Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost Part I
Voices in Paradise Lost
Some authors become their characters. Charles Dickens is a conspicuous example. Reading a Dickens novel is like watching a one-man play. It’s as if, in the mind’s eye, Dickens himself does all of the voices and each antic and somber gesture.
But not all authors become their characters. Sometimes it’s more like the characters become their author, by becoming spokespersons for his different points of view. In the case of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), the characters we meet—Adam, Eve, even Satan–are various adaptations of Milton the man. Like Milton, they all have rich intellects and strong reasoning skills. They all are persuasive and utterly committed to their causes.
But more than that, just as did Milton the English citizen, all the major characters place great importance on individual freedom.
What Is Paradise Lost?
First, what kind of work is Paradise Lost? In true epic style, Milton’s great poem retells the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis with some creative and Biblically-based additions.
Paradise Lost has been called “the story of all things,” and for good reason! No other work of literature achieves a cosmic scale of this kind.
The poem begins immediately after the War in Heaven, when Satan and the rebel angels attempted to usurp God. Following their defeat, Satan ventures out into the universe to exact his revenge against God. He searches out the newly created Earth and its inhabitants to tempt Eve, the first, woman, to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bringing about the Fall.
How can today’s readers approach this magnificent work, to read, enjoy, and interpret its beauty and its ideas?
Following are some things to look for and appreciate. In this post, I’ll cover the historical background of Paradise Lost’s composition and talk about its most important characters, and how each conveys Milton’s belief in human liberty. In “Four Themes in Paradise Lost,” I’ll talk about more important themes and ideas to look for.
A little English history: Milton and His Times
Why did Milton value individual freedom so highly, and why did this ethic lead him to writing one of the greatest poems in the English language? Let’s look at a little history to find out.
Milton had first turned to political writing in the 1640’s when Charles I was on the throne. As a Puritan living in a time when Puritan beliefs and practices were persecuted, Milton wanted to address abuses of power in his government and the church.
Though he wanted desperately to become England’s national poet, writing lyrical verse that celebrated England, instead he felt compelled to comment on the affairs of his country. In multiple publications over the years, he argued for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the legal freedom to divorce and remarry.
In 1649, the Puritans won the English Civil War against the Royalists, executed Charles I, and assumed power for 16 years. Milton served as Latin Secretary in this Puritan government, translating and writing all of the official correspondences, while continuing his political writing. However, from 1658 on, the Republican government which he had faithfully defended and served began to collapse around him.
Finally in 1660, Puritan rule was over. Charles II returned from exile in France and assumed the throne in England, a period in history called The Restoration. Milton became a political outcast and briefly in danger of losing his life, partly because he had advocated for the deposing and beheading of the tyrannical Charles I ten years before. Fortunately his friend Andrew Marvell, another famous English poet and a member of Parliament, secured him a pardon.
It was clear to Milton that writing political arguments at this time would not only be very dangerous, but as a project, had ultimately proved vain, since the people had abandoned the very form of Republican government he had been arguing for. As Milton saw it, the English people were like the dog in Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Though a Republican form of government had been achieved, the people disbanded it and again, eagerly and foolishly, accepted the yoke of monarchy.
A New Way to Advocate for Individual Freedom
How, in those changing times, could Milton use his writing to argue for the freedom of the individual? The answer was to turn again to pure literature and to write a great epic poem. That poem was Paradise Lost.
Milton had begun turning from pamphlets to poetry even before the Restoration, since according to the seventeenth-century biographer and writer, John Aubrey, Milton probably started Paradise Lost in 1658. He must have decided that a poem on a more transcendent theme like the Biblical Fall could more persuasively and discreetly emphasize our own free will than a political pamphlet could.
He completed Paradise Lost sometime in 1663, in about five years. Amazingly, he had already gone blind by 1652. He dictated the poem and relied on his two youngest daughters and visiting pupils to transcribe.
Milton’s Style: Difficult at first, but Worth Getting to Know
There are obstacles to enjoying Milton’s poetry that a few modern readers might bemoan. Milton’s language can sometimes seem abstruse, long-winded, or over-embellished.
If these writings do seem difficult, there’s a reason: Milton made his political tracts and later poems somewhat difficult on purpose, to demonstrate his mastery of writing and the accumulation of years of study. Besides showcasing his skill, Milton’s language was also typical of the literature of his day. Take a look at this post on English Renaissance writing, which discusses the Renaissance love of elaboration and complexity in language.
