John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been many things to many people — a Christian epic, a comment on the English Civil War, the epitome of poetic ambiguity — but it is first of all a pleasure to read. Drawing on sources as varied as Wordsworth, Hitchcock, and Conan Doyle, author Philip Pullman considers the sonic beauty and expert storytelling of Milton's masterpiece, and the influence it has had on his own work.
December 11, 2019
A correspondent once told me a story — which I've never been able to trace, and I don't know whether it's true — about a bibulous, semi-literate, ageing country squire 200 years ago or more, sitting by his fireside listening to Paradise Lost being read aloud. He's never read it himself; he doesn't know the story at all; but as he sits there, perhaps with a pint of port at his side and with a gouty foot propped up on a stool, he finds himself transfixed.
I'm conscious, as I write this essay, that I have hardly any more pretensions to scholarship than that old gentleman. Many of my comparisons will be drawn from popular literature and film rather than from anything more refined. Learned critics have analysed Paradise Lost and found in it things I could never see, and related it to other works I have never read, and demonstrated the truth of this or that assertion about Milton and his poem that it would never have occurred to me to make, or, having made, to think that I could prove it. But this is how I read this great work, and all I can do is describe that way of reading.
So I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but also with my mouth. I was lucky enough to study Books I and II for A level many years ago, and to do so in a small class whose teacher, Miss Enid Jones, had the clear-eyed and old-fashioned idea that we would get a good sense of the poem if, before we did anything else to it, we read it aloud. So we took it in turns, in that sixth-form classroom in Ysgol Ardudwy, on the flat land below the Harlech Castle, to stumble and mutter and gabble our way through it all, while Miss Jones sat with arms comfortably folded on her desk, patiently helping us with pronunciation, but not encumbering us with meaning.
As when far off at sea a fleet descried
Hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the isles
Of Ternate and Tidore, whence merchants bring
Their spicy drugs: they on the trading flood
Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape
Ply stemming nightly toward the pole. So seemed
Far off the flying fiend…1
That passage stayed with me for years, and still has the power to thrill me. “Ply stemming nightly toward the pole” – in those words I could hear the creak of wood and rope, the never-ceasing dash of water against the bows, the moan of the wind in the rigging; I could see the dim phosphorescence in the creaming wake, the dark waves against the restless horizon, the constant stars in the velvet sky; and I saw the vigilant helmsman, the only man awake, guiding his sleeping shipmates and their precious freight across the wilderness of the night.
… through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O’er many a frozen, many a fiery alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, den and shades of death,
A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived,
Gorgons and hydras, and chimeras dire.2
The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don't fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It's like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realise that the sound you're releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they're there. The sound is part of the meaning and that part only comes alive when you speak it. So at this stage it doesn't matter that you don't fully understand everything: you're already far closer to the poem than someone who sits there in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes.
We need to remind ourselves of this, especially if we have anything to do with education. I have come across teachers and student teachers whose job was to teach poetry, but who thought that poetry was only a fancy way of dressing up simple statements to make them look complicated, and that their task was to help their pupils translate the stuff into ordinary English. When they'd translated it, when they’d “understood” it, the job was done. It had the effect of turning the classroom into a torture chamber, in which everything that made the poem a living thing had been killed and butchered. No one had told such people that poetry is in fact enchantment; that it has the form it does because that very form casts a spell; and that when they thought they were bothered and bewildered, they were in fact being bewitched, and if they let themselves accept the enchantment and enjoy it, they would eventually understand much more about the poem.
But if they never learn this truth themselves, they can't possibly transmit it to anyone else. Instead, in an atmosphere of suspicion, resentment, and hostility, many poems are interrogated until they confess, and what they confess is usually worthless, as the results of torture always are: broken little scraps of information, platitudes, banalities. Never mind! The work has been done according to the instructions, and the result of the interrogation is measured and recorded and tabulated in line with government targets; and this is the process we call education.
However, as I say, I was lucky enough to learn to love Paradise Lost before I had to explain it. Once you do love something, the attempt to understand it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, and what you find when you begin to explore Paradise Lost in that way is how rich it is in thought and argument. You could make a prose paraphrase of it that would still be a work of the most profound and commanding intellectual power. But the poetry, its incantatory quality, is what makes it the great work of art it is. I found, in that classroom so long ago, that it had the power to stir a physical response: my heart beat faster, the hair on my head stirred, my skin bristled. Ever since then, that has been my test for poetry, just as it was for A. E. Housman, who dared not think of a line of poetry while he was shaving, in case he cut himself.
