Columns > Published on December 19th, 2014

Culling The Classics: Paradise Lost

It's December, so everything around us is screaming Christmas. It's inescapable. What better way to celebrate the birth of God Jr. than to read a book about God Sr. and his epic battles with Satan? Trick question: there is no better way.

The Book

Paradise Lost, by John Milton (Samuel Simmons, 1667)

The Numbers

The oldest classic culled to date by over 150 years; considered to be the seminal work of one of the English language's most celebrated and accomplished poets; recognized the world over for its stellar verse and its philosophical and religious arguments; one of the most important works of poetry of the last thousand years; Goodreads rating of 4.06 (Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained edition).

"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n"

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

Separated into 12 "books," Paradise Lost  recounts the tale of Satan's fall from Heaven with his host of angels following their great rebellion against God, as well as Adam & Eve's creation, marital relationship, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, plus some other bible-type stuff.

You'll Love It

Are you kidding? It's a 17th-century epic poem about an angelic war and the minutiae upon which the dogma of the world's largest group of religions is founded!

You'll Loathe It

Are you kidding? It's a 17th-century epic poem about an angelic war and the minutiae upon which—you've stopped reading, haven't you? Great.

Read It Or Leave It

Way back when Culling The Classics first began, there was a bit of controversy regarding The Catcher in the Rye because it's a very hit or miss book. Some people love it; some people loathe it. Theoretically, though, it's an inoffensive enough book that enough people might just be kinda ambivalent about it. Paradise Lost takes the idea of "love it or loathe it" to a whole new extreme. There's no sense even making a pros and cons list for a book like this, because almost every possible "pro" would be someone else's "con." Here's what you need to know:

  • 17th-century epic poem: that probably cut about half of you out already;
  • Follows Satan and Adam & Eve as all parties are expelled from God's favor: okay, some dramz, interesting;
  • Takes some rather controversial stances on religion (or at least hints at certain controversial religious arguments): people have written entire books on Milton's views on Satan's character, the nature of idolatry, divorce, feminism, and God's culpability in the pains suffered by humans on earth;
  • Absolutely beautiful verse: seriously, maybe it's because Milton was completely blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost so he started overcompensating a bit, but for a 17th-century epic poem, it paints a vivid picture;
  • Archaic and poetic language: regardless of how beautiful it is, it's still extremely difficult to read (my version had footnotes, thank Milton's god);
  • Raises interesting questions on the sources of belief, myth, religiosity, and character development: this book is deep;
  • Has the best one-liners ever: "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" is just one of the many, many gems strewn throughout this book.

The Final Verdict

It's kind of a cop out on my part to say this, but in all honesty, if you think that you would probably like Paradise Lost, you would probably like Paradise Lost, and if you think that you would probably not like Paradise Lost, you would probably not like Paradise Lost. This isn't the kind of book that anyone goes into reluctantly and is totally surprised by. Could this be the single greatest work of epic poetry written in the English language? Yes. Is that enough to hold the interest of someone who generally doesn't enjoy classical epic poetry? No. I have to say, I was mightily impressed by how solid Paradise Lost is, how much depth of meaning can be found in every single line, how beautiful the verse is, how intriguing the plot, how wondrous and full the descriptions—but I'm a poet, so these are the kinds of things I like.

There are poets and poems out there that have the power to convert even the most die-hard poetry haters, and the same can probably be said for certain epics and religious works and 17th-century texts: this is not that. In being so magnificent, such a fine example of all of these different types of story, it loses the ability to connect with readers who aren't actively seeking out its depth and intelligence. If you're not reading for debate and meaning, if you don't hold elevated verse up to a high standard, if you aren't interested in the intricacies of etymology and how that brings out a fullness of language to a scene wherein Satan is addressing a horde of fallen angels, then why bother? 17th-century epic poems about an angelic war and the minutiae upon which the dogma of the world's largest group of religions is founded are not for everyone. If you're the kind of person who's sitting there thinking, "Yeah, but you know, I should give it a shot. I've always wanted to read it," then you will absolutely not be disappointed, but that might not be you. For the record, though, I think this book has made me smarter, a better writer, and more fully aware of the creative capabilities of the human mind. I'm really pleased with my choice to read this.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! And if you find yourself stuck among boring distant relations or at a lame party this holiday season, remember these wise words: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." Thanks for the advice, Satan!

About the author

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Freeimages.com Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Learning | Free Lesson — LitReactor | 2024-05

Try Reedsy's novel writing masterclass — 100% free

Sign up for a free video lesson and learn how to make readers care about your main character.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: