on June 11, 2000
Paradise Lost was not part of my core curriculum in science and mathematics. I was of course aware that scholars considered it a great work, a classic. But it seemed a bit daunting - long, difficult, dated, and possibly no longer relevant.
A few years ago I made two fortunate decisions. I elected to read Milton's Paradise Lost and I bought the Norton Critical Edition (edited by Scott Elledge). I read and reread Paradise Lost over a period of three months as well as the 300 pages of the Norton critical commentary. I was stunned by the beauty and power of Milton. Why had I waited so long to even approach such a literary masterpiece?
Make no mistake. I had been right in several ways. Paradise Lost is difficult, it is long, and full appreciation requires an understanding of the historical and religious context. But Paradise Lost is a remarkable achievement. It explores questions regarding man and God that are as relevant today as in the 17th century. And the genius of Milton has never been surpassed.
I found the Norton footnotes extremely helpful - definitions for rare or archaic words and expressions, explanations of the historical context, and links to the critical commentary section. The footnotes are at the page bottom, making them readily accessible.
The Norton biographical, historical, and literary commentaries were fascinating in their own right. I may well as spent as many hours reading commentary as with Paradise Lost itself.
John Milton led a remarkable life. His enthusiastic euology on Shakespeare was included in the second folio edition of Shakespeare in 1632. This was Milton's first public appearance as an author! While traveling as a young man he "found and visited" the great Galileo, old and blind, a house prisoner of the Inquisition for his astronomical heresy. Years later Milton, a close supporter of Cromwell, barely escaped the scaffold at the Restoration and was at risk for some period afterwards. Many considered Milton no more than an outcast, now old and blind himself, a republican and regicide who had escaped death by too much clemency. Within a few years this aging blind outcast created one of the masterpieces of the English language.
Milton broke all English tradition by writing Paradise Lost in blank verse. Homer in Greek and Vergil in Latin had used blank verse, but English demanded rhyme. Although others failed to imitate Milton's blank verse (I suspect that none wanted to be compared directly with genius), the praise was without exception. Dryden, a master of rhyme, is attributed with saying, "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too".
Milton's characterization of Satan, Adam, Eve, the archangels Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel, and even God himself are masterful. The debates and arguments that evolve around free will, obedience, forbidden knowledge, love, evil, and guilt are timeless. And fascinating. And thought provoking.
Paradise Lost will require commitment and patience and thought. The commitment in time is substantial. (I enjoy Samuel Johnson's subtle comment: "None ever wished it longer than it is.") But the return is a personal experience with great literature, one of the masterpieces of the English language. I consider myself fortunate to have made such an investment.
on June 22, 2008
I have read "Paradise Lost" four times, and took no less than three semesters on it at university. This was the edition we used to work. Modernised spelling, coherent punctuation (plus variations of it in the notes), good introduction, and enormous work in the notes; this edition has all you need for a good reading of the epic poem.
As to the poem itself, some people are hard on it for all the wrong reasons. Remember that it is a 17th century poem, that English was not exactly similar as it is today, and that there are many, many words which were first used in English in "Paradise Lost". Milton was innovative with words, and he gave English new words, and expressions, such as the most famous "all Hell broke loose", which was first uttered in "Paradise Lost".
A poem like this cannot be read without good notes, and this is what this edition has to offer. Notes aren't enough, though, they have to be good, and in this edition, they are. The poem itself is not burdened by the numbers of the notes, because there are so many, the editor decided not to show them in the text per se, but at the end of the book, you will always have the reference, the lines, which the notes are about.
As to the poem itself, if you don't know it, you certainly know of the story of the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve, and the rebellion of Satan in Heaven. I'll only say that Milton's God is one seriously problematic figure in the poem, and that it caused centuries of academic discussion as to whether Milton's God is a good God or a devilish one, whether "Paradise Lost" was truly a "myth", in the old sense of a story which explains why we're here and how it got to be, or whether it was an attack on Christianity. Scholars still discuss this today, so make your own mind if you can!
on January 13, 2010
When John Milton set out to write Paradise Lost, he had every intention of writing a masterpiece of the English language. He felt he was destined for greatness, and his creation does not disappoint. With over 9000 lines of some of the greatest poetry every written, Milton does an incredible job of using classical and biblical allusions within a classical format to create a surprisingly modern and incredibly poignant look at the nature of God and man. Add on to this the fact that he was blind when he composed it, and you cannot call PL anything less than a work of genius.
