Christian Guides to the Classics: Paradise Lost

Discover How John Milton’s Epic Recounting of the Fall Reminds Us of Our Hope of Redemption

Written by Leland Ryken

Course Introduction

About the Course

This course was created to help readers of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost explore deep, new meanings of the text. The course begins by introducing the importance of literature, and it segues into an introduction of Paradise Lost. The following sections outline the poem with summaries of each book, commentaries, and questions for reflection or discussion. Each section also contains a dropdown list of the author’s sidebar notes on each scene for further background and analysis.

About Dr. Leland Ryken

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Christian Guides to the Classics: Paradise Lost © 2019 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Course layout and curation for The Gospel Coalition by Mary Allison Anderson.

Introduction to Literature

The Nature and Function of Literature

We need to approach any piece of writing with the right expectations, based on the kind of writing that it is. The expectations that we should bring to any work of literature are the following.

The subject of literature. The subject of literature is human experience, rendered as concretely as possible. Literature should thus be contrasted to expository writing of the type we use to conduct the ordinary business of life. Literature does not aim to impart facts and information. It exists to make us share a series of experiences. Literature appeals to our image-making and image-perceiving capacity. A famous novelist said that his purpose was to make his readers see, by which he meant to see life.

The universality of literature. To take that one step further, the subject of literature is universal human experience—what is true for all people at all times in all places. This does not contradict the fact that literature is first of all filled with concrete particulars. The particulars of literature are a net whereby the author captures and expresses the universal. History and the daily news tell us what happened; literature tells us what happens. The task that this imposes on us is to recognize and name the familiar experiences that we vicariously live as we read a work of literature. The truth that literature imparts is truthfulness to life—knowledge in the form of seeing things accurately. As readers we not only look at the world of the text but through it to everyday life.

An interpretation of life. In addition to portraying human experiences, authors give us their interpretation of those experiences. There is a persuasive aspect to literature, as authors attempt to get us to share their views of life. These interpretations of life can be phrased as ideas or themes. An important part of assimilating imaginative literature is thus determining and evaluating an author’s angle of vision and belief system.

The importance of literary form. A further aspect of literature arises from the fact that authors are artists. They write in distinctly literary genres such as narrative and poetry. Additionally, literary authors want us to share their love of technique and beauty, all the way from skill with words to an ability to structure a work carefully and artistically.

Summary. A work of imaginative literature aims to make us see life accurately, to get us to think about important ideas, and to enjoy an artistic performance.

Why the Classics Matter

This book belongs to a series of guides to the literary classics of Western literature. We live at a time when the concept of a literary classic is often misunderstood and when the classics themselves are often undervalued or even attacked. The very concept of a classic will rise in our estimation if we simply understand what it is.

What is a classic? To begin, the term classic implies the best in its class. The first hurdle that a classic needs to pass is excellence. Excellent according to whom? This brings us to a second part of our definition: classics have stood the test of time through the centuries. The human race itself determines what works rise to the status of classics. That needs to be qualified slightly: the classics are especially known and valued by people who have received a formal education, alerting us that the classics form an important part of the education that takes place within a culture. This leads us to yet another aspect of classics: classics are known to us not only in themselves but also in terms of their interpretation and reinterpretation through the ages. We know a classic partly in terms of the attitudes and interpretations that have become attached to it through the centuries.

Why read the classics? The first good reason to read the classics is that they represent the best. The fact that they are difficult to read is a mark in their favor; within certain limits, of course, works of literature that demand a lot from us will always yield more than works that demand little of us. If we have a taste for what is excellent, we will automatically want some contact with classics. They offer more enjoyment, more understanding about human experience, and more richness of ideas and thought than lesser works (which we can also legitimately read). We finish reading or rereading a classic with a sense of having risen higher than we would otherwise have risen. Additionally, to know the classics is to know the past, and with that knowledge comes a type of power and mastery. If we know the past, we are in some measure protected from the limitations that come when all we know is the contemporary. Finally, to know the classics is to be an educated person. Not to know them is, intellectually and culturally speaking, like walking around without an arm or leg.

Summary. Here are four definitions of a literary classic from literary experts; each one provides an angle on why the classics matter. (1) The best that has been thought and said (Matthew Arnold). (2) “A literary classic ranks with the best of its kind that have been produced” (Harper Handbook to Literature). (3) A classic “lays its images permanently on the mind [and] is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it” (C. S. Lewis). (4) Classics are works to which “we return time and again in our minds, even if we do not reread them frequently, as touchstones by which we interpret the world around us” (Nina Baym).

How to Read a Story

Paradise Lost, like the other classics discussed in this series, is a narrative or story. To read it with enjoyment and understanding, we need to know how stories work and why people write and read them.

Why do people tell and read stories? To tell a story is to (a) entertain and (b) make a statement. As for the entertainment value of stories, it is a fact that one of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words tell me a story. The appeal of stories is universal, and all of us are incessant storytellers during the course of a typical day. As for making a statement, a novelist hit the nail on the head when he said that in order for storytellers to tell a story they must have some picture of the world and of what is right and wrong in that world.

The things that make up a story. All stories are comprised of three things that claim our attention—setting, character, and plot. A good story is a balance among these three. In one sense, storytellers tell us about these things, but in another sense, as fiction writer Flannery O’Connor put it, storytellers don’t speak about plot, setting, and character but with them. About what does the storyteller tell us by means of these things? About life, human experience, and the ideas that the storyteller believes to be true.
World making as part of storytelling. To read a story is to enter a whole world of the imagination. Storytellers construct their narrative world carefully. World making is a central part of the storyteller’s enterprise. On the one hand, this is part of what makes stories entertaining. We love to be transported from mundane reality to faraway places with strange-sounding names. But storytellers also intend their imagined worlds as accurate pictures of reality. In other words, it is an important part of the truth claims that they intend to make. Accordingly, we need to pay attention to the details of the world that a storyteller creates, viewing that world as a picture of what the author believes to exist.

The need to be discerning. The first demand that a story makes on us is surrender—surrender to the delights of being transported, of encountering experiences, characters, and settings, of considering the truth claims that an author makes by means of his or her story. But we must not be morally and intellectually passive in the face of what an author puts before us. We need to be true to our own convictions as we weigh the morality and truth claims of a story. A story’s greatness does not guarantee that it tells the truth in every way.

Introduction to Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost: The Book at a Glance

Author. John Milton (1608–1674)

Nationality. English

Date of first publication. 1667; second edition 1674

Approximate number of pages. 250 (varies widely from one edition to the next, depending on size of page and quantity of notes)

Available editions. Numerous, including Modern Library Classics, Penguin, Barnes and Noble, Oxford World’s Classics, Dover Thrift, Macmillan, Norton

Genre. Epic poetry

Setting for the story. Four main stages of action: Hell, Heaven, Paradise
before the fall, earth in its fallen state

Main characters. Adam and Eve are the human protagonists; God the Father and God the Son; Satan, the epic antagonist; the angel Raphael, who visits Adam and Eve to tell them about war in Heaven, the fall of Satan, and God’s creation of the earth; the angel Michael, who after the fall narrates an extended vision of fallen human history (an epic convention)

Plot summary. In prehistorical heavenly existence, Satan is seized with envy of the exaltation of the Son, so he instigates a rebellion against the Father that is joined by one-third of the angelic host. Satan loses the war in Heaven and is cast down into Hell. God compensates for this loss by creating the world, including Adam and Eve. The story highlights the state of innocence of the first couple in the perfect garden of Eden. Both Eve and Adam succumb to temptation to eat the forbidden fruit in Paradise, and the result of this act of disobedience is the fall of the entire cosmos and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. A preview of fallen human history gradually moves toward the atonement of the Son for human sinners, and Adam and Eve leave the garden as a redeemed pair.

Structure. (1) This is a story of crime and punishment, so the plot unfolds in three phases—the antecedents of the crime (what led up to it), its occurrence, and its consequences. (2) With a little streamlining, we can view the poem as proceeding by pairs of books: 1–2, Satan and the fallen angels in hell; 3–4, Adam and Eve in Paradise; 5–6, war in Heaven; 7–8, creation of the world; 9–10, the fall of the human race into sin; 11–12, vision of future history. (3) A vast system of contrasts organizes the entire work: good vs. evil, Satan vs. God, obedience to God vs. disobedience to him, light vs. darkness, high vs. low, before the fall vs. after the fall.

Cultural context. Two great cultural streams combine in the work of Milton. One is the Renaissance, a rebirth of classical culture and of the intellectual outlook known as humanism (the striving to perfect all human possibilities in this life). The Renaissance valued beauty and the arts very highly, and its ethical outlook stressed the importance of reason and order. In England the Protestant Reformation went hand-in-hand with the Renaissance. Leading traits of the Reformation included acceptance of the Bible as the final authority for belief and conduct, and living by the premise of the primacy of the spiritual. The English branch of the Reformation is known as Puritanism, which got its name chiefly from the desire of its adherents to purify the Church of England of its remaining vestiges of Catholicism. All Renaissance writers assumed that there were three main topics about which to write: God, people, and nature.

Cosmology and world picture. Paradise Lost is an epic, and an important feature of epic is that it portrays the whole cosmos as the author and his culture conceived it. The cosmology of Paradise Lost is the same as in the Bible. It assumes a three-tier universe consisting of Heaven, Earth, and Hell. These are both physical places and spiritual realities. Combining with this view of the cosmos was something called the great chain of being, which was an obsession for the Renaissance and for Milton. The great chain of being was a metaphor that expressed the following beliefs about the universe: (1) its unity; (2) its orderliness; (3) its hierarchy of value. Hierarchy depends on every link in the chain ruling over subordinates and submitting to superiors. Applied at a moral and psychological level, hierarchy depends on reason controlling one’s emotions and appetites.

Place in English literature. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic in the English language and one of the central texts of English literature. If readers of English literature know just one epic, it is this one. Milton wrote it after he became totally blind.

Tips for reading. (1) Settle down for a slow and leisurely read. For one thing, this is a story told in poetic form. Not until the rise of the novel in the middle of the eighteenth century did the human race prefer its long stories to be told in prose. Poetry is a meditative form in which we need to ponder the details. You cannot read Paradise Lost as quickly as you read a novel. (2) Placing a second layer of demands on you is the fact that Paradise Lost is an epic. Epic is the grandest and most exalted form of story. It requires you to relish how the writer expresses the content and not pay attention only to what is said. (3) Paradise Lost is both poetry and story; it is important not to allow the poetry to obscure the ordinary narrative elements of plot, characterization, and setting. (4) Whenever you find the reading hard to follow, start to read the lines aloud. (5) If you want an in-depth experience of Milton’s masterpiece but choose not read the entire poem, here are the must-read sections of the poem: Book 1; Book 2, lines 1–505; Book 3, lines 1–415; Book 4, lines 1–775; Book 9; Book 12, lines 552–649.

  • Frontmatter

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

The Author and His Faith

John Milton (1608–1674) was born into a prosperous middle-class family in London. He was a child prodigy whose father gave him the best education imaginable: St. Paul’s School (one of the famous grammar schools of the Renaissance, located right in Milton’s neighborhood), private tutors, Cambridge University, and five years after college for self-education. As a result, Milton is the most learned of English writers. In addition to being a famous author, Milton spent a twenty-year interval in the prime of his life as a famous public and political figure. Near the beginning of this time, Milton became totally blind. He wrote his three major works—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes— after his public career had ended.

The Protestant Reformation. The religious context into which Milton and his writings fit is the Protestant Reformation, which was a century old by the time Milton wrote. The central tenet of Protestantism is that the Bible alone is the final authority for religious belief and conduct. From this flow the main doctrines of the movement: God’s creation of the world and providence over it, the sinful state into which all people are born, and faith in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus as the means of salvation. These doctrines and more form the intellectual foundation of Milton’s writings, including Paradise Lost.

Puritanism. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation is known as Puritanism, which began as a church movement intended to purify (hence the name Puritan) the Church of England of its remaining Catholic vestiges. Milton is “a Puritan of Puritans.” Some specific emphases of English Puritanism within the broader context of European Protestantism include an extraordinary immersion in the Bible, an obsession with vocation and work, affirmation of marriage and of sex within it, and the primacy of the spiritual (even though the physical is regarded as good in principle). These traits are conspicuous in Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost as a religious poem. While readers with Christian sensibilities and biblical knowledge can find an abundance of Christian elements in the writings of authors such as Shakespeare and Hawthorne, non-Christian readers find it possible to read them with minimal attention to the Christian aspects. Milton stands in contrast to this. As C. S. Lewis put it, Milton’s poetry does not exist apart from his theology. Milton himself said that in writing the great English and Christian epic he intended to write a poem “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation.” Paradise Lost is a complete repository of biblical truth and Christian doctrine. As for the claims of revisionist scholars that Milton was heretical in his thinking, any ordinary reader will be hard pressed to find any hint of heresy in Paradise Lost. Most of what the debunkers claim as heresy is taken straight from the Bible, such as the title “only begotten Son” for Christ.

Paradise Lost as Epic and Anti-Epic

Paradise Lost belongs to a small, elite category of stories known as epics. The Greek poet Homer started the Western epic tradition, and Milton brought it to a close with Paradise Lost. Epics are long narrative poems. They are the most exalted kind of story and poem, and they are accordingly written in what is called the “high style.” Starting with Homer, moreover, all epics incorporate a set of conventional patterns or motifs. For example, epic poets invoke the muses or (if the poet is a Christian) God to aid them as they compose. They begin their story in medias res (“in the middle of things”) and later in the story fill in earlier events in their overall story. Supernatural beings are prominent in the cast of characters; epics do not employ realism the way a novel does, so we should not be looking for it.

We should open the pages of Paradise Lost looking for grand themes in the grand style (as with Handel’s Messiah). Milton’s epic style is so exalted that it reads like a language all its own. Some features of Milton’s high style that we can relish include the following:

  • long, flowing sentences that are best understood and enjoyed when read aloud
  • inversion of normal word order ( e.g., “Him the Almighty hurled flaming from the ethereal sky.”)
  • exalted vocabulary (“big words,”often derived from the Latin language)
  • epithets (titles for persons or things, such as “the Almighty” for God)
    epic similes (extended comparisons between something in the poem and something from nature, history, mythology, or human experience)
    allusions (references to past history or literature)
  • pleonasm or periphrasis (taking more words than necessary to state
    something, with a view toward doing justice to the exaltation of the situation and epic form)

As we read Paradise Lost, we are aware at every turn that we are reading an epic in the mode of Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. The epic exaltation and features of style are all present. But at the level of content and system of values, Milton revolutionized the classical epic so completely that Paradise Lost is also an anti-epic that refutes the earlier tradition. Classical epic is humanistic in its values. More specifically, it elevates the conquering warrior, physical strength, and earthly success to supremacy. Milton substitutes the Christian saint for the warrior hero as his ideal, and he makes obedience to God the highest value. For the praise of humans, Milton substitutes the praise of God. He also elevates domestic values (marriage and family) and pastoral values (living simply in harmony with nature) over what had always been called heroic values (the success of the military hero and the splendors of earthly kingdoms).