The question “Where should my story begin?” is, as every storyteller knows, both immensely important and immensely difficult to answer. “Once upon a time”, as the fairy-tale formula has it; but once upon a time there was — what? The opening governs the way you tell everything that follows, not only in terms of the organisation of the events, but also in terms of the tone of voice that does the telling; and not least, it enlists the reader's sympathy in this cause rather than that. Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out that if a film opens with a shot of a burglar breaking into a house and ransacking the place, and then, with him, we see through the bedroom window the lights of a car drawing up outside, we think “Hurry up! Get out! They're coming!”
So when the story of Paradise Lost begins, after the invocation to the “heavenly muse”, we find ourselves in Hell, with the fallen angels groaning on the burning lake. And from then on, part of our awareness is always affected by that. This is a story about devils. It's not a story about God. The fallen angels and their leader are our protagonists, and the unfallen angels, and God the Father and the Son, and Adam and Eve, are all supporting players. And we begin in medias res, in the middle of the action, with the first great battle lost, and the rebel angels just beginning to recover their senses after their vertiginous fall. What an opening! And what scenery! Satan first looks around at:
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed…3
C. S. Lewis remarks that for many readers it's not just the events of the story that matter: it's the world the story conjures up. In his own case, he loved the Leather-Stocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper not just for “the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged — the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names”.4
The same thing is true for some writers of stories. They are drawn to a particular atmosphere, a particular kind of landscape; they want to wander about in it and relish its special tastes and sounds, even before they know what story they're going to tell. Whether Milton worked like that I don't know, but it's easy to see that his imagination delighted in the scenery of Hell, and we see that from the very beginning, with Satan surveying his “dungeon horrible”.5 Books I and II are full of these magnificent and terrifying landscapes, and when the tale reaches Paradise itself, in Book IV, the descriptions reach a peak of sensuous delight that we can almost taste.
But landscapes and atmospheres aren't enough for a story; something has to happen. And it helps the tightness and propulsion of the story enormously if it's the protagonist himself who sets the action going, who takes the initiative. It also encourages our interest in the protagonist to develop into admiration. That is exactly what happens here, as the fallen angels, who are devils now, gather themselves after their great fall, and begin to plot their revenge.
I think it could hardly be told any better. After their first struggle on the burning lake, the fallen angels hold a great debate in Pandaemonium, where the characters of their leaders are vividly revealed: Moloch, the fearless, savage warrior; Belial, graceful, false and hollow, counselling “ignoble ease, and peaceful sloth”;6 Mammon, intent only on gold and riches; and then Beelzebub, “majestic though in ruin”,7 who sums up all the preceding arguments and then points the way to another world altogether, “the happy seat / Of some new race called Man”,8 and suggests that they make that the target of their vengeance. We can see and hear the plan taking shape, we can feel the surge of determination and energy it brings, and inevitably that makes us curious to know how they'll bring it off. There is a sort of curiosity that isn't short-circuited by our knowledge of how things did, in fact, turn out: Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal demonstrates that although we know full well that General de Gaulle was not assassinated, we are still eager to read about how he might have been.
If the opening of a story is important, the closing of one part of it, a chapter, a canto, is important in a different way. The purpose here is to charge the forthcoming pause with tension and expectation. Popular storytellers have always had a firm grasp of this principle; it's exactly what Conan Doyle does, for example, at the end of the first episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in the Strand Magazine for August 1901. Dr Mortimer has just been describing the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville and mentions the footprints nearby. “A man's or a woman's?” asks Holmes, and Dr Mortimer replies, “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”9
Storytelling principles hold true, whatever the subject, whatever the medium. Time the pause right, and the audience will be eager for what follows. The break after the end of the second book of Paradise Lost is powerfully charged with tension because it obeys that principle. After his journey to the gates of Hell, and his encounter with Sin and Death, Satan sees the distant vastness of Heaven:
And fast by hanging in a golden chain
This pendent world, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accursed, and in a cursèd hour he hies.10
And there Book II ends, and we pause with that image in our minds. This newly created world, suspended in its golden chain, so beautiful and fresh, knows nothing of what is coming towards it. But we know. To cite Alfred Hitchcock again, who knew more about suspense than most other storytellers, you can depict four men sitting around a table calmly playing cards, and the audience will be on the edge of their seats with tension — as long as the audience knows what the card players don't, namely that there is a bomb under the table about to go off. Milton knew that too.
