The Essential Paradise Lost by John Carey

Reviewed by Ian Lipke


It is tempting to damn a writer who dares to publish just the interesting bits of any classic piece of literature. One would have thought that Paradise Lost is a work beyond the savagery of the vandal’s pen, to gut Milton’s great work seems sacrilegious, something that is just not done. Some will not like it but that is what a highly regarded Oxford don has, in fact, done.

John Carey’s The Essential Paradise Lost will stand or fall according to the story’s comprehensiveness and the accuracy of Carey’s telling.  Since Paradise Lost may be unfamiliar to some readers, I should explain that it was a huge undertaking that concerned heavenly and earthly beings and the interactions between them; its author John Milton used conventions such as epic similes, catalogues of people and places, and invocations to a muse; and he introduced themes, – war, nationalism, empire, and stories of origin – that are common to epics.

Grasping what Milton was about requires the reader to commit to new ways of looking at old ideas, to understand that, whatever ‘heroism’ meant before Milton, Paradise Lost saw a reconfiguring of the old model and a redefinition of the new. With Shelley and the Romantic school of literature, some scholars identify Satan as the hero. Others, appalled at that notion, vehemently point to the debilitation in Satan’s appearance from blustering bully in Pandemonium to the hugely diminished creature, a serpent, at the ejection from the Garden of Eden. Some of these critics suggest the Son of God as the hero or, since Milton calls him into question, others argue that the most likely hero is Adam. They see that Adam resembles Aeneas in many respects: he is the father of a new race, responsible for founding a civilization on earth. But unlike Aeneas, Adam’s primary heroic act is not heroic at all: it is the first act of disobedience. The American historian Stanley Fish maintains that Milton deliberately lets Satan seduce not only Adam and Eve, but the reader as well. Fish writes, “The reading experience becomes the felt measure of man’s loss” as the reader is first seduced by Satan’s powerful and impressive logic, then slowly realizes that the logic is in fact twisted and nonsensical (Surprised by Sin 39). The reader emerges from the experience renewed with a greater sense of faith, which is the ultimate goal of the poem.

Readers should know that Milton’s God is invisible and omnipresent, a being who cannot be considered an individual so much as an existence. Everything relating to God in Paradise Lost should be understood as a kind of metaphor, a device used to place the divine in human terms (PL 3.62). To the modern reader, this God is morally repellent, cruel, angry, vengeful, and praise-hungry. He is in fact what Milton considered the biblical God to be.

In Paradise Lost, Adam eats the fruit of knowledge two hundred fourteen lines after Eve. Milton imagines an intervening mental strife unequalled in the history of the world as Adam comes to choose love and death over rational knowledge of God. The Adam of Genesis sins against God after Eve gives him the apple; the Adam of Paradise Lost sins against God not because of what Eve gives him, but because of what he needs of her. Adam’s progression from loneliness, to inseparable devotion to a single partner, to his choice of Eve over God, is a theme that Milton develops throughout his major poetic works.

Milton emphasizes that the Tree of Knowledge raises questions about the different types of knowledge that exist before and after the fall. Before the fall Adam and Eve have instant knowledge of everything they can name, and are simultaneously too pure to know unhappiness or recognize evil when they see it. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they lose the capacity to attain intuitive knowledge. Because they are more removed from God, they cannot learn in the same way they once did.

Nothing less than the creation and ordering of the universe defines the scope of Paradise Lost. The epic explores its cosmological theme in theoretical discussions between Adam and Raphael and in the narrator’s descriptions and metaphors. Further, Milton imagines Satan surveying the universe in an expedition of discovery through a new world in his fall from Heaven and his passage through Chaos to Earth. Adam tries to understand the earth’s physical place in the universe and its associated ontological and theological value as the home of man.

So, how has John Carey’s The Essential Paradise Lost handled this vast undertaking?

The book consists of a very valuable introductory chapter that links Milton the man with Milton the poet, highlights the reasons why the God of Paradise Lost is so fierce and vengeful, and explains that it is OK for the reader to feel a grudging admiration for Satan and his crew. The body of the work is made up of linked passages from the original text. In an Afterword Carey shows that the Son of Man as depicted in Milton’s poem is something of a milksop. Rather than express his great love for mankind, “the Son mostly expresses …obsequiousness towards and congratulations of his Father. Even when he volunteers to die for Mankind the level of discourse is that of a legal agreement” (The John Milton Reading Room, 232). It soon becomes clear that Carey is alert to Milton’s major discourses viz. that the deities of Milton’s creation are not the deities we worship today.

Book I in The Essential Paradise Lost has missed nothing of the major happenings. Milton’s purpose in writing his great poem “to justify the ways of God to men” (30) is given its proper importance and Satan has been banished to everlasting darkness. He has been conquered – he just doesn’t know it yet. He hauls himself free and will hear no talk of defeat. It is through his iron will that his followers divest themselves of the lake of fire. ‘Satan as hero’ is the theme here, although we have not fleshed out what heroism is. Carey’s approach is to make a statement that is a connecting link between two quotations from Milton, but with such care that the text that remains, knits seamlessly. Inspired by their ‘dread Lord’ and hurling their threats at heaven, Satan’s warriors build their palace Pandemonium. A short passage from Milton sets the scene leading into Book II where a solemn Council debates the issues. Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub offer their views, but it is Satan who takes upon himself the task of searching for a new world.

The exploration of the terrain of hell is conducted in Satan’s absence and, since it is peripheral to the main thread, Carey allots it only a dozen lines (Book II, 630 – 642). The emphasis swings immediately to the journey of Satan, and after a careful explanation of a bridging part of the text, Carey takes up the story from line 910 where Chaos gives Satan directions through the darkness to the light (while we readers enter Book III).

Milton’s address to ‘light’ and his lament for his blindness open Book III. The scene changes to Heaven where God proceeds to tell the Son what the future holds. In turn the Son offers self-sacrifice and the heavenly horde, suitably scripted by God, all adore him. We, as readers, are treated to large slabs of very readable Milton. Here lies the strength of John Carey. He has the pen and the sword, the former to link together the passages that are highly significant, the latter to slice away the peripheral text that might enrich the original verse but is not requisite to a clear understanding of the main text. Carey’s editing is inspired. It is as important to know when to withhold the blade as when to use it. Thus the magnificent Book IX is only lightly edited and Milton’s voice is heard heralding the slither of the snake and the descent into mortality of mankind.

There are vandals and there are vandals. Some excise and expose to view, their purpose honourable and offering a validity against which it is difficult to argue. Others simply despoil for some grubby reason – spite, profit, envy, and the like. John Carey belongs to the former crew. Erudite and complete master of his subject John Carey thoroughly vandalises Paradise Lost.

When you consider that Milton’s great poem is twelve books in length and is written in a style that was virtually unknown to seventeenth century, let alone twenty-first century, readers, a work that is read by academics and virtually nobody else, the alternatives are clear cut. Let the work drop out of sight entirely as though it had never been written, or make some attempt to bring it before the educated non-academic reader of serious literature. Carey has made his choice and I think it a good one.

The Essential Paradise Lost


By John Carey

Faber/Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-0-571-32855-0



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