Tag Archives: john milton

Best book I read this year?

A friend posted an article on Facebook from the New York Times where the 15 Bookend columnists shared the best books, new or old, they’d read this year. ‘But who are these people?’ he wondered. ‘What about friends whose opinions I actually care about?’

I was thus tagged.

Pulled out the list of fun books. Scanned it. Dracula? Frankenstein? Some souvenir guidebook to a place I’d been? The Day of the Triffids? Well, it had to be —

Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Why? Because it’s basically pure awesome. Once you get into it, that book swallows you whole and sends you on a journey through heaven, hell, and Eden bouncing along in English blank verse never wanting to do anything else. Here’s my ‘epic review’.

But then, the work list. Shorter. Less fun, although often great and profound and whatnot. A quick glance leaves me without a question —

City of God, by St Augustine of Hippo. It, too, is basically pure awesome. So much depth of thought and intricacy and bewildering everything in that book. Here’s my initial thoughts review.

But what about all those other books?

I had to mention The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. Here’s a book that runs on a concept I’d never heard of before — the idea of generating energy by transferring particles between parallel universes. And, as always, the story was interesting and the characters captivating.

After Asimov, Masterharper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Maybe not actually the best Pern book I read this year, since this year I reread Dragonflight. But it is a very good book with a compellling tale and the most captivating of all Pernese characters as its protagonist — Masterharper Robinton.

Finally, Discourse Particles in Latin by Caroline Kroon. This is not a book one recommends to friends, I admit. But it was thorough, well-researched, clearly set out, and it has had an impact on the way I read Latin. An important book, to say the least. My review of it here.

In the end, since I read so much, this was an impossible task.

What was the ‘best’ book you read this year?

Epic review of Paradise Lost (also: Is there ring composition? Discuss)

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems silly to write a review of Paradise Lost. ‘You mean Matthew, of all people, liked this book? What a shock!’ And, really, how can one give a star rating to one of the pinnacles of English literature? Obviously my five stars for something like Milton is far more subjective than rating of, say, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Discourse Particles in Latin. Nonetheless, to get to the matter at issue:

Read this book.

Paradise Lost is epic.

As you undoubtedly know, it is the tale of man’s first disobedience, and the most interesting character seems mostly to be Satan. In his programmatic statements about the poem, Milton may claim to justify the ways of God to men, but that doesn’t really happen. Mostly, an epic tale of G vs E goes down, crafted out of exquisite, beautiful, finely-crafted English blank verse (no rhymes here, friends!).

It begins, as Homer and as Vergil, with the theme presented in the first line — Of man’s first disobedience — and in medias res. We find Satan and the angels who joined him in rebellion lying on the Lake of Fire in Hell. From Hell, we watch Satan travel to Earth in order to corrupt the Almighty’s new creation — man. And there, we meet Adam and Eve and Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel.

In wondrously beautiful verse, beating in its iambic rhythm like the human heart, the tales of the War in Heaven and of creation are poured out before us by Raphael, with Adam filling in what happened after the birth of man. So here, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, the necessary background for the early books is told by the characters themselves in a nice touch of narratology at the centre of the poem. These central books are my favourite part of Paradise Lost.

The inevitable Fall, followed by an encounter with the Son of God, and then the Archangel Michael giving a somewhat over-detailed account of the Old Testament. And it ends, as it began, with exile. I’ve not looked at it, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ring composition here? We begin with Satan and his angels exiled in Hell and end with Adam and Eve walking out of Eden. The second major episode of the book is Satan crossing to Earth, as later he crosses back. The centre is telling the past, while later Michael tells the future. I’m not sure; it’s not perfect, but it’s not lacking.

That is how fantastic a piece of literature this is. I don’t care if your religious or not. I don’t care if you’ve not read as much epic as I have. Read this book.

It is beautiful and powerful and will overcome you.

Be forewarned that it is not easy going until Milton’s poetry captures your mind and colonises your brain. This was my third or fourth attempt to read this book. It really helped to have read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost first. I’m sure some other similar introductory volume would be worth the time, because it would be a shame to go through life without having read Paradise Lost.

View all my reviews

The Breadth of C. S. Lewis’ Reading

I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost in preparation for reading the poem itself, and one of the things that has struck me — and I’ve noted to myself in the past — is the sheer breadth of Lewis’ reading.

In this book, Lewis discusses the following works:

  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
  • Virgil’s Aeneid
  • Beowulf
  • Augustine’s City of God
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
  • Aristotle
  • Other of Milton’s works

He makes allusions to and citations of Cicero, Lucretius, St Athanasius, St Ambrose, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Keats, Plato, G K Chesterton, Shakespeare, John Donne, Layamon, Beatrix Potter, Renaissance guys I don’t know, Jules Verne, H G Wells, and more.

He brings into his discussion literary criticism of Milton from Alexander Pope to T. S. Eliot.

A Preface to Paradise Lost is not an isolated work in this regard. In his Introduction to St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis makes mention of reading Athanasius in Greek and finding him as easy as Xenophon.

In The Discarded Image, Lewis draws the reader’s attention to a host of mediaeval works and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the Platonic system as laid out in the Timaeus. A glance at Selected Literary Essays shows us literary criticism on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Jane Austen, Shelley & Dryden (with reference to Eliot), Walter Scott, William Morris, and Rudyard Kipling. The introduction to The Great Divorce betrays the fact that Lewis was a reader of science fiction (or scientifiction as he called it); his letters include one to Mervyn Peake praising Gormenghast to the skies.

He also, of course, read the fictional and critical works of his friends, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Hugo Dyson.

The reference to Athanasius and Xenophon, when taken with his quotations of Lucretius, Augustine, and Aquinas in Latin, are a reminder that the scholar born in 1898 has an advantage over us born in 1983. However much Lewis may have disliked his boarding school (there are certainly relational and social problems with the method; let us not glamorize it), he came from it equipped with a knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek and the literature of the ancient world that would enable him to approach European literature from the Middle Ages to today from a much sounder perspective than those of us with no more Latin than amo, amas, amat at the end of OAC (Grade 13), no Greek, and a knowledge only of Homer’s Odyssey and Sophocles’ Antigone as far as the Classics are concerned.*

Nonetheless, Lewis had broad interests. These make him stand out from Tolkien for whom English literature after Chaucer was of no interest, and Romance languages a bore. Tolkien was a very good — nay, a great, philologist; he produced a critical edition and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His work on Beowulf is still worth reading. His contributions to The Oxford English Dictionary are not to be forgotten.

Yet whereas Tolkien could get his friends interested in Germanic philology enough that Lewis and co. were learning Old Norse for fun so they could read sagas themselves, when Lewis made a reference to Ariosto in a review of Tolkien’s fantasy work, Tolkien expressed disgust at the Italian poet of the Renaissance.

I do not diminish Tolkien, but his achievements are of a different nature from Lewis’.

I only wish that I will be able to write something with the breadth of A Preface to Paradise Lost when I’m in my early 40s …

*Classic sword-and-sandals films notwithstanding.