Harvard Classics, Volume 4: The Poetry of John Milton

After the fiasco of the last Harvard Classics volume where my Kindle edition of the classics did not have all of the texts, I was rushing through to get myself to this fourth volume. This volume was certainly the most difficult and rewarding so far, as it contained what many consider to be the greatest work ever written in the English language, Paradise Lost.

Prior to Paradise Lost, there is a large section of standalone poetry. It helps to set the mood and tone for the rest of the volume. The poetry is good in and of itself, but it is vastly overshadowed by Milton’s three epic poems. It serves as an appetizer for the main course to come.

The first of Milton’s three epic poems in the volume is Paradise Lost, which is a work that casts a heavy shadow over subsequent English and American thought. It would be silly of me to try and summarize or explain the poem to you in this short blog post. However, I will say that one of Paradise Lost’s greatest strengths is its ability to raise several big picture, “meaning of life” type questions. The story of Adam and Eve and through it, the story of the antagonist Satan, provides the perfect backdrop for examining these questions.

One example that is raised early on is the case that absolute freedom and dedication only to oneself is the path to darkness. This starkly contrasts with what people tend to think in the post-Enlightenment era, that possessing absolute freedom and dedicating oneself to self-fulfillment is the goal of human society. Milton makes a pretty stark claim to the contrary.

Another issue raised is fundamental, with death creeping ever closer, what is the point in living? Once Adam and Eve realize their oncoming punishment, they cannot fathom what the point of living at all is, and they are forced to answer this question to prepare themselves for leaving paradise.

These are but two examples of the types of conflict and dilemmas faced throughout Paradise Lost. These are questions that are fundamental to the human condition and require serious thought to wrangle with.

While finishing Paradise Lost was by far the biggest portion of the volume, Milton’s two other epic poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonisties are included as well.

Paradise Regained focuses on Satan’s temptation of Christ. More than simply responding “I know you’re the Devil, I’m not going to fall for your tricks”, Christ lays out a long and comprehensive case for why all of the Earthly things Satan offers are not necessary or worth having. That the reason one would want to be a King or an Emperor are ultimately more easily and more morally obtainable without needing Satan’s help.

Samson Agonisites is a tragedy taking place over a day while a blinded Samson is in the captivity of the Philistines. It ends with Samson going to a Philistine feast and bringing down the building on top of all of the assembled. It focuses on this time as Samson speaks to his fellow prisoners, passers-by, his father and Delilah. The structure of the poem is very much based on Greek drama, and the parallels between Samson Agonisites and Prometheus Bound (coming soon) are very evident.

Milton was a difficult but incredibly rewarding author to read. I had read Paradise Lost before in college, but I didn’t get much from it. The other works paled in comparison, but so does almost everything else ever written. The next volume is “Essays” and “English Traits”, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. After that is Robert Burns, Augustine & Kempis, then Greek theater.

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