John Milton, Paradise Lost, Books I and II (ed. 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 of God.

Summary: (absurdly reduced)

  1. 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 Parliament.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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).

        Click 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:

  1. Why write an epicAs 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 poets' concerns?
  2. 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.
    • 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?
  3. 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.
    • 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?
  4. 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.
    • To what kinds of places, persons, or things does he draw our attention and how are they portrayed?
    • 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?
  5. 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 characters.
    • How might that analogy help you understand the weaknesses of some of the demons' proposals?
  6. 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 deal!
    • How might we describe Milton's use of his classical learning in the creation of a Christian poem?
    • What is his attitude toward his pagan predecessors, a problem Dante, too, had to face?
  7. 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 "scholar-hero."
    • How would you describe that "scholar-hero"'s heroism?
    • Where would we see his "battles," "wounds," "victories" and "defeats"?
    • In what way is Satan's heroism both an homage to and a critique of the older epic poets' values?
    • With which type of hero do you most identify, and how does that affect your reading of the poem?
    • Is Satan a kind of "author," and if so, how would you analyze his style?
  8. 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 here.
  9. 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?

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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