January 3, 2021 | Brian Chappell

Paradise Lost

It should be said plainly, right away, that Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most influential works of literature in the history of the English language. If I am being honest, I use the word “influential” as a substitute for “great,” greatness being a problematic concept in general, especially in literature. That being said, if there was ever an occasion to ponder “greatness” in terms of literature, this is it. For me, as someone who wishes to write, I marvel at the pure achievement that is this poem. Few works cause me to say, “How did he do that?” 

All this being said, I understand if this feeling does not emerge upon your first encounter with the text. Your initial question might in fact be, “What is this guy even saying?” That is actually a great place to begin. The difficulty of the text, for any audience at any time in history (we are not alone in our consternation), is a large part of what I love about it. My main piece of advice, which helped me tremendously when I first was assigned the poem in graduate school, is to gravitate towards the moments of clarity, grace, force, wit, etc. In fact I wager that the moments that do stick out to you are the most important and poignant anyway.

We wanted to offer some of those moments in our selection. Namely, we wanted to showcase the poem’s “hero,” who is the most dreaded and hated mythological figure in the history of Western thought. This is another key to the poem’s “greatness,” its ability to present Satan not only sympathetically, but charismatically. If you get nothing out of this reading, get this: 


Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,

Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat

That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom

For that celestial light? Be it so, since he

Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid

What shall be right: fardest [sic] from him is best

Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream

Above his equals. Farewel [sic] happy Fields

Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail

Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings

A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less then hee

Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,

Th’ associates and copartners of our loss

Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,

And call them not to share with us their part

In this unhappy Mansion, or once more

With rallied Arms to try what may be yet

Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?


The two main considerations of this series come full circle in this one soliloquy. Satan and his crew have arrived in Hell, which is indeed full of “horrours,” a place so bad that God would never pay them any mind down there. But, says Satan, in one of the most human moments in literature, 


The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.


What a declaration! What defiance! In the mind, “Here at least we shall be free.” Who can not identify with this kind of a statement, born in turn by having been rejected by a being who would not share power? 

But do we believe him? The remainder of our selection, from Book IV, depicts a Satan who is still thoroughly resentful of his rejection from Heaven, not quite “free” of the wound he has been dealt. We see the plan take shape to spoil his rival’s grand plan and cause humanity’s fall. He becomes the villain we know him as. 

I opened the blog with the word “influential.” This is where Milton’s influence takes shape: in depicting events from the perspective of the one we should hate. To boldly court the dark side. This is what literature can do.