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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.
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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.
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on March 26, 2000
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were indeed grand masters of literature for all time. "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained" is enough to put John Milton in the same category. Like Marlowe and Shakespeare, Milton demonstrates extreme scholarship and a superb mastery of the language. It is interesting how Milton takes figures that are mentioned briefly in the scriptures and turns them into major characters. It is also frightening how Milton was able to make God and Satan 3 dimensional as opposed to simply good (in God's case) and evil (in Satan's case). This book is not for everyone. But if you do not mind an unorthodox portrayal of God and Satan and if you want to enjoy beautiful language, superb images, dramatic confrontations, and powerful images, you must read this masterpiece composed with superb and delicate skill.
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on May 5, 2007
I have maybe a half-dozen editions of "Paradise Lost."

Whenever I need to reread it quickly, I pick up the Signet Classic edition. It's got to be my favorite.

There are more thorough editions, certainly. But the thing I like about the Signet edition is that it's got this whole Goldilocks thing going on with the footnotes. Not too few, not too many.

In the text, words and phrases that are glossed at the bottom of the page have a little circle (a degree sign) next to them. You look down if you need to; if you don't, you keep reading. I like this because many editions don't indicate in the running text when something has a gloss: one must flip to the back of the book to hunt this out for oneself.

Additionally, there are not so many footnotes that they clutter up half (or more) of the page: I'm sure you're familiar with this sight.

Originally this was edited by Christopher Ricks (of Cambridge). In addition to the bibliography, chronology, and footnotes, he also wrote a short introduction. That unremarkable introduction has now been supplanted by one done by Susanne Woods, to which I am also indifferent.

The Signet edition also fits snugly in your hand, as other, meatier editions do not.

Too bad Amazon buries this edition in the back pages. I had to hunt around a while before I could find it!
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on April 18, 2005
+++++

(Note that this review is for the book "Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained" published by Signet Classic in 2001.)

"Of Man's First disobedience, and the Fruit
Of the Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat"

Thus begins some say the greatest and most controversial epic non-rhyming poem (which has two parts, some say two poems) in English literature. The first part was published in 1667 and the second part in 1671 by a then blind poet named John Milton (1608 to 1674).

"Paradise Lost" consists of twelve long chapters or "books." "Paradise Regained" is the more subdued and much simpler second part and consists of four books. The first part is centered around the biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve and ranges from heaven to hell while the second part is the story of Satan's triple temptation of the Son of God in the wilderness.

Both parts of this poem can be read for their magnificent poetry, their powerful imagery and language, their imaginative vision and storytelling, or their complex and passionate view of human suffering.

My favorite lines from this poem are:

" The mind is its own place, and in itself,
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."

Besides the poem, this particular book has three main features:

(1) Introduction by Dr. Susanne Woods, a Professor of English (at Wheaton College in Massachusetts). It is excellent and provides valuable insight on Milton's poem.

(2) Notes and Footnotes by Chris Ricks, a professor of humanities (at Boston University). Each chapter or book of the poem begins with a brief "argument," a note that summarizes in modern English each book's contents. I found these an invaluable aid. As well, there are footnotes throughout that help the reader with obscure language and indicate nuances and puns.

(3) Chronology of Milton's life. When did Milton go blind? Was Milton married? Was Milton ever arrested? These are the sorts of questions that are answered instantly in this section.

This poem can be a challenging read but ultimately worth it. I recommend not rushing when reading it.

The artwork on the cover of this book is impressive. It is an image entitled "The Shepherd's Dream" (from "Paradise Lost") by artist Henry Fuseli.

Finally, to get an extraordinary visual impression of the first, longer part of this poem, I recommend "Dore's Illustrations for Paradise Lost" (1993) by Gustave Dore.

In conclusion, be sure two read this epic poem to see why it "has thrilled, challenged, and sometimes dismayed readers from the seventeenth to twenty-first century!"

