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:
- 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.