What separates this version from all the others available? The incredibly detailed work of the editors. The annotations of this edition are absolutely fantastic. They are plentiful (sometimes taking up as much as half a page), extremely informative, and surprisingly fun to read. Most annotated works such as this merely clarify antiquated vocabulary, but in this case the editors point out classical allusions, references to current events, and references to Milton's prose works. In addition to the prose and poetry associated with the text, the editors routinely mention the critical discourse (of which there is an unholy amount) associated with Milton. There are even moments where I laughed out loud at their comments. There is also a subtle touch to the annotations, in that there is no indication of annotations within the line. What I mean by this is that there are no bubbles or footnote marks in the body of the poem. The annotations at the bottom of the page simply point to a line number. This allows the reader to ignore the annotations if they choose to do so.
Another nice characteristic of this edition is the artwork and illustrations included. There's some really fantastic stuff in there.
All in all, this is an excellent edition of an excellent poem.
on March 19, 2007
I love Norton Critical Editions. Or I try to. Gordon Teskey's new edition of Paradise Lost is for the most part worthy of the praise it has received in other reviews on this site. However, it has one unpardonable flaw, which is the editor's tampering with Milton's poetic line. Teskey and the Norton editors have for some reason decided to make it "easy to read" by adding parentheses to complex syntactical passages that Milton wrote on purpose to be. . . I dunno. . . hard? This move to simplify the syntax alters not only the experience of the poem but, worse, its meaning. Take for example these famous lines of Satan's from Book I, the first words spoken in Hell:
If thou beest he but O how fall'n! how changed
From him who in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads, thought bright! if he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope. . .
The meaning of the lines is confusing because Satan himself is confused, and now speaking for the first time a fallen language. The "he" from line one gets dropped until line four, when Satan remembers what he's talking about after wandering through a few memories of his life before the fall. The reader is supposed to feel the confusion and torment of this run-on sentence. But Teskey uses parentheses to clean up the very mess Milton wanted Satan to make of the sentence:
If thou beest he (but O how fallen! how changed
From him who in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads, though bright) if he whom. . .
This effectively dumbs down the poem and drastically changes it. And there is way too much of it in this edition. It is common enough to modernize spelling and syntax in editions of early modern poetry, but this is a bit too much. Readers don't buy this book because they want an easy read; most readers, even students, don't mind if it is a little hard and confusing in parts. Mostly, I bet they want to see what Milton and not his editors wrote.
on October 20, 2005
I have other editions of Paradise Lost, many with lengthy and preachy introductions, but this one has become my favourite. The design is beautiful, with a great cover, blood red inside covers and red ribbon marker. The original engravings that illustrate the story are a unique feature and look great.
The introduction and notes on all chapters written by Philip Pullman are short, refreshing and suprisingly funny. Even if you studied Paradise in depth, his comments may shed new light on this classic work. As he reminds the readers, these are his views as a fan rather than a scholar, and he tries to clear some cobwebs that gathered on Milton's opus and bring it closer into focus for the modern readers. Among his references are Alfred Hitchcock's movies and novels of Frederick Forsyth. And he tackles that age old dilema- if he is so evil, why do we find Lucifer so damn likeable...?
