MEET THE CONTRIBUTORS
We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
Through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O'er many a frozen, many a fiery alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
~Paradise Lost, II.618.
These are my favourite lines in Paradise Lost because they demonstrate some of the things that I think Milton does better than anyone else. I love the way he describes the landscape in Hell using images that are familiar to us so that we can begin to imagine the place ('alps', for example), but then confuses these images by describing them with adjectives that we might not be expecting (the alps are 'fiery' 'darkness' is 'visible'). Milton places 'fiery' and 'frozen' alongside each other, in polysyndeton (a list with connecting words), in order to link them by means of syntax and alliteration. But when these images are compared in this way, it only serves to bewilder us further; they seem paradoxical, because we do not expect to find both 'fiery' and 'frozen' things in one place. He puts 'shades of death' in a list with the recognisably physical 'rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens' in order to fool us into thinking that 'shades of death' are also something tangible or real. These descriptions help to create an impression of an unfamiliar, confusing place that does not seem to abide by the natural laws that our world follows.
This passage also demonstrates how Milton uses not only vocabulary and images to present Hell, but also his versification. His iambic pentameter makes the whole of his poem seem grand and epic, but here he specifically uses the asyndeton (a list with no connecting words) and polysyndeton in order to produce the sensation of the devils' fast overcoming of a large number of obstructions. Milton uses the verb 'passed' as a mesozeugma here (which means that it refers to all the places listed before and after it). This creates the impression of the movement 'through many a dark and dreary vale' as we read quickly, waiting for the verb; by not adding another verb in the next lines, Milton makes sure that the speed of the movement is not slowed down.
I love this section because I think Milton creates a believably unknown and chilling place, and his skilful versification makes us feel like we are experiencing it, travelling through it with the devils.
Don't worry if you find this passage or any parts of Paradise Lost difficult - the special techniques of delaying the verb with long lists of places can make this passage very hard to follow. I studied Books I and II of Paradise Lost at school for A Level and found it really difficult. I thought Milton's sentences were really hard to understand and I couldn't believe a poem could go on for so long! But I really recommend reading it slowly, taking time over specific passages, maybe marking where you think the sentences seem to fall, and asking yourself why you find sections difficult - Milton is probably doing something specific to create a certain effect. As you get used to his style, you may enjoy it a lot more, as I do now!
Eily-Meg is currently in her third year studying for a BA in English at Christ's. She chose Christ's after doing Paradise Lost at A level and getting excited about the idea of going to Milton's college. She's also a choral scholar and enjoys all things dramatic happening in the university.
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Characters - Michael
Plot Summary: Book XI
Plot Summary: Book XII