Preliminary Considerations

Format. Paradise Lost is sufficiently different from other classics covered in this series that it has required modifications in format. Milton’s epic is divided into twelve books, but these are not accompanied by titles the way chapters in a novel are usually given a title at the beginning of each chapter. In keeping with Milton’s design, this guide does not supply titles for the books of Paradise Lost.

Second, the twelve books of Paradise Lost are longer and more complex than (for example) the twenty-four books of The Odyssey or the twenty-four chapters of The Scarlet Letter. As a result, there is too much material in the individual books of Paradise Lost to allow for the simple format of plot summary, commentary, and reflection/discussion applied to an entire book of Paradise Lost. This guide retains the standard format of an opening unit of plot summary for the entire book that follows, but after that the material is divided into a series of individual units, arranged sequentially according to how the book unfolds from beginning to end. Each of these units has the customary section of commentary followed by a section of reflection and discussion.

Christian vs. non-Christian readers. Readers always respond to works of literature in terms of who they are and what they bring to the text in terms of their own values and worldview. But Paradise Lost is in a category by itself in this regard. There is a long tradition, still dominant in the secular classroom, that claims that Satan is the sympathetic hero of Paradise Lost and God the unsympathetic villain. Secondary claims then accompany this major premise, because Milton portrays Adam as the head of the family, Milton is a misogynist (hater of women).

Christian readers of this guide should turn a deaf ear to these claims. The claims come from readers who are hostile to Christianity. Milton took his materials from the Bible, and Christian readers surely operate from the same premise. Non-Christian readers misread the Bible in the same ways that they misread Paradise Lost. There is so much good and edifying material in Paradise Lost that Christian readers should concentrate on it in a spirit of celebration. They should refuse to allow themselves to be diverted from relishing a Christian poem by the claims of readers who operate from a non-Christian orientation.

Book 1

Plot Summary

Milton launches his epic venture with an exalted opening invocation in which he (1) prays to God for assistance, and (2) announces his epic subject (the fall of humankind into sin), along with the interpretive slant that he will take toward this story material (to assert God’s providence in human affairs despite the presence of evil in the world). The main action in Book 1 is Satan and his fallen legion rousing themselves from the burning lake after having fallen from Heaven for nine days and nights after their unsuccessful rebellion against God. This central action begins with an exchange of speeches between Satan (the first to revive after the physical fall into Hell) and Beelzebub.

After this dramatic exchange, Satan calls to his followers to move from the burning lake to land. Just as Homer has a roll call of warriors who participated in the Trojan War, Milton gives us a roll call of the fallen angels who exited the burning lake and came to attention before their commander Satan. Satan appears at his very grandest in the entire story as he addresses his followers. The fallen angels respond by hurling defiance against God and by building the demonic city of Pandemonium.

This brief plot summary might convey the impression that not much happens in Book 1. But this is untrue. An epic places no premium on keeping us in suspense about what is going to happen (in fact, epic poets usually let us know beforehand what is going to happen). We need to concentrate on how the poet tells his story. Milton pulls out all the stops in the first book of Paradise Lost.

  • Book 1

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

The Opening Invocation lines (1–26)

The first thing we need to grasp about Milton’s epic is that virtually everything in it is bigger and better than it had been in previous epics. Homer and Virgil gave a nod to the muses, but their invocations are over nearly as soon as they begin. By contrast, Milton pours so much into his opening invocation (the first of four in Paradise Lost) that it takes on a life of its own.

Milton follows all the rules of the epic genre in this invocation. Epics begin with ritual, and so does Paradise Lost. An epic poet begins by announcing his epic theme or subject; Milton declares that he will tell the story of the fall of the human race through disobedience (lines 1–3). Within the broadly stated epic subject, the epic poet then hints at how he will treat his story material; Milton lets us know that in his story Christ will restore what Adam and Eve lost (lines 4–5) and that he will show how, despite the fact of evil and suffering in the world, God is not to blame for that suffering and in fact is exerting a benevolent providence over events on earth (lines 24–26). An epic poet also signals his dependence on supernatural beings (the “muses”) to guide him in the task of composition; Milton amplifies this into a threefold prayer to (1) the God who inspired Moses to write primeval history (lines 6–10), (2) the God of the temple on Mount Zion (lines 10–16), and (3) God the Spirit who created the world (lines 17–23).

But even though Milton’s opening lines unfold as an epic is supposed to unfold, other things are going on that make Milton’s story the opposite of a conventional epic. Traditional epic is a success story; Milton’s story is a story of human failure (“of man’s first disobedience”). Second, the frame of reference in the Western epic tradition is that of classical mythology, and the classical epic poets accordingly invoke a pagan muse; Milton loads his threefold prayer with references to the Christian God. Third, traditional epic focuses on a conquering hero; Milton’s epic protagonist is the archetypal sinner.

Also revolutionary is the theological purpose that Milton sets forth at the end of the invocation. The story of the fall being Milton’s subject, his interpretive slant toward that story material is to “justify the ways of God to men.” The technical name for this is theodicy—the attempt to reconcile the goodness and omnipotence of God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world. The Old Testament book of Job is a theodicy; Paradise Lost is like the book of Job in its greatness of literary form and its theological substance.

Additional Notes

Milton’s grand style, fully evident from the opening line, is worthy of attention and enjoyment all by itself. Primary epic (as scholars call it) was oral in nature, and the whole occasion of nobles listening to a poet chant his story in the great hall of a palace helped to create an atmosphere of grandeur. Secondary epic, read by an individual reader in solitude, requires an even grander style to compensate for the informality of the occasion. Now the style itself, claimed C. S. Lewis, must do what the whole occasion helped Homer to do. Lewis speaks of “the true epic exhilaration” that Milton’s style produces, and he claims that the opening lines of Paradise Lost give him a physical sensation that “some great thing is now about to begin.”

In this invocation Milton claims that he will “soar above the Aonian mount,” by which he means that he will surpass what the epic poets in the classical tradition had done. In other words, the classical epic tradition is not only a model to be emulated but a rival to be surpassed and ultimately refuted. The opening phrase—”Of man’s first disobedience”—already announces a revolution: Milton will not write about a victory but about a defeat.

For Reflection or Discussion

The function of the opening invocation is to provide a preview of things that will characterize the poem to follow. The opening invocation gives us the equivalent of a series of billboards along an interstate. The best way to approach Milton’s opening invocation is to treat it as an entry into Paradise Lost. We can proceed sequentially and piecemeal through the invocation, spinning out a series of generalizations about things we now know about the poem that is to follow. For example, it is obvious that Milton will give us a biblical and Christian version of what epic poets in the classical tradition gave us. If we look carefully, we can identify a dozen or more things that we know about the poem to follow (e.g., it will be a partly tragic epic; it will not, however, be an ultimately depressing story; it will be loaded with biblical allusions).

Additional Notes

It is not necessary to deny everything that secular readers claim about Milton’s Satan; all that is required is that we do not mistake partial truth for the whole truth. At one level, Milton’s Satan is grand; that does not make him good or sympathetic. A literary critic named Stanley Fish claims that Milton uses the technique of the guilty reader. This means that he carefully contrives to get readers to be swayed by Satan and then inserts data into the text that gets them to see that these responses are shoddy and evil. We are “surprised by sin” (a phrase in Paradise Lost and the title of Fish’s book) as we read, confronted with evidence of our own fallen condition. In fact, with these wrong responses we reenact the fall ourselves.

A good organizing strategy that will unify our experience of Book 1 is to complete the formula “images of . . .”—images of defeat, of evil, of pain, of confusion, of irrevocable loss, and so forth. Having completed the list, it will be evident that we do not admire these things in real life, so we should not admire them in regard to Satan and the fallen demons.

Another good organizing strategy for Book 1 is to ponder what things make up the Satanic predicament. For example, Satan (claims a scholar) is “the quintessential loser.” Much of Satan’s predicament can be phrased in psychological terms; for example, he represents the aspiring mind forced to confront its own crushing failure.

The first thing that we just naturally do as we read Book 1 is to look at Satan and Hell. We are whisked away to a world of the imagination that is highly captivating to our attention. Having looked at Satan and Hell, we then need to look through them to life as we know it. In Book 1, Milton portrays more than a spiritual region known as Hell; he also gives us metaphors of the human condition as we know it day by day.

Milton's Satan: First Acquaintance (lines 27–375)

The quickness with which Milton moves from his invocation to the plot is breathtaking: he asks two epic questions (lines 27–33) and answers them by identifying Satan as the correct answer, and by that simple maneuver propels us into the action. That action consists of our getting to know Satan as a leading player in the story.

The key to understanding Milton’s strategy is the framework known as hidden and apparent plots. An apparent plot is the foreground action that we cannot help but see. In Book 1 of Paradise Lost, the apparent plot can be summarized under the formula heroic energy, purpose, and impressiveness. Satan appears to be a grand figure. He is eloquent and talks big. As readers we can easily be misled into thinking that he is a grand and even sympathetic figure.

The hidden plot in Book 1 can be summarized under the formula heroic evil and futility. This is not a story of grandeur but of Satan’s evil nature and actions and his ultimate defeat. We need to read more closely and at a more interpretive level to decipher this hidden story. But Milton manages the story in such a way that he becomes our ally against any possible misreading of his story. He includes many devices of disclosure—interpretive clues—in his story. These clues are embedded in the text and are easy to find if we orient ourselves in that direction.

Chief among the devices of disclosure is the presence of the epic narrator. The narrator is not the same as the storyteller. The storyteller is the source of everything that is in the story. The epic narrator is the presence of the storyteller—a persona—within the text, guiding our responses, making assessments, and calling our attention to certain things. For example, Satan’s first speech (lines 84–124) sounds impressive, but the narrator follows it up with two lines of commentary (125–26) that tell us that Satan is actually in pain and despair. The epic narrator is our travel guide through the poem. We need to accept him as our ally.

The narrator is not the only device of disclosure by which Milton undermines the apparent grandeur of Satan. If we look closely at the text, we see many evidences of Satan’s heroic evil and the futility of his battle against God. C. S. Lewis speaks of how Satan is always sawing off the branch on which he is sitting. The more formal term in use today is to say that Satan deconstructs the very claims that he himself makes. For example, after using big terms such as mutual league, united thoughts, and glorious enterprise to describe the war in Heaven, Satan admits that he and his followers have ended up in misery and ruin. Again, when Beelzebub replies to Satan’s first, boastful speech, he takes a much more defeatist attitude toward the plight of the fallen angels (lines 128–55).

It is crucial that we see that Milton first alerts us at length to the hidden plot of demonic evil and the futility of Satan’s attack on God. In lines 33–83, if we take time to highlight every detail that adds to the picture of heroic evil and futility, there is scarcely a line that is not highlighted. The practice among secular readers (known in Milton circles as “the Satanists,” meaning that they admire Milton’s Satan) is to act as though this passage—this introduction to the hidden plot—does not even exist.

The prevailing style in Book 1 is part of the case that Milton builds against Satan. Milton loads Book 1 with allusions to classical mythology, and also with exalted epic similes that link characters and events in the story to phenomena in history and nature. This is part of building up Satan as a heroic figure in the classical mode. But Milton disapproves of the military hero of classical mythology and epic. Milton’s mythological allusions and epic similes, far from exalting Satan and his followers, are actually part of the disparagement of them that Milton builds into his poem. The mythological allusions and extended epic similes cluster in contexts of evil in Paradise Lost, leading scholars to speak of the demonic or infernal style in Paradise Lost. Nonetheless, we need to unpack the meanings of Milton’s allusions and similes in order to understand his characterization of Satan, and also to relish Milton’s skill in composing them.

For Reflection or Discussion

The first half of Book 1 is a balancing act that takes our breath away when we see the skill with which Milton manages it. Milton juxtaposes apparent and hidden plots—Satan’s seeming greatness and his actual evil and ultimate weakness. This is the grand design that we can trace in this part of the poem. What specific details build Satan up in our imaginations and perhaps momentarily sway our emotions? What details undercut that apparent grandeur and produce dramatic irony on an epic scale?

Additional Notes

It is not necessary to deny everything that secular readers claim about Milton’s Satan; all that is required is that we do not mistake partial truth for the whole truth. At one level, Milton’s Satan is grand; that does not make him good or sympathetic. A literary critic named Stanley Fish claims that Milton uses the technique of the guilty reader. This means that he carefully contrives to get readers to be swayed by Satan and then inserts data into the text that gets them to see that these responses are shoddy and evil. We are “surprised by sin” (a phrase in Paradise Lost and the title of Fish’s book) as we read, confronted with evidence of our own fallen condition. In fact, with these wrong responses we reenact the fall ourselves.

A good organizing strategy that will unify our experience of Book 1 is to complete the formula “images of . . .”—images of defeat, of evil, of pain, of confusion, of irrevocable loss, and so forth. Having completed the list, it will be evident that we do not admire these things in real life, so we should not admire them in regard to Satan and the fallen demons.

Another good organizing strategy for Book 1 is to ponder what things make up the Satanic predicament. For example, Satan (claims a scholar) is “the quintessential loser.” Much of Satan’s predicament can be phrased in psychological terms; for example, he represents the aspiring mind forced to confront its own crushing failure.

The first thing that we just naturally do as we read Book 1 is to look at Satan and Hell. We are whisked away to a world of the imagination that is highly captivating to our attention. Having looked at Satan and Hell, we then need to look through them to life as we know it. In Book 1, Milton portrays more than a spiritual region known as Hell; he also gives us metaphors of the human condition as we know it day by day.

Milton’s epic similes are more complex than those of any other poet. They need to be pondered individually, by themselves. This is actually great fun. For example, in lines 196–98 the fallen demons are compared to the Titans and giants of classical mythology who rebelled against Jove (the chief deity) and were punished by being cast into the volcanic region of Italy known in mythology as Tartarus (an obvious parallel to the Christian hell). Just on the basis of this simile, we know five things about the fallen demons: they are huge, they are repulsive (“of monstrous size”), they are rebels against God, they are defeated, and they are being punished.