(published 2001; introduction; general note on this text; a note on this edition; chronology; "Paradise Lost" in 12 books; "Paradise Regained" in 4 books; main narrative 360 pages; selected bibliography)

+++++
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on June 2, 2001
"The poem provides an unwitting expose to the absurdity of Christian mythology." With all due respect, I have to question how someone can consider what Milton intended as the "justification of the ways of God to men" an "unwitting exposé." For sure there are several controversies throughout PL-Milton most certainly DOES represent Satan as noble, rationalize the Fall, and present God as less interesting and engaging than the Devil-but he most certainly does NOT do so "unwittingly." Above all Milton was an advocate of freedom-freedom of thought and theology no less than the freedom from censorship he championed in Areopagitica. He was in many ways unorthodox, even denying the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity. In Paradise Lost, Milton was not writing a treatise on God's justice and unwittingly undermining his own religion: the issues of Satan's heroic charm and God's apparent coldness are fundamental parts of that treatise. Sin is tempting and attractive, but "the wages of sin is death" (as shown by the "Unholy Trinity" of Satan, Sin, and Death, by which point in the narrative the heroic appeal of Satan the reader may have felt at the beginning of the poem starts to fade). And the cold, often unappealing reason and justice of God are hard to come to terms with-indeed, impossible to come to terms with, without the redemption of Christ. Milton hardly tries to "negate his own words with addendums and disclaimers." Show me one such addendum or disclaimer that isn't part of his intended theodicy. In my opinion, Milton's epic is one of the most cogent examples of Christian apologetics ever. Did you miss the line that "with reiterated crimes [Satan] heaps on himself damnation, while he sought evil to others, and enrag'd might see how all his malice serv'd but to bring forth infinite goodness, grace and mercy, but on himself treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd." Also, I suggest reconsidering the significance of his statement that "Virtue is but choosing"-a brief statement which alone can "justify the ways of God to men," even without the hopeful ending and the redemptive fulfillment in Paradise Regained. Virtue, defined here as the choice to serve God, would not be possible had not man and woman been given free will; and maybe, just maybe, the horror of hell and Satan, the woes of man (and even the death of Christ) were worth the price of making possible the concept of love.
For all that, I do agree that "Paradise Lost features some of the most wonderful passages written in the English language." But I can see how you might think Milton was writing an exposé, intentional or not, if you only read (or only paid attention to?) those first hundred pages about the rebellious angels. (If you ask me, though, the description of Eden, the ironic pursuits of the demons and the perverted parallels of Hell to Heaven, and all of Book IX are the highlights). However, debate is good. I'm sure we both agree with Milton that the freedom to express one's beliefs is of paramount importance. That said, I believe that PL is indeed an exposé, in part at least-not of Christianity, but of the irony and vanity of evil. His arguments for the justice of God seem valid to me, and (is it just me?) his description of Satan as a hero, of Satan's self-righteous volunteering to leave hell, and of the horrible perversion of the" Unholy Trinity", serve not to justify Satan and thereby justify rebellion, but instead, to expose evil for what it is-tempting, but horrific. The most I personally can feel for Satan is pity, and by the end of Paradise Lost, that pity has turned almost entirely to enmity. As a whole, although Paradise Lost certainly raises some debatable issues, it accomplishes what Milton set out to do-justify the ways of God to men.
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on July 20, 2010
The work itself is of course brilliant- the Kindle edition is abominable. I selected this edition above other Kindle editions for the footnotes. Not only are the footnotes not included in the Kindle edition, there is also not a table of contents. As I am in the midst of book IV in my paper copy and was purchasing the Kindle edition as backup while traveling, this is unfortunate. I do not care to leaf through over 100 pages looking for my place. Poor form, Amazon, poor form.
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on August 3, 2003
Add this reviewer to the list of people who hold Paradise Lost up to the lofty title of The Greatest Epic Poem in the English Language; it is not only this, but one of the best in any language. Writing unabashedly in the tradition of unrhymed Homeric epic verse, Mitlon was working well within what was earlier purveyed by Homer, Virgil, and Dante -- but he brings his own distinctive touch and flair to the work. The opening lines of the long poem are clearly inspired by Homer, as are other elements, but Milton has a very unique poetic style; long sentences, often with the principle verb at the end, being one of its mainstays. This language is very grandiose and quite complex; it takes a while to get used to it -- you will have to pay very close attention during the first book -- but, as with most classical literature, once the reader gets the hang of it, it goes quite smoothly. The Divine Comedy of Dante has a more towring reputation than does Milton's Paradise Lost -- for one thing, it is older -- but I among those who find Milton to be superior. The Divine Comedy is, certainly, an undisputed masterpiece, but, where