Paradise Lost, by John Milton: The whole thing is written in blank verse.

I can imagine folks reading this and enjoying it. But not me.

The story lying at the heart of Paradise Lost was one I really wanted to read. I’ve heard many times that Satan is portrayed as the sympathetic figure, that he’s honest about the absurdity of rebellion against the ultimate power of God yet still so resentful at being created as a servant that he is steadfast to his doom.

Some of the subplots here have become recurrent and mythic elements in literature ever since. I knew, for example, that Sin was Death’s mother, but didn’t know the details of the bizarre incestuous origins (that Satan was Sin’s father and Death’s father and grandfather).

The names of the fallen angels are resonant, too. Who is Satan’s second-in-command? Beelzebub, it seems.

Unfortunately, the book is a chore and a bore. The whole thing is written in blank verse, which puts a stranglehold on composition. Shakespeare was smarter: he only used meter when he thought it made things better, but Milton has to shove words around and play games counting syllables even when it hurts readability. Frankly I might have been able to slog through this is I’d been able to reading it in translation; say in French or German where some later writer had moderated Milton’s poetic compulsion.

But that isn’t the only flaw. Milton wants to cram more erudition into this absurdly long poem than it really needs. So he tosses in references to stuff that have nothing to do with the story. Reading along, and suddenly there’s an unknown word: some place Satan flew over, or maybe an animal who’s fur is a color that makes a nice comparison to the color of an angel’s robe. But you’ve got to check, in case that unknown word actually is important. The bottom of each page is full of footnotes explaining what these words mean, and almost all of them are worse then useless, since they distract from the flow of the text (which, recall, is already burdened by that meter). But every now and again one of the footnotes is actually relevant, so it’s hard to just skip ’em all.

And there’s just so much dross! The early portions that deal with Satan were barely tolerable, but as soon as Milton moves on to God and Jesus it gets really, really dull. Every word either one of these says has to be applauded by the angelic choir, who apparently have nothing better to do than to tell God has brilliant he is. Milton can’t leave it there, of course; he has to tell us what the angels are wearing at absurd length.

Why couldn’t he just tell the darn story? The commentary was more interesting than the book itself.

Source: Goodreads. Richard.


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