Roll Call of Demons (lines 376–521)

Milton and his original readers knew both the Bible and classical mythology better than most people today know them. As a result, they relished the excursion into the history of Old Testament idols represented by this passage. Readers today are free to decide how much attention they wish to give to this passage. Even if we are unfamiliar with the specific gods that Milton names, we can read the passage to get a general impression of the repulsive evil represented by the fallen demons.

For Reflection or Discussion

What is the function of the roll call of demons in the overall design of Book 1? What feelings are evoked as we progress through the passage? How does the passage fit into the pattern of apparent vs. hidden plots?

Additional Notes

A very important principle underlies Milton’s portrayal of Satan and the fallen angels (and equally of Dante’s portrayal of Hell in the Inferno), namely, that as human history unfolded, the fallen angels who were cast out of Heaven became the pagan deities and idols of Old Testament history and classical mythology.

Satan's Speech to His Demonic Army (lines 522–669)

Whereas the roll call of demons is one of the flats and shallows in the poem, the description of Satan and his rousing speech to his followers is one of the high points of Paradise Lost. First Milton evokes a picture of the tremendous stature of Satan as a fallen angel (lines 522–621). There can be no doubt that Milton creates an impressive Satan in this passage. Nonetheless, we can credit Satan with being impressive at this early point in the epic without falling into the fallacy of thinking that he is sympathetic or ultimately grand.

After the tremendous buildup represented by the description of Satan, Milton presents his speech to Satan’s followers. It, too, is grand and impressive-sounding, filled with boasting and buzz words that might mislead us if we did not subject them to analysis. The effect of the speech is to rouse the demons to a frenzy of defiance hurled against God and Heaven (lines 663–69).

For Reflection or Discussion

The first thing to do is absorb and relish the brilliance of the writing. Then we need to get a grip on our responses. The framework of apparent and hidden plots continues in full force. The apparent grandeur of Satan is countered by other data that uncovers his evil and the ultimate futility of his battle against God. For example, we read that “his form had yet not lost / All her original brightness” (591–92); the word “yet” lets us know that eventually Satan loses all his brightness, and the word “all” implies that he has already lost some of his brightness. The right analytic framework is thus to ask what details contribute to the apparent plot of seeming grandeur and to the hidden plot of Satan’s evil and futility.

Additional Notes

The list of reasons why Milton created an initially impressive Satan is long. (1) Evil is the perversion of goodness, so naturally the leader of all evil forces must have possessed qualities that in their original form were great. (2) In the world as we know it, Satan is powerful and alluring [1 John 5:19 claims that “the whole world is in the power of the evil one”]. (3) Milton’s design is to trace the self-destruction of evil, so he first shows Satan at his height and then traces his degeneration. (4) Stories require conflict; as epic hero, God requires an antagonist worthy of him. (5) It is also part of storytelling that a story begins with things in one position and concludes with them in the opposite position. (6) The initially impressive Satan is part of Milton’s technique of the guilty reader.

The Building of Pandemonium (lines 670–798)

The apparent plot reaches its climax when the fallen demons concentrate their energy and ability to build the grand city of Hell for whose title Milton invented the word Pandemonium (“all demon assembly”). In keeping with Milton’s design of making Paradise Lost a huge structure of contrasts and opposites, Pandemonium is the antithesis of both the city of Heaven and the garden of Eden. Lest we be misled in regard to the grand appearances of Pandemonium, Milton ends Book 1 with a series of shrinking similes in which the demons are cut down to size in our imaginations: they are compared to bees before a beekeeper, dwarfs, and pygmies, and their grand city is called “their straw-built citadel” (like the house of one of the three little pigs in the children’s fable!). This is a climactic hint that Satan and the fallen demons are not as grand as they superficially seem to be.

For Reflection or Discussion

How does the framework of apparent and hidden plots continue to explain the dynamics at work in this passage? The discrepancy between appearance and reality is known as dramatic irony; how does it operate in this passage?

Additional Notes

It is essential to our understanding of Milton’s Satan to see that Milton models Satan on the old epic heroes. Milton had to find a place for the “martial theme” (battlefield action) because that was the established subject for an epic. Milton deliberately attached all the usual traits of the warrior hero to Satan because he regarded the whole value structure of ancient epic as wrong. Milton is explicit about this strategy: at lines 553–54 he links the fallen demons with “heroes old/ Arming to battle,” and later he speaks of how the demons appear “in guise / Of warriors old” (lines 564–65).

Book 2

Plot Summary

The primary action in Book 2, occupying the first half of the book, is the demonic counsel in Hell. The purpose of the counsel, which turns out to be a debate on a grand scale, is to determine what the fallen demons can do to get back at God for having defeated them in the war in Heaven. Four principal speakers attempt to sway the demons. Moloch proposes a military attack on Heaven. Belial suggests that the demons “sit tight,” maintain a low profile, and hope that God will eventually ignore them. Mammon believes that the resources of Hell can be turned into a magnificent dwelling place for eternity.

But none of those proposals is what Satan wants, so his second-in-command, Beelzebub, proposes what Satan the dictator wants. The new proposal is to send someone to journey from Hell to Paradise and to bring about the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, thereby ruining God’s intention for his creation. This wins the day, and Satan is dispatched to journey from Hell through Chaos to Paradise.

The second half of Book 2 is not quite as intense as the fireworks of the demonic council, but it nonetheless shows Milton at his most inventive. Epic heroes (and we need to remember that Milton models Satan on the old epic heroes) undertake a perilous journey, and the second half of Book 2 is devoted to Satan’s space journey from Hell to Earth. Satan is the archetypal hero on a quest (a quest to destroy humankind). Epic heroes on a journey always encounter threats and obstacles, and Satan meets these at the gates of Hell. Two personified beings, Sin and Death, initially refuse to allow Satan to pass through the gates, but when it emerges that the three have a family identity, Satan is allowed to pass from Hell into Chaos.

While Satan is journeying, the other demons pass the time with demonic forms of entertainment, in keeping with their individual temperaments. Some undertake excursions of discovery into the regions of Hell (thereby allowing Milton to describe hell as a geographic place). Others compete in games or listen to music. Some engage in philosophic discussion. There is no scarcity of action in Milton’s Hell, and this is part of the reason why some have misread the poem as intended to make evil attractive.

  • Book 2

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

Three things claim our primary attention in Book 2. One of these is the continuing characterization of Satan. He remains powerful and eloquent, but his appeal is beginning to erode. Tracing this decline
is a prime task as we assimilate Book 2. Secondly, equal attention flows to Satan’s demonic followers, sometimes represented by individual figures, sometimes by nameless groups. Third, the descriptions of Hell and Chaos as places are a major poetic triumph. Nearly everything that Milton put into Paradise Lost is there because the genre of epic prescribed it as an ingredient. Epics are encyclopedic forms—”the story of all things,” literary critic Northrop Frye has called epic. Part of this “epic sweep” (as critics have called it from time immemorial) is the presence of an entire cosmology or view of the universe. In classical epic the cosmology is somewhat vague and undetailed. Milton’s cosmology is that of Christianity, presupposing a three-tiered universe of Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Additionally, the Renaissance worldview postulated a space between Hell and Earth called “Chaos.” Milton was at his inventive best in portraying his cosmology, and we should take time to relish that inventiveness.

The Debate in Hell (lines 1–283)

Milton does not miss a beat when he transitions from Book 1 to Book 2. The opening description of Satan on his throne (lines 1–10) is filled with impressive details, but the addition of just four words in an otherwise exalted description is enough to bring the whole grand edifice tumbling down: barbaric, bad, vain, and proud. Charles Williams’s famous quip about the false appearances of Hell is that “Hell is inaccurate.”

The demonic/infernal style of Paradise Lost becomes highlighted in the demonic council. In Book 1 that style consists of an overabundance of allusions to classical mythology and the presence of extended epic similes. Now high-flown rhetoric takes over. The speeches by Satan and his followers are oratorical masterpieces, in keeping with the premise of fallen humanity that external impressiveness rather than inner spiritual goodness is what matters most. Satan’s manipulation of his followers in order to secure his position of leadership (lines 11–40) is a prime example of this obsession with public status.

The speeches of Moloch, Belial, and Mammon are rich in human psychology (and C. S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost has the best discussion). All three show dimensions of the psychology of revenge. Additionally, the speeches are arranged as a hierarchy of evil, with each speaker revealing greater depths of depravity or twistedness. Moloch is the military type and proposes a counterattack on Heaven (lines 43–108). His excited picture of such an attack ends with implied acknowledgment that it is actually impossible. Belial realizes this, so he proposes living contentedly in Hell (lines 109–227), a form of isolationism. Mammon proposes something even more subtle, namely, to “live to ourselves” and turn the resources of Hell into a comfortable residence (lines 228–83).

Additional Notes

Nearly everything in Paradise Lost falls into place when we are aware that most of the time Milton is giving us a highly inventive and expanded version of various epic conventions. For example, Homer’s epic contains councils of the gods—meetings on Mount Olympus where the gods and goddesses determine what will happen in human affairs on earth. This is the motif that governs the debate in Hell in Book 2 of Paradise Lost. Of course Milton’s version of the motif is more magnificent than the relatively brief scenes in Homer’s epics.

The speeches in the debate are not only oratorical masterpieces but also “classics” of sarcasm and mockery. Despite the pretense of unity in Hell, the debaters at the demonic council reveal an underlying disunity. Each of the speakers ridicules his predecessor. Additionally, it turns out that the whole debate is a charade, inasmuch as Satan has already determined that he wants to get even with God by bringing about the fall of Adam and Eve. C. S. Lewis has an engaging analysis of the human psychology at work in the demonic council. Moloch offers the psychology of rage—the response of the rat caught in the trap. For Belial, the agony of defeat was so terrible that he can think only of repressing his earlier aspirations and accepting a lower level of existence—a form of isolationism. Mammon denies that anything important has been lost and that a substitute will be just as good.

For Reflection or Discussion

With this unit we need to remind ourselves that in reading Paradise Lost we are intended to look not only at the places that Milton describes but through them to life as we know it in our own world. Taking our cue that Milton’s council in Hell is filled with realism, we can reflect on the forms in which the psychology of revenge that Milton portrays occur in our own observations and our inner self. For example, the three demonic speakers embody, respectively, the impulses toward physical aggression, toward withdrawal, and toward transforming failure into art and a substitute reality. What other applications occur to you? We can also think of political types in regard to defeat: exertion of military force, retreat into passivity, and denial accompanied by creation of an alternate existence.

The Enthronement of Satan (lines 281–505)

The debate in Hell ends on a note of high intensity: Mammon’s suggestion has won universal assent, but it is not what the dictator Satan wants. So his next in command, Beelzebub, produces an even grander and more sarcastic speech than his predecessors and proposes “some easier enterprise,” namely, bringing about the fall of the newly created Adam and Eve in Paradise. This carries the vote, and the question then becomes, “Whom shall we send?” Satan volunteers and utters a boastful and self-congratulatory speech (lines 430–66). In an epic where virtually every detail is part of an overall system of contrasts, the demons bow in “awful reverence” toward Satan, worshiping him “as a god,” just as the council in Heaven in Book 3 will end with the angels bowing in adoration toward the Son when he volunteers to undertake the redemption of humankind.

For Reflection or Discussion

In this episode, too, the real-life parallels and applications are nearly endless. How do the events embody familiar practices of bureaucracy, or dictatorship, or power struggles? But the episode portrays spiritual beings as well as the dynamics of human behavior: what does Milton wish us to understand about Satan and demons?

Additional Notes

Satan’s maneuvering to become undisputed leader of Hell does not embody a noble conception of leadership but rather the strategies of exhibitionist dictatorship. The best refutation of the “Satanist” position (the claim to admire Milton’s Satan) is an appeal to life as we know it: the qualities that some profess to admire in Satan are ones that people despise when they encounter them in people.

Demonic Entertainment (lines 506–628)

Many of the episodes that Milton invented seem perplexing until we place them into the context of the previous epic tradition. For reasons about which we might speculate, ancient epic poets evolved a convention of having their epic characters engage in games and entertainment at certain moments in their stories. Thus when Odysseus stops at a kingdom called Phaiacia on his journey home, his hosts stage elaborate games and entertainment for their guest. Other epic poets introduced epic games into their stories as part of the funerals of famous heroes in the story.

This is the motif at work halfway through Book 2. With Satan away on his mission, there is no pressing work that needs to be done in Hell. So the demons pass the time with the leisure pursuits that best fit their temperaments and interests. Something else is going on here that was also at work in some of the epic similes in Book 1. Those similes took us throughout the geographic regions of Earth and reached out to numerous human activities. Similarly, in demonic entertainment in Book 2 we take an excursion into life as we, too, know it. The principle at work is this: while seeming to describe life in Hell, Milton is also situating us within our own fallen world. We look not only at the world that Milton imagines but also through it to our own world—a world that is as fallen as the world of Hell.

For Reflection or Discussion

It is always profitable to ask, Why did Milton think that this constitutes good story material? What aspects of Milton’s inventiveness invite our interest and draw us into the action? Additionally, how does the extended picture of demonic leisure activities reinforce or extend our understanding of life in Hell?

Additional Notes

Milton’s portrayal of life in Hell fills out the picture of Hell that was sketched in Book 1. It is important to assimilate his picture of Hell in an awareness that the four great stages of action in Paradise Lost (Hell, Heaven, Paradise, Earth in its fallen state) are both physical and symbolic of spiritual and psychological realities. Thus we need to ponder how life in Hell as Milton portrays it is a state of mind and soul as well as a place.

The Cosmic Voyage (lines 629–1,565)

A good epic journey involves conflict and obstacles to be overcome. This is exactly what Milton gives us in a long section at the end of Book 2. The first major obstacle to confront Satan on his journey is the resistance that the keepers of the gate of Hell, the personified abstractions Sin and Death, pose for Satan. The episode is partly governed by the literary technique of the grotesque, as Sin and Death are described in loathsome images. In addition to being a perverse family, it is obvious that the three characters are also a parody of the holy Trinity.

But getting past the gate of Hell is only the beginning of terror for this epic hero on a quest. Milton manages to make Chaos and his realm a terrifying space through which Satan must journey. The sensations are so intense that we actually feel a sense of relief along with Satan when light begins to appear and the tumult of Chaos starts to retreat (lines 1035–55).