There are examples of his great storytelling power all the way through — far too many to mention here. But one we should look at is the very end of the poem. Like the beginning, the end of a story is such an important place that it has a traditional formulaic tag, but “and they lived happily ever after” certainly won't do in this case. Adam and Eve have chosen to disobey the explicit command of God, and the consequences of this have been laid out for them not only by their own experience of guilt and shame, but also by the narrative of the future they've heard from the angel Michael. They must leave Eden: Paradise is now irrecoverably lost. This is a part of the story that has often been illustrated, and in a picture the scene is indeed intensely dramatic, with the man and woman in tears and the angel with the fiery sword expelling them — as it is in Michael Burghers' engraving.
But the story closes on a mood, a tender emotional harmony that is both crystal clear and profoundly complex. Part of its complexity depends on the interplay between the past and the future, between regret and hope, and this is the very thing that is so difficult to convey in a picture, where the only tense is the present. The best way to experience the full richness of this mood is to read the last lines of the poem aloud, as I've suggested earlier, and succumb to the enchantment, because at this point poetry and storytelling come together perfectly. “The world was all before them” implies not only an end but a new beginning.11 There are many more stories to come.
A poem is not a lecture; a story is not an argument. The way poems and stories work on our minds is not by logic, but by their capacity to enchant, to excite, to move, to inspire. To be sure, a sound intellectual underpinning helps the work to stand up under intellectual questioning, as Paradise Lost certainly does; but its primary influence is on the imagination.
So it was, for instance, with the greatest of Milton's interpreters William Blake, for whom the author of Paradise Lost was a lifelong inspiration. “Milton lov’d me in childhood & shew’d me his face”,12 he claimed, and in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he wrote what is probably the most perceptive and certainly the most succinct criticism of Paradise Lost: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it”.13 And Blake's continuing and passionate interest in Milton resulted in a long (and, frankly, difficult) poem named after the poet, as well as a series of illustrations to Paradise Lost which are some of the most delicate and beautiful watercolours he ever did.
Today, nearly three and a half centuries after Paradise Lost was first published, it is more influential than ever. Two separate dramatic adaptations have recently played on the stage in Britain; and only this morning I opened my post to find an American retelling of it, with attractive watercolour illustrations, in an edition for children. It will not go away.
In my own case, the trilogy I called His Dark Materials (stealing that very phrase from Book II, line 96, with due acknowledgement in the epigraph) began partly with my memories of reading the poem aloud at school so many years before. As I talked to my publisher, I discovered that he too remembered studying it in the sixth form, and we sat at the lunch table swapping our favourite lines; and by the time we'd finished, I seemed to have agreed to write a long fantasy for young readers, which would, at least partly, we hoped, evoke something of the atmosphere we both loved in Paradise Lost.
So it was the landscape, the atmosphere that was my starting point. But as the narrative began to form itself on the page, I found that — perhaps drawn by the gravitational attraction of a much greater mass — I was beginning to tell the same story, too. I wasn't worried about that, because I was well aware that there are many ways of telling the same story, and that this story was a very good one in the first place and could take a great deal of retelling.
Inevitably, the storyteller's own preoccupations become visible in the emphasis and the colouring they give to this or that aspect of the tale. In my case, I found that my interest was most vividly caught by the meaning of the temptation-and-fall theme. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence. The end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a non-existent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are going to do any good in the world we have to leave childhood behind.
That is how one modern writer told this great story. It will certainly be told many times again, and each time differently. I think it is the central story of our lives, the story that more than any other tells us what it means to be human. But however many times it is told in the future, and however many different interpretations are made of it, I don't think that the version created by Milton, blind and ageing, out of political favour, dictating it day by day to his daughter, will ever be surpassed.
The Lord of Dust, creator of daemons and spinner of the finest fairy tales, Philip Pullman is one of the world’s greatest and most influential storytellers. His wide-ranging body of work encompasses books for both adults and children, but he is best-known for the unparalleled achievement that is His Dark Materials and the eagerly awaited sequel, La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in Pullman's new series The Book of Dust. Published by Penguin Random and David Fickling Books in October 2017, La Belle Sauvage has since been named Waterstone's Book of the Year. The second book in the series, The Secret Commonwealth, published October 2019.