it was, more or less, a satire and a thinly-veiled attack on many of Dante's political enemies, Milton's work deals with much more complex and profound subject matter: why mankind fell, how the gods themselves operate and think, the nature and attractiveness of evil and sin, the importance of love in human relationships, the moral problems of God's justice. It is true that Dante's work is more original; Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, at least in seed, come straight from The Bible. But Milton only uses these stories as a springboard for the exploration of the latent moral and ethical problems lurking beneath. Milton explores these problems with a refreshingly fresh perspective -- strictly within the Christian tradition, to be sure, but far from fundamentalist, and even quite radical for its day. Although some cite the work as Christian apologist, there are certainly many elements within the poem that many of the more hard-line Christians would be taken aback by; it was, of course, even more controversial in its day. One thing about the work that often gets pointed out is that Satan is a far more interesting and appealing character than God. This, in my view, does not have Milton unwittingly on the Devil's side, as some critics have suggested. Rather, he is pointing out how appealing sin is always is: of course it's interesting, of course it's appealing -- otherwise, we wouldn't keep falling for it again and again and again. If we saw its razor-sharp fangs and [dripping] mouth, we would have stopped getting ensnared in its trap long ago. However, as a non-Christian myself, I cannot but disagree with some points of Milton's theodicy; the last two books, in particular, and Paradise Regained as a whole, were, for me, quite hard to swallow. I found the more human elements of the poem to be its most intriguing. Milton paints Adam and Eve as quintissentially human characters who possess many of the same feelings that we all share: joy, happiness, fear, sadness, depression, and, most of all, the overriding paramount importance of love. The act of Adam, who was not himself [evil], eating of the apple so that he could follow Eve, no matter what doom was to befall her and them, out of love for her, is still one of the most touching moments in all of literature -- as Mark Twain, in the voice of Adam, later said, "Wheresoever Eve was there, THERE was Eden." God, Satan, and the various angels are also endowed with human characteristics; most Christians today seem to have forgotten that God created Man "in His own image", and that He is not a perfect creature. Likewise, Satan is not entirely evil -- certainly he is ambitious and narcissistic, but so are many humans -- indeed, many have seen him as the hero of the poem (an errorenous view, as I see it.) God often comes off as extremely cold and hardly forgiving or merciful; indeed, to many readers, myself included, this poem doesn't come anywhere near its stated goal of justifying the ways of Gods to men, but only reinforces the views we already had (Mark Twain, whom I have previously mentioned, has a very different view of the situation, closer to my own perspective, that is worth seeking out.) Whatever one's objections to the theology and theodicy expressed within the poem, the poem remains a great work of literature -- poetic, grandiose, profound, extremely readable, and thought-provoking. The shorter sequel, Paradise Regained, is also included in this edition. This work, in my view, comes nowhere near the glory of it's predecessor, but it is still a good read and it is very handy to have it included in this volume as well. For that reason, I highly reccommend picking up this particular edition of the works; also because the introduction, written by Dr. Susanne Woods, is very good, and it has notes provided by the wonderful Christoper Ricks, who also edited the poem for this version. Unlike many editors, he does not include so many notes that they become cumbersome and distract from the text: they are genuinely helpful and there are not too many of them. This is an absolute classic not only of English literature, but of world literature, and a monument in the tradition of epic poetry that you owe it to yourself to read.
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on May 19, 2003
A few days ago I finished Paradise Lost for a book club I'm in. It took me the whole first chapter to get adjusted, but then the book really swept me away. The language is beautiful and the concepts very deep and thoughtful. I can't always agree with Milton's thoedicy, but it definitely provides rich and spicy food for thought. The book requires a lot from the reader, but it's well worth every moment. We also read all 3 books of Dante's Divine Comedy for the book club. I was frequently lost, especially while reading Purgatorio and Paradisio, but Milton is different. You can understand - and enjoy - most of what he says even without the footnotes (though you'll miss 90% of the allusions without them). The poetry is sublime. Like a really great novel, this work hangs over you for days after you finish it, tugging at your heart.
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on March 6, 2005
The connected plot of "Paradise Lost" and its accompanying poem "Paradise Regained" contains no surprises for anyone who is even casually familiar with the Bible. Milton, however, does something remarkable the Bible doesn't do--he inflates Satan from a mere flat symbol of evil into a complex personality that enlivens his identity as the principal enemy of God, Jesus, and man. Who is Satan, where did he come from, why does he do the things he does, and, most importantly, why is he an indispensable part of the Christian myth? Milton takes the initiative of asking and answering these questions.