If you want to read Paradise Lost for the first time, possibly after/before devouring Pullman's own Dark Materials trilogy, look no further than this beautiful edition. And even if you have other copies, this is a great addition to your home library. Nothing wrong with a good looking book, when the content matches the design in quality, as it is the case here.
on November 2, 1999
The annotations in this version elevate it to a level above that of other Paradise Lost prints. Since this version runs about $20 more than other respectable versions (Signet Classics) I was hesitant about purchasing this Hughes version. However, I was immediately impressed with the amount of and the quality of the textual annotations. Milton's text is so enriched with allusions that a reader not seeking the sources of them is missing out on the full impressiveness of Milton's writing. The introduction by Merritt Y. Hughes (Editor) is both informative and enriching to the reader; it is further enhanced with its inclusions of illustrations that reflect Milton's world cosmos. Finally, a major inclusion in this version (missing in many low-cost versions) is Andrew Marvell's poem, On Paradise Lost. For reading Paradise Lost, any version will probably suffice. However, for the reader that truly wants to analyze and interpret, this New Edition of Paradise Lost is bloody excellent. Read on...
on August 14, 2002
Milton's great epic poem was written "to justify the ways of God to men", thus telling the story of Lucifer's expulsion from Heaven and Adam's subsequent banishment from Eden. The classic representations of idyllic Eden, fiery Hell, and glorious Heaven are as rich now as when they were first created in 1667.
Paradise Lost is a very complicated, yet rewarding, Epic poem. It is by far the best of its kind in the English language, and where it lacks in original conventions, it more than makes up for it in its pure power of poetry. For those readers of translations who are unable to enjoy Homer's Greek, Virgil's Latin or Dante's Italian, Paradise Lost can offer them a unique chance to enjoy an epic poem in its original vernacular.
However, you must bear in mind that Paradise Lost is one of the most difficult pieces of poetry to read, and is by no means as simple as reading a translation of Homer or Virgil. The language is lexically dense, with complex grammar structures at times. These hurdles will be found considerably easier for experienced readers of Shakespeare, and those who are already aware of common traits of epic poetry.
Milton's use of language is majestic, boasting an impressive metre. The poem is lavished with many famous quotes that have become ingrained into everyday English, with such examples as "Pandemonium" and "All hell broke loose". Paradise Lost is, without a doubt, a must read for any intellectual English reader.
Like all epic poetry Milton's piece of art is highly indebted to Homer's conventions, with typical imitations of the Iliad's list of warriors and the Odyssey's garden of Alcinous. But Milton's debt to the Classics manifests itself as a representation of learned study, (with links to such writers as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare and Spenser), therefore it does not so much as pilfer from great literature, as it instead endeavours to become a part of it.
Paradise Lost offers the epic reader a new form of subject, not just the usual heroes and large battles, but a theme which captivates the reader - the devils fall and man's respectively. The rebel Angels' descent from heaven to hell and Adam's from Eden to a desolate "outside" world, captivate the reader with an intriguing theme: the loss of innocence and the fall into experience. Why must Man sin? What is his relationship to Satan's loss of grace? And where does God's image of himself measure with his own maker? Milton's poem may lack the great Achilles and the gleaming towers of Troy, but it does offer much intellectual food for thought.
This Penguin edition is a rare find of value for money, it is not particlularly inexpensive, but come on ... please bear in mind the tiny price tag on this book - for less than half the price of a DVD you can own the English language's greatest poetic feat!
It is the Miltonic Satan that really comes to the forefront of this poem. The cunning fallen angel, who decides that "All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my Good" (IV.109-10), is as appealing to the reader as Marlowe's "Nun-poisoning" Barabas the Jew. It is with some guilt that this present commentator must own to rooting for this most infamous baddy throughout the poem. With a display of wit almost as sharp as Ovid or Nonnos, Milton indisputably gives his best lines to God's antagonist. This Devil is not just a superficial evil being, but instead a complex character; one that feels remorse for his fall, love for his close friends, and a harrowing jealousy of Man. What we are given by Milton's villain is not just a rewarding psychological study of Christianity's Devil, but also a commentary upon our own ignoble actions.
on January 21, 2000
Ricks provides the most helpful and least pedantic footnotes since James Holly Hanford's edition. They are unobtrusive and on the same page as the text. The text itself is reliable and in modern spelling, but Milton's apostrophes have been retained to make certain that the pronunciations he specified (for metrical reasons) are indicated. There could, perhaps, be wider margins for making annotations.
Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till on greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat
Sing, Heavenly Muse...
Not a lot people know that 'Paradise Lost' has as a much lesser known companion piece 'Paradise Regained'; of course, it was true during Milton's time as it is today that the more harrowing and juicy the story, the better it will likely be remembered and received.
