Did I Assign the Right Lines from Paradise Lost? A Rebuke from C.S. Lewis and a Christian Literature Reading List

For the first time, I am teaching Paradise Lost–beyond the normal references that come up in English literature, C.S. Lewis courses, and talks about religious history. I am using it to begin an undergraduate course on Christian Literature (after reading Donne‘s “Little World Made Cunningly” poem and Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” Since I can’t spend the whole semester on this greatest of modern English epic poems, I aimed to choose about 3,000 lines of the 10,000 lines in the poem, or about 2-3 hours of reading.

I made this choice when designing the syllabus–all the bright ideas that come a month before the course begins–but I have found abridging the text to be difficult. Really, there is no way to do this well and capture the breadth of the poem. In his lectures that became the famous book, A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis critiques this very thing. “The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’–little ebullient patches of delight such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics,” but are flummoxed when they come to an epic like Paradise Lost (1). While it is true that I am looking for large sections for students to read for the sake of art and theology (rather than nice quotes), what I am doing is similar to the Paradise Lost cherrypickers that Lewis calls out. I can see Lewis responding to my reduction of the poem to 30% with this kind of censure:

You cannot ponder over single lines and let them dissolve on the mind like lozenges. That is the wrong way of using this sort of poetry. It is not built up of isolated effects ; the poetry is in the paragraph, or the whole episode. To look for single, ‘good’ lines is like looking for single ‘good’ stones in a cathedral (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 21).

Yet, I must give these new students–who are not lit majors–something that they can achieve in the limited time we have. So I present to you, dear readers, my selections, focussed on Books I, IV, and IX with some other selections:

Students should read “the argument” of each of the 12 books.

  • Book 1, lines 1-334, 522-800 (622 lines)*
  • Book 2, lines 226-465 (240 lines)
  • Book 3, lines 56-134, 198-237 (117 lines)
  • Book 4, lines 1-538, 610-640, 796-829 (601 lines)
  • Book 5, lines 1-135 (135 lines)
  • Book 6, lines 892-912 (30 lines)
  • Book 7, lines 216-260, 519-547 (272 lines)**
  • Book 8, lines 530-566 (36 lines)
  • Book 9, lines 1-47, 99-225, 322-384, 420-493, 527-1189 (870 lines)*

Total: 2,923 lines

*I have made selections from Book I, 4, and 9; if you have time, I recommend reading those entire books, which will add about 10-20 minutes reading for each book.

**I would recommend reading all of Book 7, if you have time, as it is quite a beautiful translation of Gen 1 (would take about a ½ hour extra to read).

What is it I have missed in the poem? Is there any of what I have given that can be reduced even further? I love to know the thoughts of great readers and teachers of the poem.

I thought I would also share my reading list for the course, in pictorial and chart form. I love the books were are reading, though I wish I could add 3 or 4 more. I regret dropping The Screwtape Letters and Shūsaku Endō’s Silence–two books I’m teaching in other courses this semester. Endō would really jolt me out of my cultural tendency. It’s not a monocultural list: there are 4 UK writers, 1 Canadian writer, 5 US writers, 1 Italian writer, and 2 Russian writers. Given the historical nature of the course, a ration of 9:4 men to women writers is good. But I’d love more diversity.

On top of the novels and short stories, I’m also doing a short poem each week, but haven’t chosen them all yet. I’d love ideas that match the theme, if you have them.

G23 Christian Literature reading outline

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to Did I Assign the Right Lines from Paradise Lost? A Rebuke from C.S. Lewis and a Christian Literature Reading List

  1. dpmonahan says:

    How do you define it? The Gawain/Pearl author, Dante or Chaucer would not have imagined themselves writing Christian literature, just literature. Christian lit only becomes a thing once society no longer considers itself as Christian.


  2. David Lenander says:

    The problem with PL is precisely abbreviating it, as you see. At least you’re not doing the unfortunately common thing of having people read the first 3 books and stop there. That happened to me in my undergrad survey course of English Lit, and I really didn’t “get” Satan, like Shelley apparently did, or Blake’s devil in speaking in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (often Blake is said to be foreshadowing Shelley’s take, but it’s important to remember who’s speaking, when he says that Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it). It’s only when you get past the first four books that you can really love the poem, I think.

    Satan is a blowhard, and really not at all an admirable hero on any level, though, honestly, Messiah and God the Farther aren’t a whole lot better. (In some ways you don’t understand that until the end of the poem, and you may certainly miss how much Satan is a comic figure, straight out of medieval drama, where he often crawled across the stage as a snake, hissing as a but of laughter, or so I gather). But Eve and Raphael and even Adam are wonderful characters. _Paradise Regained_ is absolutely marvelous, but it’s arid in comparison, I think, and while Christ, a more humanized character than in PL, is everything we might hope for in his portrayal and characterization, it’s hard to expect people to read PR without reading PL. And nothing else that Milton wrote has the same implications running through English Literature and Western culture, of course. Though otherwise, you might almost consider reading _Samson Agonistes_ in whole, rather than PL in part. I suppose if I were really responding to you, I’d go back and see which lines you’ve included, but I just don’t have the time to do that. Chances are, I’d think your clearly conscientious choices, given the constraints, were at least as good as any second guessing I might attempt.

