with authors like Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the early nineteenth century. Yet, the American colonists did value and prioritize a literary education, continuing the long tradition of training students in the classics of Western Civilization, with an emphasis on British literature. Even as the American style began to develop, it was still heavily influenced by its British roots.

Beyond all that, Paradise Lost is the perfect accompaniment to early American Culture because it so masterfully portrays two of the most important philosophies of which our founding fathers had an innate understanding: first, the lingering medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being (C. S. Lewis calls it hierarchy; Dr. Grant calls it sphere sovereignty); second, original sin and human fallenness.

Version Notes

At Providence Prep, we are using the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost (2005, 3rd edition), which I love for the unobtrusive footnotes and the extensive excerpts of classic literary criticism at the end, from such luminaries as Dryden, Johnson, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Arnold, and Eliot. The modern criticism section at least begins with Lewis. Of course there is plenty of the standard Satan-is-Milton’s-real-hero blather and the ubiquitous feminist takes that almost any modern edition will include; these are obviously less helpful, but they do make for some interesting reading after you have finished the poem itself.

Because Paradise Lost is a challenging read, and possibly an unfamiliar form, I do think a guide is needed, and Leland Ryken has written a splendid little guide. It is well worth the $6 investment!

Reading Helps

As with all of our literary selections, Paradise Lost is, first of all, a delightful story and should be enjoyed as such. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

First, you should learn about Milton’s life and work. Henrietta Marshall’s introduction in English Literature for Boys and Girls is simple and charming (be sure to read both chapters). Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s is eloquent and a bit more erudite.

Second, you need a bit of orientation to Milton’s design before you begin reading. Lewis gives us a picturesque description of how we should begin to read this work.

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you : as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be. This need is specially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers. He is writing epic poetry which is a species of narrative poetry, and neither the species nor the genus is very well understood at present. The misunderstanding of the genus (narrative poetry) I have learned from looking into used copies of our great narrative poems. In them you find often enough a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin. It is easy to see what has happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’ – little ebullient patches of delight such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves, he has had no conception. The misunderstanding of the species (epic narrative) I have learned from the errors of critics, including myself, who sometimes regard as faults in Paradise Lost those very properties which the poet laboured hardest to attain and which, rightly enjoyed, are essential to its specific delightfulness. Our study of Milton’s epic must therefore begin with a study of epic in general. — C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost

Toward that end, I recommend that you print this PDF which contains The Arguments and an Introduction to Paradise Lost.  Milton’s Arguments are brief summaries of the action contained in the book, and they give Milton’s purposes and intentions for the book. Read through all of the arguments in the PDF to get an overview of the entire epic.

If you did not buy Ryken’s little guide, or if you are anxious to get started while you wait for it to arrive, read this interview where he gives some reading tips and a brief explanation of the epic form. Ryken wrote the introduction in the PDF you printed out. Read that also.

Finally, review these characteristics of an epic. As you read Paradise Lost, look for these features and mark them. Make note of these in your Journal entries. If you (or your students) have studied Poetics & Progym I, you will find a list of these in the Prose & Poetry Handbook you (or they) created, on page 53. As other epic features come up in the poem, you should also add them to your Prose & Poetry Handbook.


  • an epic hero
  • an epic feat – action of great historic or mythical importance
  • epic sweep – setting “encompasses the whole earth, a supernatural world, and the afterlife.”
  • supernatural intervention
  • invocation of the Muse and a statement of purpose
  • “Sums up what an entire age wants to say.”2

Arrangement – in medias res

Style – Epic style

  • exalted, formal or “high” language
  • epic simile – extended simile over several (or many!) lines
  • epithets – repeated titles or descriptive phrases for persons, places, or things
  • periphasis or circumlocution – indirect or roundabout way of expressing something

The idea that Milton intended Satan to be the sympathetic hero of his epic is pervasive in modern classrooms and scholarly analysis. As you read, keep in mind these words from Ryken from his Christian Guide to the Classics for for Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The first thing to do is to absorb and relish the brilliance of the writing. Then we need to get a grip on our responses . . . the apparent grandeur of Satan is countered by other data that uncovers his evil and the ultimate futility of his battle against God . . . The right analytic framework is thus to ask what details contribute to the apparent plot of seeming grandeur and to the hidden plot of Satan’s evil and futility.

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

First, copy Book I, lines 1-26 and lines 261-263 as you begin. These are some of the most beautiful lines in all of literature. Savor and even memorize them, if possible.

Copy passages from Paradise Lost that

  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Also look for

  • passages where Milton “justifies the ways of God to man.”
  • epic similes (an elaborate simile, usually several lines in length)

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • To begin your observation of epic conventions, open to a clean two-page spread in your journal, and begin a list of epic conventions you find as you read. Keep this up throughout your reading. A few examples to get you started:
    • Identify the line numbers in Book I, lines 1-35 where you find each of these:
      • epic theme – a general statement of the overarching theme of the narrative, such as “Arms and the man I sing” in the opening lines of the Aeneid;
      • invocation to the Muse  – generally obvious because of the word Muse; and
      • epic question – a question that the bard will seek to answer in his narrative. (Hint: these are in order.)
    • Make note of Book I, Lines 376 ff., where Milton lists the legions of fiends. This is similar to Homer’s “catalog of ships” in Book II of the Iliad. Read the footnote, and add this similarity to ancient epics to your list.
    • Find and note the line numbers of an epic “game” – a pause in the action where characters spend time in athletic (and sometimes literary or rhetorical) skill matches.
    • List any other epic conventions you notice as you read.
  • Leland Ryken says: “Milton juxtaposes apparent and hidden plots — Satan’s seeming greatness and his actual evil and ultimate weakness . . . What specific details build Satan up in our imaginations and perhaps momentarily sway our emotions? What details undercut that apparent grandeur and produce dramatic irony on an epic scale? . . . For example, we read that ‘his form had not yet lost/All her original brightness’ (591-92); the word ‘yet’ lets us know that eventually Satan loses all his brightness, and the word ‘all’ implies that he has already lost some of his brightness.” Dramatic irony is a discrepancy between a character’s words and/or actions and the audience’s understanding. Look for other examples where Milton uses dramatic irony in dealing with the character of Satan. (cite line numbers).

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • Compare Paradise lost with classic epics like those of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton. How is it like and unlike these?
  • Learn about the Chain of Being (or Hierarchy as Lewis calls it). The Wikipedia article on Chain of Being is pretty good – just read the first part for a definition. More importantly, read chapter Chapter XI of A Preface to Paradise Lost by C. S. Lewis. How do we see this idea in Milton? How have we seen this in other literary works? How does this idea extend to the founding of our nation?
  • Research the influence of Paradise Lost on subsequent literature.
  • Every worthwhile book will lead us to repentance, and point us to more that we need to know or read. After reading Paradise Lost, which books do you need to add to your reading list? What historical persons, places, or things do you need to understand better?

Links Worth A Look

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.


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