Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton (1608–1674). The first version, published in 1667, consists of ten books with over ten thousand lines of verse. A second edition followed in 1674, arranged into twelve books (in the manner of Virgil's Aeneid) with minor revisions throughout. It is considered by critics to be Milton's major work, and it helped solidify his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time.
Title page of the first edition (1667)
|Cover artist||J. B. de Medina and Henry Aldrich|
|Genre||Epic poetry, Christian theology|
|Publisher||Samuel Simmons (original)|
|Followed by||Paradise Regained|
|Text||Paradise Lost at Wikisource|
The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel 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."
In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Paradise Lost, the Milton scholar John Leonard notes, "John Milton was nearly sixty when he published Paradise Lost in 1667. The biographer John Aubrey (1626–97) tells us that the poem was begun in about 1658 and finished in about 1663. However, parts were almost certainly written earlier, and its roots lie in Milton's earliest youth." Leonard speculates that the English Civil War interrupted Milton's earliest attempts to start his "epic [poem] that would encompass all space and time."
Leonard also notes that Milton "did not at first plan to write a biblical epic." Since epics were typically written about heroic kings and queens (and with pagan gods), Milton originally envisioned his epic to be based on a legendary Saxon or British king like the legend of King Arthur. In the 1667 version of Paradise Lost, the poem was divided into ten books. However, in the 1672 edition, Paradise Lost contained twelve books.
Having gone totally blind in 1652, Milton wrote Paradise Lost entirely through dictation with the help of amanuenses and friends. He also wrote the epic poem while he was often ill, suffering from gout, and despite the fact that he was suffering emotionally after the early death of his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, in 1658, and the death of their infant daughter.
The poem is divided into "books" (ten originally, twelve in Milton's revised edition of 1674). The Arguments (brief summaries) at the head of each book were added in subsequent imprints of the first edition.
Milton used a number of acrostics in the poem. In Book 9, a verse describing the serpent which tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden spells out "SATAN", while elsewhere in the same book, Milton spells out "FFAALL" and "FALL". Respectively, these likely represent the double fall of humanity embodied in Adam and Eve, as well as Satan's fall from Heaven.
The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (Latin for in the midst of things), the background story being recounted later.
Milton's story has two narrative arcs, one about Satan (Lucifer) and the other following Adam and Eve. It begins after Satan and the other rebel angels have been defeated and banished to Hell, or, as it is also called in the poem, Tartarus. In Pandæmonium, the capital city of Hell, Satan employs his rhetorical skill to organize his followers; he is aided by Mammon and Beelzebub. Belial and Moloch are also present. At the end of the debate, Satan volunteers to corrupt the newly created Earth and God's new and most favoured creation, Mankind. He braves the dangers of the Abyss alone in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus or Aeneas. After an arduous traversal of the Chaos outside Hell, he enters God's new material World, and later the Garden of Eden.
At several points in the poem, an Angelic War over Heaven is recounted from different perspectives. Satan's rebellion follows the epic convention of large-scale warfare. The battles between the faithful angels and Satan's forces take place over three days. At the final battle, the Son of God single-handedly defeats the entire legion of angelic rebels and banishes them from Heaven. Following this purge, God creates the World, culminating in his creation of Adam and Eve. While God gave Adam and Eve total freedom and power to rule over all creation, he gave them one explicit command: not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on penalty of death.
The story of Adam and Eve's temptation and fall is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented as having a romantic and sexual relationship while still being without sin. They have passions and distinct personalities. Satan, disguised in the form of a serpent, successfully tempts Eve to eat from the Tree by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric. Adam, learning that Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin. He declares to Eve that since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to one another – if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure, but also as a greater sinner than Eve, as he is aware that what he is doing is wrong.
After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve have lustful sex. At first, Adam is convinced that Eve was right in thinking that eating the fruit would be beneficial. However, they soon fall asleep and have terrible nightmares, and after they awake, they experience guilt and shame for the first time. Realizing that they have committed a terrible act against God, they engage in mutual recrimination.
Meanwhile, Satan returns triumphantly to Hell, amid the praise of his fellow fallen angels. He tells them about how their scheme worked and Mankind has fallen, giving them complete dominion over Paradise. As he finishes his speech, however, the fallen angels around him become hideous snakes, and soon enough, Satan himself turns into a snake, deprived of limbs and unable to talk. Thus, they share the same punishment, as they shared the same guilt.
