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A resource for studying Milton's Paradise Lost

HOW TO USE THIS SITE: A Student's Guide


          BY SARAH HOWE

Researching on the internet

As you have doubtless already discovered if you are reading this, the internet can be a great resource for learning. For many of us these days, it’s the first thing we turn to when researching a new topic or looking up stray facts. A great strength of the internet is that anyone can contribute to it. But this means we need to ask certain questions when reading texts on the web: Who wrote this and why? Where is it published? Has anyone else checked this information?

If you were to ask these questions about darkness visible, you would come up with the following:

darkness visible
is a website attached to a UK university, produced by students and lecturers at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

It was designed as an introduction to Milton’s Paradise Lost and as a gateway to further study.

The authors and a team of editors have checked the content of the website carefully for mistakes.

You can sometimes tell that a web page is hosted by a university from its URL address – i.e. if it ends with .ac.uk or .edu. Such pages may be a more reliable starting point than, say, a small personal website. However, this is just a rough guide and is not to say that you should uncritically trust certain kinds of texts on the internet and always discard others as unreliable!

Get into the habit of evaluating what you read. Do I agree with that opinion? Should I check the context of that quotation from the poem? And remember, your opinions are just as interesting as those of other scholars.


Quoting versus Plagiarizing

Critical writings that discuss works of literature (such as Paradise Lost) are generally known as ‘secondary texts’.  Reading secondary texts, whether on the internet or in books, is a good way of deepening and expanding our knowledge of an author such as Milton.

When it comes to writing essays, quoting from a critic can be a helpful way of complementing your own argument. Don’t worry if your ideas are different to those expressed in the secondary texts you read. Quotations can also be great for showing how your understanding of the poem differs from, or improves on, earlier ones: something always of interest to teachers and examiners.

This is not the same as copying down another person’s words or thoughts and passing them off as your own: a practice known as plagiarism. Teachers and other readers can easily detect plagiarism. It also makes for a dull essay, since it doesn’t force you to think through your own ideas. The key to avoiding plagiarizism is always to acknowledge the source of ideas or turns of phrase drawn from your reading.


Knowing what and how to quote

It isn’t necessary to give a reference for a fact everyone ‘knows’ and agrees on – such as that Milton was born in 1608, or that he went blind in later life. But if you wanted to refer to a critic’s arguments about how Milton’s blindness affected his poetic style, for example, you would need to quote or cite that person.

is when you reproduce someone else’s words in full, using inverted commas or indentation to set them off from yours, for example:

Christopher Ricks suggests Paradise Lost takes us 'back to a time when there were no infected words because there were no infected actions’.1

 1 Christopher Ricks, Milton's Grand Style (Oxford, 1963), p.110.


Citing is when you refer to another person’s idea by summing it up in your own words and attaching it to their name:

Christopher Ricks has developed a theory about how the original senses of its words take the reader of Paradise Lost back to a time before the Fall.1

1 Christopher Ricks, Milton's Grand Style (Oxford, 1963), p.110.

As you can see from these examples, they are usually accompanied by some kind of reference, which here takes the form of a footnote. This gives your reader the kind of basic information they need to retrace your steps, from the title, author and publishing details of the secondary source down to the specific page(s) the idea came from. You could also include a bibliography or list of sources used at the end of your essay.

How do I quote from darkness visible

Of course, things are a little different on the internet, which doesn’t have page numbers! So how do you refer to things you have learnt from darkness visible? The same principle applies: cite the author(s) named at the top of the essay used. They hold the copyright to their work.

Your references or footnotes will simply take a slightly different form, including information about the author, the title of the essay, the site it comes from, and the specific page’s URL. For example:

Ruth Rushworth, ‘Language in Paradise Lost’, Darkness Visible: a Resource for Studying Milton’s Paradise Lost (Christ’s College, Cambridge, 2008) [http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/darknessvisible/language.html, accessed 17 March 2008].

This is the full formula you would use in a scholarly paper: if you’re writing an essay for school, your teacher might not need you to include quite as much information.

Note that when citing web pages, it is a good idea to include the date on which you accessed them. Because the internet is a constantly evolving resource, it could well have changed by the time you next return!

References and further reading

This section owes much to Dr Christopher Burlinson’s ‘A Quick Guide to Quotations - or How to Look Clever Without Even Trying’, which can be found on Converse, the Literature website for A-level and GCSE students. Full of great tips and an interactive quiz, read it here.



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