Book Meme: Mel’s Day Eleven

Book Meme Challenge:

A Book I Hated

There is a book that I can recognize as brilliant, the work of an artistic genius; possibly the highest culmination of linguistic, rhetoric, poetic, and narrative mastery in the English language.

And I wish to the High Heavens that it had never been written.

Paradise Lost

By John Milton

Undeniably, Milton was a linguistic genius. His phrasing and powers of imagery and symbolism are fantastic. The way that he works the form and has subtle messages imbedded  in the text – one description of the heavens uses the first letter of each line to spell “stars” down the stanza – is brilliant. And the fact that he wrote it all while he was blind, memorizing his lines until he could dictate them to his daughters, makes this work even more amazing.

But I hate this book.

With a loathing usually reserved for bratty teenagers and live chickens.

My distaste is partly because I cannot separate the work from the author. I find that Milton was arrogant and had jerk-like tendencies. He declared that there should be a Great English Epic to rival Virgil, and so HE should write one. He decided that the subject of this epic should be even grander and more important that Dante’s material, and so he determined to “justify God’s ways to man”.

In addition, the book displays a lot of theology with which I am not only uncomfortable but that actually make angry. That I would disagree with a supposed Anglican on some issues is inevitable, but Milton took it one step further and edges into a strange sort of almost chauvinistic gnosticism.

This was the man who wrote tracts ‘proving’ that polygamy was the ideal order created by God. The man who implied that woman are the source of all that is wicked. And that is only the tip of the situation; what Paradise Lost implies about the person of Christ also makes me fume. I dare not open up that can of worms here. Suffice it to say, I believe it would be difficult to find a thoughtful Christian who agrees completely with Milton.

Moreover, as skilled as he is with poetry, (“Lycidas” is gorgeous,) the long, long, long verses of Paradise Lost begin to feel like Chinese water torture. Drip, drip, drip.

I have read – or was supposed to read – Paradise Lost in three different classes. Each time it only got worse. Although C.S. Lewis does give a beautiful preface to this book, it still does not win my affection. Respect, possibly. But even a mild tolerance, no.

Something about Milton and his treatment of Eve – and all women – brings out my closet feminism. Normally, I am a sedate, dress-loving, kitchen-inhabiting, home-oriented female. I appreciate men who open doors for me. But when I am told that I cannot do something or are somehow inferior based solely on my sex, then all my rebellion shoots up like a solar flare. I am glad for many reasons that women got the vote, but mainly to sock it to Milton.

My favorite answer to Milton’s challenge comes from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad; “Malt does more than Milton can, / To justify God’s ways to man.”

A truer word was never spoken.


9 thoughts on “Book Meme: Mel’s Day Eleven

  1. I love, love, LOVE that line from Shropshire Lad. And as far as I can, I’m inclined to agree with you on Milton…but since I was exposed to him in a class which focused too much on his unsavory person, and haven’t yet made it all the way through…I suppose I don’t hate Paradise Lost enough to wish it hadn’t been written. It seems worth reading for the poetry, but that’s all.

    PS, what have you got against live chickens?

    • Housman hit the nail on the head there. “Terence this is stupid stuff . . . ” Really, I have not been able to finish this in one go either. It took several “required” readings to pull it off.

      Were you in any of those classes? Because we concentrated on Milton as a person too much also . . . Ren Lit with Reist, Theology of the British Poets, etc.? Also, I am pretty sure that we could get along with only everything else that Milton wrote.

      And, have you ever raised chickens? They are evil, and filthy, and gross, and ugly, and itchy, and . . . ugh! I would say that they are from devil, except the devil usually has better taste. I HATE chickens!!!!

      • PS, if women are the source of all that is wicked, why would he defend polygamy? Clearly I forgot what Bauman or Reist had to say on that score…

      • RPS, I have no idea how his logic worked, logically. But somehow, women (and sex) naturally being responsible for The Fall, means that women must be subject to men in all things. Ergo, ipso facto, the more satisfied the man with his relation to women, the better the world would be. So men should have as many women as they needed?

        Yeah, I have no idea how that worked. :-p

  2. William Blake stated Milton “wrote in fetters when [he] wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, [because] he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”

  3. I am very glad that the AE Housman quote remains a favorite among the thoughtful Hillsdalians (or is it Hillsdaliens?)! It still inspires me.

  4. Interesting take.

    I personally enjoyed Paradise Lost, but I understand how you feel. As a young, Christian woman reading the poem in university, I also felt very angry at times. In fact, I wrote a paper in Eve’s defense.

    I enjoy the story if I take the perspective my professor had: that the hero of the story is not God nor Jesus but in fact Lucifer. Distancing it from my faith allows me to view it as just an epic tragedy.

    My father is a minister. He’s never read PL, but he and I often discussed the theology of the poem. He was surprised to hear how the story of Adam’s fall was written; apparently, as a minister, he’s often met people who believe (and have been taught in church) that Adam chose to eat the apple to die with Eve. He never understood where such a teaching came from but reasoned it was from Milton’s influence.

    I had the opportunity to teach PL to a high school British Literature class this year. We had very interesting class discussions as I’m protestant and my students are atheists, Catholics, and Muslims. I was surprised to discover that it was one of their favorite units in our course.

  5. Pingback: Ponder-ous « Egotist's Club

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