You may remember me mentioning a year and a half ago that Milton’s Paradise Lost was going to be getting the Hollywood treatment, or you may not. Either way, the news resurfaced recently in the New York Times (article here), and I’m still not really thrilled about it, but I’m sure that when it finally comes out I’ll go see it, if only to sit in the theater and write snarky notes like I did when I went to see The Da Vinci Code. Either way, I’m sure I’ll be entertained.
The thing is, I really like Paradise Lost. I had to read it during my second year of college, and strangely enough, I actually enjoyed it. The major reason for this was that I thought Satan was pretty awesome. Yes, I’m a Satan fan. Go figure. Milton’s Satan is a great character for his active, slimy deviousness (much better than Dante’s passive, weepy Prince of Darkness, to be sure).
I’m not sure if making Satan fans out of his readers was on Milton’s agenda (I’m not the only one though, Lord Byron remarked that Satan was Paradise Lost’s true hero). Considered one of the greatest poets in the English language for centuries now (rivaled only by Shakespeare), Milton’s writing has withstood time and criticism from the likes of T.S. Eliot. (Eliot said that Milton was ruined by book-learning, and that he was a bad influence on modern writers.)
A gentleman and a scholar, Milton completed his M.A. from Cambridge in 1632 and went on to a life of letters. Milton lived during a turbulent time in British history. After the English Civil War, when King Charles I was overthrown and executed, Milton served as Secretary of Foreign Tongues during the interregnum before the restoration of Charles II in 1660. An ardent anti-royalist republican, Milton wrote several tracts in defense of rule by the people. After the restoration, Milton had to go into hiding due to an outstanding arrest warrant for his political writing, and his work was burned. He was arrested and thrown in prison, but was eventually pardoned.
Milton’s personal life was turbulent as well. At age 34, he married teenage Mary Powell. Their relationship was a bad one, and he campaigned for legal divorce based on irreconcilable differences, which was pretty much unheard of in his day. He published two works on divorce: Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and The Judgment of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce. Ridiculed because of his pro-divorce stance, Milton published the anti-censorship tract Areopagitica, in which he famously wrote “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,” in 1644. He and his wife must’ve worked it out, however, because she had four of his children before she died (two of their children died in infancy). Milton would go on to remarry not once, but twice, which just goes to show that Milton was a total ladies’ man. Or something.
Other than marital strife, Milton went blind in 1652, and he composed many of his works — including Paradise Lost — in his mind at night, and dictated them to a scribe during the day. Considered one of the greatest poems in the English language (and one of my favorites), Paradise Lost is an epic poem about the fall of the angels from Heaven, and the subsequent fall of man from grace. Milton wrote that his aim in writing the poem was “to justify the ways of God to men,” and gets into the territory of predestination vs. free will. Rather lofty, to be sure.
But back to the movie. For several reasons, I cringed while reading the NYT article, not least because of one of the movie executives being quoted as saying “if you get past the Milton of it all,” which doesn’t bode well. Also, it looks like the script will shift the poem’s focus, with more emphasis on the mutinous battle Satan starts in Heaven, and less on Adam and Eve (because — gasp! — those two walked around naked), which makes me wonder why they’re calling this Paradise Lost at all. If they want to make a movie about the angels’ fall, and they want to de-Milton it, then why don’t they go to the source material in Genesis and leave the poem alone? I can’t help but wonder. Yeah, Heath Ledger, The Devil. Bah.
In any case, though mentioning Milton to many people will bring up bad memories of English classes, I think he unfairly gets a bad rap. He was a very scholarly, talented writer who worked well within form (epics, sonnets, etc.) and despite the fact that his writing definitely reads like something from the 17th century (as well it should), it’s worth appreciating.