What We Can Learn From the Classics – Paradise Lost by John Milton (Modern Library Edition)

paradise lost

I think one of the most important things about classic works of literature is what we, as writers, can learn from them. It might seem strange to think that we could find writing advice in a work of art published circa the Shakespeare age (or in this case a few decades after). But Milton’s poetry, and so many other classic works of literature, is an extravagant demonstration of the beautiful and wondrous intricacies of the English language.

For those of you who don’t know, Milton’s epic poem details his take on the Adam & Eve story, as well as Satan’s fall from Heaven and God’s creation of Earth. One of the most profound elements of Milton’s poem are his descriptions of Heaven and Hell, and the realm in which everything in the universe (and nothing) exists: Chaos.

For each of these I will provide my favourite excerpts. To read these passages aloud and listen to the sounds of the words interacting with  one another, truly brings them to life.

For Heaven I actually chose a description of one of the angels, Raphael. For me this image is so vivid, and brings to mind similarities to the angels in Diablo 3.

At once of th’eastern cliff of paradise
He lights, and to his proper shape returns
A Seraph winged; six wings he wore, to shade
His lineaments divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o’er his breast
With regal ornament; the middle pair
Girt like a starry zone his waist, and round
Skirted his loins and thighs with downy gold
And colors dipped in Heav’n; the third his feet
Shadowed from either heel with feathered mail
Sky-tinctured grain. Like Maia’s son he stood,
And shook his plumes, that Heav’nly fragrance filled
The circuit wide. (V.247-287)

Next, Milton’s description of Hell is one that gives me chills, despite its heat.

Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him more to wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate:
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulfur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of Heav’n
As from the center thrice to th-utmost pole. (I.50-74)

Lastly, Milton’s description of Chaos is what is partly responsible for my opinion that Milton was a man born way before his time. The concepts he describes here are still relevant even today. His description of worlds forming out of chaos really isn’t too far off the real phenomenon.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.
[…] Into this wild abyss,
The womb of Nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But in all those pregnant causes mixed
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his Voyage [II.890-897,910-919]

To sum up, I think what makes this all so important, is what we can gain from expanding our vocabulary in order to gain full reign of the English language. Look up every word you don’t know. Do this for every book you ever read. It is amazing to me that I only just figured this out. The thing is, with some words I had an idea of the meaning, or I could figure it out by the surrounding words, so I never looked them up. But until I started looking them up, I never knew exactly what they meant. And this is so fundamentally important. As writers, words are our construction tools, our ammo. They give us the ability to express our ideas exactly as we envision them. This is one of the reasons reading classic literature, like Paradise Lost, is so helpful. Some of these classical authors knew more words than I could ever hope to know. But at least I can use their works to try and build my lexicon as big as I possibly can, in the hopes that one day I can achieve something as great a literary feat as they have.

So here is a list of my favourite words that I learned reading Paradise Lost. I would have included the entire list but there are probably over a hundred. I use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary app on my phone to look up words because it lets you favourite them so that you can compile a list of all the words you look up! I have definitely found it very useful. Anyways, I hope you enjoy these words as much as I do.

As always, happy writing!

pithy: (adj) using few words in a clever and effective way

malign: (adj) causing or intended to cause harm; evil in nature

ire: (n) intense anger, usually openly displayed

zenith: (n) the strongest or most successful period of time; the highest point reached in the sky by the sun, moon, etc.

verdure: (n) the greenness of growing vegetation; a condition of health and vigor

vernal: (adj) of, relating to, or occurring in the spring

balmy: (adj) of air, weather, etc. : warm, calm and pleasant; crazy, foolish

ineffable: (adj) too great, powerful, beautiful, etc. to be described or expressed

derision: (n) the feeling that people express when they criticize and laugh at someone or something in an insulting way

calumny: (n) an untrue statement that is made to damage someone’s reputation; also the act of making such statements

obloquy: (n) harsh or critical statements about someone; the condition of someone who lost the respect of other people

perfidious: (adj) not able to be trusted; showing that someone cannot be trusted

ignominy: (n) a situation or event that causes you to feel ashamed or embarrassed

obsequious: (adj) too eager to help or obey someone important

sagacious: (adj) having or showing an ability to understand difficult ideas and situations and to make good decisions

