John Milton, Paradise Lost, Books
prin. 1667, rev. ed. 1674)
Genre: an epic poem.
Form: 10,565 lines of blank verse divided into twelve books, each
headed by a prose "Argument" or summary of the contents. The first edition
of 1667 divided the poem into only 10 books and no prose "Arguments." The
1674 revised edition's additional book divisions divided the first edition's enormous Book X into three books
(the current X, XI, and XII) and the arguments were added to help readers follow the plot.
Characters: Satan and the rebel angels, Sin and Death, Chaos, Adam and Eve, the
guardian and messenger angels of Eden (especially Raphael and Michael), God, and the Son
Summary: (absurdly reduced)
- Book I (798 lines): The fallen angels survey their state, Satan, roused by
Beelzebub, summons a counsel of demons, and they build Pandemonium to house their
- Book II (1055 lines): The fallen angels debate their strategy and vote to send
Satan to seek out and destroy the new world that was created at the moment they fell, an
act of revenge which takes Satan out of Hell's gate (where he meets his daughter/mate and
son) and into the realm of Chaos, from which he sees Earth.
- Book III (742 lines): God sees Satan's flight and explains Man's fall due to
disobedience in his free will, but the Son of God offers himself as a ransom for the
rebellious human race. Satan deceives Uriel, a guardian angel, and is directed to
Earth where he sets foot on Armenia's Mount Niphates.
- Book IV (1015 lines): Satan is tormented by the beauty of Creation, and discovers
Adam and Eve living in perfect harmony. Hearing them talk of the forbidden Tree of
Knowledge, he turns himself into a toad and whispers temptation into the sleeping Eve's
ear, but he is discovered by the guardian angels and expelled by Gabriel.
- Book V (907 lines): Eve tells Adam of her disturbing dream, and Raphael arrives,
sent by God, to warn Adam and to explain Satan's rebellion against the introduction of the
Son of God as the Messiah above Satan in the hierarchy of Heaven.
- Book VI (912 lines): Raphael tells Adam of the war in heaven between rebel angels
and God's army, ending when God drives Satan's army over the edge of Heaven and they fall
through Chaos into the pit prepared for them.
- Book VII (640 lines): Raphael describes God sending his Son to create the world
in six days, and warns Adam again of the deadly prohibition on the Tree of Knowledge.
- Book VIII (653 lines): Adam asks to understand the movement of the heavenly
bodies, which Raphael explains in a strange fusion of the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems
(then being debated publically in England), and Adam tells of his and Eve's creation.
- Book IX (1104 lines): Satan enters the serpent and persuades Eve to eat from the
forbidden tree. Eve, disordered in her passions, comes to Adam and persuades him to
eat, or he persuades himself to join her in a common doom since he cannot resist the bond
of flesh between them (left rib, in Milton's version). They eat, they mess around
some, and they discover guilt, which apparently requires clothing and a huge fight.
- Book X (1104 lines): God sends his Son to deliver judgment. Adam and Eve
confess, and Sin and Death arrive to take possession of their father's new conquest.
Satan returns victorious to Hell, but the demons' praise is cut short when they are turned
into serpents whose attempt to cheer Satan turns into "A dismal universal hiss"
(X: 508). Adam witnesses the storms that disorder Eden's weather, the animals who
turn to devouring each other, and realizes it was all their fault. After a fight
with Eve, they reconcile and seek mercy from the Son.
- Book XI (901 lines): The Son of God intercedes to prevent their immediate death,
but God orders them expelled from Eden. Michael assures them that loss of Eden does
not mean loss of God's presence, and explains to Adam the future of humanity, including
Abel's murder, the spread of sin, the Flood, and the new Covenant.
- Book XII (649 lines): Michael's "future history" concludes with a
summary of the Old Testament, the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of the
Messiah, and the victory over Sin and Death which makes Adam rejoice even in his own
Fall. Michael foretells the Church's corruption and the Second Coming. Eve is
given a comforting dream promising "some great good" which will restore the
damage, and Adam and Eve depart from the Garden. The poem ends with the vision of
Adam and Eve's departure to begin life as we know it: "The World was all before them,
where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand
with wand'ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way" (XII: 656-49).
here for a summary of the
poem's events as its plot unfolds, and a parallel comparison of the order in
which the poem's books re-present those events. It also indicates which
events can be found in Genesis and which Milton has borrowed from other biblical
books, and invented from his own imagination.
