The Essential Paradise Lost by John Carey

Faber ISBN:978 0 571 32855 0 (AUD$32.99)hardback 235 pages

©Ann Skea 2017

John Carey’s introduction to his Essential Paradise Lost is a masterly piece of analysis of John Milton’s most famous work. Not only does it make this great epic poem more easily approachable and enjoyable, it is also an invaluable and enlightening introduction for anyone approaching Paradise Lost for the first time and it will be invaluable to any students of Paradise Lost.

In a clear and interesting way, Carey guides the reader through the background to the poem. He discusses Milton’s relationship with his Muse (who dictated the poem to Milton in his sleep). He suggests the way in which Milton’s blindness is reflected in the imagery of the poem; and the way in which the dramatic and harrowing political and personal aspects of Milton’s life may be seen reflected there. He comments on the original style of the poem and its place in English poetry. And he discusses the Devil’s questioning of God's foresight and omnipotence.

He even touches on feminist issues which have been the topic of 20th and 21st century criticism of Milton. Yes, he says, Milton’s Adam does regard Eve as inferior to him, and that is the way the Bible describes them. But Milton’s Eve has a mind of her own. At her first sight of Adam she thinks him “less fair / less winning soft, less amiably mild” than the image of herself which she has just seen reflected in the lake. So, as Carey notes, “She turns around and heads back to the pool with Adam chasing after her and comically shouting in protest”.

As can be seen from this example, one of the delights of Carey’s ‘Introduction’, as well as of his footnotes, the summaries which he offers for the parts of the poem he has chosen to omit, and of his discussion of the poem at the end of the book, is his wry sense of humour. He clearly loves and admires Milton’s great work but that does not stop him from occasionally mocking Milton’s vision. He accuses Milton, on one occasion, of “an unfortunate attempt at mannish jocularity (p.89)”; he describes Adam and Eve “preparing for a day’s gardening”, and God, whilst being praised by the heavenly host for his justice, amusing himself by making “some meteorological adjustments” which alter the relative motions and positions of the sun, earth and planets so that “seasonal weather-changes” cause “a proto–Darwinian battle for survival” (p.194).

Carey’s judicious pruning of Milton’s epic poem cuts 11,500 lines and 12 books by two thirds, so that instead of being confronted with dauntingly long, unbroken passages of poetry, the reader is given shorter ‘chapters’ of the story separated by brief commentaries which tie it all together. Milton’s text is unchanged, the structure of the poem is preserved and the music of the poetry is as strong as ever. Occasional, very brief, footnotes explain unfamiliar names, mythological references and words which are no longer in frequent use. Above all, Milton’s ‘voice’ remains loud and clear and the action he describes (especially the war in heaven between Satan and his angels and God and the heavenly host; the building of Pandemonium in Hell; and the tempting of Eve) is vivid and his characters are full of life, full of human emotions, goals, ambitions, envies, deviousness and self–deception. This applies not only to Adam and Eve but also to the Devil and, to some extent to Milton’s God who, at one point, admits to teasing Adam (p.141).

Milton’s Satan is a superb creation and Carey quotes and comments on William Blake’s statement that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote about Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet & of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Milton’s Satan, says Carey, was “English literature’s first terrorist”. He undertook “the destruction of the innocent for political ends”, and Milton allows him to explain his reasons for challenging God’s omnipotence and, in so doing, to reveal not only his ambitions, his yearning for power, his manipulation, craftiness and deceit but also his moments of self-doubt and weakness, all of which gives Milton’s Devil realistic psychological depth.

Carey wisely retains the episodes which Milton invented and which may surprise those reading Paradise Lost for the first time. At the gates of Hell, Milton sets two allegorical figures, Sin and Death. They hold the keys to Hell, and Milton gives them stories of their own. Milton’s Devil persuades them to unlock the gates for him, and he is adept at conning information out of God’s guardian angels and deceiving them in order to get into God’s newly created world. Having leapt over the wall of Paradise and entered the garden for the first time, he disguises himself as various animals – “now one / now other, as their shapes serve best”. Finally, he becomes a toad and squats at the ear of the sleeping Eve. There, he whispers evil thoughts into her mind and gives her dreams of eating from the forbidden tree and becoming angelic and equal with the gods. Satan is discovered in the garden and Gabriel sends the angel, Ithuriel, to prod him with his spear and burst his disguise. He is sent back to Hell and it is only on his second visit to the garden that he takes over the body of a serpent and, with his beauty, charm, and very plausible arguments, he beguiles Eve into tasting the forbidden fruit.

Once Adam, too, has eaten the fruit and God has discovered their disobedience and decreed their punishment, Eve tries to persuade Adam that they should refrain from having children who will inherit the results of their sin, or (amazingly, given Milton’s knowledge of the Church’s and the State’s long–standing sanctions against such an act) commit suicide.

There is, as is evident in Carey’s choice of the essential parts of Paradise Lost, much more to Milton’s story than the bare outline of the Creation and Fall as given in the Bible, but all that is there, too. Carey’s brief and easily–read analysis of some of the issues raised by Milton in the poem – God’s omnipotence and foresight, and his reasons for creating human beings and giving them free will, for example – add to the interest. So, too does his answer to the self–imposed question “Is Paradise Lost a Christian poem?” and his suggestion that Milton’s God is “morally repellent”. And in spite of his labelling of the Devil as a terrorist, he comments that “there is only one speaker in the poem who thinks deeply enough to point out the futility of violence as a means of settling disputes, and that speaker is Satan, who remarks crisply: ‘Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe’ (I: 648-9)” – a statement which has very contemporary relevance.

Crucially, Carey gives book and line references for quotations from and references to the original text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This allows readers to look up anything which they wish to pursue further (the Guttenberg Project web-site has copies of Milton's original text). What is missing from Carey’s book, however, is an index which would allow the reader to refer back to particular passages, events and characters in his selection from the poem. Carey’s comment that “for first-time reader the style of Paradise Lost is likely to come as a shock” is true and his discussion of the originality and purpose of Milton’s blank verse and his long and complex sentences is interesting, but although many passages of the poem read smoothly and easily there are still parts which first–time readers are likely to find difficult on first reading. Carey wisely advises that the poem should be read aloud, since the sound of the poem (just as blind Milton dictated it) helps to make the meaning and power of the poem clear.

Everything Carey has done in The Essential Paradise Lost has been done with care for Milton’s original poem and the whole book provides compelling support for the long–held view that Milton’s poem is a sublime masterpiece. If Carey can bring new readers to enjoy it, as he aims to do, then there are many who will thank him for it.

© Ann Skea 2017. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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