Book Review:
Ed Simon's Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost

Sara McKinney

The last time I read Paradise Lost, I had to stop every few pages to rest my eyes. 

Not because I am losing my sight, like the poet himself did at 43, but because the tendons behind my eyeballs often spasm due to a chronic condition called fluoroquinolone-associated disability. Put another way: when I was 26, I was poisoned by a medication, an antibiotic called Levaquin. Now nothing in my body functions without pain. 

There's irony in this, maybe: as much as I've felt at odds with Milton--as a woman, as a Jew, as a many-generations-removed McSomething--I've also felt drawn to his writing and its many cultural descendants. Even before I'd heard of Paradise Lost, my favorite childhood book series was Christopher Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which owes its name and its central theme--the struggle for autonomy and ideological freedom against a tyrannous religious hierarchy--to Milton's epic. Both the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" remain permanent (if stereotypical) fixtures on my personal playlist, and I'd like to think that if, as Wordsworth suggests, Milton "shouldst be living at this hour,"[1] he'd be into the latter song, at least. But all of this was pre-Levaquin, pre-disability.

I have to take breaks while I write this. 

Not just to fumble for the next word or the next sentence as every writer does, but because manipulating the mouse and keyboard overwhelm the ligatures in my wrists and fingers; my joints log every keystroke, every typo, every syntactical error. I use lidocaine patches and Tylenol to help my hands last longer, but the first rule of writing after Levaquin is that eventually, pain wins. When it's bad like this (and it isn't always, some days I can write for hours without issue), I consider purchasing dictation software for my laptop. Occasionally, I give in and have my husband type for me, but only the small, inconsequential things--social media, emails. The real writing, I have to do myself—slowly, stubbornly. Is it any wonder I read Milton differently now? 

The expected rhetorical move here is to transition to a discussion of Milton's blindness, but I'm not sure it's fully merited. I'm more interested in the way Ed Simon, author of Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost, uses Henry Fuseli's 1793 painting of Milton dictating to one of his daughters as an entry into a discussion of divine inspiration. Though to the modern reader this connection may seem spurious, even problematic, it's one Milton makes himself in Book III of Paradise Lost:

Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.[2]

As Simon notes, the technical achievements of Milton's blank verse run up against his embrace of the metaphysical; poetry derived from nightly visions, muse-guided, transcendental. But Milton's reputation has always been one of contradictions. His revolutionary politics, viewed through a modern lens, stand in tension with recalcitrant attitudes toward women and Catholics. Puritanism: meet sexy Satan. The annals of literary criticism are inundated with different Miltons: Milton the regicide. Milton the doctrinarian. Milton the heretic. Milton the Great English Poet. And finally, John Milton: marble bust.

It's this same fraught reputation that Ed Simon must continually confront. Part memoir, part essay collection, and part literary criticism, Simon's book explores Paradise Lost from a variety of angles, some familiar (Milton's Satan as a cipher for the allure of American individualism), and others strikingly original (Milton's nascent environmentalism and the destruction of the Appalachian wilderness). 

It would be easy to discuss Heaven, Hell, and Paradise Lost as an autobiographical approach to Milton's work. However, while Simon begins the book by setting his own struggles with alcoholism alongside the poem's questions of theodicy, he ranges much farther, returning time and again to the book's central question: why read Milton now? 

The answer, maybe, is that our historical moment--entangled as it is in the fraught politics of personal and political autonomy, necessary cultural reckoning, and environmental collapse--demands it. But this is also too expected, and it is not where Simon leaves his readers. 

Instead, the last chapter of Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost stages a necessary confrontation with the poet, as Simon imagines himself at Milton's dinner table, discussing everything from God, to heresy, to the London blitz. It's this bizarre narrative turn that allows Simon to open the door to Milton's continued relevance in a way that a work of pure literary criticism cannot.  

"Why read Milton now?" 

Because we still haven't figured out what we're doing with ourselves on this little blue ball in this great empty field of black and perhaps never will. We find God and lose Him. Define Paradise and are forced to reevaluate. Our bodies, our institutions, our ideologies, and cultural norms break down, fall short, are overthrown.

The only way through is forward, "with wandring steps and slow."[3]


[1] “London, 1802,” 1.

[2] Paradise Lost, 3.45-55

[3] Ibid., 12.648

Sara McKinney holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Sonora Review. She is also the current Managing Editor at The Milton Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN/Dau award and was awarded second place in Uncharted Magazine's Horror/Thriller Short Fiction Contest. Her writing appears in Jewish Fiction, Rubbertop Review, Uncharted Magazine, and elsewhere. Website: