I have two English degrees1 and am incredibly interested in literary evocations of The Bible, however – until this week – I had never read the English canonical literary classic Paradise Lost. And, now having read it – largely inspired by how much I enjoyed His Dark Materials when I reread it recently – I’d be lying it I said I hadn’t been a little bit underwhelmed. Gently repetitive, loose in focus and far too interested – by the end – in the least interesting characters (i.e. dull Adam and Eve rather than cool badass rebel Satan), Paradise Lost has aged far less well than many earlier English texts. In my opinion, John Milton’s classic work never manages to be as enjoyable as a whole as its individual parts often are, and this disjointed, occasionally clumsy, text left me feeling unsatisfied. When it’s good, it’s great, but when it isn’t good, it’s boring – and to be middle of the road is, for me, more of a sin that to be bad. Paraside Lost threatens to be a text that it never quite becomes, for when it flies it fucking soars, but too much of it – perhaps wearied by its own colossal influence on English literature – is dull.
For those of you who don’t know (probs no one reading this), Paradise Lost was written by the disgraced former politician John Milton, once he was blind, retired but – luckily – spared from the reprisal executions that took out many of his former republican peers following the restoration of the English monarchy. Milton had been tinkling with the idea of a literary retelling of the Fall for many years, noting down some dialogue and monologues for a projected blank verse drama over a decade before he knuckled down (with people to dictate to) and wrote the long form poem as we know it today. It is often quite clear which parts of the text date from this earlier, dramatic, version, as this epic poem – styled after the epic poems of the classical world but in the iambic form of the great English literature of the Shakespeare and Marlowe generation – features many extended monologues, and these bits – worked on and returned to for many years, have the freshness, the vigour and the quality of the kind of songs you hear on the first album by a band that’s been touring for years. Milton can, and does, write beautifully, but it is the speeches, especially those of Satan, that truly (metaphorically) sing.
Maybe I’m being overly harsh on this old book, but I just found the whole thing took more effort to read than it was worth. Not always, sometimes it was AMAZING, such as Raphael’s long speech recounting the battle for heaven between Satan and God, and sometimes it was enjoyable to be reminded of stories I like from my secular readings of the Bible. It’s fun to read about Satan’s anger at God, it’s fun to read Milton’s description of fantasy landscapes, it’s fun to read about huge, sweeping battles (like at the end of His Dark Materials) and it’s fun to read about imagined monsters and to read the – to my mind – bizarre commingling of Christian stories with ancient Greek myth, and it is when this book is fun that it is worth reading. Because Paradise Lost was a blockbuster, it was fun entertainment made for the masses of the literate middle and upper classes. It was written to be fun, rather than instructive, because all the stories included in here are stories people already know. This is like Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, this is like Jesus Christ Superstar – the point isn’t telling a story, because everyone reading Paradise Lost knows how it’s going to end, how it has to end, and what happens to get the characters there. We’re not reading it to find out why or what, we are reading it instead to be witness to an original interpretation, version, of a story we already know. So when Milton’s retelling of the story isn’t more enjoyable, more beautiful, more moving, more poetic, or more fun than the version in fucking Genesis, what’s the fucking point of it?
The thing is, though, that Milton hasn’t made up the plot, and the plot is incredible. We’re talking massive fantasy battles, we’re talking actions with unimaginable negative consequences, it’s about power and death and mortality. It’s also, throughout, very sexist, with Eve characterised as categorically “lesser” than Adam, which is obviously problematic (for me, at least, though plenty of men still don’t seem to see that (check comments on this article)). And, although many passages of the book are beautiful and evocative and exciting, it’s often quite turgid, which is a problem given that this is meant to be entertaining. Paradise Lost is the Game of Thrones of its day, and imagine how dull Game of Thrones would be if there were 30 minute landscape shots in between every fun bit. Paradise Lost is too much work for something that feels best when it’s most trashy. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I am saying that the best thing about it – the plot – was made up by an anonymous source millennia ago. AND, what else is significant, is that Paradise Lost isn’t even the best reimagining of the Fall: that would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
(Also maybe His Dark Materials, which I enjoyed being reminded of throughout. Milton mentions “golden compasses” at one point, and there are frequent references to “dust”, such as “dust, our final rest and native home” (Book X, l. 1085). I’d have enjoyed Paradise Lost even less if it hadn’t kept reminding me of Philip Pullman’s masterpiece, tbh).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I realised as I read this, is an adaptation of the same story. Frank-N-Furter has been rejected from his home planet (Satan from heaven) and persuades the innocent hetero couple to eat from the tree of knowledge (i.e. the Thrill of Fuck), which leads to everyone’s demise and the introduction of death into the world. Imagine, however, if all the songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show were shit. I mean uncatchy, bad lyrics, tired tunes, poor instrumentation: shit. They’re not, they’re great. Paradise Lost is a bit like that. Brilliant most of the time, but with glaring passages that are dull and undermine the whole. Milton gets time confused, too, his narrator often referring to events that happen long after the story is set, and as well as this the book includes deliberate flash forwards, retelling other stories from the Bible as predictions/visions. It doesn’t make for thrilling reading, tbh, as these digressions are not entertaining in the Dyer/Sterne tradition, they just feel muddled.
So, what I’ve done here is take a classic of English literature and tell you it’s shit because it’s not as fun as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Maybe it’s not even as fun as my own attempt at Biblical-era fiction (see some here!). Meh, maybe I didn’t enjoy this because I’m too stupid, too stressed out, too tired, too homeless, too exhausted, but who knows. I’m fucking hyped for The Book of Dust, which I’m going to start in a few weeks, but I won’t be surprised if I never read a word by John Milton ever again.
1. As I mention all the fucking time, in a self-deprecating rather than self-aggrandising way (if you didn’t get that before, I apologise). I believe that it is funny I have two degrees, because I am not an academic and almost all of the money I ever make comes from hospitality, something that bears absolutely no relation to my degree. D’you get it, yeah, DO YOU GET IT? My two degrees are funny, because I don’t “use” them. It’s funny that I have two degrees because I don’t live the professional life of someone with two degrees. I do, however, lead the weird, unconventional, literary-focused, lonely, scatological, sexually confused life of the kind of person who has two English degrees. I can’t think of any positive stereotypes of having two degrees – to have one English degree may be regarded as a misfortune; to have two looks like carelessness. OMG, I’m such a stereotypical unsuccessful English graduate lolololololol. Have a look at some of my recently published writing over at Queen Mob’s Teahouse – see how I’m not a grown up at all like..↩