While it is undoubtedly true that there have been other poets in the language who are more revered or who have a higher profile in popular culture – Shakespeare, of course, is the obvious example – it is likely also true that there is no one single work of literature that is more “important” or has been more influential than John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost has permeated our culture in ways that are not always evident. Indeed, the very title of the poem has entered the language, to be articulated by people who may not even be aware that there is a poem of that name. In other ways, too, it has influenced art and literature, and even our thinking about the nature of sin, God, and redemption. Milton’s Satan, in particular, had an enormous impact on our own storytelling: this figure of “heroic evil,” the “rebel against God,” the ultimate “fallen angel” lies behind our modern conception of the “anti-hero.” Without Milton’s magnificent Satan, there could have been no Sauron, no Voldemort, and no The Golden Compass, to name but a few more obvious influences.
In addition to being influential, Paradise Lost has been adapted directly countless times, beginning as early as 1674 (the same year as the publication of the final version of the epic) in an operatic version entitled The State of Innocence penned by John Dryden. Sadly, the technical capacities of the Restoration stage were inadequate for a depiction of Heaven, Hell, Eden, and indeed the entire cosmos, and the opera was never peformed.
Now, however, that the digital turn, and technological platforms like Second Life have enabled us to create hitherto unimaginable visual environments and actions, we may at last be in a position to succeed where Dryden failed.
On 5 April, the Basilique Performing Arts Company will be premiering its own very ambitious adaptation of Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost in Second Life. Like Dryden’s adaptation, this will be a quasi-operatic production, set to the music of Mozart’s Requiem. Like Milton’s original poem, it will be staged upon a canvass of epic proportions. It is a ticketed event (tickets are available here on the SL Marketplace, or at the door at a slightly higher cost), and it is limited to 12 performances of 40 audience members each.
I will have a great deal more to say about this production, and the poem upon which it is based, in future posts. For now, however, I want to lay some groundwork with a brief and (I hope) useful introduction to Milton’s poem.
Paradise Lost was first published in 1667, and then again in an expanded version in 12 Books in 1674. It is, in many ways, a very personal and at the same time political poem: Milton had been a strong supporter of the theocratic Commonwealth that had displaced the English monarchy in 1649 after the Civil War; he served as Latin Secretary to the “Rule of the Saints” and seems to have genuinely believed, or hoped, that England could be transformed into a truly Godly kingdom.
The collapse of the Commonwealth regime in 1660 and the restoration of the most “ungodly” Stuart monarchy disappointed him, and guided his completion of a poem that sought to “justify the ways of God to man.” Why would God allow the Godly to be defeated? To some degree, Paradise Lost is an extended essay on this theme, and upon the workings of an unknowable but ultimately benevolent Providence.
Why do bad things happen in a world ruled over by a benevolent God? This is a big subject. But then, Paradise Lost is a Big Poem, in every sense. It is not merely long (12 “books” and over 10,000 pentameter lines in its final 1674 version), but its subject encompasses the entirety of creation and human history. As for the stature of its main characters – well, they don’t come any bigger than God and the Son. Paradise Lost is an encyclopedic attempt to address the really big questions about humanity and our relationship to the cosmos.
For this reason, and others, the poem is not a light read. In addition to its length, Paradise Lost features a sometimes torturous syntax (mostly resulting from an attempt to imitate the distinctive syntactic structures of Latin epic verse), a difficult vocabulary, and an enormously erudite battery of allusions to ancient and modern literature, science, history, philosophy, and theology.
And yet, as imposing as it is, Paradise Lost has become one of the central canonical texts of the Western literary tradition. Why? Well . . . its themes (Why does evil so often seem to prevail?) are eternal in their relevance, its narrative is built around a biblical tale that has a central place in our cultural consciousness, and it is, finally, quite simply a magnificent poem. Take for instance this central (and oft-quoted) excerpt highlighting Satan’s defiance, flung at a God who has just defeated him and cast him down into Hell:
Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
(Paradise Lost Book 1, ll. 250-63)
How will this kind of larger-than-life epic language translate in the Second Life production? We’ll see. At the least, we can agree with Milton’s Satan, perhaps, that it is better to perish in the attempt to than to fear to strive at all.
[Disclaimer: I have been selected as an “official” blogger for Paradise Lost in Second Life. I am delighted to be able to assist, in my own small way, with getting the word out about such a worthwhile undertaking. But while my acceptance of this “official” status does constitute a commitment to writing a certain number of blog posts about the production, it will not otherwise influence my discussion of this event.]