Additional Notes

Imagining Hell and Chaos were major problems that Milton as epic poet needed to solve. It is a commonplace that writers imitate reality, but what if that reality is a supernatural realm that we cannot go out and visit? Milton of course made use of the Bible wherever possible (so that, for example, the episode in which Satan encounters Sin and Death is modeled on James 1:15, with its picture of how desire “gives birth to sin, and sin . . . brings forth death”). But an epic poet needs more details than this. Milton naturally uses whatever previous poets had conceived, and one of the most helpful comments on the matter comes from a literary scholar named David Daiches: for literary purposes, “Hell is whatever the human imagination throughout the whole of history has conceived it to be” and most recoiled from.

For Reflection or Discussion

We always need to start at the literal, physical level: what pictures, sensations, and feelings are evoked as we accompany Satan through Chaos? Then we need to realize that Paradise Lost is a vast metaphorical universe in which physical images symbolize spiritual and psychological states. The main image patterns in the journey through Chaos are darkness, confusion, anarchy, and storminess. We can therefore ponder how Milton’s invention represents a psychic world and a spiritual world of “principalities and powers.”

Book 3

Plot Summary

Book 3 begins with the second of four epic invocations in Paradise Lost. Milton uses these invocations at major transition points in his story: after two books devoted to Satan and Hell, Milton is ready to transport us to Heaven. So he composed an extravagant prayer to light (lines 1–55).
The invocation is a grand lead-in to one of the famous episodes of Paradise Lost, known as the “dialogue in Heaven.” This dialogue between Father and Son is a counterpart to the council in Hell in Book 2. The Father begins the dialogue by acknowledging that Adam and Eve will succumb to the temptation of Satan and thereby fall from innocence. With this problem posed, the back-and-forth discussion between Father and Son focuses on how the Godhead should respond to the fall of the human race. The drama climaxes in the offer of the Son to undertake the redemption of fallen humanity. The scene in Heaven ends with angelic praise of God.

The second half of Book 2 is a complete opposite to this heavenly action. Milton chose to devote the second half of Book 3 (as well as the second half of Book 2) to the ongoing journey of Satan from Hell to Earth. The dynamics at work are those of the cosmic voyage, as a supernatural voyager travels through space and encounters a series of unearthly scenes and agents.

  • Book 3

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

The first two books of Paradise Lost are dominated by Satan. For readers who know only the first two books, Satan is naturally the engaging central character of the story. But storytelling is based on the premise that things begin in one position and end in the opposite position. With Book 3, the counterbalance to Satan and Hell begins. After the suffocating atmosphere of Hell and egomania of Satan, a great sense of relief sets in with Book 3.

It is as though we can breathe again. Milton described Paradise Lost as a poem “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation,” and C. S. Lewis rightly claims that Milton’s poetry does not exist apart from his theology. While this is true of the entire poem, Book 3 is the most explicitly theological book in Paradise Lost. Milton’s stated intention is to justify the ways of God to men (1. 26), and this requires that he set the record straight regarding his theological convictions. He does this preeminently in the dialogue in Heaven in Book 3.

The Invocation to Light (1–55)

Literary scholars have coined the phrase “the Miltonic sublime” to denote a distinctive sublimity in Milton’s style and subject matter. There is no better example of the Miltonic sublime than this invocation. Light in this prayer is physical, mental, and spiritual. After two books set in Hell, which is low and dark, Milton is ready for the first scene set in Heaven, which is high and light. Thus physical light signals a transition point in Milton’s story.

Additionally, an invocation by an epic poet is essentially a prayer for illumination, so it is natural that Milton should invoke light. Also, Milton was blind, so the need for light to dispel darkness is all the more pressing. But light is more than physical in this invocation: in writing about heavenly realities that transcend the here and now, Milton needs “celestial Light” (God) to “shine inward,” that is, reveal supernatural truth regarding God and Heaven. The invocation ends with one of the most evocative phrases in the entire poem: “things invisible to mortal sight,” a reminder to us that the preponderance of Milton’s story is set in supernatural realms (including unfallen Paradise) remote from physical reality around us.

For Reflection or Discussion

This invocation is laden with autobiography (statements by Milton about himself). What do we learn from Milton’s self-portrait that is important to the epic story that he is in the process of composing? Since this passage is the very touchstone of “the Miltonic sublime,” what features of style and subject matter constitute this celebrated sublimity?

Additional Notes

The style and content of this passage are sublime and illustrate to perfection the claim of Greek dramatist Aristophanes that “high thoughts must have high language.” The genre to which this prayer to light belongs is the encomium—a poem in praise of either a character type or (as here) a quality. In keeping with this format, Milton praises the qualities of light. But light is more than physical in this encomium: it also symbolizes God, spiritual insight, and intellectual illumination.

The Dialogue in Heaven (lines 56–417)

The dialogue in Heaven is an exalted drama of the glory, authority, justice, and mercy of God. It is a drama in the sense that it consists chiefly of a back-and-forth exchange of speeches between Father and Son. In the background is an important Medieval and Renaissance theological tradition known as “the parliament of Heaven”—a debate between the claims of justice and mercy within the God-head regarding the plight of fallen humanity. In the end a way is found to satisfy the voices of both justice and mercy.

When in his opening invocation Milton declared his intention to “justify the ways of God to men,” he was identifying his poem as a theodicy (a reconciliation of the goodness and omnipotence of God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world). In the dialogue in Heaven, Milton lays bare the theological premises that make up his theodicy. There are four pillars to Milton’s theodicy, and he derives them from the Bible and Christian tradition. The four ideas out of which Milton builds his dialogue between Father and Son are as follows. (1) Evil will ultimately be defeated (lines 84–86). (2) God created Adam and Eve perfect and endowed them with a power of choice that would enable them to remain in their perfect state (lines 97–99; 116–17). (3) The permissive theory of evil: although God foreknew that humankind would fall, and although he permitted it, he is not the author of evil (lines 117–18). (4) God’s redeeming mercy is available to the human race in its fallen state (lines 130–34; 173).

Just as the demonic council reached its climax in Satan’s offer to undertake the fall of the human race, followed by the demons’ worship of him, the dialogue in Heaven reaches its climax in the Son’s offer to undertake the redemption of the human race, followed by the angels’ worship of him. Claims that Milton fails to make Heaven appealing are untrue; the angelic hymns that conclude the dialogue in Heaven sound the authentic note of heavenly joy.

For Reflection or Discussion

The dialogue in Heaven is a succinct summary of the best that Christian thinking has produced on the subject of theodicy; we need to ponder the ideas presented here, recall biblical passages that assert these same ideas, and reflect on how they apply to our own lives. Second, just as Milton’s images of Hell in Books 1–2 are intended to impress upon us certain truths about Hell, the portrayal of life in Heaven in Book 3 is Milton’s attempt to convince us of certain truths about Heaven; what are those truths? What does Milton want us to believe about God and Heaven?

Additional Notes

Theologians supply us with the ideas and doctrines of the Christian faith; Christian storytellers and poets give us images of the Christian faith. We need both. Milton’s strategy is to make us dwell imaginatively with the great images of our faith as we proceed through Paradise Lost. First we live with images of Satan, demonic evil, and Hell. In Book 3 we contemplate images of God and Heaven. As we keep reading we encounter images of Paradise, of war in Heaven, of creation, of the fall, of sin in human history, and of redemption.

It is a commonplace understanding that Milton created a celestial style as a grand contrast to his demonic/infernal style. The latter consists of a smothering excess of mythological allusions, exalted epic similes, and embellished rhetoric. The heavenly style that we meet in the dialogue in Heaven is characterized by an absence of those things. It is a simpler style, made all the more accessible to Christian readers by the presence of numerous biblical allusions, and embellished only by pleasing patterns of repetition (an effect that registers with us especially when we hear it read aloud).

Satan's Journey toward Paradise (lines 418–742)

Like the last third of Book 2, the second half of Book 3 narrates the details of Satan’s perilous voyage from Hell to Paradise. Obviously Milton thought that this was good story material, so we should throw ourselves with zest into the adventure of traveling with Satan through the cosmos. Certainly this extended journey confirms a critic’s comment that as we progress through Paradise Lost we are never allowed to lose our sense of vast space. In an era when space travel in both fiction and real life is prominent, we are in a good position to enjoy Satan’s space trip.
Several literary genres converge to add narrative interest to the account. One is the horror story: as the journey unfolds, there is much to terrify Satan and us. Some of the terrors are creatures, and others are the sudden views that greet us, like an airplane flying through stormy weather or a carnival ride that suddenly plunges us downward. Of course Satan’s perilous journey is an adventure story. Yet another genre is the travel story in a fantasy mode, with strange sights greeting us at every turn. For cinematic effects, it is hard to beat Satan’s journey through realms unknown to us.

But along with all the narrative excitement we need to be alert to the ways in which the physical always embodies the spiritual in Paradise Lost. The characterization of Satan remains constant in the midst of the constantly shifting physical sensations, and he is increasingly sinister as a figure of evil. In particular, he emerges in this episode as an arch-deceiver. The quest on which Satan is bent is not a pleasure trip but a journey to effect the fall of the human race and the entire creation, so the further Satan travels, the more unsettled we feel.

For Reflection or Discussion

What narrative elements claim your attention and interest? What spiritual meanings are embodied in these story qualities? How is the characterization of Satan reinforced and advanced?

Additional Notes

Stories consist of a back-and-forth rhythm, and additionally story-tellers operate on the principle of giving us heightened contrasts. At the beginning of Book 3 we swing from one pole of Milton’s imagined cosmos (Hell) to the opposite pole (Heaven). Once the dialogue in Heaven is finished and the angelic songs of praise are concluded, we swing back to the realm of satanic evil and cosmic darkness. The orderliness of Heaven is now juxtaposed to the disorder of the realms through which Satan passes.

Milton’s decision to devote nearly half of Books 2 and 3 to the journey of Satan will seem more plausible if we consider the overall story. Paradise is Milton’s ultimate image of human perfection. We know that such innocence is remote from life in a fallen world. Just as writers of utopian fiction make us travel long distances to arrive at the “good place,” Milton distances Paradise from our starting point in the story. Its physical remoteness signals the remoteness of its perfection from life in our world.

Book 4

Plot Summary

Book 4 is the best book in Paradise Lost. The main focus is life in Paradise, as Milton gives us the greatest version of the archetypal earthly paradise in all of world literature. Milton springs a surprise on us by starting Book 4 not with Adam and Eve in a perfect garden but with Satan uttering a famous soliloquy. With Satan thus introduced into the scene, we approach Paradise gradually along with Satan.

Once Satan climaxes his physical journey by leaping over the protective wall of Paradise, Milton reveals more and more about the perfection of the happy garden. First we get a physical description of the garden. Then Adam and Eve are introduced, eating supper at the end of a working day. The nature of their relationship and their life in the garden gradually emerges as we overhear them converse in stately epic style. Then they retire for the night with an evening prayer addressed to God, followed by sexual union.

Milton does not allow us to conclude the book with this paradisal note. Just as he began the book with Satan, he ends it with Satan. As Eve sleeps, Satan prepares to instill a dream temptation into her imagination. The angel Gabriel discharges angelic sentries through Paradise, and they come upon Satan. A full-scale verbal altercation ensues, and the defiant speeches that Satan and Gabriel exchange in the epic mode results in an epic single combat, though in a verbal mode rather than by means of physical combat. When God produces golden scales to weigh the outcome of the conflict, Satan sees that he is defeated, so he escapes from the garden (to return later).

  • Book 4

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

It is an epic convention to have what critics call “a pastoral interlude”—a retreat from the hero’s main exploit of military combat or conducting a perilous journey, in a beautiful and relaxed setting. But Milton makes Paradise more than just a brief respite from the main action. In Paradise Lost, Paradise (and not the battlefield) is where the central action of the epic occurs.

An epic sums up what a whole culture wishes to say. It embodies the ideals that the author and his audience hold most dear. Milton is a Christian poet writing for a Christian audience. The domestic life of husband and wife in a perfect garden enables Milton to embody in narrative form the values that he esteems most highly. By demoting the martial (military) theme of traditional epic and replacing it with pastoral and domestic values, Milton completely revolutionized the epic tradition.

Satan's Soliloquy (lines 1–130)

Book 4 marks another shift in setting, and it is useful to recall that until the fall in Book 9, there are three main scenes of action in Paradise Lost—Hell, Heaven, and Paradise. These are both geographic places and spiritual/mental states. Although Milton does not give us a full-fledged invocation to mark the transition to Paradise, he comes very close to it in stating a wish for the prophetic voice that the book of Revelation records (lines 1–5).

The action then begins with one of Milton’s most daring moves in the whole poem. Although Book 4, which we might title “Life in Paradise,” is the “feel good” book in Milton’s epic, Milton delays our arrival in Paradise and devotes a major unit to the development of Satan’s character. First the narrator tells us that Satan is filled with despair, and then Satan confirms it in a famous soliloquy. Before we note the content of Satan’s soliloquy, we need to understand the ground rules of the soliloquy as a dramatic genre. A soliloquy is an over-heard speech uttered by a character in solitude. Further, Shakespeare had already set the standard for making a character speak the truth when uttering a soliloquy, since there is no plausible reason for the character to be deceitful when no one else is present.

Up to this point, Satan has always been keeping up appearances before his demonic followers. This is the first time in the poem that he has spoken he truth as he knows it. In this soliloquy Satan completely reverses the picture that he has presented to himself, to his followers, and to us, though the epic narrator has kept us informed all along that Satan is not as he appears. In this soliloquy Satan admits that he is in despair, that he seduced his followers in the revolt against God, that his fall was his own choice, and that he now regrets that choice. More generally, Satan accuses himself and exonerates God. For once the apparent plot (the foreground action, which here consists of Satan speaking truthfully) agrees with the hidden plot (a story of evil and futility).

For Reflection or Discussion

The ramifications of this passage for the characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost are numerous; what are they? We can then broaden the scope and theorize about Milton’s overall intention with Satan as a character in Paradise Lost. For example, it is obvious that Milton envisioned the characterization of Satan as dynamic and always changing. What are the changes? What are the underlying principles in Milton’s developing portrait of the figure of greatest evil?

Additional Notes

As a political figure, Milton’s Satan is a case study in ambition and tyranny. In lines 89–90 Satan reveals that he has fallen into the trap of leadership: he wanted power at all costs and now regrets his choice, even though he now is powerless to relinquish leadership because it would shame him.

The Approach to Paradise (lines 131–204)

The best commentary on this passage is by C. S. Lewis. Paradise is a universal human longing for a place that no longer exists in our physical world. It is distanced from us, as signaled partly by the long journey that Milton makes us take to finally arrive there. With this as his task, theorizes Lewis, Milton’s challenge in portraying Paradise “is mainly won in advance”: if he can create an overpowering sense of anticipation as we gradually approach the place, as readers “we shall be already conquered.”