If you do accept the challenge of reading Milton’s masterful language, you will experience the force of this decorative, beautiful, and thoughtful poetry that relies on elaboration for its power.
The Cast of Characters
If you read Paradise Lost for no other reason, do it to take a look at how Milton depicts such archetypal and significant characters as God and Satan, along with the parents of all humankind, Adam and Eve. Here are some notes on four of the poem’s major characters, and how they reinforce Milton’s belief in free will and independence.
Satan: Hero or Villain?
Some critics and admiring poets, especially the British Romantics, have asserted that Milton is sympathetic to Satan’s point of view. Commentators don’t usually specify exactly what they mean by “sympathetic,” but they often note that many readers of Paradise Lost feel that, as they begin to read, Satan is positioned as the hero of the story.
Indeed, none of the story, its energy and excitement, the incitement of the plot, and the protraction of the narrative, can exist without Satan. At times it is futile to resist his charisma and sidestep his suffering.
For instance, this speech, when Satan encourages his newly-roused army of rebel angels following their banishment from Heaven, depicts him as a brave and mighty leader, unbowed by defeat:
He now prepar’d
To speak; whereat thir doubl’d Ranks they bend
From wing to wing, and half enclose him round
With all his Peers: attention held them mute.
Thrice [Satan] assayed, and thrice in spite of scorn,
Tears such as angels weep, burst forth: at last
Words interwove with sighs found out their way.
‘ O Myriads of immortal Spirits, O Powers
Matchless, but with th’ Almighty, and that strife
Was not inglorious, though th’ event was dire,
As this place testifies, and this dire change
Hateful to utter: but what power of mind
Foreseeing or presaging, from the Depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have fear’d,
How such united force of Gods, how such
As stood like these, could ever know repulse?
For who can yet believe, though after loss,
That all these puissant Legions, whose exile
Hath emptied Heav’n, shall fail to re-ascend
Self-rais’d, and repossess thir native seat?’ (I.615-634)
In this scene, Satan rallies his troops, praising them for their “not inglorious” fight against God, even though they lost the fight. He tells them he can’t believe that beings as powerful as they won’t end up recapturing their former position in Heaven.
This scene might make Satan into a positive figure, a picture of a leader, defeated but unbowed, comforting and rallying his troops. However, as the poem continues, readers can’t resist examining the weakness of Satan’s grievances against God, coming to see Satan in a less positive light.
Ultimately, what injustice has Satan suffered at God’s hands, provoking him to rebel? None at all. By Satan’s own admission in Book IV, God’s yoke was easy (lV. 45). After all, offerings of praise, thankfulness, and obedience are not exactly Herculean labors. Is it really better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, as Satan has chosen?
Given that the Puritan Milton must be on God’s side, why, then, did he make Satan such a strong and charismatic character? Perhaps even Satan has something in common with his author: like Milton, Satan is a spirited rhetor and a champion against the abuses of monarchy.
Of course, Satan does not have Milton’s rightful cause. For the purposes of art, however, Milton could provide Satan with the passion of a defeated soul. Milton had, after all, lost his own paradise—not a seat in heaven like Satan—but a chance at an England freer than the one under the rule of Charles Stuart. In some respects, at least, Satan can speak for Milton’s loss.
God the Father
Writing a vast drama that included God and Jesus as characters presented Milton with two challenges. First, how do you keep the reader interested in the poem when two of its characters are omniscient? They know the story they’re in, what will happen to everyone involved, and even what the other would say or think before it is spoken. How could Milton provide narrative tension?
Secondly, how can any human being dare to represent God? That is, how do you write engaging speeches for God as a character, but also avoid outright heresy? How do you stay within an accepted theological framework but avoid replicating what is already in the Bible? Even more, Puritans were suspicious of what they considered the Catholic Church’s idolatrous practice of making images of God. As a Puritan, Milton had to be careful.
Despite these challenges, Milton manages to infuse his commitment to freedom not just into the vaunting grandiloquence of Satan but also into the plain style of God’s speech. Here, ensconced within the majesty of his kingdom, God foresees Adam’s fall on earth, and condemns him:
. . .So will fall
Hee and his faithless Progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. (III. 96-9)
These monosyllabic phrases “he had of me all,” “I made him just and right,” and “free to fall” are beautifully rhythmic and deceptively simple. Milton’s mastery as a poet is not just in meandering and ornamented verse. He is just as powerful when he writes succinctly.
