In addressing the view propounded in the title, the term “alienating” must be addressed. In this case, it means that the modern reader would find ‘Paradise Lost’ either simply inaccessible, or perhaps a work with which they might not identify with to a degree that a contemporary audience would have done. The term ‘modern reader’ also, needs clarification, and in this case it is assumed that the ‘modern reader’ is anyone who enjoys reading modern novels of what is widely considered to be a fairly high literary standard living in 2010, with no extensive knowledge regarding Milton, Classical Civilisation and Literature or the events of the English Civil War.
There is much to commend the view that this modern reader would find ‘Paradise Lost’ “alienating”. In the former interpretation of the word “alienating”, regarding a stylistic inaccessibility, the syntax and classical references which Milton employ would do much to push the modern reader away. Milton often arranges his sentences in a fashion which would be unfamiliar to the modern reader: the first line of the poem is a case in point (“Of Man’s first disobedience… Sing heavenly Muse…”). As written here, the modern reader would have little trouble understanding that Milton is invoking a muse to tell the reader about Original Sin. However, besides the fact that the relevance and effectiveness of this classical tool may well be lost on the reader, the relatively long passage of in between these structurally integral phrases mean that it becomes harder to figure out what is being said. It is impossible for the modern reader to skim-read or casually leaf through Milton’s epic; it must be read with concentration and focus in order to understand what is being said consistently.
The modern reader, then, would probably find reading ‘Paradise Lost’ somewhat challenging, but certainly not impossible. Even so, the syntax would prove an obstacle to understanding which could serve to dissuade the modern reader from reading. Another factor which could alienate the modern reader is Milton’s liberal use of Classical references which, without footnotes, would almost certainly make no sense to the modern reader and, even with footnotes, fragments the reader’s enjoyment of the narrative and make reading ‘Paradise Lost’ seem more like a literary exercise than anything else. Again, the first line is an example of the obstructive nature of these lofty references to the modern reader: “that on the secret top/Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire/That shepherd”. Although this may seem a basic reference to Moses to some, an absence of footnotes may well leave the modern reader, who may not have any knowledge of Biblical trivia, clueless. The literary tools which Milton employs, then, may mean that the modern reader cannot understand ‘Paradise Lost’ at the most elementary and superficial level without huge reliance on footnotes or research, disabling a conventional reading experience and causing no small level of alienation.
Taking the latter interpretation of “alienating” (i.e. that the modern reader would not fully relate to the goings-on in ‘Paradise Lost’ when considering the contemporary socio-political and religious backdrop against which the poem was intended to be viewed), it is again clear that there would be no shortage of estrangement from the sentiments of the poem. The parallels drawn between Satan’s almighty struggles against the tyrannical God and the events of the English Civil War, while seeming obvious once the reader is informed of them, could well escape the reader’s attention if not for the notes preceding and following the actual poem itself. At the time of writing, such references would have been obvious to anyone with the ability to read the poem, but even with the knowledge that Milton’s tale is an overt imitation of the Civil War, it simply would not resonate with the modern reader as it does with the contemporary audience.
Another element which may cause disaffection in the modern reader is the divergence concerning attitude to vice and sin across the time gap. Although sin is still portrayed in a clearly negative light in modern life, attitudes have shifted since Milton’s time regarding what constitutes serious sin, with a more liberal stance being adopted in modern society broadly speaking, certainly liberal when contrasted against Milton’s strongly Puritanical background. Figures which would demonstrate the shift in conjectural popular reaction are those of Sin and Death in Book 2. While the figures may well have strongly resonated with a contemporary Puritanical audience and evoked the terror key to the didactic and warning nature of ‘Paradise Lost’, the modern reader, numbed as they are by endless caricatures of evil provided chiefly by modern cinema, would remain indifferent to Milton’s allegorical figures of dread. This simply means that, while the central message of ‘Paradise Lost’ would remain roughly relevant and clear to the modern reader, the effectiveness of the way in which Milton attempts to project this message to the reader would be drastically reduced, his values would seem out-dated and would not be something which the reader would identify with much conviction. The moral modern reader would certainly echo Milton’s sentiments concerning sin, but would feel nowhere near as passionately as Milton did about it. The changing time and archaic zeitgeist portrayed in ‘Paradise Lost’, then, would also serve to alienate and distance the modern reader from Milton’s classic, as would Milton’s writing style.
The fact that ‘Paradise Lost’ comes from a “different era politically and psychologically”, however, does not necessarily mean that it is obsolete and unapproachable for the modern reader. As with any ‘great’ literary work, there are commentaries on human nature and which remain as relevant now as they were centuries ago. Milton’s portrayal of Satan in particular highlights such commentaries on power, political leadership, human ambition and the legitimacy of authoritarian tyranny. These issues are addressed not only in a number of works across the history of English literature, including later works such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (which is itself frequently accused of alienating certain readers), but also in modern history itself. The rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party is a case in point of the aforementioned issues and themes. There can, then, be little doubt that ‘Paradise Lost’ still holds relevance to modern attitudes and that there are still themes which have resonance when translated into a modern arena.
It may be most prudent to suggest that, while there are certainly themes in ‘Paradise Lost’ which translate very well into modern society and would therefore be appreciated by the modern reader, meaning that some of Milton’s underlying messages (chiefly centred around the character of Satan) are still as appropriate today as they were when he wrote the poem, the fact that it is the product of a different social scene entirely means that, on the whole, the modern reader is kept at arm’s length by the poem and is as such liable to alienation. The antiquated style of writing further distances the reader from truly appreciating Milton’s work, and is equally as obstructive as the social difference.