This is not to cast any aspersion on this great poem, however. It has been called, with some justification, the greatest English epic poem. The line above, the first lines of the first book of the poem, is typical of the style throughout the epic, in vocabulary and syntax, in allusiveness. The word order tends toward the Latinate, with the object coming first and the verb coming after.
Milton follows many classical examples by personifying characters such as Death, Chaos, Mammon, and Sin. These characters interact with the more traditional Christian characters of Adam, Eve, Satan, various angels, and God. He takes as his basis the basic biblical text of the creation and fall of humanity (thus, 'Paradise Lost'), which has taken such hold in the English-speaking world that many images have attained in the popular mind an almost biblical truth to them (in much the same way that popular images of Hell owe much to Dante's Inferno). The text of Genesis was very much in vogue in the mid-1600s (much as it is today) and Paradise Lost attained an almost instant acclaim.
John Milton was an English cleric, a protestant who nonetheless had a great affinity for catholic Italy, and this duality of interests shows in much of his creative writing as well as his religious tracts. Milton was nicknamed 'the divorcer' in his early career for writing a pamphlet that supported various civil liberties, including the right to obtain a civil divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, a very unpopular view for the day. Milton held a diplomatic post under the Commonwealth, and wrote defenses of the governments action, including the right of people to depose and dispose of a bad king.
Paradise Lost has a certain oral-epic quality to it, and for good reason. Milton lost his eyesight in 1652, and thus had to dictate the poem to several different assistants. Though influenced heavily by the likes of Virgil, Homer, and Dante, he differentiated himself in style and substance by concentrating on more humanist elements.
Say first -- for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of Hell -- say first what cause
Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator and transgress his will,
For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
Milton drops us from the beginning into the midst of the action, for the story is well known already, and proceeds during the course of the books (Milton's original had 10, but the traditional epic had 12 books, so some editions broke books VII and X into two books each) to both push the action forward and to give developing background -- how Satan came to be in Hell, after the war in heaven a description that includes perhaps the currently-most-famous line:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, that serve in heav'n.
(Impress your friends by knowing that this comes from Book I, lines 261-263 of Paradise Lost, rather than a Star Trek episode!)
The imagery of warfare and ambition in the angels, God's wisdom and power and wrath, the very human characterisations of Adam and Eve, and the development beyond Eden make a very compelling story, done with such grace of language that makes this a true classic for the ages. The magnificence of creation, the darkness and empty despair of hell, the manipulativeness of evil and the corruptible innocence of humanity all come through as classic themes. The final books of the epic recount a history of humanity, now sinful, as Paradise has been lost, a history in tune with typical Renaissance renderings, which also, in Milton's religious convictions, will lead to the eventual destruction of this world and a new creation.
A great work that takes some effort to comprehend, but yields great rewards for those who stay the course.
on June 10, 2000
There are so many editions of Milton's epic, so how does someone interested in owning a copy choose from the crowd? Unfortunately there are not many "bad" editions of Milton's poetry, so the decision requires effort, and every editor has their own interpretation (which is more or less valid than others') of their author. (Indeed, editors are always like secondary authors.) First a few quick words about NCEs. All have bigraphical, historical, literary backgrounds, and criticism that are outside the text (in this case _PL_) and are useful, or at the least interesting. But I do not advocate the NCE edition of _PL_ for these reasons though they are rewarding. Rather I encourage those who are interested in Milton, _PL_, and poetry to get a copy of the NCE because of its editor's philosophy on footnotes. The footnotes are what separate one edition of poetry from another, and Scott Elledge's footnotes to _PL_ were made with the following prescription: "No one, I think, should interrupt his or her first reading of a poem, or a substantial part of it, by looking to the bottom of the page for help. The best way to read is to listen to the poet , the way one listens to someone speaking; then if one is attracted to what one hears, or is curious about it, one can go back over the poem, or a passage in it, consulting the notes. In my opinion one should read a poem before one begins to study it" (2). Finally, Elledges, footnotes to _PL_ are so rewarding to read because of their etymological emphasis.