Dr. John Scholl, Academic Dean and Rhetoric School Director
Our juniors are wandering the 17th century, drinking deeply from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. A couple of weeks ago, we were having a particularly good day. We had outlined the book’s tri-partite map on the whiteboard—Hell, Heaven, and Earth*—scrawled our theories about Milton’s vision of Satan, God, and Adam, and noted a few of his successes and failures, when one of my students looked up at me and asked: “Can you take a class on this in college?” What a delightful question! It is wonderful how a simple question can reveal a complex thought: that she loves the book, sees its complexity, knows we are barely scratching the surface, and wants to go deeper. The others agree and have expressed their affection in various ways—most recently drawings and quotes. Their love testifies to the book’s power and its inherent lovability.
It seems unusual that they should think this way, because a cursory glance suggests at least two strikes against Paradise Lost. First, it is a poem. In the ancient world, poetry was celebrated by young and old alike, by the educated as well as the uneducated. Plato, in creating an idealized republic, advised that poetry should be controlled by the state, because poetry, particularly epic poetry, had such a powerful influence on how people understood virtue and vice. It is different in our day; poetry is often confined to the classroom, the domain of the intellectual. Most high schoolers reject poetry, like broccoli, on sight and shut off their taste buds before the teacher can spoon Homer or Milton into their mouths—they never taste them. Thankfully, my students, fed a steady diet of great works and poetry memorization over the last several years, were ready to digest some Milton.
However, I was concerned that their appetites would be squashed by a second problem: they already know the story. Paradise Lost retells the fall of Adam and Eve, and Milton knew that his readers would anticipate the main events: Satan’s rebellion, the temptation of Eve, her and Adam’s sin, and the ensuing divine judgment and punishment. There are no cliff-hangers here, no plot twists, and, as if to destroy any lingering ignorance, Milton foretells the narrative twice before he even gets to the Garden, once in the first five lines of the book and then again in the mouth of God the Father. Is this not like taking a journey to a place we have already been? Not unreasonably, I thought my students might get bored as they trudged through three hundred pages of dense poetry on this well-worn road.
My fears were quickly dispersed; on day two of our study, the first or second comment was “I love this book,” and we were soon sharing favorite lines. This affected me in a surprising way. As their teacher, I was hoping to influence my students’ tastes, but I did not anticipate that, when they fell in love with the book, my own appreciation of it would change. It reminds me of the time when my wife and I picked up our dog, Amadeus; as we drove home with him, a fuzzy, squirmy puppy crawling on my wife’s lap and she responding with laughter, I, a critic of the canine, started to like him. Amadeus was the answer to my prayers: my wife’s companion on long days while I was working, a little creature for her to nurture, and so I loved him precisely because she loved him, because he filled a space that I wanted to be filled. Milton did the same thing. I have been praying for my students and longing for them to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable … whatever is lovely.”** It is not a given that someone will readily love good things. There are many failures or shortfalls in the road to developing someone’s tastes; shockingly, children sometimes prefer McDonald’s to better hamburgers. Two months ago, Shakespeare’s Hamlet flopped; my students saw its quality but did not enjoy it, were not compelled by its questions. I am grateful, then, to Milton not only because he wrote a great book but, even more so, because he wrote one my students would love.
Why do they love it? This is like asking someone why they like Dr. Pepper; it is not one thing or even ten, but the ensemble, the marriage of the whole, that pleases the taste. Forced to explain themselves, my students point to the poem’s beauty, a concept easier to recognize than to define. When first planning this article, I intended to dissect their thoughts, to explain what they could not explain—how foolish!—I could not do it.
At best, I can offer up one of their favorite sections. In Book Two, Satan encounters Death-personified on his exit from Hell; the two immediately prepare for mortal combat: “Each at the head / Levelled his deadly aim: their fatal hands / No second stroke intend.”*** It seems odd to enjoy this moment: Satan and Death are the stars of the show. Should we not be repelled? Instead, Milton draws us in, envisioning them as mighty warriors, and evokes their intent—to kill each other in one blow—without saying it directly. One of the radical things about the poem is Milton’s depiction of Satan; he makes him at times a sympathetic figure, a Greek hero trying to rescue his men. It is shockingly, almost disturbingly beautiful. Where we are ready to sideline Satan, to label him, like Hitler, as an incomprehensible villain, Milton depicts him in familiar, essentially human, terms and engages us in Satan’s disturbing rationale. It is a testament to his ability that the poet does this through metaphor and word choice, without ever telling us his intent. As we encounter Satan, we are engaged and repelled almost simultaneously and so gain a deeper understanding of our own sinful natures.
If you have not read Milton, I encourage you to try him out. He reminds me of C.S. Lewis, or rather Lewis reminds me of Milton, for echoes of Paradise Lost appear here and there in Narnia. His beautiful writing engages readers in a surprising way and draws us to a deeper consideration of ourselves and our relationship with God.
* The ordering here follows the order of places and people in Paradise Lost; Milton begins in Hell before heading on to Heaven and Earth.
** Philippians 4:8 (ESV)
*** John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 46: 2.711-713.