Issues and Research Sources:
As usual, poets
chose their subjects based on the situations they find themselves in and the
talents they bring to the task. Milton's amazing ambition, to "assert Eternal
Providence / And Justify the ways of God to men" (I.25-26), poses some inherent
challenges for the poet. His English Protestant readers are presumed to be
fully acquainted with not only the basics of Christian doctrine but also with
the specific biblical texts upon which those doctrines are based. The
whole edifice of principle and belief depends upon its coherent reception and
understanding by reader-believers, but we know from the lyrics of Donne and
Herbert, and even gentle Herrick's poems, that C17 English readers were
undergoing some difficult times maintaining their beliefs in an era in which so
many cultural things were changing. The basic form of government, the
understanding of humanity's place in the universe and the nature of the human
body, England's place in her growing global empire, and a thousand other things
were being transformed by the culture's uneasy embrace of "Modern" thought.
Hence, Milton's perception, after his own party was thrown out of power by the
Restoration of Charles II to the throne, that it was time to "translate" Genesis
and clarify the reasons for God's relationship to humanity, and our relationship
to Sin and Death. What evidence can you find in previous poets' work that
Milton might be echoing or answering their concerns about faith?
Remember Donne's and Herbert's works were published in 1633, well before
Milton's blindness in 1652, so he would have been fully aware of both poets'
work. Why would an epic poem seem an appropriate response to those
Satan represents an amazingly well-developed attempt to imagine the nature of a great
spirit corrupted. It might be fair to say that the first time we saw this kind of
figure attempted, it was in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.
- Why write an
Milton's sentences are famously long and inverted (object-verb-subject or
object-subject-verb rather than subject-verb-object, the traditional English order).
Some of this results from his extensive early study of Latin, a language in which word
endings ("inflections") tell you what part of speech every word is, and to what
word(s) the word you're looking at refers. This allows a Latin writer to delay
revealing subjects and verbs by displacing them from their expected positions.
- How might a re-reading of that play affect our interpretation of Satan as a character?
- In what ways does Milton agree with Marlowe regarding the nature of evil, and the
emotional experience of damnation?
- Does he appear to borrow any poetic techniques?
The description of the underworld in Book I has been justly praised for its use of
simile and metaphor. After all, how is one to describe something we never have seen
except by comparison with things we have seen? Observe carefully Milton's choice of
"vehicles," as the known parts of the metaphor or simile are sometimes called.
- Can you find any logic to such a linguistic "shell game" in any passages by
closely reading the way they forestall the reader's access to subjects and/or verbs until
the end of the sentence?
The parliament of demons in Book II is a casebook study in organizational behavior in
companies fallen on hard times. The board room is packed with disappointed and
ambitious executives who try to mould the organization into something that fits their own
- To what kinds of places, persons, or things does he draw our attention and how are they
- Then compare the "tenor" or unknown part of the metaphor or simile--to what
unknown infernal phenomenon is that known, earthly thing being compared?
- What are Milton's intentions?
The horrific allegory by which Milton explains the invention of Sin and Death has deep
roots in classical myth. For instance, Zeus gave birth to Athena, who burst from his
forehead with a shout in full armor. He made her his shield bearer, and she remained
one of two virgin goddesses (with Artemis, Apollo's sister, the huntress and Moon
goddess). Obviously Milton took some of this myth, and changed the rest a great
- How might that analogy help you understand the weaknesses of some of the demons'
Milton began the poem thinking he would write a drama which drew upon the story of
Prometheus in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, and indeed the character Satan bears
many resemblances to the god who (in Greek mythos) brought the secret of fire to humanity
and was punished by the jealous gods for his benevolence. Milton's pagan models for
epic heroes included Achilles, the warrior of Homer's Iliad, Homer's Odysseus, the
trickster and suffering hero of the Odyssey, and Virgil's dutiful and religiously
faithful Aeneas, hero of the Aeneid. The next stage in the epic tradition is
Dante's Divina Comedia, whose hero, "Dante," undertakes a journey of
healing and learning by witnessing the punishments of the great sinners (Inferno),
the struggles of the repentant sinners to purge themselves (Purgatorio), and the
moral lessons related by the lives of the saved (Paradiso). If you consult
the plot summary above, you will see that Satan might be compared with some aspects of the
old warrior-god heroes, whereas Adam resembles Dante as a kind of
- How might we describe Milton's use of his classical learning in the creation of a
- What is his attitude toward his pagan predecessors, a problem Dante, too, had to face?
