The World Through Milton’s Eyes

Discuss the book that has influenced you the most.

We read Paradise Lost my sophomore year, and ever since then English class has seemed little better than a waste of time. No school-assigned book has been able to compare: Paradise Lost is the only book I’ve ever read that I can honestly say changed me, and my understanding of it was only the most basic of introductions. I know I missed a lot of what it was about and I remember while we were reading it that I wished I wasn’t a native English speaker, because in Latin class at the time we were just starting to translate Virgil and there is nothing quite like savoring the meaning of every single deliberately-placed word in an epic poem, by means of a dictionary and a pencil. Nevertheless, cursory though my education of Paradise Lost was, and presumptuous though it is to claim that Milton changed me, I know he did. Milton opened up the heavens for me in a way that a lifetime of church never could. He retold the same old story I’ve heard all my life in a way that made me feel physically bereaved when Eve and Adam ate the Forbidden Fruit. He gave Genesis the same poetic beauty as Greek myths and made the story of the Fall not just an explanation but a tragedy. Until I read Paradise Lost, I had difficulty picturing the Christian “Paradise” because the concept of happiness without sadness seemed impossible. I had difficulty understanding the Christian delineation of the complementarity of the sexes. But Milton’s description of the Garden and of Eve changed that. I remember banging on my poor Humanities teacher’s door at dinnertime, interrupting him and his wife and their baby daughter, to tell him what Milton was doing to me. The world suddenly seemed beautiful, and tragically less than its potential, and filled with a sort of lyric power that I couldn’t begin to fathom. When I walked across campus I felt like I was flying. All I wanted to do was go to Mass. My teacher was kind, told me to calm down, and offered me dinner. Milton changed the way I read, to the point that I can divide the books I’ve read into those read before and after Paradise Lost: before, when books weren’t contextualized by an overarching awareness of Milton’s interpretation of the world; and now, when they are. It is as if Paradise Lost has expanded my soul’s capacity. In the words of John Keats, Milton changed me by “giving Delight new joys,/ And Pleasure nobler pinions!”

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