There is no doubt that Milton was operating on such a premise. Starting with line 131, we keep moving (with Satan) closer and closer to Paradise. Then at a certain point the motif of gradual approach takes the form of our being at the bottom of the mountain on which Paradise is situated, with our gaze going up, up, up until we finally catch sight of the perfect garden. “At last,” writes Lewis, “almost beyond belief, we see for once with mortal eyes the trees of Paradise itself.”

Additional Notes

It is important to Milton’s portrayal of Paradise that we as readers experience it through Satan’s eyes and consciousness. We travel to Paradise with Satan. Satan’s first glimpses of the garden are ours as well. From time to time as Milton describes the garden and tells the story of life in it, the epic narrator will remind us that we are looking at the scene through Satan’s consciousness ( e.g., “Beneath him . . . now he views . . .”—line 205). The logic of this strategy is sound: any view of Paradise that we have is from our own fallen perspective.

Milton's Vision of Paradise (lines 205–87)

Now that we have arrived in Paradise, Milton turns to the task of describing the garden. The most important thing to understand about Milton’s paradisal vision is that he is giving us one of the great archetypes of the human imagination. Everywhere we turn in life and literature, we find the human race picturing the good life and good place as a lush garden. The appeal is universal to the present day. C. S. Lewis correctly claimed that Paradise is a region of the imagination that does exist and should be visited often. This means that Milton’s vision of Paradise is designed to awaken something inside us.

Milton’s descriptive technique fits this design perfectly. Milton gives just enough details to activate our own imagined version of the things that he names, but not so many details as to impede our own memories and pictures. For example, we read that when God planted Paradise (the garden of or in the broader region named Eden) he “caused to grow / All trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste” (lines 215–16). Exactly what were these trees? Our own experiences of trees and fruit (and perhaps especially our memories of them from childhood) provide the answer to that question.

Milton’s Paradise is thus universal and archetypal, but it is also unique, in accordance with its place in Paradise Lost as a whole. This is not just any paradisal place; it is the original Paradise of God. We can therefore view it as a visionary realm, remote from anything that currently exists in our fallen world. It is an image of longing—longing for the irretrievably lost. Additionally, Milton managed the description of Paradise in such a way as to show that it is also a geographic place and a way of life and spiritual condition. Finally, Milton’s Paradise differs from what we usually find in literature by having the capability of being lost. It has a potential for change (whereas the earthly paradises in a writer like Homer are permanent and static).

For Reflection or Discussion

The framework of generalizations just stated provides avenues for analysis. We can begin with our own responses: what longings are awakened in us as we read Milton’s description? What details of the description are universal or archetypal? What are the most paradisal places you have experienced? What details in Milton’s description convince us of its physical reality, and what details show it to be more than earthly? Simply at the level of imagery (and not yet considering Adam and Eve’s life in Paradise), what details evoke our awareness that this garden is precarious in the sense of having the potential to be lost? As a literary archetype, Paradise belongs to the broader archetype known as the “good place motif”; what things make Milton’s garden a fitting member of the good place archetype?

Additional Notes

Virtually every detail in Milton’s Paradise is rooted in a tradition that lies behind it. A literary critic named Arnold Stein (in his book Answerable Style: Essays on Paradise Lost) has a good summary of the layers of tradition that lie behind Milton’s Paradise. He writes that “back of the image is . . . Eden as historical fact.” There was also a pagan tradition of the Golden Age. Pastoral literature, which portrays country living and rural settings, is one of the central conventions of literature throughout its history, and Milton’s Paradise is pastoral as well as belonging to the more mythic archetype of the earthly paradise. Finally, there is the universal human longing for peace, fulfillment, and simplicity (especially the simplicity of childhood).

Milton’s Paradise, writes Milton scholar J. B. Broadbent, is “a master image of equilibrium” (balance between opposing qualities); “the overall feeling we have is stability on the brink of change.” As an example of balanced qualities, Milton gives his garden a tremendous sense of physical reality; yet Paradise is “more than earthly and out of time and place” (Broadbent).

Adam and Eve (lines 288–324)

Having described Paradise as a place, Milton moves toward an account of life in Paradise. He first introduces Adam and Eve. The opening description lists the qualities that Adam and Even mutually share (lines 288–95) and then differentiates Adam and Eve by ascribing distinctive excellences to each (lines 296–311). A description of Adam and Eve’s nakedness telescopes into an assertion of the goodness of married sexual love (lines 312–20). To climax the passage, Milton unloads a brief catalog of stately epithets that elevate the unfallen couple in our imagination (lines 321–24).

For Reflection or Discussion

We first need to begin by making sure that we have read Milton correctly: what traits does he attribute to Adam and Eve together and individually? What does he regard as universally human traits, and what as gender-based? What details elevate Adam and Eve above ordinary humans?

Additional Notes

Adam and Eve are not an ordinary human couple. Milton is primarily interested
in what they share as the original prototypes of the human race and gives them only a few gender-based differences. T. S. Eliot comments that “they have ordinary humanity to the right degree, and yet are not, and should not be, ordinary mortals. Were they more particularized, they would be false.”

When Milton says that Adam and Eve are not “equal” (line 296), he is using the word equal in the Renaissance sense of “not identical.” The statement that Adam was made “for God only” and Eve “for God in him” is a comment about the order of creation (first God created Adam by himself and then Eve was created to complete Adam), as well as a statement of Puritan conviction of the primacy of the spiritual (Eve supremely values what is Godlike in her husband). Virtually everything that Milton says about the marriage relationship has a basis in the Bible.

Life in Paradise (lines 325–775)

Epic is by its very nature a picture of what the author and culture producing it regard as the good life and a repository of the highest values to which people can aspire. As Milton thought about portraying life in Paradise, he asked himself what he regarded as normative for people—what God intends for the human race. Stated another way, Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve’s perfect existence is offered as a picture of not only how God intended the first couple to live but also how he intends all people to live, anytime, anywhere.

We can organize Milton’s story of life in Paradise around key scenes and episodes by which Milton chose to picture how he thought God intends people to live. The context within which these episodes or scenes unfold is Adam and Eve’s eating supper after a day of work (lines 325–40), part of the domestic emphasis of Paradise Lost. Here are the key passages: Adam’s first speech in the poem in which he extols God’s wonderful provision for him and Eve (lines 411–39); Eve’s recollection of her first encounter with Adam and his winning her love on that occasion (lines 441–504—the romantic love motif of a couple’s first meeting); Satan’s soliloquy in which he expresses his torment at seeing Adam and Eve’s love for each other (lines 502–35); Adam’s suggestion that he and Eve need to retire early so they can rise early to perform their work the next day—a succinct summary of Puritan convictions about work (lines 610–33); Eve’s love song addressed to Adam (lines 634–59); Adam and Eve’s evening hymn of thanks to God (lines 720–35); Adam and Eve’s sexual union before falling asleep (lines 736–75).

An important principle at work here is that an epic poem is designed to give the reader images or examples of heroic virtue. We might note in passing that Milton himself never calls Paradise Lost an epic; it is always “a heroic poem” in his terminology. This, in turn, relates to the question of who the hero in Paradise Lost is. On the human plane, Adam and Eve are the heroes of the poem. Half of their heroism is displayed in their virtuous life in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. The second half of their heroism will be displayed after the fall in their mutual forgiveness of each other and their repentance from sin and coming to trust in Christ as savior.

With the ground rules of the hero story guiding our responses, we should read Book 4 as giving us models of virtue to emulate. The whole vision of the good life in Book 4 is a Puritan vision, embodying the same ideals that we can find in abundance in Puritan sermons and treatises. Obedience to God’s commands is the overarching principle (Adam’s first speech). The elevation of married love and sexual union within it was nothing less than a Puritan obsession (Adam and Eve’s first meeting, Eve’s love song, the narrator’s exaltation of sexual love in his speech beginning with the apostrophe “hail wedded love”). Equally Puritan is the dignity of daily work and embracing it as something that gives purpose to life (Adam’s explanation of why the couple needs to get to bed on time). To view all of life as opening up to God and the spiritual realm is part of the Puritan genius for seeing God in the commonplace (Adam and Eve’s evening hymn).

For Reflection or Discussion

All of the events discussed above are “purple passages” that will reveal splendors if we subject the passages to close reading and explication. The commentary above (including the marginal notes) can provide a blueprint for analysis of the respective passages. Some overriding impressionistic questions can balance that close reading: What do you like best and/or least about life in Paradise as Milton portrays it? What surprises you about Milton’s portrayal?

Additional Notes

Milton had ideas about the ideally masculine and the ideally feminine, but he was not obsessed with gender the way some people today are. Doubtless he would phrase some things differently if he were writing today, but the point is that he was not writing today. Milton’s view on masculine and feminine was not controversial in his day.

Modern feminism falls into two camps—those who want to claim for women qualities and roles that have traditionally belonged to men more than women, and those who want to elevate feminine qualities as being applicable to men also. Milton fits comfortably into the second category. He disparages military strength and the urge toward power and elevates domestic values, the nurturing tasks of tending a garden, and such virtues as gentleness and love.

The episode of Eve’s admiring her own reflection in the water (lines 449–92) does not show that Eve is vain and self-absorbed. Instead Milton invented the episode in order to embody convictions about marriage: it is based on consent, it completes husband and wife (Adam claims Eve as his “other half”), and its success depends on the harmonious acceptance of the husband’s headship in the marriage.

Adam’s remarks about the dignity of human work (lines 610–33) embody cherished Puritan ideals about work: God appointed it, it “declares [human] dignity,” and it is an arena within which God holds people accountable.

Eve’s love poem (lines 639–50) is a nature poem as well as a love poem. It praises the beloved as the source of the speaker’s joy, a conventional motif in love poetry. This praise is conducted by means of a contrast: first Eve lists what she finds delightful when Adam is present to share it (“with thee” lines 639–49), and then she lists the same things again, asserting that they are indifferent when Adam is not present to share them (“without thee” lines 650–56). The Miltonic genius for giving us the exalted subject matter in the high style is at its very best in this passage.

Satan's Attempt to Make Eve Sin (lines 776–1,015)

It is part of storytelling to organize events in a story on the principle of swinging back and forth between opposing or balancing phenomena. We start Book 4 with Satan’s malice as he journeys toward Earth to destroy the innocence of God’s creation. Then we luxuriate in an extended picture of the happy garden and human life within it. As we end Book 4, we swing back to Satan and his evil intention. In this nightmare passage, Satan squats like a toad by the ear of the sleeping Eve, preparing to tamper with Eve’s imagination and will in the form of a dream. Angelic guards interrupt his scheme.

Although we will not encounter a full-fledged epic battle until the war in Heaven in Books 5 and 6, we get a good warm-up in this episode. The angels and Satan exchange scornful challenges and put-downs of each other. Nothing is more pervasive in Paradise Lost than the enterprise of Christianizing the motifs of classical epic. In this passage at the end of Book 4, Milton composed speeches of defiance that express not only personal hostility between the angelic guards and Satan but also theological truths. Similarly, in classical epic the gods occasionally bring out a set of supernatural scales to weigh the outcome of an earthly battle. God does not need help in determining the outcome of the conflict between Satan and Gabriel. Accordingly, the scales here at the end of Book 4 are used to reveal God’s power over Satan and thereby prevent a threatened battle.

For Reflection or Discussion

What draws you into the episode and maintains your interest? In addition to relishing the exchange of scorn, you can profitably ponder the theological truth that the speeches sometimes embody.

Additional Notes

Milton is not often credited with being a master of satire and scorn, but in fact he is quite good at these things. Taking his cue from Psalm 2, with its picture of evil rulers raging and God sitting in the heavens and laughing in scorn, Milton amplifies the altercation between Satan and the angelic guards into a self-respecting exchange of insults in the manner of epic battle rituals.

Discord in Paradise? In Paradise Lost, the garden of (in) Eden was prefect but not invulnerable. Right from the beginning of recorded history in Genesis 2–3, the premise was that this garden could be lost through disobedience. In fact, everyone knows that this garden was lost. Throughout the middle books of his epic, Milton conducts an extravagant balancing act between the perfection of Paradise and our awareness that it has been lost.

Book 5

Plot Summary

Whereas Satan had immediately vanished from the garden when he saw the cosmic scales predict his defeat if he persisted in his conflict with the angelic guards, we as readers are given a more gradual exit from the garden. The opening episodes of Book 5 still focus on the perfect couple in the perfect garden. After Adam’s exalted wake-up call to his new bride (lines 1–25), Eve recounts the dream temptation that Satan had instilled into her imagination while she slept (lines 28–93). Adam interprets the dream in such a way as to calm Eve’s disquiet (lines 95–135). To complete the counterbalance to Satan’s dream temptation of Eve, Adam and Eve utter an exalted morning hymn of praise (lines 136–210), thereby drawing a boundary around our experience of life in Paradise.

Then the scene abruptly shifts to Heaven, where God looks down with pity at the vulnerable innocence of Adam and Eve. He summons the angel Raphael and gives him the instructive mission to visit Adam and Eve and warn them of Satan’s evil intention toward them (lines 220–45). It is common in classical epics for the gods to dispatch one of their own to carry a message to mortals on Earth. As always, Milton outdoes his predecessors. The briefly narrated descent to Earth in classical epic here becomes a captivating cosmic journey (lines 246–97). Furthermore, Raphael’s visit and discourse with Adam and Eve takes up four whole books of the epic! Two main topics are discussed during Raphael’s visit—the war in Heaven (Books 5 and 6) and God’s creation of the world (Books 7 and 8).

The brief Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah’s entertaining angelic visitors (Gen. 18:1–8) is transmuted by Milton into a full-scale epic event when Adam and Eve enact the rituals of hospitality toward their angelic visitor Raphael (lines 298–450). Adam’s question about what life is like in Heaven (lines 451–67) enables Raphael to ease into his instructive mission. First he voices a general explanation of the great chain of being and the need to obey God’s intended order (lines 468– 543). But the main purpose of Raphael’s visit is to give Adam and Eve an account of Satan’s behavior during the war in Heaven. The second half of Book 5 narrates what happened on the first day of a three-day celestial battle.

  • Book 5

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

Despite the length of Paradise Lost and the wealth of details that Milton packed into it, Milton constructed his epic in such a way that we can easily keep the big picture in view. With a little streamlining, we can see that the poem unfolds on a principle of pairs of books. Books 1 and 2 were devoted to Satan and Hell, and Books 3 and 4 to Heaven and Paradise. Now we are ready for two books devoted largely to the war in Heaven.