Eve appeals to Adam for reconciliation of their actions. Her encouragement enables them to approach God, and sue for grace, bowing on supplicant knee, to receive forgiveness. In a vision shown to him by the Archangel Michael, Adam witnesses everything that will happen to Mankind until the Great Flood. Adam is very upset by this vision of the future, so Michael also tells him about Mankind's potential redemption from original sin through Jesus Christ (whom Michael calls "King Messiah").
Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, and Michael says that Adam may find "a paradise within thee, happier far." Adam and Eve also now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the tangible Father in the Garden of Eden).
Satan, formerly called Lucifer, is the first major character introduced in the poem. He was once the most beautiful of all angels, and is a tragic figure who famously declares: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Following his failed rebellion against God, he is cast out from Heaven and condemned to Hell. Satan's desire to rebel against his creator stems from his unwillingness to be subjugated by God and his Son, claiming that angels are "self-begot, self-raised," and thereby denying God's authority over them as their creator.
Satan is deeply arrogant, albeit powerful and charismatic. Satan's persuasive powers are evident throughout the book; not only is he cunning and deceptive, but he is also able to rally the fallen angels to continue in the rebellion after their agonizing defeat in the Angelic War. He argues that God rules as a tyrant and that all the angels ought to rule as gods. Though commonly understood to be the antagonizing force in Paradise Lost, Satan may be best defined as a tragic or Hellenic hero. According to William McCollom, one quality of the classical tragic hero is that he is not perfectly good and that his defeat is caused by a tragic flaw, as Satan causes both the downfall of man and the eternal damnation of his fellow fallen angels despite his dedication to his comrades. In addition, Satan's Hellenic qualities, such as his immense courage and, perhaps, lack of completely defined morals compound his tragic nature.
Satan's status as a protagonist in the epic poem is debated. Milton characterizes him as such, but Satan lacks several key traits that would otherwise make him the definitive protagonist in the work. One deciding factor that insinuates his role as the protagonist in the story is that most often a protagonist is heavily characterized and far better described than the other characters, and the way the character is written is meant to make him seem more interesting or special to the reader. For that matter, Satan is both well described and is depicted as being quite versatile in that he is shown as having the capacity to do evil while retaining his characteristic sympathetic qualities and thus it is this complex and relatable nature that makes him a likely candidate for the story's overarching protagonist.
By some definitions a protagonist must be able to exist in and of themselves and the secondary characters in the work exist only to further the plot for the protagonist. Because Satan does not exist solely for himself, as without God he would not have a role to play in the story, he may not be viewed as the protagonist because of the continual shifts in perspective and relative importance of characters in each book of the work. Satan's existence in the story involves his rebellion against God and his determination to corrupt the beings he creates in order to perpetuate evil so that there can be a discernable balance and justice for both himself and his fallen angels. Therefore, it is more probable that he exists in order to combat God, making his status as the definitive protagonist of the work relative to each book. Following this logic, Satan may very well be considered as an antagonist in the poem, whereas God could be considered as the protagonist instead.
Satan's status as a traditional hero in the work is similarly up to debate as the term "hero" evokes different meanings depending on the time and the person giving the definition and is thus a matter of contention within the text. According to Aristotle, a hero is someone who is "superhuman, godlike, and divine" but is also human. A hero would have to either be a human with God-like powers or the offspring of God. While Milton gives reason to believe that Satan is superhuman, as he was originally an angel, he is anything but human. However, one could argue that Satan's faults make him more human than any other divine being described in Milton's work. Torquato Tasso and Francesco Piccolomini expanded on Aristotle's definition and declared that for someone to be considered heroic one has to be perfectly or overly virtuous. In this regard, Satan repeatedly demonstrates a lack of virtue throughout the story as he intends to tempt God's creations with evil in order to destroy the good God is trying to create. Therefore, Satan is not a hero according to Tasso and Piccolomini's expanded definition. Satan goes against God's law and therefore becomes corrupt and lacking of virtue and, as Piccolomini warned, "vice may be mistaken for heroic virtue." Satan is very devoted to his cause, although that cause is evil but he strives to spin his sinister aspirations to appear as good ones. Satan achieves this end multiple times throughout the text as he riles up his band of fallen angels during his speech by deliberately telling them to do evil to explain God's hypocrisy and again during his entreaty to Eve. He makes his intentions seem pure and positive even when they are rooted in evil and, according to Steadman, this is the chief reason that readers often mistake Satan as a hero.