Divided into twelve "books," "Paradise Lost" begins with a war in Heaven instigated by the angel Lucifer who, with the help of many rebellious cohorts, tries to wrest control of the celestial kingdom from God. Like a school principal putting kids in detention for starting a food fight in the cafeteria, God deals swiftly and severely with the miscreants, hurling them "headlong flaming from the ethereal sky/With hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/In adamantine chains and penal fire." That's powerful stuff.

The rebel angels, now transformed into devils for their treachery, are imprisoned in Hell, a hot, smelly, miserable place, with Lucifer (now named Satan) their lord to dwell in a palace called Pandemonium--the place of all demons. Milton assigns names of heathen gods to the devils and allows three of them to offer advice on the proper course of action for the hell-bound. The bellicose Moloch insists on resuming war with Heaven, the rational Belial believes a peaceful acceptance of their sentence will eventually restore them to God's good graces, and the pragmatic Mammon suggests they should establish and rule Hell as their new dominion rather than return to Heaven as servants. But Satan has another idea--to travel through Chaos (the dark, lifeless void connecting the realms) to Earth to corrupt Man, the new being with whom God plans to replace the expelled angels in Heaven.

Satan would be uninteresting if he were no more than a fist-shaking, teeth-gnashing villain, but Milton endows this vilest of creatures with the most human of consciences. While on his nefarious mission, as he rapturously views the luxuriant Eden, he laments, "O sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams/That bring to my remembrance from what state/I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere;" and the jealousy mixed with sorrow is palpable. He knows he did wrong and momentarily regrets his misbehavior, but he also knows that there can never be a reconciliation between him and God, and therefore resigns himself to be forever the king of evil and vie for man's soul. It is here that Satan eavesdrops (pun not intended) on Adam and Eve talking about the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which they are forbidden to eat.

Regarding the Tree of Knowledge, the poem inevitably raises the issue of entrapment. What is the purpose of the Tree? Simply that God demands obedience, and obedience can be tested only if there exists something to provide an opportunity to disobey. The material component of this opportunity is the Tree; the human component is the Tempter, who of course is Satan. Jesus, as narrated in "Paradise Regained," is the exemplary resister of Temptation, rejecting Satan's offer of world domination and his challenges to test his faith in God by turning stones to bread and casting himself from the top of the temple's spire. Through embellishment and dramatization, Milton makes ideas like these more explicit in the "Paradise Lost/Regained" poems than they are in the Bible.

Completely blind by the time he wrote these poems, John Milton was a man of strong but curious convictions--he defended the freedom of the press, but he lauded Cromwell and condoned regicide. As poems, "Paradise Lost/Regained" can be read as sacred, reflecting much of English religious thinking of the seventeenth century, or as heroic, subtly illustrating Milton's assiduous efforts to reform religion and government. But regardless of its subtext, it's no wonder that "Paradise Lost" has become one of the most celebrated accomplishments in the English language--the book of Genesis could not have been re-imagined more vividly, more terrifyingly, more beautifully.
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