In the opening invocation, Milton alerted us that he would slant his story of the fall of the human race around the idea that God is not to blame for what Adam and Eve brought upon the world. Raphael’s visit is an important part of that design, as hinted in the narrator’s statement that God “fulfilled all justice” when he dispatched Raphael. The logic of this assertion is that Raphael’s story of the war in Heaven will give Adam and Eve a full understanding of how Satan operates and of his evil intention to bring about the fall of Adam and Eve.

Eve's Dream Temptation (lines 1–135)

It is a rule of storytelling that major developments in the plot must be anticipated and therefore seem plausible to readers. In telling the story of the transition from absolute perfection to total sinfulness, Milton needed to provide a narrative transition for readers. He did this by inventing episodes in which Adam and Eve increasingly reveal their vulnerability. This is not to say that they are portrayed as progressively falling. They remain innocent until the eating of the apple in Book 9. But we as readers can later look back at several episodes in which we see the ingredients, good in their unfallen state, that were perverted by Satan in the temptation that caused the fall.

Eve’s dream temptation is the first of these anticipations of the fall. The dream temptation was instilled in Eve’s imagination while she slept (Book 4, lines 799–813). The episode does not show an inclination on the part of Eve to eat the apple but the contrary: Eve abhors the dream (lines 34–35, 92–93). This episode is not a psychological transition in which Eve shows weakness but rather part of a narrative transition for the benefit of us as readers. In the dream temptation we can see in kernel form all the ingredients that will appear in full-fledged form in the actual temptation in Book 9: Eve’s being deceived as to who is speaking (line 37), the tempter’s appeal to Eve’s delight in the sensory qualities of the garden (lines 38–43), the tempter’s flattery of Eve (lines 43–47), his making the forbidden fruit provocative (lines 50–66), and the “divinity motif” in which Satan attempts to intoxicate Eve with a desire to be a goddess (lines 67–92).
But even though these are the same ingredients that appear in the eventual temptation that results in the fall, here they leave no taint because they were visited upon Eve during her sleep. Eve’s reason had no opportunity to judge the truth or falseness of images presented by Satan to her imagination. This is the gist of Adam’s reassuring explanation of how the dream is innocent of spiritual taint (lines 94–128).

For Reflection or Discussion

What features of the passage, including Adam’s exalted wake-up call of Eve and her equally rapturous reply (lines 1–30), show that Adam and Eve retain their innocence? Balancing that continuing innocence, what details show that Adam and Eve’s innocence is precarious in the sense that it can be lost?

Additional Notes

The episode of Eve’s dream temptation does not show Eve in a process of falling. Underlying the entire episode is ancient dream theory, which Adam fully expounds in his interpretation of Eve’s dream (lines 95–128). According to that theory, it is the function of the reason to judge the truth or falseness of images presented to it by the imagination (or “fancy” in Renaissance terminology). During sleep, the reason is inactive, so no images presented could be properly judged. Eve’s dream has been a providential forewarning to her, leaving her more capable, not less capable, of withstanding a temptation from Satan by daytime. The dream shows what can happen, not what must happen.

Adam and Eve's Morning Hymn (lines 136–223)

Milton’s portrayal of life in Paradise is the high point of his epic. It is the part of the story in which Milton embodies the values and virtues that he wished to elevate in his poem that he designed to be “doctrinal and exemplary” for his readers. Adam and Eve’s morning hymn provides an exalted conclusion to Milton’s picture of the perfect human existence.

As Adam and Eve move outdoors into the morning scene (lines 136–52), we should be reminded that Paradise Lost is a great nature poem as well as a great love story. The morning hymn that this perfect couple utters is a psalm of praise, based directly on Psalm 148 (one of five nature poems in the book of Psalms). The governing motif is a series of apostrophes and doxologies (commands to praise God) addressed to various creatures of nature.

For Reflection or Discussion

What passages in Books 4 and 5 make Paradise Lost a great nature poem? What specific ideas and attitudes toward nature make up Milton’s view of nature? How do Milton’s multifaceted pictures of the beauty and pleasure of life in Paradise fit into his larger design of justifying the ways of God to people?

Additional Notes

One of the delights of Milton’s narrative poem is the embedded lyric poems, such as Eve’s love poem in Book 4. Adam and Eve’s morning hymn is equally great. Its most obvious poetic qualities are the ceaseless motion and energy of nature, rapture over that energy, and the sense of God’s presence in all of nature. We can profitably compare Milton’s hymn to Psalm 148 to see what Milton carried over and what he invented.

Raphael's Arrival in Paradise (lines 219–560)

The motivation for Raphael’s journey from Heaven to Paradise is stated at the very outset of this episode: God wishes to give Adam and Eve every possible chance to withstand Satan’s temptation, so he arranges a visit by Raphael that will inform them of Satan’s wiles. The wealth of narrative detail regarding the journey and arrival might perplex us until we understand the epic conventions at work.

One of these conventions is known as “the descent from heaven”—the journey of a messenger from the gods to the human agents in the epic. As always, Milton makes the cosmos through which his supernatural agents travel thoroughly tangible (one of the superior qualities of Paradise Lost). Second, the entertainment of the guests with ideal hospitality is a hallmark of classical epic. The rituals of hospitality and feasting were important to ancient cultures and the epic tradition. Milton’s genius is to adapt the rituals of arrival, welcome, feasting, and discourse to the rural (pastoral) world of his epic.

But along with this reenactment of familiar epic conventions in a pastoral mode, something revolutionary is also at work. In classical epics an interlude of leisure in a relaxed setting stands in contrast to the epic hero’s military exploits, which are regarded as the serious aspect of the hero’s life. Here the pastoral world embodies the values that Milton substitutes for the heroic world of battlefield conquest. Milton replaced heroic (military) values with domestic and pastoral values, and Adam and Eve’s acts of hospitality embody those values.

An important part of the descent from heaven is the conversation that occurs between hosts and guest after a meal has been shared. Milton’s version of this convention is Raphael’s discourse about the great chain of being (lines 468–543). In keeping with his story material of “man’s first disobedience,” Milton makes Raphael stress the element of obedience that is required for the chain of being to remain stable. In turn, Adam asks questions about the need for obedience, and before we know it Raphael has begun his account of the war in Heaven.

For Reflection or Discussion

There is so much poetry and so much doctrine in Paradise Lost that from time to time we need to remind ourselves of the need to relish the story qualities. What aspects of this episode come alive in our imaginations? What details or general qualities make this descent from Heaven and this scene of hospitality extraordinary (perhaps when compared with parallels in other epics)? What surprises does Milton spring on us in his version of various epic conventions in this scene?

Additional Notes

It is impossible to over-state the importance of the great chain of being for Renaissance authors like Shakespeare and Milton. Raphael’s account of it (lines 469–543) ranks as a “primary text” on the concept of the great chain of being. The great chain of being (which is of classical origins and can be traced back to Plato) is a metaphor by which people pictured the universe. In this paradigm, every created thing has a place in the overall unity of creation. Creatures are arranged on a vertical hierarchy. God is the supreme being—the one who created and sustains the entire universe.

Every creature under God has superiors and subordinates. The great chain of being will remain a harmonious order only if every creature maintains its allotted place—its link—in the chain. In this scheme, obedience to the divine ordering of creation becomes the prime virtue, and disobedience the great threat. At once we can see the relevance of this conception to a story of crime and punishment in which the crime is an act of disobedience to God’s command.

Satan's Rebellion (lines 561–907)

Raphael’s comments about the great chain of being highlight the need for obedience and the disastrous results of disobedience, and this leads Adam to ask Raphael to clarify what this means. This leads directly into Raphael’s account of the war in Heaven, which occupies the rest of Book 5 and all of Book 6. Again Milton is operating within familiar epic conventions. Warfare is the great, central story material of classical epic. Milton could not compose an epic without finding a place for battlefield action. Taking his cue from the New Testament book of Revelation, Milton invents a story of heavenly warfare between Satan and God, the rebellious angels and the faithful angels.

The key to Milton’s war in Heaven is to understand that it is really the story of Satan’s rebellion against the character and rule of God. Every rebellion requires an instigating cause, so Milton invented an episode in which God the Father exalts the Son to a position of preeminence. This does not make the Son a created being. All of the terminology that Milton employs in this scene of exaltation (begot, declare, anointed, appoint) is taken from verses found in the Bible ( e.g., Ps. 2:7–9; Heb. 1:4–5, 9; 5:5). Satan responds to the exaltation of the Son by thinking that he has been “impaired,” and on the basis of that envy he starts a rebellion that draws a third of the angels to his side. The story then follows the familiar contours of stories of rebellion and ensuing battle.

Milton, always inventive, always springing surprises on us, introduces the unexpected figure of Abdiel into the story (lines 803–907). The angel Abdiel (whose name means “servant of God”) temporarily finds himself in the audience of angels listening to Satan. When he denounces Satan’s false claims, he embodies the virtue of obedience to God and becomes the internal spokesperson for the values that Milton himself espoused. Additionally, Abdiel’s speeches expose the error of Satan’s claims, and his repudiation of Satan and return to God show that creatures have the ability to choose.

For Reflection or Discussion

The characterization of Satan receives major advancement in this episode; what features of the earlier Satan are reinforced, and what new dimensions of his character emerge? One of Milton’s greatest skills as a writer is his portrayal of the nuances of evil; what insights into evil are evident in this episode? Equally, Milton is adept at portraying the nature of good; how do the character and actions of Abdiel contribute to our understanding of spiritual goodness?

Additional Notes

To conduct a heavenly battle in earthly and physical images might seem preposterous until we understand the ground rules by which Milton operates. The doctrine of accommodation was a longstanding method for interpreting the anthropomorphisms by which God is portrayed in the Bible. God is a spiritual being, yet the writers of the Bible portray him as having an arm and a face and as having human emotions such as anger and love. This portrayal of deity in human terms is a means by which God accommodates himself and spiritual reality to human understanding. Milton makes a very clear reference to the doctrine of accommodation right at the start of Raphael’s account of the war in Heaven (lines 563–76): he will compare (“liken”) “spiritual to corporal (physical) forms, / As may express them best” (lines 573–74). Once alerted to this principle, we can find many references to it throughout Books 5 and 6.

Book 6

Plot Summary

Book 5 ended with Abdiel’s repudiation of Satan’s rebellion, and Book 6 begins with God’s commendation of Abdiel for his faithfulness (lines 1–43). Abdiel is everything that Satan should have been. With this example of heroic spiritual virtue planted firmly in our imagination, we proceed to the three day war in Heaven, an epic battle to end all epic battles. Abdiel’s reception is followed by God’s sending his angelic army into battle (lines 44–96).

Starting with the statement that “the shout / Of battle now began” (lines 96–97), the celestial battle now unfolds. Familiar epic battle motifs abound: speeches of defiance, boasts, single combats, group combats, battle injuries, battle strategies that succeed or fail, and at the end decisive victory and defeat. Epic battles are always chaotic, but amidst the back-and-forth kaleidoscope of speeches and events Milton is operating on the premise of a three-day battle. The days merge into each other without a sharp break; the approximate divisions are lines 96–405, 406–669, and 669–892. As in any good battle story, the fortunes of battle fluctuate, and the outcome remains uncertain until the very end.

Battles always come to a climax, and Milton’s climax is the grandest in all of literature. It consists of the exaltation of the Son as he single-handedly defeats the army of Satan. The Son rides forth in a divine chariot, and the rebellious angels are so terrified that they hurl themselves over the wall of Heaven and fall for nine days and nights into the burning lake of Hell. The foregoing brief summary hardly hints at the splendor and inventiveness of Milton’s war story.

  • Book 6

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Preamble to Battle (lines 1–96)

One of the quirks of Paradise Lost is the way in which Milton carries over the episode of Abdiel from the end of Book 5 to the beginning of Book 6. Surely it signals the importance of the heroic virtue of the angel that Milton made famous. When the Father claims that Abdiel’s defense of truth “in word [is] mightier than [Satan’s followers] in arms” (line 32), we are led to understand that the real issue in the battle to come is spiritual in nature.

The paradox underlying Milton’s war in Heaven is that while the physical combat by God’s army is necessary, on a physical plane many of the details make no sense. For example, instead of sending out his entire angelic army, God sends out a number equal to the army of Satan (line 49). This angelic army is declared to be “invincible” (line 47), but that conceals the fact that while they cannot lose the battle, neither can they win it. The truth is that while Milton needed to include a grand battle in his epic, he needed to keep the record straight that his system of values was the opposite of the heroic values that previous epic poets had celebrated. Milton tells a story of physical battle that ultimately repudiates physical warfare.

Additional Notes

The key to enjoying Milton’s story of celestial warfare is to observe the interplay of the expected and unexpected. It is true that this is a conventional epic battle, but the details do not run quite true to form. Abdiel is commended as having “fought / The better fight” (lines 29–30), but no physical combat has yet occurred. Again, the army of God marches to battle, but not in exactly the ordinary way: “for high above the ground / their march was” (lines 71–72).

For Reflection or Discussion

A good approach to this brief episode is to view it as giving us the principles on which the actual battle will be built. What things do we learn about the battle to follow? In particular, what evidences can you find that the physical battle is intended to portray spiritual realities?

The First Two Days (lines 96–669)

There is enough good story material to interest us on a physical level. The speeches of defiance that the warriors hurl toward each other rank with the best. The magnitude of the battle and its destructiveness remind us of the New Testament book of Revelation. Fluctuations in the fortunes of battle keep us in suspense. There are surprises, too, such as the fact that Satan can actually be injured, and then later Satan’s invention of gunpowder. And topping it all is the spectacle of angels hurling hills at each other.

But even as we find ourselves entertained with the physical details of battle, we sense that there is something more than meets the eye. Milton’s strategy at this level is to keep us aware that this is primarily a spiritual battle, of which the physical battle is an extended metaphor. The speeches of defiance express spiritual principles, for example. Even though the good angels are reduced to fighting a physical warfare, Milton finds ways to assure us that physical warfare cannot be the means of spiritual conquest. At one point the physical armor of the good angels actually hinders them: “their armor helped their harm” (line 656).

It is obvious that Milton is telling a war story in such a way as to disparage war because he does not find ultimate value in earthly and physical triumph. As this dawns on us, the label “anti-epic” begins to seem correct as a designation for Paradise Lost.

For Reflection or Discussion

There are multiple avenues by which to enjoy Milton’s war in Heaven. We need to begin with the physical dimension of the battle, and we can do so by noting the familiar conventions of epic warfare that Milton unfolds before us. This is the best epic battle ever. But then we need to go beyond that and relish the surprises that Milton springs on us. If we are sufficiently familiar with epic battles, what stands out most is Milton’s originality in the venture. What surprises do we meet as we read, especially when we compare Milton’s epic battle with previous ones? Then in yet another layer of originality, Milton manages the war in Heaven in such a way that we are led to see that it is only metaphorically a physical battle; the real conflict is a spiritual battle between good and evil. What details and lessons make up the spiritual dimension of the war in Heaven?