incorporeal: (adj) having no physical body or form

uxorious: (adj) excessively fond of or submissive to a wife

officious: (adj) used to describe an annoying person who tries to tell other people what to do in a way that is not wanted or needed

suborn: (v) to persuade (someone) to do something illegal; to get false testimony from a witness

ardent: (adj) having or showing very strong feelings; fiery, hot; shining, glowing

rancor: (n) an angry feeling of hatred or dislike for someone who has treated you unfairly

rivulet: (n) a small stream of water or liquid

blithe: (adj) showing a lack of proper thought or care, not caring or worrying; happy and without worry

unctuous: (adj) used to describe someone who speaks and behaves in a way that is meant to seem friendly and polite but that is unpleasant because it is obviously not sincere

guile: (n) the use of clever and usually dishonest methods to achieve something

eloquence: (n) the ability to speak or write well and in an effective way

pernicious: (adj) causing great harm or damage often in a way that is not easily seen or noticed

lower/lour: (v) to look sullen; to become dark, gloomy and threatening <an overcast sky lowered over the village

obstinate: (adj) refusing to change your behaviour or your ideas; difficult to deal with, remove, etc.

loquacious: (adj) liking to talk and talking smoothly and easily

paragon: (n) a person or thing that is perfect or excellent in some way and should be considered a model or example to be copied

divan: (n) a long low seat that has no back or arms or only one part of a back and one arm; a bed that has a thick base and usually no footboard

uncouth: (adj) behaving in a rude way; not polite or socially acceptable

contrition: (n) the state of feeling sorry for bad behaviour; the state of being contrite

propitiate: (v) to make (someone or something) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired

peccant: (adj) guilty of a moral offense, sinning; violating a principle or rule, faulty

orison: (n) prayer

firmament: (n) the sky

rapacious: (adj) always wanting more money, possessions, etc. ; wanting more than is needed or deserved

supernal: (adj) being or coming from on high; heavenly, ethereal; located in or belonging in the sky

stoicism: (n) the quality or behaviour of a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion

qualm: (n) a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about whether you are doing the right thing

obtrude: (v) to become involved with something or to become noticeable in an unpleasant or annoying way

harangue: (n) a forceful or angry speech

impetuous: (adj) acting or done quickly and without thought; controlled by emotion rather than  thought

prowess: (n) great ability or skill

penitent: (adj) feeling or showing sorrow and regret because you have done something wrong

deride: (v) to talk about (someone or something) in a very critical or insulting way; to say that (someone or something) is ridiculous or has no value

concord: (n) a state in which people or things agree with each other and exist together in a peaceful way

sojourn: (n) a period of time when you stay in a place as a traveler or guest

obdurate: (adj) refusing to do what other people want; not willing to change your opinion or the way you do something

conflagrant: (adj) burning, blazing

torrid: (adj) very hot and usually dry; showing or expressing very strong feelings especially of sexual or romantic desire; very difficult, uncomfortable, or unpleasant

13 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From the Classics – Paradise Lost by John Milton (Modern Library Edition)

    • Yeah, I guess I’m just hoping that with the more words I look up and learn, eventually I won’t have to look up as many and then when I come across them it will enhance my experience of the story rather than take away from it since I’ll know exactly what they mean. It’s a process for sure though!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh and you just reminded me that I forgot to put the link to the app I use that lets you favourite words so you do have to write down all the definitions yourself! I’ll add it in now 🙂


  1. Vocabulary by itself can create such a vivid mood. I fold a piece of paper in half to use as a bookmark and write down words that strike me (including words I don’t know). Much time later, I’ll find these old bookmarks and the aura of the book I was reading is still in those random words.

    Great review! Milton’s Paradise was a very addictive read.


  2. As a student who just took the SAT, I can honestly say that reading classics and writing down words as I go along was a definite boon to my reading score. I’ve just started a book challenge (see napoleonsplit.wordpress.com), and take the time to write down words I don’t know as well as quotes from the book that I found poignant or particularly meaningful. I love this review- will definitely be picking up Paradise Lost in the near future, and love your description of vocabulary as “writer’s ammo” 🙂 Happy new year!


  3. Great! I really liked the vocabulary section. I used to look up all the words in books I read and write the date in the dictionary to see how many times I ran into the same word without remembering it. It was surprising to see how many times I had looked up the same word. Paradise Lost is one of my favorites.


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