Although Satan's army inevitably loses the war against God, Satan achieves a position of power and begins his reign in Hell with his band of loyal followers, composed of fallen angels, which is described to be a "third of heaven." Satan's characterization as the leader of a failing cause folds into this as well and is best exemplified through his own quote, "to be weak is to be miserable; Doing or Suffering," as through shared solidarity espoused by empowering rhetoric, Satan riles up his comrades in arms and keeps them focused towards their shared goal. Similar to Milton's republican sentiments of overthrowing the King of England for both better representation and parliamentary power, Satan argues that his shared rebellion with the fallen angels is an effort to "explain the hypocrisy of God," and in doing so, they will be treated with the respect and acknowledgement that they deserve. As scholar Wayne Rebhorn argues, "Satan insists that he and his fellow revolutionaries held their places by right and even leading him to claim that they were self-created and self-sustained" and thus Satan's position in the rebellion is much like that of his own real world creator.
Adam is the first human being created by God. Finding himself alone, Adam complains and requests a mate from God, who grants his request and creates Eve to be Adam's conjugal companion and helpmate. God appraises Adam and Eve most of all his creations, and appoints them to rule over all the creatures of the world and to reside in the Garden of Eden. Adam is more gregarious than Eve, and yearns for her company. His complete infatuation with Eve, while pure of itself, eventually contributes to his deciding to join her in disobedience to God.
Eve is the second human created by God, who takes one of Adam's ribs and shapes it into a female form of Adam. Not the traditional model of a good wife, Milton's Eve is often unwilling to be submissive towards Adam. She is the more intelligent of the two and more curious about external ideas than her husband. Though happy, she longs for knowledge, specifically for self-knowledge. (Her first act in existence is to turn away from Adam to look at and ponder her own reflection.) Eve is beautiful and though she loves Adam she may feel suffocated by his constant presence. In Book IX, she convinces Adam to separate for a time and work in different parts of the Garden. In her solitude, she is tempted by Satan to sin against God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Soon thereafter, Adam follows Eve in support of her act.
The Son of God
The Son of God is the spirit who will become incarnate as Jesus Christ, though he is never named explicitly because he has not yet entered human form. Milton believed in a subordinationist doctrine of Christology that regarded the Son as secondary to the Father and as God's "great Vice-regent" (5.609). Milton's God in Paradise Lost refers to the Son as "My word, my wisdom, and effectual might" (3.170). The poem is not explicitly anti-trinitarian, but it is consistent with Milton's convictions. The Son is the ultimate hero of the epic and is infinitely powerful—he single-handedly defeats Satan and his followers and drives them into Hell. After their fall, the Son of God tells Adam and Eve about God's judgment: He, the Son, volunteers to journey into the World and become a man himself; then he redeems the Fall of Man through his own sacrificial death and resurrection. In the final scene, a vision of Salvation through the Son of God is revealed to Adam by Michael. Still, the name Jesus of Nazareth, and the details of Jesus' story are not depicted in the poem, though they are alluded to when Michael explains that "Joshua, whom the Gentiles Jesus call," prefigures the Son of God, "his name and office bearing" to "quell / The adversarie Serpent, and bring back [...] long wander[e]d man / Safe to eternal Paradise of rest."
God the Father
God the Father is the creator of Heaven, Hell, the world, of everyone and everything there is, through the agency of His Son. Milton presents God as all-powerful and all-knowing, as an infinitely great being who cannot be overthrown by even the great army of angels Satan incites against him. Milton's stated purpose for the poem is to justify the ways of God to men, so he portrays God as often conversing about his plans and his motives for his actions with the Son of God. The poem shows God creating the world in the way Milton believed it was done, that is, God created Heaven, Earth, Hell, and all the creatures that inhabit these separate planes from part of Himself, not out of nothing. Thus, according to Milton, the ultimate authority of God over all things that happen derives from his being the "author" of all creation. Satan tries to justify his rebellion by denying this aspect of God and claiming self-creation, but he admits to himself the truth otherwise, and that God "deserved no such return/ From me, whom He created what I was."
Raphael is the archangel whom God sends to warn Adam of Satan's infiltration of Eden and to warn that Satan will try to curse the pair. Raphael also discusses at length with the curious Adam some details about the creation and about events that transpired in Heaven.
