John Milton – “Paradise Lost” – “The Verse”

Today I am approaching one of the most shameful blindspots on my reading list, the mighty “Paradise Lost”. (And I even couldn’t earn points fairly with it in David Lodge’s Humiliation Game, because I did read some bits and pieces.) In contrast to The Faerie Queene, which, to the best of my knowledge, has no contemporary fans who are not Renaissance scholars (at least I have not met or heard of any), Paradise Lost can still boast a significant army of devoted readers, Philip Pullman being among the most famous of them. So do they all see I have failed to see so far? Will it grow on me as I read the poem in its entirety? We’ll see.

Today I read just the editorial introduction (slightly gushing) to the poem and the short text, attached to the poem’s second edition, in which Milton explain his decision to get rid of rhyme and rely only on rhythm (i.e. use blank verse). In short: the great poets of antiquity, such as Homer and Virgil, didn’t use it, so neither should we. Rhyme is the invention of “a barbarous age” (i.e. the Middle Ages) when poetry was bad. Since then, the great poets of Renaissance Italy and Spain (e.g. Tasso) discarded it, and even if some good poets manage to use it well, their poetry would be much better without it. So by renouncing rhyme Milton returns to “ancient liberty” and frees his poetry from “the bondage of rhyming”, the phrases which, as the Helpful Footnote reminds us, have a subtly political colouring in Restoration England, with the royal power newly reestablished.

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