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.

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