Monday, November 7, 2011

On Reading Paradise Lost By John Milton

Impenetrable, impal'd with circling fire,
Yet unconsum'd.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, Lines 647-648

The Oracle of Ottawa has come to Paradise Lost late in life. There have been other attempts earlier to get through it. But something else always got in the way. One soon gets bogged down in the Classical references which were pretty common knowledge to any well read man that lived in Miltons time, but to a "modern" man it all seems as dry as straw. You soon start to wonder what all the fuss is about regarding the work. But when you realize that it took Milton over ten years to write the work and once you have rudimentary understanding of the time and place that he lived it all comes alive as the greatest Epic possibly ever written.

John Milton

The secret to starting and sticking with it is a good annotated text. A real boring one that has that wicked long introduction by the editor, the one that goes into the details of the social and economic environment that Milton found himself in. A detailed once over reading of the chronology of his life and times will also help immeasurably. John Milton was not a nine to five suburbanite! And being born into a well off family didn't mean that he had no problems, he just had different ones and a lot of them! A rudimentary understanding of his time is crucial to coming to grips with the driving force of what he was about. Think of Paradise Lost as the seventeenth century version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson!

Paradise Lost Plate by William Blake

The text that grabbed and held the Oracle of Ottawas nose to the page is that of Roy Flannagan from 1993, published by Prentice Hall. (Note to Prentice Hall: use the good glue, like Norton and Wiley do...) You simply must have a detailed annotated text. And that edited by Roy Flannagan is the best that this humble reader has ever seen. Strangely enough the text reads much faster and becomes very enjoyable when you read all the foot notes. The Oracle of Ottawa loves the detail and the explanations and references to the classical and mythological references. The details of the errors of the printing and compositing are just fascinating and contain the subject matter of several yet to be written tomes. Which I am pretty sure will not be written by the Oracle of Ottawa!

Once you are clued into the meaning of the bearers of Miltons symbolism the whole work takes on a majesty that is impossible to describe. The conjuring of the imperial scope with the continued use of twenty four symbols (more or less..) arranged in a multitude of different ways soon leads you to the discovery of what literary power really is, and that it will never be exhausted...

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