But also, in these simple phrases, we see Milton recurring to his central assertion that individuals have liberty and free choice. “Sufficient to have stood,” implying that Adam and Eve did not need to give in to Satan’s temptation, is one line that most readers never forget.
Sometimes it feels like the characters in Milton’s poetry are always standing, as in standing around. But standing in Milton is the alternative to falling—full of dignity, composure, strength, and intent. Milton would later reuse a plain style in the poem’s sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), which concerns Jesus’ preparation for ministry and His temptation by Satan in the wilderness.
For the purpose of Milton’s theme, Jesus appears in this book, too. In the heavenly courts he is called “the Son” who, following God’s judgment on humankind and request for “rigid satisfaction, death for death” (212), offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins. This well-known response may seem so familiar that readers tend to skip over it, finding Satan’s rhetoric more lively and compelling.
But is the breathtaking scope of this kind of charity really so easy just to read over? One famous literary critic, Stanley Fish, argued that Milton’s Satan not only tempts Adam and Eve but also us , the readers, by luring us to celebrate Satan’s power and defiance rather than to recognize the magnificent self-sacrifice offered by Jesus.
Gods and heroes are the kinds of characters one encounters in epics, but a great amount of Paradise Lost is centered around the domestic life of Adam and Eve. This is not exactly what one would usually consider epic. However, the poem is deeply interested in the characters of Adam and Eve, because this is where the human story fits into creation.
Again, we find Milton’s voice in each of the pair, as each one, armed with reason and a sharp intellect, shape creation right along with God as they push against creation’s rigid hierarchy. These domestic scenes occur mostly before that pivotal moment of disobedience where they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from paradise.
For instance, we sample Adam’s independence in the scene when he names the animals in Eden in Book VIII. Adam persuades God to give him a companion, reasoning that he is the only creature in Eden without an equal. By reasoning with God, Adam is ultimately able to demonstrate his need for “collateral love, and dearest amity” (426). Pleased by Adam’s argument, God creates Eve. But she is not merely given to him. If Adam is free to choose a life of companionship instead of solitude, so too is Eve.
Eve recalls her first moment of consciousness in Book IV. After God creates her, she wakes by a pool and looks into the water. There she sees a beautiful face, which a voice from heaven explains is her reflection, before leading her to Adam. Upon meeting Adam, Eve resolves to turn back because he is not as beautiful as the reflection she saw in the pool. But Adam is not ready to give up quite yet. He tells Eve that
. . . to give thee being I lent
Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart,
Substantial life, to have thee by my side (IV.483-5).
Persuaded by his protestations Eve recalls how
with that thy gentle hand
Seized mine, I yielded, and from that time see
How beauty is excelled by manly grace
And wisdom, which alone is truly fair (Book IV.488-91).
It cannot be overstated how important the word “yielded” is in this section of verse. For Milton, it is not enough to say that Eve has merely been persuaded. For Milton, Eve must also choose to yield, again demonstrating his concept that people have individual liberty.
This reading of Genesis differs from the general understanding of this passage in scripture in the seventeenth century. There was a great debate not only about who was more culpable in respect to original sin (usually Eve), but also who was subordinate to whom (usually Eve to Adam). Here, Adam’s words—“to have thee by my side”—suggest a companionate marriage of well-matched individuals, where neither is subordinate to the other.
Meeting Milton in His Characters
As different as are the major characters of Paradise Lost from one another, they all seem to have one thing in common: all speak for and enact Milton’s contention that every creature possesses individual liberty. This is one idea you can look for as you begin to sample the dignified beauty and cosmic scope of this classic work.
It’s not surprising, though, that there are more themes than just one to be discovered in such a large work. In the next post, I discuss four major themes that weave themselves throughout the epic poem. In the meantime, take the plunge and begin getting to know one of the most famous works in all of western literature, Paradise Lost.
The Rebuke of Adam and Eve by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740. The Met Open Access Collection.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
J. M. Dent edition Paradise Lost Book Cover. Scanned by Marc Ryckaert [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Satan Plunges into the River Styx. Engraved by Darodes [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Milton dictates to daughters. Eugène Delacroix [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
David Elias Miller graduated from Miami University (Oxford, OH) with an M.A. in English Literature. A “cultural conservative” who sees great literature as an inheritance, not a problem to be deconstructed by cultural, gender, or other theoretical studies, David is setting a career path outside the university while continuing to learn and enjoy literature as a personal passion.