I have long told my students that virtually everything that Milton wrote can be read devotionally. The images that Milton places before us in Paradise Lost fall into the same categories as we find in the Bible—examples of moral and spiritual evil to avoid and images of good to emulate. The effect in my life has been devotional, redemptive, and often doxological, as I am led to praise God for the goodness of his ways, and to be thankful that I have been moved by the Christian influences in my life (including John Milton) to choose the narrow way that leads to life.
Before Paradise Lost became the supreme literary book of my life during my first year in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I was a totally unlikely candidate for it to happen. For reasons unknown, during my sophomore year in high school my English teacher challenged me to read Paradise Lost during Christmas vacation. I did so out of respect for my teacher. Being a farm boy from an unsophisticated immigrant subculture, I lacked the antennae by which to receive what the poem offered.
A Farm Boy Becomes a Miltonist
For additional unknown reasons, I did not read Milton during my
college years as an English major. Knowing that the chair of the English Department at the University of Oregon was one of the foremost Milton scholars in the world, I read the poem in a scholarly edition during the summer preceding my enrollment in graduate school. When I arrived on campus with a month to spend in self-directed study, the providential unfolding of events led me to purchase a copy of C. S. Lewis’ book A Preface to Paradise Lost in the campus bookstore. By the time I took my first Milton course that fall, I was primed to become what in my profession is called a Miltonist. I share this background to my life with Paradise Lost because it illustrates an important fact of many people’s literary experience, namely, that their encounter with literature is deeply influenced by their formal education.
The Converting Power of Paradise Lost
I wrote my dissertation on Paradise Lost, and I have published books and articles on it. Out of the mass of commentary that I have absorbed on Milton’s masterpiece, my very favorite sentence is the following: “I was led to the Lord by John Milton.” That was part of the written testimony of someone joining Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and the author of it went on to explain that Paradise Lost was the work by Milton that was decisive in his conversion.
Is such a claim really possible? Yes: I have a small file of comparable testimonial statements about breakthrough spiritual experiences that my students attribute to reading and studying Paradise Lost. Several of them highlight the passage in Book 3 in which the Son offers to become human in order to redeem fallen humanity.
Poetry as a Means of Grace
Writing this article has provided the occasion for me to take stock of how Paradise Lost has been an important presence in my life for fifty-five years. Let me say immediately that my long-term contact with this book has been possible by virtue of my teaching it two or three times a year in my college literature courses. Would Paradise Lost have been such a continuous presence in my life if I did not teach it regularly? I do not know the answer to that question but thinking about the matter alerts me to how grateful I am to have been able to teach great literature as part of my working life.
As I turn now to the effect that this work has exerted in my life, I will note that the categories that I will name apply to most of the other literature that I teach as part of my vocation and that I read as a leisure time pursuit. The two overriding categories are edification and pleasure.
As a framework for sharing my reflections on the major literary work of my life, I want to adduce a piece of advice offered in a 1941 book written by a Princeton University professor named Charles Osgood. The book bears the wonderful title Poetry as a Means of Grace, and it was written to encourage preachers to read imaginative literature. A piece of advice that the author offered in his introduction immediately struck me as an excellent idea. It was that even though we should cast our literary nets widely, there is much to be gained by adopting one author as our lifelong specialty, getting to know that author’s life and corpus as thoroughly as time allows. Among the advantages of claiming such expertise is that it makes one a member of a community of like minded enthusiasts. Choosing a major author who has written a lot and about whom a lot has been written yields higher dividends than a less prominent author does.