Before beginning “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton, the reader already knows the ending and all the preceding events. “Paradise Lost” in a way, is a poem that nobody should feel a desire to read, much less re-read. Milton’s poem, first published in 1667, following the Puritan Revolution of England, tells the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Battle of Heaven and the rebellion of Satan against God. Yet, despite knowing how it will end, Milton’s verses have a miraculous ability to pull the reader into wanting to know more.
Milton’s poem is at once one and many things. “Paradise Lost” is both comedic and tragic, pastoral and epic, glorifying and accusatory. For every question that is raised, it offers two answers. But most of all, “Paradise Lost” is a poem about divorce. This painful separation from a loved one is reflected both in the story of Satan and that of Adam and Eve.
Lucifer, before becoming Satan, was once the brightest angel of heaven, most devoted to and most favored by God. Lucifer was God’s most faithful lover, you might say. However, in Book V of the poem, God calls all the innumerable angels into assembly and announces that he will anoint the Son, who he has just begotten, to sit at his right hand, and for him to be his. The following rebellion of Lucifer, who, upon conceiving of separation, becomes Satan, is shown later in all of its brilliant, emotional intensity to be nothing more than the outrage of the heart-broken lover. Satan curses God with tears in his eyes.
This theme is reflected in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve fall, not from any sexual act, but for lacking faith and failing to protect each other. This motif of separation is tragic, in the most elemental way, in that it is indicative of the most traumatic events of all our lives: birth. We come into this world as a part of our mother, and thereafter, we are alone. And as we grow older, that solitude remains as permanent as it ever was. And the separation from a loved-one is nothing but a re-living of that event. “Paradise Lost,” you could say, records the creation of what Flaubert called, “the eternal question,” which is: Do you love me?
However, apart from its revolutionary use of the English language, the invention of such words as self-esteem and pandemonium, and its eccentric, Puritan author, who, in the first invocation of the poem, equates himself to Moses and seems to assert that his poem is an extension of the Bible, itself, “Paradise Lost” is also renowned for its misogynistic portrayal of the main female figure, Eve. Throughout the poem, Eve is robbed of any sort of autonomy. She must receive permission, from Adam, to act before she does anything, is dependent upon Adam to inform her of her surroundings, and has a personality which is primarily rooted in her beauty, and her curiosity, which we know will only bring doom to us all.
In fact, Eve’s first memory, after her creation from the rib of Adam, is wandering through the Garden and discovering a reflecting pool. Completely unaware of where she is, or what she is, Eve, upon seeing her face in the water, immediately falls in love with the reflecting image. Eve finds herself so beautiful in the water, that she does not even listen to Adam when he explains to her that they are to be partners, and eventually Adam, seemingly out of anger, ‘seizes’ Eve by the hand. Only then, does she fall in love with him. This is the most perplexing, and distasteful part of the poem, and is the primary reason for its declining readership.
Despite its despicable portrayal of Woman, “Paradise Lost” is an important work of English literature as its story and language are elements, so deeply ingrained in our society, we cannot understand it, properly, without knowing it. As one reads the poem, one feels as if they had read it before, or that the way a certain line sounds is familiar. Within “Paradise Lost” are some of the most melancholy lines of English poetry, preceded by some of the most grand, and its influence upon the English language could never be measured.
Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitary way.
The End (Milton, XII, 645-650)
Reading is a timeless act of discovery and it should not concern itself with memorization, and no text should be followed with suppliant eyes. We often fall into the trap of thinking that all that can be known is known, and that these people are always striving to make society better for us all. But this is not the case, and those who strive for authority are not always deserving of it. Reading is a liberating act that allows you to learn with an author, and allows you to place yourself in a position of rightful authority. It allows you to have a conversation with some of the greatest ideas, and some of the most beautiful visions, ever created by far-away people from long-ago times. With reading, we not only discover what we hadn’t known, but we also learn more of what we do not know. It is as if we are walking toward the horizon, only to see it getting farther and farther away. However, this must not deter us. We must cultivate within ourselves a curiosity which strives past the utmost bound of human thought and observation. There is so much yet to be known, and all has not yet been discovered. Beyond ignorance, we must prevail.
Additionally, reading has often been called therapeutic, and I have found it to be that as well. When one is in silence and is reading a book out of one’s own desire, there is no other process comparable in its ability to calm our emotions and distinguish the mind. It is a remarkable experience. And when we feel lost in life, stories on a page can make us feel re-born, and can give us foreign models, behaviors, and archetypes to guide us through darkness. Reading can also provide us with an opportunity, rare in our time; it can afford us a peace in which we can learn about ourselves. If we are troubled, we may not be able to find the words to communicate how we feel to others, or even to ourselves. In this struggle, we can turn to poets and writers who can speak to us what we ourselves cannot comprehend. And since no one can ever truly know you as well as you know yourself, the ability to effectively communicate with oneself is a significant one. No matter our place or time, we are connected by the same hearts. So, while we have the time, let us experience what we know but cannot understand; let us experience all that has been, and has been written, for all eternity. In this way, only, may we live.