I’ve never read or even dipped into it, even though I picked up a copy in a second-hand bookshop some years back, which has been sitting on my shelf ever since, making me feel slightly more cultured by its mere presence.
The great thing about the programme was that it mostly consisted of an intelligent person being really enthusiastic about something he adored. Very good to watch. I think my two favourite parts were when he went through the ‘darkness visible’ passage, stopping every few words to remark on the ingenuity of the construction, and when he sat down with a first edition and said that it might not make very good television but that he just wanted to read it!
My only critical thought – and I say this, perilously, as someone who hasn’t read the thing and who dropped out of English lit A-level after three weeks – was his discussion of the last few lines:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Most of what Armando says about these seems fair, but he claims that the ending is “intensely secular” with “no mention of God”.
Not directly, but think about how two people, “hand in hand”, could be said to take “their solitary way”. The paradox equates godlessness with solitude; Milton suffuses these last lines with God’s absence.
It’s a terribly sad attitude, and a common one - voiced more recently and more feebly by a preacher that Ophelia Benson heard on a radio programme:
Then the preacher goes off on a little rant… of the 'how do atheists do it?' variety. He can't even conceive of it - it must be so bleak - if this is all there is - with no one to turn to. Davidson [the programme’s host] says, mildly, 'We have each other.' The preacher says, in a pitying voice, 'But human beings are not...dependable.'
I think that attitude is one of the enduring tragedies of humanity: that we aren’t good enough for ourselves or for each other.
If it weren’t a beautiful sunny day that I wanted to be out in, I might now launch into a rhetorical riff about how the invention of religion was our own Fall – when we ate the fruit of the tree of fantasy, and came to imagine that we could be newly clad in divine silk, like the fairytale emperor.
But that would be a bit glib, and a bit combative. Milton was no fool, and ‘Paradise Lost’ is clearly far more than a clever and elegant piece of Christian PR. Well worth a read, methinks.