Archive for the ‘Milton’ Category

Guess whose lovely long locks earned him the nickname ‘The Lady’?

Back in the yonder years of my degree, I once remarked that Milton’s Paradise Lost felt really ‘cinematic’ at times and should be made into a film. Oh how they laughed! Seventeenth century Milton on FILM? they said, you must be JOKING they said. Ha ha, I said, I was only joking. Obviously.

But ALAS, imagine my elation, shared by nobody, when a few weeks later I read that Paradise Lost was actually being made into a real life film, starring real life actors, with BRADLEY COOPER as Satan.


I scorned all those non-believers! Bradley Cooper and I share the same artistic vision, I cried, and nobody gets us!

(A few weeks later it turned out that the film was being pulled because of a lack of funding. The dream is dead.)

By ‘cinematic’ I mean visual, atmospheric, colourful, panoramic – loaded with sequences that run as if being shot for film. See if you agree with me.

(Also, Milton is what you would call ‘syntactically complex’. The language is difficult because the sentences are long – very long. Numerous phrases are jammed into what is technically one sentence so it can be hard to keep up. I talked about how to break down these sentences in my post about Keats, which might be useful here.)


I’ve picked out two of my favourite descriptive passages. The first one comes from Book IX and is just after Eve has eaten the apple. This section is powerfully atmospheric. It is a seismic, tragic moment in the poem; as paradise literally crumbles away, the entire scene is overcome with apocalyptic darkness. And oppressive awareness of the irrevocable. Let me throw even more words at you! We can really feel the whole earth shifting as Adam and Eve fall inescapably into sin. Here it is:

“She gave him of that fair enticing fruit

With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat

Against his better knowledge, not deceived,

But fondly overcome with female charm.

Earth trembled from her entrails, as again

In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan;

Sky loured, and muttering thunder, some sad drops

Wept at completing of the mortal sin

Original; while Adam took no thought,

Eating his fill, nor Eve to iterate

Her former trespass feared, the more to soothe

Him with her loved society, that now 

As with new wine intoxicated both

They swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel

Divinity within them breeding wings.” 

1) Look at how bodily the ‘earth’ becomes. Not only is it feminised with the feminine pronoun ‘her’, but “entrails” paired with “pangs” in the next line is enough to suggest that we are speaking of the womb of the earth. But it goes further than ‘womb’; “entrails” is the gut, the innermost parts, repulsive when exposed. Earth, like Adam and Eve, is slashed open – bared and stark.

2) It is almost as if the earth shares in Eve’s newly spoiled womanhood. The phrase “in pangs”, certainly in the context Milton places it, seems to mean labour pains. Next to “entrails” and “groan” later in the line, we get the feeling that earth is literally giving birth to a new kind of existence. This foreshadows the pronouncement from God that we are about to get in Book X, where He tells Eve “children thou shalt bring / In sorrow forth.” Her punishment is explicitly pain during labour. Paradise Lost is saturated with this kind of birthing imagery; think of all the incestuous pregnancies of Sin. Impregnation and expulsion are generally negative images for Milton. Not completely sure why. I will leave that to the psychoanalysts.

3) The language of proliferation also has unusually bad vibes for Milton. Adam and Eve’s false sense of joy is said to be “breeding” within them. You can almost hear Milton’s tone of disgust. Now that the forbidden apple has been eaten, sin multiplies uncontrollably, reproducing itself over and over. It is this lack of control that makes Milton shudder. On the theme of corruption, he describes how the two are “with new wine intoxicated.” Now they consume fermented fruit – degraded forms of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Heady Adam and Eve have lost self-control; the solidity of the scene slips away and the downfall has begun. That might feel like I’m pushing it too far but I promise that you can never push it FAR ENOUGH.

I think this passage (there is a lot more if you go back to this part in the poem) feels like the sign of impending tragedy in a disaster movie – in my Paradise Lost film that never was – where forces act unstoppably and humans are powerless to stop them.


In mine and Bradley’s hypothetical Hollywood movie, this is the bit where the bad guys get their comeuppance. Here the devils merrily convene with Satan post-apple-gate only to be turned into serpents no thanks to God.

“So having said, a while he stood, expecting

Their universal shout and high applause

To fill his ear, when contrary he hears

On all sides, from innumerable tongues

A dismal universal hiss, the sound

Of public scorn; he wondered, but not long

Had leisure, wond’ring at himself now more;

His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,

His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining

Each other, till supplanted down he fell

A monstrous serpent on his belly prone,

Reluctant, but in vain; a greater power

Now ruled him, punished in the shape he sinned”

Important here is Milton’s sense of noise and movement. His brain seems to work pictorially – as in, what words will convey with the most realness and vividness the picture I have in my brain? He really helps us visualise the scene.

1) SOUND: Just as Milton is describing the voice of the serpent crowd, he throws in a surge of S sounds: ‘dismal universal hiss‘. Sounds like a snake. Pretty sneaky huh.

2) MOVEMENT: First we get one action – Satan’s transmutation – broken up into mini close ups: “arms clung to his ribs”, “legs entwining”, “down he fell.” Then Milton sweeps back outwards to take in the whole picture: “dreadful was the din / Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now / With complicated monsters.” The two combined really pad out the scene. It is all packaged and ready for a film-maker’s storyboard.

Dear Hollywood director, please recommission Paradise Lost. It could be so good! Or really bad.



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