Michael is a mighty archangel who fought for God in the Angelic War. In the first battle, he wounds Satan terribly with a powerful sword that God fashioned to cut through even the substance of angels. After Adam and Eve disobey God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God sends the angel Michael to visit them in the garden. Before he escorts them out of Paradise, Michael shows them visions of the future that disclose an outline of Bible stories from that of Cain and Abel in Genesis through the story of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
Milton first presented Adam and Eve in Book IV with impartiality. The relationship between Adam and Eve is one of "mutual dependence, not a relation of domination or hierarchy." While the author placed Adam above Eve in his intellectual knowledge and, in turn, his relation to God, he granted Eve the benefit of knowledge through experience. Hermine Van Nuis clarifies, that although there was stringency specified for the roles of male and female, Adam and Eve unreservedly accept their designated roles. Rather than viewing these roles as forced upon them, each uses their assignment as an asset in their relationship with each other. These distinctions can be interpreted as Milton's view on the importance of mutuality between husband and wife.
When examining the relationship between Adam and Eve, some critics apply either an Adam-centered or Eve-centered view of hierarchy and importance to God. David Mikics argues, by contrast, these positions "overstate the independence of the characters' stances, and therefore miss the way in which Adam and Eve are entwined with each other." Milton's narrative depicts a relationship where the husband and wife (here, Adam and Eve) depend on each other and, through each other's differences, thrive. Still, there are several instances where Adam communicates directly with God while Eve must go through Adam to God; thus, some have described Adam as her guide.
Although Milton does not directly mention divorce, critics posit theories on Milton's view of divorce based upon their inferences from the poem and from his tracts on divorce written earlier in his life. Other works by Milton suggest he viewed marriage as an entity separate from the church. Discussing Paradise Lost, Biberman entertains the idea that "marriage is a contract made by both the man and the woman." These ideas imply Milton may have favored that both man and woman have equal access to marriage and to divorce.
Milton's 17th-century contemporaries by and large criticised his ideas and considered him as a radical, mostly because of his Protestant views on politics and religion. One of Milton's most controversial arguments centred on his concept of what is idolatrous, which subject is deeply embedded in Paradise Lost.
Milton's first criticism of idolatry focused on the constructing of temples and other buildings to serve as places of worship. In Book XI of Paradise Lost, Adam tries to atone for his sins by offering to build altars to worship God. In response, the angel Michael explains that Adam does not need to build physical objects to experience the presence of God. Joseph Lyle points to this example, explaining "When Milton objects to architecture, it is not a quality inherent in buildings themselves he finds offensive, but rather their tendency to act as convenient loci to which idolatry, over time, will inevitably adhere." Even if the idea is pure in nature, Milton thought it would unavoidably lead to idolatry simply because of the nature of humans. That is, instead of directing their thoughts towards God, humans will turn to erected objects and falsely invest their faith there. While Adam attempts to build an altar to God, critics note Eve is similarly guilty of idolatry, but in a different manner. Harding believes Eve's narcissism and obsession with herself constitutes idolatry. Specifically, Harding claims that "... under the serpent's influence, Eve's idolatry and self-deification foreshadow the errors into which her 'Sons' will stray." Much like Adam, Eve falsely places her faith in herself, the Tree of Knowledge, and to some extent the Serpent, all of which do not compare to the ideal nature of God.
Milton made his views on idolatry more explicit with the creation of Pandæmonium and his allusion to Solomon's temple. In the beginning of Paradise Lost and throughout the poem, there are several references to the rise and eventual fall of Solomon's temple. Critics elucidate that "Solomon's temple provides an explicit demonstration of how an artefact moves from its genesis in devotional practice to an idolatrous end." This example, out of the many presented, distinctly conveys Milton's views on the dangers of idolatry. Even if one builds a structure in the name of God, the best of intentions can become immoral in idolatry. Further, critics have drawn parallels between both Pandemonium and Saint Peter's Basilica, and the Pantheon. The majority of these similarities revolve around a structural likeness, but as Lyle explains, they play a greater role. By linking Saint Peter's Basilica and the Pantheon to Pandemonium—an ideally false structure—the two famous buildings take on a false meaning. This comparison best represents Milton's Protestant views, as it rejects both the purely Catholic perspective and the Pagan perspective.
In addition to rejecting Catholicism, Milton revolted against the idea of a monarch ruling by divine right. He saw the practice as idolatrous. Barbara Lewalski concludes that the theme of idolatry in Paradise Lost "is an exaggerated version of the idolatry Milton had long associated with the Stuart ideology of divine kingship." In the opinion of Milton, any object, human or non-human, that receives special attention befitting of God, is considered idolatrous.
Interpretation and critique
The writer and critic Samuel Johnson wrote that Paradise Lost shows off "[Milton's] peculiar power to astonish" and that "[Milton] seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others: the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful."
