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.
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.
~Paradise Lost, I.105.
The first time I attempted to read Paradise Lost I found it very difficult to get exactly what was going on, never mind the almost legendary complexity of Milton's syntax, the perplexing topical allusions and the unfamiliar mythological references. On my first reading, I set the bar much lower - I just wanted to know what happened. I discovered later that reading Paradise Lost for the plot didn't work particularly well, not least because eight years of Sunday school meant that I was mistakenly sure that I knew what happened. I only took the vaguest impressions away from my abortive first reading, although something I was able to feel very powerfully was the force of Satan's speeches. Of that much I was sure, despite my inability to make sense of some of the unfamiliar language (it turns out that line 109 can be paraphrased as 'what else does it mean not to be overcome?'), or my failure to articulate quite why it impressed me as much as it did.
It was only on re-reading the poem at university with some awareness of the wider context of Renaissance literature that I started to pick up on some of the intricacies of Satan's rhetoric. It helped that I had been exposed to a whole new language to explain some of the effects most commonly used in making speeches - for example, I became aware that Satan beginning each part of the sentence with the same word, 'And', was an example of anaphora, a favourite device of orators. I was also more able to focus on the individual words that Satan uses to describe God in and to then think about how they contribute to the overall picture Satan attempts to construct, as well the reasons for which he might be doing this. Words like 'wrath' and 'might' represent God as a tyrant, who holds his superior position only through greater physical force; in this way Satan is able to question the basis of God's authority. Later still I started to furnish these specific impressions with a sense of the wider context - what ideas did Milton's contemporaries have about rhetoric, and what values (literary, social and moral) did they attach to it? What would a contemporary reader have made of Satan's speeches? Are we meant to be impressed by them, or to see through them instantly? Will our reaction inevitably be a bit of both?
For me, there has been no magical moment where it all clicked - things have gradually started to fall into place as I have learnt more about the way Milton wrote, the society he lived in, and the religion he practiced. However there are innumerable things that I will readily admit I still don't get. Yet I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to study him in such detail, and to have been able to come so far from my original sketchy impressions.
Jonathan is in his second year of studying English at Cambridge. Paradise Lost is his favourite thing ever (no, really…), except for possibly To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. He also enjoys going out, and spending too much time on a lethal combination of Wikipedia, BBC.com, hotmail and facebook.
Milton's literary legacy
Plot Summary: Book IV