Thursday, 27 September 2007

"Paradise Lost" by John Milton

Cover 1
Title page of the first edition (1667)
Author: John Milton
Country: England
Language: English
Genre(s) : Epic poem
Publisher : Samuel Simmons (original)
Publication date : 1667
Media type : Print

Cover 2
The cover of the 2005 Hackett Edition, with illustrations from the 1688 edition.

Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton. It was originally published in 1667 in ten books; a second edition followed in 1674, redivided into twelve books (in the manner of the division of Virgil's Aeneid) with minor revisions throughout and a note on the versification. The poem concerns the Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton's purpose, stated in Book I, is "to justify the ways of God to men" (l. 26) and elucidate the conflict between God's eternal foresight and free will.

The protagonist of this epic is the fallen angel, Satan. Looked at from a modern perspective it may appear to some that Milton presents Satan sympathetically, as an ambitious and proud being who defies his creator, omnipotent God, and wages war on Heaven, only to be defeated and cast down. Indeed, William Blake, a great admirer of Milton and illustrator of the epic poem, said of Milton that "he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it."[1] Some critics regard the character of Lucifer as a precursor of the Byronic hero.[2]

Milton worked for Oliver Cromwell and thus wrote first-hand for the English Commonwealth. Arguably, the failed rebellion and reinstallation of the monarchy left him to explore his losses within Paradise Lost. Some critics say that he sympathized with the Satan in this work, in that both had experienced a failed cause.

The story is innovative in that it attempts to reconcile the Christian and Pagan traditions: like Shakespeare, Milton found Christian theology lacking, requiring something more. He tries to incorporate Paganism, classical Greek references and Christianity within the story. He greatly admired the classics but intended this work to surpass them.

The poem grapples with many difficult theological issues, including fate, predestination, and the Trinity.

The story is divided into twelve books against Homer's twenty-four of the Iliad and Odyssey. The longest book is Book IX, with 1189 lines and the shortest, Book VII, with 640. Each book is preceded by a summary titled "The Argument". The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (Latin for in the midst of things), the background story being told in Books V-VI.

Milton's story contains two arcs: one of Satan and another of Adam and Eve. Lucifer's story is an homage to the old epics of warfare. It begins in medias res, after Lucifer and the other rebel angels have been defeated and cast down by God into Hell. In Pandæmonium, Lucifer must employ his rhetorical ability to organize his followers; he is aided by his lieutenants Mammon and Beelzebub. At the end of the debate, Satan volunteers himself to poison the newly-created Earth. He braves the dangers of the Abyss alone in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus or Aeneas.

The other story is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented for the first time in Christian literature as having a functional relationship while still without sin. They have passions, personalities, and sex. Satan successfully tempts Eve by preying on her vanity and tricking her with semantics, and Adam, seeing Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin by also eating of the fruit. In this manner Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure but also as a deeper sinner than Eve. They again have sex, but with a newfound lust that was previously not present. After realizing their error in consuming the "fruit" from the Tree of Knowledge, they fight. However, Eve's pleas to Adam reconcile them somewhat. Adam goes on a vision journey with an angel where he witnesses the errors of man and the great Flood, and he is saddened by the sin that they have released through the consumption of the fruit. However, he is also shown hope – the possibility of redemption – through a vision of Jesus Christ. They are then cast out of Eden and an angel adds that one may find "A paradise within thee, happier farr." They now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the previous tangible Father in the garden of Eden).

The contents of the 12 books are:
Book I: In a long, twisting opening sentence, the poet invokes the "Heavenly Muse" and states his theme, the Fall of Man, and his aim, to "justifie the wayes of God to men". Satan, Beelzebub, and the other rebel angels are described as lying on a lake of fire, from where Satan rises up to claim hell as his own domain and delivers a rousing speech to his followers ("Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven").
Book II: Satan and the rebel angels debate whether or not to conduct another war on Heaven, and Beelzebub tells them of a new world being built, which is to be the home of Man. Satan decides to visit this new world, passes through the gates of Hell, past the sentries Sin and Death, and journeys through the realm of Chaos. Here, Satan is described as giving birth to Sin with a burst of flame from his forehead, as Athena was born from the head of Zeus.
Book III: God observes Satan's journey and foretells how Satan will bring about Man's Fall. God emphasizes, however, that the Fall will come about as a result of Man's own free will and excuses Himself of responsibility. The Son of God offers himself as a ransom for Man's disobedience, an offer which God accepts, ordaining the Son's future incarnation and punishment. Satan arrives at the rim of the universe, disguises himself as an angel, and is directed to Earth by Uriel, Guardian of the Sun.
Book IV: Satan journeys to the Garden of Eden, where he observes Adam and Eve discussing the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Satan, observing their innocence and beauty hesitates in his task, but concludes that "...reason, honour and empire..." compel him to do this deed which he "should abhor." Satan tries to tempt Eve while she is sleeping, but is discovered by the angels. The angel Gabriel expels Satan from the Garden.
Book V: Eve awakes and relates her dream to Adam. God sends Raphael to warn and encourage Adam: they discuss free will and predestination and Raphael tells Adam the story of how Satan inspired his angels to revolt against God.
Book VI: Raphael goes on to describe further the war in Heaven and explains how the Son of God drove Satan and his minions down to Hell.
Book VII: Raphael explains to Adam that God then decided to create another world (the Earth), and he warns Adam again not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for "in the day thou eat'st, thou diest;/ Death is the penalty imposed, beware,/ And govern well thy appetite, lest Sin/ Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death".
Book VIII: Adam asks Raphael for knowledge concerning the stars and the heavenly orders; Raphael warns that "heaven is for thee too high/ To know what passes there; be lowly wise", and advises modesty and patience.
Book IX: Satan returns to Eden and enters into the body of a sleeping serpent. The serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. She eats and takes some fruit for Adam. Adam realizes that Eve has been tricked, but eats of the fruit. In their loss of innocence Adam and Eve cover their nakedness and fall into despair: "They sat them down to weep, nor only tears/ Rained at their eyes, but high winds worse within/ Began to rise, high passions, anger, hate,/ Mistrust, suspicion, discord, and shook greatly/ Their inward state of mind."
Book X: God sends his Son to Eden to deliver judgment on Adam and Eve, and Satan returns in triumph to Hell.
Book XI: The Son of God pleads with God on behalf of Adam and Eve. God declares that the couple must be expelled from the Garden, and the angel Michael descends to deliver God's judgment. Michael begins to unfold the future history of the world to Adam.
Book XII: Michael tells Adam of the eventual coming of the Messiah, before leading Adam and Eve from the Garden. Paradise has been lost. The poem ends: "The world was all before them, /They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way."