Additional Notes

Much falls into place regarding the war in Heaven if we ask why Milton included a celestial battle in his epic. Heightened combat between armies that included supernatural combatants was an epic convention. Furthermore, there is biblical basis for a battle in Heaven ending with the expulsion of Satan (e.g., Ezek. 14:12–21; 28:1–19; Rev. 12:7–17). In his overall story, the defeat of Satan in the war in Heaven motivates Satan’s urge to bring about the fall of Adam and Eve. Also, the war in Heaven contributes significantly to the characterization of Satan and God.

Having decided to include a celestial war, Milton had three options for conducting the battle: (1) he could treat it as a completely physical battle, thereby losing much of its supernatural nature; (2) he could conduct it in a completely spiritual way, with the angels hurling such abstractions as truth and error instead of weapons; (3) he could mingle realism and supernaturalism, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Happily, Milton chose the third.

The Climax of the Battle (lines 669–892)

The third day of battle is one of the high points of Paradise Lost. It is managed in such a way as to exalt the Son. In other words, halfway through the poem, Satan’s evil actions are countered for the first time by God’s. Numerous biblical events and passages feed into this evocative story of Christ’s victory over Satan (the Christus Victor motif of Christian theology).

The action occurs on a symbolic third day, which is called “the sacred morn.” Already hints of the resurrection are planted in our awareness. Other details reinforce this motif. For example, in the conversation between Father and Son, the Son says, “thou always seek’st / To glorify thy Son, I always thee” (lines 724–25). This echoes Jesus’s prayer to the Father on the eve of his crucifixion: “Father, . . . glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). Other allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection prove that Milton wanted us to see overtones of Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan in this episode.

Other evocative events from the Bible are also woven into the third day of battle. Ezekiel’s divine chariot is present (lines 711, 749–61). When the good angels are told to “stand only and behold / God’s indignation on these godless poured” (lines 810–11), Milton is echoing the same command uttered by Moses at the Red Sea deliverance (Ex. 14:13–14).

For Reflection or Discussion

What biblical echoes do you detect that add depth of field to this story of battle victory? What details here at the very center of the epic lend a Christocentric structure to the poem? How can we read the passage devotionally?

Additional Notes

Two overarching things make Milton’s war in Heaven a triumph of English literature. First, Milton made the war an epitome of all earthly wars (ranging all the way from ancient battle practices, to epic warfare, to contemporary European warfare with gunpowder and cannons) and then conducted the battle in such a way as to belittle human warfare. Second, it is easy to prove by way of biblical allusions that Milton intended his war in Heaven to represent simultaneously four different things: (1)

the defeat of Satan in Heaven before human history; (2) the battle between evil and good, Satan and God, at every point in history; (3) the defeat of Satan in the passion and resurrection of Christ; (4) the ultimate defeat of Satan at the end of history.

Raphael's Commentary on the War in Heaven (lines 893–912)

With the war completed, we return to the situation within which the story has been told, namely, Raphael’s visit to Adam and Eve to forewarn them. First Raphael reiterates the doctrine of accommodation that has undergirded the entire account: “Thus measuring things in Heaven by things on Earth” (line 893). Then he applies the lesson to be learned from Satan’s rebellion to the situation of Adam and Eve: “let it profit thee,” says the angelic visitor, “to have heard / By terrible example the reward / Of disobedience” (lines 909–11). Further, Satan “now is plotting how he may seduce / Thee also from obedience” (lines 901–2). The solemnity of Raphael’s words is aweinspiring. Any weakness by Adam and Eve in the face of Satan’s temptation is now inexcusable.

Book 7

Plot Summary

The overall design that is about to unfold is that Milton will counter two books devoted to the destructiveness of evil with two books devoted to the creativity of God. On the basis of Milton’s practice of introducing an epic invocation at key transition points, Milton begins Book 7 with the third of four epic invocations in Paradise Lost (lines 1–39).

The action of Book 7 begins with Adam’s request for Raphael to tell the story of the creation of the world (lines 40–109). Raphael responds with an unexpected caution against any immoderate human inquiry into hidden things (lines 110–30). Then we move to the story of creation. It begins with another dialogue in Heaven, as Father and Son determine to compensate for the loss of a third of the host of Heaven by creating Earth and Adam and Eve as its inhabitants (lines 131–73). With this preamble complete, the story of creation unfolds according to the chronology of the creation story in Genesis 1.

  • Book 7

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

The function of Milton’s creation story in the epic as a whole is to establish a foil to the destructive war in Heaven. Satan’s destructiveness is now countered by God’s creativity. As readers we feel a great sense of relief: with Satan off the scene temporarily, we are free to luxuriate in Milton’s story of God’s original acts of creation.

Epic Invocation (lines 1–39)

With the beginning of Book 7, we stand on the threshold of a major transition from Heaven to Earth. The invocation to Book 7 highlights the motif of the heavenly and more-than-earthly. Milton thus invokes Urania, goddess of astronomy, asking her to descend, just as Milton the poet is descending from a story set in Heaven to one on Earth. But within a few lines Urania has merged with the Wisdom portrayed in Proverbs 8 as having been present when God created the world.

Additionally, Milton fills this invocation with autobiographical references to his own blindness and the difficult situation in which he is composing his epic.

For Reflection or Discussion

The classical allusions in this invocation make it a difficult passage, but we do not need to know all of those nuances in order to grasp something even more important. We should scrutinize the invocation for the information that it gives about the epic narrator—his ambitions for his poem, his humility before God and the task, his awareness that he could “get it wrong” in writing about supernatural matters, his realization that he needs God’s help to accomplish his epic task, and his feeling fearful of the situation in which he writes (Milton wrote some of Paradise Lost in hiding, fearful for his life after the Puritan cause was defeated and the monarchy restored in England). A governing question might be, what do we learn about Milton the epic poet in this invocation?

Additional Notes

Virtually everything that Milton wrote can be read devotionally, and this is preeminently true of Paradise Lost. This is not to say that Milton composed everything with a devotional intention, but rather that it is possible to read his writing in a devotional way.

Lead-In to the Creation Story (lines 40–130)

As a transition between the invocation and the creation story, Milton introduces an exchange between Adam and Raphael. Adam begins the conversation by noting that the story of the war in Heaven has been “full of wonder in our ears, / Far differing from this world” (lines 70–71). In an obvious reference to the doctrine of accommodation, Adam further claims that Raphael is someone who can impart knowledge of “things above earthly thought” (line 82). Adam wants to seize the opportunity to receive additional information about heavenly matters, so he asks about the origin of the world. Raphael replies that he is allowed to impart “knowledge within bounds” (line 120).

For Reflection or Discussion

What statements by Adam and Raphael awaken our sense of the momentousness of what Raphael has narrated about Heaven and is about to narrate about creation?

Additional Notes

Once we know about the prominence of battlefield action in an epic, it is not surprising that Milton devoted two books of his epic to a celestial battle. But why did he devote two books to God’s creation of the world? In writing a story that takes its material from early Genesis, Milton naturally had his eye on a massive body of commentary that had grown up around the opening chapters of Genesis. It is known as the hexameral (“six parts”) tradition. When arranged into a composite story known as “the celestial cycle,” this material makes up a cycle that is identical with the shape of Paradise Lost: (1) war in heaven and the fall of the angels; (2) God’s creation of the world and people; (3) temptation and fall of humankind, and the consequences; (4) redemption of the world through Christ’s atonement.

Milton's Creation Story (lines 139–557)

In a passage reminiscent of the dialogue in Heaven in Book 3, we begin with a conversation between Father and Son in Heaven about the situation on Earth. The effect is that of a divine planning session. The creation story then unfolds in a manner totally familiar if we know the creation story of Genesis 1. That the passage requires minimal commentary does not mean that it is a low point in Milton’s epic. It is rather that the story is so familiar that we are free simply to relish it.

The most noteworthy aspect of Milton’s creation story is the tremendous sense of ongoing momentum that sets in. We move inexorably from one day of creation to the next, and within that framework from one exciting act of God to the next. Since the subject is the creation of the natural world, Book 7 emerges as an exalted nature poem in the epic mode. One way to see Milton’s inventive genius in the venture is to observe how he elaborates the simple creation narrative of Genesis 1 into a full-scale epic story.

Stories always swing back and forth between contrasting poles, and this is one of the triumphs of Book 7. On one side we have repeated passages that picture the creation as the instantaneous result of God’s creating word. God speaks, and immediately something springs into being. In a contrasting mode, various events are described in the language of biological process. Another formula by which we can express this dichotomy is rule and energy. On the one hand, God’s creation is an imposition of order on his creation. But this is balanced by an amazing sense of motion, energy, and variety.

For Reflection or Discussion

What are your dominant impressions regarding Book 7? In what ways is Book 7 an exalted nature poem? What passages describe creation as an ordering process brought about by God’s creating word, and what passages portray it as a biological process governed by energy and vitality?

Additional Notes

For readers familiar with Genesis 1, Book 7 might seem to be a low-voltage book. It is worth noting, therefore, that critics have spoken highly of Milton’s achievement in Book 7. They praise Milton’s inventiveness in the details that he imagined, of evoking the wonder of the natural world, of the excitement that sets in with the ongoing progression of the action, and of Milton’s mastery of sensory imagery.

Another avenue toward appreciating Book 7 is to note its role in the overall plotline of Paradise Lost. It is pivotal in the story in the sense that it decisively counters the tremendous energy that evil has demonstrated in the first half of the story. God’s creativity actively opposes evil and brings good out of evil. The story of creation also stands between the fall of the angels and the fall of Adam and Eve.

Celebration in Heaven (lines 558–640)

Grand performances call for grand celebrations, and this is how Milton concludes his creation story. The main action is the return of the Godhead to Heaven, accompanied by a song of praise by the angels. Evocative biblical allusions are woven into the passage, which is one of the most exuberant passages of praise in all of English literature.

For Reflection or Discussion

What feelings does the passage evoke? What details in the passage create those feelings?

Additional Notes

In the lead-in dialogue set in Heaven, the task of creating the world appears to be assigned to the Son, but during the actual story of creation we find references to Father, Son, and Spirit. Sometimes these are called God (or an equivalent). If we just read straight-forwardly, an obvious Trinitarian framework permeates the passage.

Book 8

Plot Summary

With the account of the creation of the world complete, Milton returns us to the dramatic situation—after-supper conversation in Paradise. Adam expresses admiration for Raphael’s account of supernatural events, and Raphael responds with a famous passage that sounds a caution about human inquiry into hidden knowledge. Adam, in turn, shows exemplary submission to what Raphael has said.

With that exchange completed, Adam offers to tell his angelic visitor the story of his own creation and first moments of consciousness. Since Raphael was absent on the day of Adam’s creation, he welcomes the opportunity to hear Adam’s story. Most of the remainder of Book 8 is taken up with this second, more focused creation story. The climax of Adam’s story of awakening consciousness comes when God brings Eve to him. This merges into the concluding unit of Book 8: Adam’s expression of his extreme affection for Eve, and Raphael’s warning that Adam needs to keep his romantic emotions under the control of his reason. It is an imposing moment as Raphael leaves Paradise to return to Heaven.

  • Book 8

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

The balance between Books 7 and 8 is the same as the balance between Genesis 1 and 2. In both cases, the first half is a story of cosmic creation. The second half narrows the focus to Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden. In both sets of passages, moreover, the second half possesses a strong pastoral (rural) identity, with the paradisal garden prominent in our experience as we read.

The Knowledge that Matters Most (1–197)

The middle four books of Paradise Lost, recounting the momentous events of the war in Heaven and God’s creation of the world, are mediated through an internal narrator (the angel Raphael) to an internal audience (Adam and Eve). In situations like this, storytellers regularly return us to the dramatic situation that we as readers overhear
(as, for example, the mariner and the wedding guest in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). This is what Milton does in the opening lines of Book 8. Adam expresses admiration and gratitude for Raphael’s revelation of heavenly events, and Raphael replies.

Specifically, Adam voices his perplexity that the heavenly bodies seem to shine only for the benefit of people on earth. Raphael replies by sounding a warning against human inquiry into the hidden mysteries of supernatural reality. The keynote is that people must be humble before God in their intellectual quest. Having sounded this caution, Raphael does address Adam’s question, but in a somewhat surprising way. Raphael lists a series of alternative possibilities about the heavenly bodies in relation to earth (using the “what if” formula), refusing to say which one is correct.

Milton invented this passage to lead to a practical conclusion: it is Adam and Eve’s task to occupy themselves with their earthly routine and “dream not of other worlds” (line 175). Regardless of which view of the cosmos is correct, people’s primary responsibility is exactly the same: to obey God. Here is the practical and devotional bent of the Puritan mind and soul.

For Reflection or Discussion

A view of human knowledge is embedded in this exchange between Adam and Raphael; what are the important ingredients in that view? What are the specific cautions that are sounded? What details show Milton’s bias toward practical knowledge leading to submission before God and against speculative knowledge or knowledge for its own sake?

Additional Notes

The conversation between Adam and Raphael about proper and improper pursuit of knowledge belongs to a very old Christian tradition known as “forbidden knowledge.” In fact, there is a whole book titled Milton and Forbidden Knowledge. The Biblical basis of the tradition is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us . . . that we may do all the words of this law.” In kernel form, this is what Raphael says to Adam.

Adam's Creation Story (lines 198–520)

We now get a second creation story to match the story of the general creation in Book 7. We can profitably begin by placing Adam’s account of his first moments of consciousness into its literary families. At the broadest level, we have an epic convention at work. When traveling guests arrive, they are entertained at a feast, and then they engage in conversation with their hosts. Raphael has told two stories, and now Adam as host proposes to tell a story. Adam is like Odysseus telling the story of his wanderings to his hosts at Phaiacia.

The first-person story that Adam tells is a fictional version of some very esteemed Christian genres. One is autobiography, as a Christian narrates his or her life story under the providence of God. But the story that Adam tells is more specifically a story of spiritual development, tracing a growing awareness of one’s need for God and ending with submission to God. Some familiar examples are Augustine’s Confessions, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.”

