About a half a dozen times in my life, I’ve decided to go on a self-improvement kick where I take up a work of classic literature that I should have read in high school or college. This has produced decidedly mixed results, as you might have guessed since I’ve had to restart the process so many times. I haven’t done a good job of sticking with it. It’s just so much easier to read a western or a spy thriller. My last attempt was four years ago with Crime and Punishment. Crime and Punishment is a great book with a lot of profound truths. My first attempt at reading it was when I was in my 20s and I can honestly say that the parts I managed to read changed my life, especially how I think about politics. It is also a real slog to get through. That attempt I made in my 20s only made it about halfway through and I did only a little better on my last try four years ago. I finally gave up and scanned through to the end trying to figure out whether the prostitute with the heart of gold and the axe murderer finally get together in the end.

For my latest attempt at self-improvement, I decided to try something lighter (or at least shorter) and go with Paradise Lost by John Milton. There are several reasons why I picked that one. I’d had it recommended by a few friends (despite that, we are still friends). I thought the poetic style would make reading it a little easier (it did, a little). Lastly, Milton seemed like an interesting person. Not an interesting person whom I’d like to have over for dinner. Milton could be antagonistic and difficult and his opinions and attitude almost got him beheaded. But his personal story was interesting and I could draw some loose connections with my own life, which is a little depressing now that I think about it.

Anyway, Paradise Lost is an embellished retelling of two interconnecting Biblical stories. The first story covers the war between Satan and his fellow fallen angels on one side and God the Father, the Son, and their allies on the other. The book begins with Satan and his buddies licking their wounds after their defeat and the details of the battle are only discussed when the angel Raphael, describes the battle to Adam later in the book. The second plot line involves Adam and Eve and their idyllic lives in Eden, which eventually ends in disaster.

Okay, far greater folks than I have written massive tomes and created lengthy podcasts concerning Paradise Lost and I’m not worthy of traveling in their footsteps by writing my own review. But there were some things about Paradise Lost that surprised me, or at least I found interesting. So let’s hit a few.

1. Readability. As I mentioned, it wasn’t an easy read and I was slowed by the fact that I kept having to reread passages just to be sure I got them right the first time. Much of that is due to the differences in writing styles that occur over three and a half centuries. Still, the poetry is really good and has a flow to it that carries you with it. Milton borrowed an epic style of writing from the Greeks (it also has some similarity to the Book of Job). Writers like Shakespeare (not quite a contemporary of Milton, but still very much in style when Milton wrote) usually wrote in a rhythmic cadence that also used various rhyming schemes. Milton kept that cadence, but because he was writing a lengthy epic, he couldn’t be bothered with the rhyming aspect. I actually got more out of it and it was easier to read when I read it aloud. Unlike Crime and Punishment, I never felt like giving up and scanning to the end. It was actually fun to read despite the slow, plodding approach I had to take to get through it.

2. Satan. All of Milton’s life was one huge mess after another, but life was particularly rough when he was writing this. Or maybe I should say dictating it, because he was blind at the time and had to dictate it to his daughters (this might explain why it worked better for me when I read it orally). Some of that struggle and resulting bitterness wells up in interesting spots throughout the story, but it particularly shows itself in the character Satan. This has caused some critics, most prominently William Blake in the 19th century, to surmise that Satan was actually a tragically heroic character, a character that merely aspired to be free, and that Milton actually had sympathy for the devil, so to speak (I’m pretty sure that neither Milton nor Blake were fans of the Rolling Stones although they might have known Keith Richards personally). If the quote on the back cover of my copy is any indication, this opinion is still an important opinion in academia today:

“An endless moral maze, introducing literature’s first Romantic, Satan.” – John Carey

Far be it from me to argue with John Carey or even the esteemed William Blake, but the characterization of Satan I got from the book is that Satan is a punk. Even from the very first book in the poem, we find Satan being completely delusional. The famous quote of Satan that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” occurs early on, but it also becomes clear early on that even Satan doesn’t believe his own rhetoric. After his defeat, he immediately goes into planning mode with his fellow fallen angels to figure out a way to get back to heaven and win this time. Failing that, he just wants revenge. On a couple of occasions we find Satan having second thoughts about continuing the battle, maybe figuring out a way to get back into Heaven’s good graces, or at least respecting the wonder of the creation and leaving it alone, but he just can’t quite help himself. In my reading, Satan is no more a tragic hero or a “romantic” than Hitler or Stalin. Yes, Milton wrote Satan as a complex character, but that doesn’t make him any less horrible.

3. Sex. There is SO MUCH sex in Paradise Lost that I’m stunned that they are not selling it in bookstores with the porn. Okay, that’s a gross exaggeration. There are only two sex scenes and neither would convince you that Paradise Lost is some seventeenth century version of Fifty Shades of Gray. The sex scenes are not at all graphic, but the language makes it indisputable that Milton is talking about sex, which is surprising since Milton was a Puritan and Puritans had a reputation for being a little repressed.

The sex scenes between Adam and Eve are important to the arc of the story. The first scene is before the fall and it is described in such flowery language that it leaves no doubt that the sex is beautiful and glorious and perfect. The second sex scene occurs after the fall and shares some of the beauty of the first, but it has become much more about power and dominance and leaves both Adam and Eve feeling frustrated. The scene tragically conveys that something wonderful has been permanently polluted.

4. A Bible summary. The archangel Michael is given the sad duty of relaying to Adam and Eve that they are getting kicked out of Eden. Understandably, this leaves the couple feeling a little blue. At various times, they practically beg God to end their misery. So Michael does them a favor. He gives Adam a vision of the future. Over the next thirty or so pages of text, there follows the most concise summary of the Bible I’ve ever read. Michael starts with Cain killing Abel (although he spares Adam the knowledge that it’s his own sons who are involved) and moves through the flood, the Tower of Babel, the patriarchs, and the giving of the Law. Michael ends with the reconciliation to God that comes with the sacrifice of God’s son. Some of the story is disturbing to Adam and causes him to feel even worse about his failure, but in some of the story he finds comfort and when he sees the coming of Jesus, he is overcome with joy and gratitude. This really is Milton at his best, as he combines his education and life experiences with his writing skill to create a truly excellent summary of the entire arc of the Bible.

5. A last word. Paradise Lost was a slog to read, although it got better when I started reading parts of it orally. It surprises me to say this, but I’d still highly recommend it to anyone who likes to read books. The language is brilliant and the story is thought-provoking. Give it a shot when you have the time, but keep in mind that this is not a good book to speed read. It’s going to take a while to finish.

I think next up is Brave New World. Wish me luck!