Prose and poetry are meant to engage us, to stimulate our imaginations and paint pictures every bit as vivid as movies or computer games. Perhaps because we are so used to these forms of visual media, we have lost the knack for letting words on a printed page paint pictures in front of our mind’s eye. It doesn’t help when the stories and poems in the school syllabi are full of old fashioned words and were written at least a hundred years before you were born!
This is the issue that confronted a couple of teachers I know. They had to teach verses from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to a group of 15-year-olds. Paradise Lost is an epic and contains over 10,000 lines of verse! It is supposed to be one of the greatest works of English literature and indeed, once you delve into it, it is hard not to be awed by its majestic rhythm and its clear grasp of a very ambitious topic. In this poem, Milton chose to expand on the Biblical story of Lucifer’s rebellion against God and the temptation of Adam and Eve. He goes into great detail describing the council of the rebel angels, their expulsion from heaven, their new plans in hell and the temptation and downfall of the first human beings, as told in the Bible. Now, the Bible contains a certain degree of detail about these things; but Milton has imagined each incident vividly, adding details to bring them that much more to life. He has also imagined the character of Lucifer, who becomes Satan, trying to portray the ultimate rebel and tempter with psychological depth and dramatic impact.
But the language is heavy for a teenager and Biblical themes are hardly everyone’s choice of light reading. For instance, here is Milton describing Satan’s fate after his rebellion —
Him the Almighty Power
Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms’
And there’s more than 10,000 lines like that! It is grand stuff, once you get the hang of it, but the diction is complex and the language is archaic and sophisticated. So how do you make the story come to life for a group of teenagers? These teachers decided that they would bring Milton into social media. They created a secret Facebook group called ‘The Council Of Hades’ and invited all the students to join in. Each student would have to post short updates, complete with hashtags summarising what was going on in the poem, from the point of view of God, Satan and various other characters. Here are some examples of what they came out with about the rebel angels who fell with Satan — Belial: We may have done a thing. #Regret, Mammon: People, People, we will make Hell, our Heaven #awesomeness #watchusrise #allweneedislove, Beelzebub: If you don’t want to follow in the footpaths of Satan then leave the Stygian council. #StayInDarkness
Sometimes the students offer their own takes on what the characters are up to — ‘Mammon wants to make a heaven out of hell #SoDeep’,’ Belial wants to do nothing, what a loser #scaredycat’. Sometimes they start discussions around key plot-points using hashtags — ‘Moloch wants war; what do you guys think? #warornot’.
As you can see, the students are having a lot of fun recreating the themes and events of this epic poem in terms with which they can relate. And the beauty of a great story is that it can be retold in so many ways. By taking part in tweeting or posting in the character of the cast of Paradise Lost, the students have literally stepped into the story — it is no longer something outside of them, something old and stodgy and hard to relate to. And this isn’t just fun and games, it’s a real learning aid. When rereading the poem, the knowledge of how you and your friends have summarised it helps you find your way while holding onto the thread of the narrative. You can try this with anything that you’re finding tough to work your way through and suggest it to your class and see how it works!