    That said, I have to wonder if, while _Perelandra_ is a wonderful illustration of the use of PL in modern fiction, you might be better off excerpting that (maybe some students would be inspired to read the rest on their own) and having them read CSL’s _Preface_. Or just more of the Milton.

    Recently, I’ve been singing on open stages, and one song that I’ve sung a few times is “Raphael,” by Hugh Blumenfeld, a folk-singer/songwriter who toured the country with his guitar for 10 years after getting his English Lit PhD, though now he works as an MD, having retired from touring folk music to attend medical school. https://youtu.be/r0Djp2smY9I, and I was thrilled to have two people tell me that they’d decided to read “Paradise Lost” after hearing my enthusiastic introduction. One of them has since told me that he’s found PL tough going, and he’s an older fellow, about 40, with a background in Master’s level grad study in English Lit. So I don’t fault your efforts here, a noble endeavor, and I hope some of your students come to love Milton. Here are the lyrics, to a song that almost sums up my own paper about “Raphael” from years ago, in just a few lines instead of about 10 pages. https://genius.com/Hugh-blumenfeld-raphael-lyrics

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Fascinating thinking how much of PL is reported to Adam and Eve by Raphael. I recently looked up and read Raphael’s speech in Joost van den Vondel’s play, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (of which Wikipedia tells us “The first production was planned to take place on 26 December 1637, but was postponed until 3 January 1638”). Vondel also wrote a dramatic trilogy, Lucifer (1654), Adam in Ballingschap [= Exile] (1664), and Noah, of Ondergang der eerste weerelt [= or, The Destruction (literally, ‘Going-under’) of the First World] (1667) – of which the Wikipediast notes, “It has been suggested that John Milton drew inspiration from Lucifer (1654) and Adam in Ballingschap (1664) for his Paradise Lost (1667)” with a footnote to George Edmundson’s Milton and Vondel : A Curiosity of Literature (1885), scanned in the Internet Archive. Sadly, in a quick search I only find his Lucifer translated into English (in transcription in Project Gutenberg, and scanned five times in the Internet Archive).

      Recently rewatching the ordinary ‘cut’ of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings together, my wife was struck by Gandalf saying to Frodo when he recovered consciousness in Rivendell, “It’s the 24th of October…” – which we found in the Appendices – but, why? Perhaps because it was, in the fullness of time, to become the Feast of St. Raphael? (!)


    • Thanks David Lenander, I’m sorry I’m so slow in response.
      This is my first time reading PL and getting why people could see him as the grand tragic hero. I don’t agree, but I see it. “Blowhard” is a good word, a character wrapped up in self-deception, in any case.
      Part of my issue with PL or Milton’s Samson Agonistes is that I am not an expert in the period, and teaching large swathes of epic poetry is not something I have done very much. So I’m tentative, testing. I suspect I still teach English narrative poetry like I have taught Hebrew poetry all these years.
      Perelandra is a result of a conversation with Milton, obviously, but I’m teaching it as its own book. I did a lecture using Lewis’ Preface, but did not assign it because I want the students to read the works themselves, for better or worse. Perelandra has its own theological framework and literary context. As I’m an expert in the period, I feel better going there.
      Thans for the youtube link; I’ll listen to that and more.
      And I like the “or so I gather…”–an admission you weren’t there in person!


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ll echo David Lenander, “I’d go back and see which lines you’ve included, but I just don’t have the time to do that” – at least not for I’m-not-sure-how-long.

    I’d definitely add a (little) chunk of the end of the last book, though, about which Douglas Bush spoke of it showing Adam becoming the first Christian!

    You might also encourage students – during or after the class – to have a look at what Charles Williams writes about PL in both The English Poetic Mind and in Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. (You could even compare what lines he quotes, though he does not make it easy, as he gives no line numbers!)

    Williams is also enjoyable in showing (e.g., via Roger Ingram in Shadows of Ecstasy) how individual lines of PL can be profitably pondered.

    I had the good ‘fortune’* to have a whole undergrad course on Milton, with all of PL, PR, and Samson Agonistes (as well as Comus, Lycidas, L’Allegro & Il Penseroso, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, and various sonnets and other short poems), taught by a professor who had written his dissertation on Milton’s use of rhetoric, especially in PL, notably by Satan to confuse, but by the Father and Son to elucidate – which gave me a savour for their conversations and ‘personalities’. But it took some getting through – I used to read PL aloud standing up in the dorm lobby to stay awake and get through it in time for the next class discussion (with, as I may have said before, a blind friend hearing me thundering from a distance at first thinking some street preacher had somehow got into the dorm!).