Milton scholar John Leonard interpreted the "impious war" between Heaven and Hell as civil war:
Paradise Lost is, among other things, a poem about civil war. Satan raises 'impious war in Heav'n' (i 43) by leading a third of the angels in revolt against God. The term 'impious war' implies that civil war is impious. But Milton applauded the English people for having the courage to depose and execute King Charles I. In his poem, however, he takes the side of 'Heav'n's awful Monarch' (iv 960). Critics have long wrestled with the question of why an antimonarchist and defender of regicide should have chosen a subject that obliged him to defend monarchical authority.
In a similar vein, critic and writer C.S. Lewis argued that there was no contradiction in Milton's position in the poem since "Milton believed that God was his 'natural superior' and that Charles Stuart was not." Lewis interpreted the poem as a genuine Christian morality tale. Other critics, like William Empson, view it as a more ambiguous work, with Milton's complex characterization of Satan playing a large part in that perceived ambiguity. Empson argued that "Milton deserves credit for making God wicked, since the God of Christianity is 'a wicked God.'" Leonard places Empson's interpretation "in the [Romantic interpretive] tradition of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley."
Blake famously wrote, "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 quotation succinctly represents the way in which some 18th- and 19th-century English Romantic poets viewed Milton.
Empson's view is complex. Leonard points out that "Empson never denies that Satan's plan is wicked. What he does deny is that God is innocent of its wickedness: 'Milton steadily drives home that the inmost counsel of God was the Fortunate Fall of man; however wicked Satan's plan may be, it is God's plan too [since God in Paradise Lost is depicted as being both omniscient and omnipotent].'" Leonard calls Empson's view "a powerful argument," he notes that this interpretation was challenged by Dennis Danielson in his book Milton's Good God (1982).
The first illustrations to accompany the text of Paradise Lost were added to the fourth edition of 1688, with one engraving prefacing each book, of which up to eight of the twelve were by Sir John Baptist Medina, one by Bernard Lens II, and perhaps up to four (including Books I and XII, perhaps the most memorable) by another hand. The engraver was Michael Burghers (given as 'Burgesse' in some sources). By 1730 the same images had been re-engraved on a smaller scale by Paul Fourdrinier.
Some of the most notable illustrators of Paradise Lost included William Blake, Gustave Doré and Henry Fuseli. However, the epic's illustrators also include John Martin, Edward Francis Burney, Richard Westall, Francis Hayman, and many others.
Outside of book illustrations, the epic has also inspired other visual works by well-known painters like Salvador Dalí who executed a set of ten colour engravings in 1974. Milton's achievement in writing Paradise Lost while blind (he dictated to helpers) inspired loosely biographical paintings by both Fuseli and Eugène Delacroix.
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- Rajan, B (1947), Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader, London: Chatto & Windus, OCLC 62931344
- Ricks, C.B. (1963), Milton's Grand Style, Oxford: Clarendon Press, OCLC 254429
- Stone, J.W. (May 1997), ""Man's effeminate s(lack)ness:" Androgyny and the Divided Unity of Adam and Eve", Milton Quarterly, 31 (2): 33–42, doi:10.1111/j.1094-348X.1997.tb00491.x
- Van Nuis, H (May 2000), "Animated Eve Confronting Her Animus: A Jungian Approach to the Division of Labor Debate in Paradise Lost", Milton Quarterly, 34 (2): 48–56, doi:10.1111/j.1094-348X.2000.tb00619.x
- Walker, Julia M. (1998), Medusa's Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self, University of Delaware Press, ISBN 978-0-87413-625-8
- Wheat, L (2008), Philip Pullman's His dark materials—a multiple allegory : attacking religious superstition in The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe and Paradise lost, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, ISBN 978-1-59102-589-4, OCLC 152580912
- Gustave Doré Paradise Lost Illustrations from the University at Buffalo Libraries
- Major Online Resources on Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Paradise Lost XHTML version at Dartmouth's Milton Reading Room
- Project Gutenberg text version 1
- Project Gutenberg text version 2
- Paradise Lost PDF/Ebook version with layout and fonts inspired by 17th century publications.
- paradiselost.org has the original poetry side-by-side with a translation to plain (prosaic) English
- darkness visible – comprehensive site for students and others new to Milton: contexts, plot and character summaries, reading suggestions, critical history, gallery of illustrations of Paradise Lost, and much more. By students at Milton's Cambridge college, Christ's College.
- Selected bibliography at the Milton Reading Room – includes background, biography, criticism.
- Paradise Lost learning guide, quotes, close readings, thematic analyses, character analyses, teacher resources