Oliver Cromwell

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Airmont Edition

You’re reading a blog called Classically Educated.  I suppose that an appearance by Milton shouldn’t be much of a surprise…  Also, we’ve done poetry before, too…

Of course, even those of us who’ve never read John Milton’s epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, know about Milton’s Satan.  He is often pointed at as one of the great characters in the history of literature, and used as the prime example of how villains are so much more interesting than the good guys.

And it’s true, he is.  Not particularly sympathetic, perhaps, but definitely interesting.

But I often wonder how much of the character’s sympathetic nature has been created by modern readings of the poem.  Would a 17th century reader have been captivated by Satan’s cleverness or perseverance or have seen it as a warning and a danger, kind of the way modern people might see the industrial might of a military rival?

Most readers of that time, I believe, would have read the poem as a cautionary tale, and heeded the implied warnings against pride and arrogance contained within.

Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré

Nevertheless, the more interesting question of what Milton intended still persists.  We need to remember that, before composing his opus, John Milton was an official of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as such, the Christian paradise he refers to might be a symbol of the political one he feels was destroyed by Oliver’s death–although it would be really, really hard to place Cromwell in Satan’s role in this case.

Viewed in a different light, the poems (Lost and Regained) might have been written more in the way of a Shakespearian tragedy: the virtuous, albeit flawed protagonist struggles to the best of his ability, only to be crushed in the end.

Contemporary critics appeared to take the poems in the same light as his readers.  They were much more astonished at his skill than offended at the positive portrayal of some of the devil’s characteristics…  so no light got shed there.

I suppose the truth went to the grave with the author.  That hasn’t stopped seas of ink flowing into analysis later… but I can’t give the answer.  What I will say is that, unlike Chapman’s Homer, this one is an easy, often riveting read that holds up well in modern times.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts about what old Mr. Milton intended.

If you haven’t, don’t do what I did.

I made the mistake of taking this one along as reading material on an international trip…  Not a good idea.  When you’re on a trip, you want something that can immediately, effortlessly, whisk you away into a plot.  This one requires concentration and effort.  Not airport reading material.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short-story writer.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, has one major advantage compared to Paradise Lost: it is not in blank verse.  You can check it out here.

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