    *On the basis of PL, I should say ‘Providentially’!


  4. Dale Nelson says:

    Teaching Book 5 of Brothers Karamazov but not the reply to it given in Book 6 seems regrettable.

    If this is a 3-credit course, the reading load seems light.


    • dalejamesnelson says:

      Or, rather, the reading load seems light at times. There are several works for each of which a week is set apart, where you could consider adding something. On the other hand, though, one week might not be enough for the Williams novel. You’ll have to tell about how it goes.

      Did you have a formula in mind — e.g. for every hour of class, X hours for the reading? I don’t remember that I ever adhered to some such specific notion. It does seem to me that I found students would, apparently, do a fair amount of reading when challenged, provided the classroom atmosphere was pleasant, etc. So I used to expect perhaps 150-200 pages of Dickens per week.

      Just reading “a lot” was a priority, since there’s so much one should read (especially if one’s an English major, which your students here are not). Just reading a lot of the standard authors was important. I’m with Lewis in thinking that wide and deep experience of such works and authors is the primary goal for a literature program. Again, I was thinking primarily of English majors. The non-English majors whom you envisage as taking the course — are they signing up to meet a general education requirement?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’m more used to thinking in quarters than semesters – and am not sure how heavy or light seven novels (of varying lengths) in 13 weeks – plus c. 3000 lines of Milton and however many of Dante – are, and, as you note, for non-majors.

        I must say, when I heard about undergraduate major friends having to read and discuss, say, 6 Shakespeare plays in a week for one of their two tutorial essays, I was glad I had not taken my first degree at Oxford!

        I remember reading 70 pages a day to get through Tom Jones in time, as an undergraduate, and standing up with the book on top of my dresser to do it without risking dozing off (however much I enjoyed it).


        • Yes, well, we aren’t Oxford! To be fair, these students read the entire Old Testament in their first term at college–and that’s on top of other assignments in that one class of five. Plus they all have ministries outside of school. I like the school. The students are engaged, a wee bit cynical, and talkative. And the value the texts before them, taking seriously the ideas without assuming a superior air to the texts.
          Oxford, I love the idea but I’m not sure how well I would have done!


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            My wife’s just started on a schedule to read the whole Bible within a year, with a nice Dutch translation we’ve never read right through before – but when we’ve read the whole Bible aloud together as a family, in order from Genesis to Revelation, I’m sure it took us a lot longer than a term to read the Old Testament!


      • Thanks, and sorry I’m so far behind on this, Dale!
        The reading list might be light, but remember too that the semester is a wee bit shorter in Canada. These are non-lit students, and it’s my first time teaching this course, and I usually teach grad students literature. They are all theology students with one lit class each year. No English majors in the room, but a couple of good readers from the community to join in with the students.
        So I wanted to make sure I did it well, and didn’t assign too much. I also have poems and other small pieces to assign them, so I expect them to be reading about 6 hours a week (some will take longer on the poetry), write on each of the long pieces, watch 75 mins of lecture, discuss with me for 75 mins, plus assignments.
        3 hours is not enough to talk about many of these texts! But, we’ll do the best we can. I would love someday to teach a “One Great Book Course,” where we just discuss it from a dozen angles, like LOTR or Brothers Karamazov or Bleak House or Jane Eyre or Till We Have Faces–or the Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, if I had the courage.
        This is a Bible College, and I was amazed at how quickly the students integrated the material. They read ahead in Milton and used passages to illustrate their questions and ideas. Good start!


        • dalejamesnelson says:

          Those are cogent reasons for designing the selections and reading load as you’ve done, Brenton, and your course seems sure of success.

          You can enthusiastically recommend further reading for those who have time and interest. Btw it used to do my heart good to see the way students took books when I set up free book tables for them. The books were from several sources. Some were books from my own collection that I wanted to give away for the sake of other readers’ benefit and because I had “too many” myself. Others were books given to me to give away. A colleague retired and let me basically empty her office shelves; some of her books were hardcover art books, scholarly historical volumes on the kings of England, illustrated reference books, and so on. A couple of my correspondents (Seattle area and Philadelphia) sent me books over the years: I let them know I was glad to get things like Penguin English Library offerings and so on. I don’t know if you have opportunities like these, though.

          There was one occasion when I arranged to be in my office on a Saturday morning so that two or three students could take books. One of them actually used a heavy-duty hand truck to haul books away!


          • Dale, cool note. And I love the student books story. I still love when profs put books in the hall. I wander through the EngLit wing to watch for them–regional literary journals, lit criticism, classics. I got about 10 of those great Broadview editions that way.


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