Milton began writing the epic in 1658, during the last years of the English Republic. The infighting among different military and political factions that doomed the Republic may show up in the Council of Hell scenes in Book II. Although he probably finished the work by 1664, Milton did not publish till 1667 on account of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.

Milton composed the entire work while completely blind, necessitating the use of paid amanuenses. (The legend that he forced his daughters to take notation is just that, a legend.) The poet claimed that a divine spirit inspired him during the night, leaving him with verses that he would recite in the morning. It is a matter of debate whether Milton (or the inspirational spirit, if you like) cared about matters like punctuation and capitalization, though few writing at the time maintained a consistent spelling or capitalization. Although, as stated, Milton was not writing it himself; the suppposed "divine spirit" functions in the art, not the grammar. The 3rd Norton edition of Paradise Lost ignores the punctuation found in the surviving manuscript draft on the grounds that it was inserted by the printer, but this procedure has been challenged. Even into the mid-18th century a variety of publications included a wide array of spellings of even the same word within the same text.


Influences include the Bible, Milton's own Puritan upbringing and religious perspective, Edmund Spenser, and the Roman poet Virgil.

Milton wrote the entire work with the help of secretaries and friends, notably Andrew Marvell, after losing his sight.

Later in life, Milton wrote the much shorter Paradise Regained, charting the temptation of Christ by Satan, and the return of the possibility of paradise. This sequel has never had a reputation equal to the earlier poem.

Response and criticism
The cover of the 2005 Hackett Edition, with illustrations from the 1688 edition.
The cover of the 2005 Hackett Edition, with illustrations from the 1688 edition.

This epic has generally been considered one of the greatest works in the English language. In the verses below the portrait in the fourth edition, John Dryden linked Milton with Homer and Virgil, suggesting that Milton encompassed and surpassed both, which would make him the greatest epic poet who ever lived or might ever come to be after him:

“Three Poets, in three distant Ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
The First in loftiness of thought surpass'd;
The Next in Majesty; in both the Last.
The force of Nature cou'd no farther goe:
To make a third she joynd the former two.”

Since Paradise Lost is based upon scripture, its significance in the Western canon has been thought by some to have lessened due to increasing secularism. However, this is not the general consensus, and even academics who have been labeled as secular realize the merits of the work. In William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the "voice of the devil" argues:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.

This statement summarizes what would become the most common interpretation of the work in the twentieth century. Some critics, including C.S. Lewis and later Stanley Fish, reject this interpretation. Rather, such critics hold that the theology of Paradise Lost conforms to the passages of Scripture on which it is based.

The latter half of the twentieth century saw the critical understanding of Milton's epic shift to a more political and philosophical focus. Rather than the Romantic conception of the Devil as the hero of the piece, it is generally accepted that Satan is presented in terms that begin classically heroic, then diminish him until he is finally reduced to a dust-eating serpent unable even to control his own body. The political angle enters into consideration in the underlying friction between Satan's conservative, hierarchical view of the universe and the contrasting "new way" of God and the Son of God as illustrated in Book III. In other words, in contemporary criticism the main thrust of the work becomes not the perfidy or heroism of Satan, but rather the tension between classical conservative "Old Testament" hierarchs (evidenced in Satan's worldview and even in that of the archangels Raphael and Gabriel), and "New Testament" revolutionaries (embodied in the Son of God, Adam, and Eve) who represent a new system of universal organization.[citation needed] This new order is based not in tradition, precedence, and unthinking habit, but on sincere and conscious acceptance of faith and on station chosen by ability and responsibility.[citation needed] Naturally, this interpretation makes much use of Milton's other works and his biography, grounding itself in his personal history as an English revolutionary and social critic. [citation needed]Samuel Johnson praised the poem lavishly, but conceded that "None ever wished it longer than it is."

Paradise Lost declined in critical and popular estimation during the 20th century due to attacks by F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, who disliked what they viewed as its stilted, unnatural language. However, current programs at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, with popular readings of the work, are being received enthusiastically. A DVD of such a reading [1] was produced by them with the intention of developing it into an educational device to demonstrate the incomparable aesthetic delights of Milton's phraseology. [source: wikipedia]

1 comment:

Stan said...

Like Goethe and Dante, Milton was canonized singlehandedly through his best work. Paradise Lost has that line by line virtuosity that Borges praised in Virgil.