John Milton, Paradise Lost, Books IV, IX, and XII (ed. prin. 1667, rev. ed. 1674)

How did we get here from Books I and II?:  First, in Book III, which I omitted, (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 tells of Satan's first attempt to seduce Eve in her sleep, his discovery by the angel Gabriel, and his defeated flight. 

    Following Book V through Book VIII's lengthy lecture in which Raphael attempts to explain history since Creation to enable Adam to protect himself from Satan, Book IX records the Fall and the first effects of sin on Adam and Eve (they fight, of course). 

    After X's description of God's judgment, Satan and the rebel angels' transformation to serpents (a great scene, ll. 460-584),  and Adam's observation of Eden's transformation by sin, the angel Michael arrives in XI to give Adam visions of the ups and downs of humanity's "future history" up to the Great FloodXII records Michael's "future history" from the Tower of Babel through the promise of the Incarnation of Jesus and the Second Coming's Last Judgment to remake "New heav'ns, new earth, ages of endless date" (XII: 549), ending in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and the first morning of our world.    In effect, these angelic narratives "bracket" our existence within the poem's cosmic vision, so the last line marks our ancestors' first steps toward where we are, and Michael's promise of the eschaton or Second Coming marks the end of the world and time in which our descendents will live.

Genre: still 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. Milton's alterations of the Temptation and Fall may have escaped your notice if you are, like most people in this culture, only vaguely aware of what Genesis actually says.  We have so completely absorbed Milton's vision of the Fall that unless you consult Genesis again, you may fail to notice the crucial facts about what Adam was told vs. what Eve would have known only through Adam, not directly from God.  Notice especially how richly he expands the dialogues among the characters.
  2. The Norton Anthology's introduction, still under the spell of Stanley Fish's "Reader-Response" critical reading of the poem (in Surprised by Sin, 1967), emphasized the way the poem forces unconscious choices upon readers, enticing the reader to take sides and then revealing further complexities that result from choosing incorrectly.  Don't be worried about being taken in or deceived.  That's also what the poem is about--re-experiencing and re-understanding the First Parents' faults and coming to terms with how humans make mistakes.  You will also be able to tell what Milton believes is heroic about humanity, physically weak and psychologically gullible though we may be.
  3. One tool Milton used to control and change his readers' minds about the way the Cosmos works is our old friend, "point of view."  The novelist, poet, and dramatist all have to decide from what perspective to represent their "second Nature" (Sidney), and once audiences are seduced to view things from that position, strange sympathies can be established.  How else to explain our initial amusement or even excitement by Edmund's bold challenge to accepted morality in Lear?  We hear it from his point of view, and it sounds like just vengeance for a lifetime of being "the bastard."  Similarly, the speaker of Wyatt's "They Flee from Me" gets to control our view of that middle stanza's bedroom tryst so that we do not ask ourselves what it felt like to be the "she" who dared come to his bedroom in the night, and who, after who knows what subsequent embarrassments and triumphs, decided to cut the speaker loose and pursue her own pleasure, even as he had pursued her.  Lady Mary Wroth provides us with "her" point of view, but in doing so, excludes "his."  That's often the way the game is played.  Practice keeping track of "from whose point of view are we seeing this?"  Milton's voice sometimes is Satan's, usually bursting with ambition and indignation and pride (e.g., Satan himself about remembering Heaven in IV.32-113), and at other times, the voice is his narrator's (e.g., IV.114-119), frequently reinterpreting  what we have just seen/heard, for instance, undercutting Satan's or another Fallen Angel's speech.  Some of his most gorgeous effects, the ones which build Satan to the towering, old-fashioned, Achilles- or Odysseus-type epic hero, are produced when Satan or Beelzebub controls "the camera," when we see and hear things from a demonic point of view.  What's the cumulative effect of seeing the universe through a Fallen Angel's eyes for many lines?  What do you expect to happen when he sees Eden ( IV.131-355 and 356-392) or when the inhabitants of Eden, Adam and Eve, begin to control what we see and hear (IV.411 and IV.440).

