When poetry gets political

Paradise Lost by John Milton is a 10, 565 lines LONG epic poem and the best thing about it is that it doesn’t rhyme. But how, I hear you asking, how can a poem not rhyme? Isn’t that the whole point of writing poetry? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

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Importance of Paradise Lost

The importance of Paradise Lost and why breaking the rules is a good idea

Some say that the importance of Paradise Lost originates from the lack of rhyme. Others claim it comes from the fidelity with which it examines and portrays topics like gender, religion, liberty and free will. But, the importance of Paradise Lost can be all those things at once. While others argue that none if these things matter and that its importance stems from reasons unknown.

But my teacher told me that the importance of Paradise Lost comes from it not rhyming!

Well, sort of. But didn’t your teacher also tell you that the whole point of writing poetry is that it rhymes? Let’s say that they did. Somewhere along the lines, the ancient poets “decided” that poetry rhymes. And if you dared to write anything that deviated from that formula or instructions or whatever you want to call them, then you weren’t writing poetry.

But what does this have to do with the importance of Paradise Lost?

Hold your horses! I’m getting there! Let’s say that the importance of Paradise Lost comes from it not having any rhyme, except for one! Let’s say that it doesn’t matter that Milton wrote an epic poem about God and the universe and humanity’s place in it; and that any poem could have been equally famous, if they had just written in it blank verse.

Well, I guess the themes and topics of the poem have something to do with the importance of Paradise Lost

Yes! But also, imagine that you are writing a poem about free will and disobedience and you had to illustrate those themes throughout the poem without having to resort to exposition or the “cinematic” way of storytelling; of show and not tell. How would you illustrate disobedience and liberty using only text? And we are not talking about any piece of text! This is poetry after all! And poetry has a structure, it has rules, poetry after all is subjected to the “troublesome and modern bondage of the rhyme” (Milton, 22)

I’m not following.

If you are writing a poem about free will, liberty disobedience and what not; you write a poem that defies the very norms and rules that dictate its existence!

You write a poem without rhyme!

Exactly! That’s where the importance of Paradise Lost comes from! The poem itself is a reflection of the topics and themes it examines. That’s why saying that the importance of Paradise Lost comes from it not having a rhyme is only have or less than the answer; because if you truly want to explain the reason why Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme and why that plays into its importance, then you have to look at the poem as a whole and not just as an isolated piece of media.

Here’s Milton’s introduction to his epic poem in case you missed it!

"The measure is English heroic verse without rhime, as that 
of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin—rhyme being no 
necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, 
in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous 
age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed 
since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away 
by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and 
constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most 
part worse, than else they would have expressed them. Not 
without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish poets 
of prime note have rejected rhyme both in longer and shorter 
works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as 
a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true 
musical delight; which consists only in apt numbers, fit 
quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one 
verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, 
a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and all 
good oratory. This neglect then of rhyme so little is to be 
taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar 
readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the 
first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem 
from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming."

John Milton, “The Verse from Paradise Lost”

So, the importance of Paradise Lost comes from breaking the rules?

Precisely! Aside from the visual waste of space in a white page, poetry is always written in lines and the importance of Paradise Lost stems from this unique characteristic of poetry.

Prose is rhythmic but not metrical, and the line is the metrical unit of verse. Meter imposes a higher organization not only on rhythm but on syntax too. The relation between lineation, syntax, and meaning, then, is a distinctly poetic resource.

Archie Burnett, “Sense variously drawn out: The line in Paradise Lost”

So, Paradise Lost is a poem that doesn’t rhyme. And it also happens to be the best poem in the English language (depending on who you are asking). So let’s talk about The Verse and how John Milton challenged the poetic establishment of his time. You know, for fun!

So this is a political poem?

Well duh! But i mean, every poem is political. In fact, all writing is political. But lets focus on the importance of Paradise Lost.

For John Milton liberty is his style. For example, if Shakespeare’s all about mistaken identities (a bit reductive of what Willy is but please bare with me) then Milton is all about sticking it to THE man (in his own 17th century way). I mean, if you are going to write a poem that’s about defiance and free will, why wouldn’t you break the rules of poetry in the process?

If you think about it, then Milton had no other choice, the poem couldn’t rhyme! That’s why Paradise Lost is so important; the poem is the embodiment of free will because it breaks free from the bondage of rhyme!

By breaking the rules of the game, John Milton ended up writing the new rules (paradigm for the Ph.D.candidates reading this) and eventually poetry just got boring once again. *modernists… you’re up!*

Also, there are some political overtones in his declaration of war against rhyme. Think about it; his “Good old cause” of revolution and overthrowing the king was a box office flop, so his epic poetry was the only way in which he could still exercise his “ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem” (Milton, 21). Does that make sense to you? I mean I don’t know…

Just picture this; a blind poet, who was against the court culture and the royalist politics of his time that suddenly writes a poem that challenges their poetic norms and worldview. A poem with no rhyme! 

But then again, the stylistic liberty was probably all that Milton had left. As a washed out rebel and enemy of the crown, a poem with a lack of rhyme was all that a blind poet could muster.

For John Milton the rhyme is a constraint and with “Paradise Lost” he breaks free of his literary chains.

Allow me to share with you something one of my teachers taught me. Perhaps the most important lesson of them all; or second best, I’m no too sure.

Pencil drawing of Don Quixote

Milton begins his poem with Satan in the middle of a divine thunderstorm headed towards hell and he ends it quiet and movingly with Adam and Eve. Our mother and father, the human actors of the poem. We see them walk hand in hand once more, the first couple, united in exile as they leave Eden with a divine promise in order to face an uncertain future and a new beginning.

And if you take anything from this course, the emphasis of your life is in the choosing. Life is uncertain but that is the fundamental nature of existence. Choose to pursue what you can make for yourself, the world is “all before you, where to choose your place of rest with wandering steps slow, through life take your solitary way hand in hand with love and knowledge to build an inner paradise.

This is what Milton wants you to do. This is what I want you to do. Our course is ended. Go. You are free.”

– John Allaster

SOURCES

  • Burnett, Archie. “Sense variously drawn out: The line in Paradise Lost.” Literary Imagination, vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 69-92
  • Reidhead, Julia., editor. “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.” Norton & Company, Inc, 2006
  • Leonard, John., editor “Paradise Lost: John Milton.” Penguin Group, 2003
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To better understand the importance of Paradise Lost check out the April collection inspired by John Milton’s epic poem!

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Eve and Adam's conflicting portrait of gender
The truth about God in Paradise Lost

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