Milton has consummate control of the epic's formal properties. Look for some of
these traditional epic features: gorgeous extended similes; a hero (Adam? Or the
Son) who is complex and great-spirited but human, even when talking to immortals; an
antagonist who rouses our sympathies despite our knowledge he's doomed and whose
opposition to the hero makes the hero's triumph greater; a plot which involves the destiny
of whole tribes, nations, or peoples; and invocations of the Muse to plead for her aid in
singing because the task at hand is so huge. For a discussion of the lineage of the
Muse's invocation, and its relationship to the characterization of the epic hero, click
Milton's vision of Genesis centers upon the twin responses to authority, obedience and
rebellion, blaming the Fall on a fundamental strain of disobedience that he discovers
first in Satan, then in Eve, and then in Adam's acquiescence to Eve (his famous "uxoriousness"
from L. uxor, "wife"). This disaster in human history is repaired
by the Son's obedience to God's will and by the working out of Satan's doom. Thus,
this poem contains arguments about two important social issues in Milton's era, human
relationships to governing authority and relations between men and women conceived as a
microcosm of the rules governing the greater relationship between individuals and
governments, or dieties. The literary traditions and social conventions governing
male-female relations which Milton assumes, including definitions of male-ness and
female-ness, already had been challenged by Amelya Lanyer
("Eve's Defense") and Lady Mary Wroth.
Government relations with the governed are addressed by
Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, which argues that
governments are created by people to save themselves from their own worst behaviors, but
that governments which do not serve the people who created them may be dissolved,
destroyed, and remade. Consider Milton's career as a Puritain defender of free
speech ("Areopagitica" 1801-11) and interpreter of the Lord Protector's cabinet
decrees in the Protestant government which tried and executed Charles I (1649). The
Puritans called their actions "Reformation" of the government, but Charles I and
his loyalist adherants, following the absolutist doctrine of the "divine right of
kings," called it "rebellion." Before writing Paradise Lost,
Milton had seen that government swept away by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy with
the return of Charles II (1660), and now he sets himself the task to write of humanity's
first rebellion. With what mixed emotions does he confront the story of Genesis in
the context of the failure Puritan cause and the uneasy compromise by which the Stuarts
were allowed to return under strict Parliamentary control? How should we understand
his twinning of the matrimonial rebellion story of Adam and Eve with the political
one of Satan, the rebel angels, God, and the obedient Son? How is Milton's universe
"gendered" and how does its power reflect his theory of government?
Paradise Lost will be the survey's only complete
epic poem since Beowulf, and
in both cases, we are surveying only portions of the whole work.
Unlike Beowulf, whose hero maintains a consistently "heroic"
character from his first introduction to his death-by-dragon, Milton's heros
(Adam and Eve, not Satan!) are constructed
with psychological depth and develop through the course of the poem.
The "development" involves their fall into sinful knowledge from a sort of
blissful ignorance, but once Satan has begun to work upon them in Book IV,
they have levels of motivation that they cannot understand but that readers
can detect and analyze as part of what we might call Milton's "theory of
sinful personality." Since this all arises from Satan's contact with
their primordial and unchanging, holistic harmony at the start of Book IV,
we might well expect that Satan, himself, is capable of depth and change.
If you look closely at Satan's actions in Books 1, 2, 4, and 9, you
will see some interesting psychological character "devolution" which might
resemble Faustus' decay from ambitious dreams of magical power to illusory
deceptions of gullible people. In fact, Satan's character may owe a good
deal to Marlowe's characterizations of the demons, but should you attempt to
write your final paper about this, be sure to distinguish clearly between
Lucifer (Marlowe's chief demon) and Satan (Milton's character). Milton's
Satan also may owe something to Marlowe's Mephistophilis, especially in his
rhetorical style. One of Milton's singular achievements in this epic is to
give each character, including Satan, Adam, and Eve, identifiable ways of
speaking and characteristic ways of thinking, and each of the three main
protagonists is "round" enough to be capable of growth or decline, motivation by
unconscious drives, and other sophisticated fictional devices that Marlowe did
not know or use.
- How would you describe that "scholar-hero"'s heroism?
- Where would we see his "battles," "wounds," "victories"
- In what way is Satan's heroism both an homage to and a critique of the older epic poets'
- With which type of hero do you most identify, and how does that affect your reading of
- Is Satan a kind of "author," and if so, how would you analyze his style?
If you would like to work with online, electronic scholarly editions of
Milton's works, including more than those available to you via the Norton
Anthology, I recommend that you visit
Dartmouth's "Milton Reading Room." Take a look even if you are not
going to write on Milton to get some idea of the range of his writing and the
size of his achievement. To visit a University of Richmond web site dedicated to the study of Milton's
poetry, click here. The site
contains links to whole text scholarly articles on Milton, but your most obvious source
for Milton scholarship would be the
Milton Quarterly, which the
Library has access to via Project Muse.
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