  4. Now that you've met Adam and Eve, can you see their relationship to characters drawn from the English drama and poetry of Milton's predecessors?  Think about Eve as a misunderstood daughter trying to do the right thing, and Adam as a son whose filial obedience is strained by the demands of his lovely wife.  Remember that none of this is found in Genesis, but almost all of it seems to be Milton's invention to explain the fact of the Fall, embroidering upon Adam's response to God's question about his knowledge of his nakedness and Eve's response to Adam's claim that she tempted him to eat.  We are like friends of a married couple in counseling, hearing only one side of the story, but a compellingly told version.  How does their dialogue construct a Miltonic "marital drama" that acts out the cosmic struggle in human terms?  Where do you feel yourself agreeing with Milton's version of the quarrel, and where do you feel yourself resisting?
  5. How does Satan's character and appearance change from the heroic rebel to the envious, frustrated, and finally defeated (in X) victim of his own ambitions?  What kinds of details does Milton introduce to his characterization to dramatize this transformation, and how would you explain them in terms of a dramatic representation of the effects of sinful disobedience?  Note that they might begin in books I and II, but while in Hell, Satan seems grander than his surroundings.  The journey through Chaos, with its awkward flight, reduces his size, but his arrival in Eden dramatically alters his interior and exterior.  How might Milton be using Satan as a "reader" of Eden, or perhaps a "misreader" of Eden, to encourage us to read properly?
  6. Acting out of kindness and practical necessity, I have eliminated Raphael's and Michael's lengthy historical instructions which Adam receives before and after the Fall.   What am I setting you up for?  Certainly this cannot be a "full reading" of Milton's poem, but we're used to accepting the need for excerpts in a survey course.  However, this decision has certain doctrinal and poetic implications which you might want to ponder.  Also, Milton continues to expand upon his gendered view of political order in these episodes (see for instance XI: 628-37).  If you are exploring that theme for a paper, you might find it worth your while to prospect in those books I left off the reading list for the moment.
  7. Note that, while Adam is watching Michael's future-history visions, Eve has been sleeping and, in sleep, has been sent dreams by God "and dreams advise" her of things to come which will comfort her (XII:611).  The one thing she lets slip is that "By me the Promised Seed shall all restore," indicating she also has been informed of the Incarnation and Eschaton.   What does Milton mean by giving Eve those dreams and not reporting most of them to us, whereas he paraphrases vast swaths of the teachings of Professors Raphael and Michael?  Does God give males and females two different "pipelines" of information, and if so, which is better/more accurate?   Remember that Satan's first assault upon Eve was in her dreams.  How does this affect your reading of her happy reception of this one?
  8. When you've finished XII, note its last "paragraph" (ll. 624-49).  I find it exceptionally affecting, in part for its manipulation of subjective time and perspective.  First, our perspective sweeps up and out in accelerating haste as the Cherubim assume their stations on walls of Paradise and Michael rushes "Our ling'ring parents" out of the gates of Eden.  Then we're focused only on Adam and Eve, and time slows a moment to watch the fall of their tears and an enormous journey begins, just as the poem ceases to speak to us.  What kinds of emotional effects is Milton striving for here, and how is that linked to his readers' exit from the world of his poem?   Once, in my graduate school days, I spoke with William Kerrigan about his first encounter with this work.  He said he began reading Book I shortly after dinner and ended Book XII at dawn.  How would such a cumulative and compressed experience of Milton's whole work affect your intellectual and emotional reception of these last lines?   If you're interested and aren't otherwise occupied on the nights before and after December 21, the Winter Solstice and shortest day of the year, you'd have the longest nights of the year at your disposal for the attempt.  Good luck and tell me what you learn!
  9. Milton's successful publication of Paradise Lost in 1667 (1st edition) helped to rehabilitate his reputation, after he nearly had been executed as a member of Cromwell's government.  As difficult as the poem's language and content are, Paradise Lost sold enough copies to make it profitable for a printer to bring out a second edition in 1674, the year of Milton's death.  This edition included several changes Milton made: he split books 7 and 10 into 2 books each so that the whole epic would more neatly match Virgil's twelve-book masterpiece, The Aeneid; and at readers' requests, he added a prose introduction to every book explaining the action and characters.  Think about that compromise with his readers as evidence of his extraordinarily powerful desire that this poem should succeed.  They're a lot like the "footnotes" Eliot added to "The Wasteland," which routinely are invoked in graduate school theory courses on the issue of whether they're "part of the poem or not."  A prefatory poem by Andrew Marvell is third thing which the second edition contains and the first did not.  Click here to read Marvell's poetic reaction to his friend's poem, and consider the concerns AM says attended his first reading of the work.  Are these concerns that also should be considered by the modern reader?

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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