The story of Adam’s creation and early life is as exciting as the story of God’s creation in Book 7, but it requires careful analysis before we see what a treasure Milton has given us. As with the account of cosmic creation in Book 7, the sense of progression is essential to the story. One event leads seamlessly to the next, in a manner similar to a painter’s adding detail after detail to the canvas until the picture is complete. Second, the focus falls on Adam’s developing consciousness, so we need to analyze Adam’s inner responses to the external events that happen to him and around him. It is a story of progressive self-realization. Third, as with the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4), the action is governed by an underlying quest motif in which God’s goal is to bring a person to salvation and belief. This is exactly what happens to Adam.

An additional genre at work is the love story. As in Genesis 2, Adam is gradually brought to an awareness that he is incomplete without a woman as his companion. So the account moves in its final stages to the marriage of Adam and Eve. By the time we put all the foregoing together, it is obvious that this marvelous story has presented a complete view of God, people, and nature, and the proper relations among them.

For Reflection or Discussion

As you work your way through the passage, what developments do you see in regard to (a) Adam’s knowledge of the world around him and of God, and (b) his self-knowledge about himself? If we view the story as a quest story, how does each detail contribute to progress toward the goals of the quest? How does the entry of Eve into Adam’s life transform the story into a love story in the epic mode?

Additional Notes

To appreciate the nuances of Milton’s achievement in this passage, we need
to be active and analytic readers. The story belongs to the archetype of the initiation story, as Adam is initiated for the first time into life and into what it means to be a person in God’s world. Moment by moment, we can trace the things into which Adam is initiated.

Biblical allusions also count for a lot in this passage. For example, in leading Adam into Paradise God calls it a “mansion” and a “seat prepared,” echoing Jesus’s comments about Heaven in John 14:2–3. When Adam falls in adoration at the feet of God, God states, “Whom thou soughtest I am,” in words reminiscent of Jesus’s statement to the woman at the well (John 4:26).

Another sphere of meanings emerges when we become aware of moments in Adam’s account that remind us of earlier passages in Paradise Lost. Adam invokes the sun to bless it with the formula “thou sun” (line 273); Satan used the formula “O sun” to curse the sun (Book 4, line 37). Numerous descriptive passages echo similar passages in the portrayal of Paradise in Book 4: the phrases “goodliest trees” (line 304) and “fairest fruit” (line 307) are carried over from Book 4, line 147. A whole network of such parallels is present in Adam’s account.

Adam's Avowal of Love for Eve (lines 521–629)

The culminating point of Adam’s creation story is marriage to Eve, whom Adam calls “the sum of earthly bliss / Which I enjoy” (lines 522–23). Milton uses that as the launching point for a third episode in which we as readers are led to see the precarious nature of Adam and Eve’s innocence—precarious not in the sense of any deficiency but in the sense that what they enjoy could be perverted by Satan and thereby cause their fall. (The two prior episodes in this vein were Eve’s admiring her reflection in the water and her dream temptation.) The key to interpreting the scene is that it consists of three speeches, first by Adam, then by Raphael, and then by Adam. It is crucial to understand that in Adam’s first speech he expresses danger signs that he later recants, calling them feelings to which he is tempted but to which he has not succumbed. If we did not have Adam’s second speech that modifies the first, surely we would conclude that he is already fallen.

The vocabulary in which Adam expresses his love for Eve (521–59) is highly charged. Within the moral scheme of Paradise Lost, there are danger signs: reason is not controlling emotion, and Adam is relinquishing his headship in the marriage relationship, and both of those would be violations of the great chain of being. Raphael rebukes Adam “with contracted brow” (line 560). Adam then backtracks, explaining that in his earlier speech he had expressed “what inward thence I feel, not therefore foiled” (line 608; see also lines 610–11).

While Milton conducts the three-part conversation in such way as to preserve Adam’s continuing innocence, he has also added to the narrative transition from innocence to evil in the life of Adam. When Adam falls in Book 9, he will fall through uxoriousness (excessive devotion and submissiveness to one’s wife). At that point we can look back at this passage and see the ingredients that were perverted to produce Adam’s fall.

For Reflection or Discussion

What danger signs are built into the exchange between Adam and Raphael? How does Milton manage the danger signs in such a way as to preserve Adam’s continuing innocence?

Additional Notes

This passage is a delicate balancing act on Milton’s part. As a Puritan he wants to elevate romantic love, marital devotion to one’s spouse, and the dignity of women and wives. Adam’s first speech accomplishes those goals. On the other hand, Milton’s ethical beliefs committed him to believing that reason must control the emotions and that a good marriage requires the headship of the husband. Raphael’s rebuke and Adam’s partial recantation achieve those goals.

It is a principle of reading literature that as much as possible we should read a work in keeping with the author’s intentions. Further, the storyteller is a presiding presence in the story—a travel guide who guides readers to the right responses. It is obvious throughout the middle books of Paradise Lost, right up to the moment of the fall in Book 9, that Milton wants us to see Adam and Eve as still innocent. The function of the foreshadowing episodes is to serve as a narrative transition for us as readers; they are not part of a psychological transition in which Adam and Eve are shown to be progressively fallen.

Raphael's Departure (lines 630–53)

For sheer weightiness, Raphael’s parting words to Adam are unsurpassed. In lines 633–43, Raphael phrases his utterances as commands (e.g., “be strong,” “stand fast,” “take heed”). Together these commands sum up Adam’s precarious position and need to be on his guard. The whole ethical scheme and value structure of the poem are encapsulated in Raphael’s words. Furthermore, virtually every command that Raphael utters echoes one or more famous Bible verses (and ones particularly important to the Puritans). For example, the command to “be strong” (line 633) echoes Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” “Take heed” (line 635) alludes to 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” And many others.

After all this weightiness of content, the last two lines (652–53) are a classic of understatement: “So parted they, the angel up to Heaven / From the thick shade, and Adam to his bower.”

For Reflection or Discussion

What details make the passage awe-inspiring? What biblical allusions and echoes add to that weightiness?

Additional Notes

The best commentary on this passage comes from a critic named E. M. W. Tillyard, in his book Milton: “Raphael’s final warning and departure complete with a boding solemnity which it is impossible to overpraise the preparations for the ensuing tragedy. . . . With the departure of Raphael Heaven’s vigilance is withdrawn. Man is left to his own resources; and the stage is empty for the three chief actors, Adam, Eve, and the serpent.”

Book 9

Plot Summary

Book 9 marks another key transition point in the story (from the perfection of God’s creation and the human creatures in it to the fall into sin), so Milton composed another epic invocation to mark it. The first action in Book 9 is the reentry of Satan into Paradise. His degeneration has continued during his absence.

Then the focus shifts to Adam and Eve on the morning of the fateful day. The opening action is a conversation about working separately. Eve wants to separate from Adam so they can get more work accomplished. Adam does not approve of the idea, but at the crucial moment he weakens and agrees to separation. The rest is history. Satan finds Eve alone and subjects her to a long temptation, at the end of which she eats the forbidden fruit. A cosmic fall occurs instantaneously. Eve then becomes the agent of temptation for Adam, who also eats the forbidden fruit. The last movement of Book 9 is devoted to the immediate effects of the fall (whereas Books 11 and 12 will narrate the later effects). The foregoing brief outline of events conceals the wealth of things that happen, suggesting that the major action is interior.

  • Book 9

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

Book 9 is one of the three most important books in Paradise Lost (the other two being 1 and 4). In one way or another, the entire poem thus far has been leading up to this book. This is not surprising: Paradise Lost is a story of crime and punishment. Such stories always unfold according to a three-phase pattern: the antecedents, occurrence, and consequences of the crime.

Epic Invocation (lines 1–47)

This is the last of four invocations in Paradise Lost, and it is even more revealing of Milton’s intentions than the opening invocation is. The opening lines do not invoke a heavenly muse but speak abruptly to the reader. This is not so much an invocation as a manifesto, we quickly learn. First the epic narrator announces a transition from Adam and Raphael’s conversation to the tragedy to follow (lines 1–13). To tell the story of the fall is a “sad task,” the narrator tells us, yet it is a subject that is “not less but more heroic” than what we find in the previous epic tradition (lines 13–14). More heroic: how can a story of human failure be more heroic than the success stories of classical epic?

As Milton answers that question for us, it quickly becomes apparent that he has completely inverted the value structure of other epics. In fact, he has done this so drastically that Paradise Lost is a counter-epic or anti-epic as well as an epic. Milton singles out the martial (military) theme of classical epic for negative comment (lines 14–41). In its place, Milton has chosen to write about “the better fortitude / Of patience” and “heroic martyrdom” (a contradiction, given the previous epic tradition).

Milton’s objection is primarily to the ethical values of traditional epic, and secondarily to what he describes as boring story material. Stories of military success do not deal with “that which justly gives heroic name / To person or to poem” (lines 40–41). We can infer that in Milton’s view the right worldview and morality and values are what should be considered heroic.

For Reflection or Discussion

We will make better sense of this invocation if we have read the epics to which Milton refers, but even if we have not, we can piece together his argument. What aspects of the previous epic tradition does Milton criticize? What are the specific objections that he raises? What does Milton propose in place of the conventional motifs of classical epics?

Additional Notes

We caught hints of Milton’s revamping of the previous epic tradition in Books 1 and 2, beginning with the opening statement of subject (“Of man’s first disobedience”), which proposed a defeat instead of a victory as the subject matter. But in the invocation to Book 9 Milton gathers up all the hints into a composite summary. This invocation conducts an attack on the value structure and story material of previous epics.

Milton calls Paradise Lost a “heroic poem” instead of an epic, in tribute to how important the epic hero is to the epic enterprise. But who is the hero of Paradise Lost? Milton split the hero three ways: Satan is heroic in the sense of being modeled on the old military heroes; Adam and Eve are the heroes in the sense of being the human protagonists in the story; the Son is the hero in the sense of being the greatest exemplar of what is good.

Satan's Reentry into the Garden (lines 48–191)

In order to preserve the perfection of Paradise, Milton devised to exile Satan from the garden during Books 5 through 8. But we all know that the story of the fall hinges on the temptation by Satan, so Milton brings him back into the garden for Book 9. He is more sinister than before—“improved / In meditated fraud and malice, bent / On man’s destruction” (lines 54–56). Part of Milton’s intention in this part of the poem is to bring evil and good into the greatest possible juxtaposition, so he composes a soliloquy in which Satan extravagantly praises the perfection of both the garden and its human inhabitants (lines 99–178). Satan’s long soliloquy ends with a self-portrayal in which he exhibits the full extent of his evil nature.

For Reflection or Discussion

How does the passage contribute to the characterization of Satan? How does the passage serve as a prelude to the fall? What does Satan’s soliloquy reveal about the psychology of evil?

Additional Notes

Satan’s soliloquy is a masterful portrayal of the psychology of evil. At this later point in his career in evil, Satan confesses that “only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts” (lines 129–30). Whereas earlier he spoke honestly in his soliloquys (since there was no need to deceive an audience), now he lies, even in his soliloquy. Whereas the saint does good simply because it is good and not for personal gain, Satan does evil simply because it is evil.

The Discussion about Working Separately (lines 192–384)

Genesis 3 divides the temptations and falls of Adam and Eve, and Milton (as always) follows the Bible in his composition. This required Milton to find a way to separate Adam and Eve on the day of the fall. The discussion about working separately was the episode that Milton invented, and it is so captivating to modern readers that it regularly runs away with the class session in teaching situations. Because Eve highlights the issue of working separately, modern readers with a feminist agenda assume that the episode is primarily concerned with gender issues. It is not. The discussion focuses on whether husband and wife should work separately.

The discussion begins innocently: Eve worries about the inroads on the working time of this newly married couple. Working separately would eliminate the honeymoon distractions that have accompanied their work thus far. It is part of the genius of this episode that it keeps taking unexpected directions that no one could have envisioned. The more Adam resists Eve’s suggestion, the more determined she is to prove herself invulnerable. To counter any impression that the issues are gender-based, Adam observes that he, just as much as Eve, is stronger when in the presence of the other.

As the conversation becomes more and more dire, Adam asserts several important principles that the subsequent story supports: the extreme threat posed by Satan’s presence in the garden (lines 252–58); the subtlety of Satan (lines 307–8); the strength that would come to Adam and Eve if they remained in each other’s presence (lines 308–12). When Eve continues to press her proposal, Adam utters a speech that summarizes the moral and spiritual issues that are the premises of the story (lines 243–356), with human choice the prime premise. At the key moment, when Adam should have exercised headship, he weakens (lines 370–75). This means that he shares responsibility for Eve’s fall.

How should we interpret this intriguing episode? Three overlapping interpretations have risen to the foreground. (1) The episode demonstrates the tug of emotional impulses at the rational judgment. (2) The episode shows a breakdown in the exercise of hierarchy within marriage. (3) Adam is guilty of uxoriousness (excessive fondness and submission to one’s wife). In case these ideas make it seem that Adam and Eve are already fallen, we need to remind ourselves that if they had spent the morning working separately and Eve had returned without eating the apple, we would not think of them as fallen.

For Reflection or Discussion

In an episode that has proven intriguing for modern readers, we need to start with the impressionistic (reader-response) question: what do you think Milton intended with the episode, and how do you respond to various details and moments in the passage? (Of course, our responses can be wrong and are always answerable to the text.) How does the unfolding discussion continually move in an unforeseen and ultimately doomed direction? To the extent to which the conversation ends in an unfortunate place, how are Adam and Eve jointly responsible for where it ends?

Additional Notes

No matter how many loose ends this episode produces, it is indisputable that Milton produced “a winner” for modern readers. Some of the interest is misguided, but one of the lessons we can learn from this is that no author can control the responses of a reader. Milton would not have applauded a wife who overrules her husband’s good advice, so we need to resist reading modern feminist ideas into the passage.

Some readers refer to this discussion as a quarrel, but an unfallen couple does not quarrel. In the lead-ins to the successive speeches, Milton takes elaborate pains to mitigate any possible sense that this is a quarrel (lines 226, 272, 290, 321, 342; Adam replies “fervently,” but only after the fall is he “first incensed” [line 1162]).

For people who cannot read the passage without assigning appropriate blame to Adam and Eve, it is important to realize that both Adam and Eve are responsible. Eve implicitly resists Adam’s authority, but she does not disobey Adam. At the very moment when Adam should have exerted his authority, he abdicates his role as head of the household. Adam takes away Eve’s opportunity to choose (and an unfallen Eve would not have pouted). Adam even gives Eve reasons for working separately that she herself had not stated.

The Temptation and Fall of Eve (lines 385–852)

Once Eve parts from Adam, her fall unfolds in three phases: her setting forth alone (lines 385– 411), her temptation by Satan (lines 412–700), and her eating of the apple followed by its consequences (lines 701–852). Satan’s temptation of Eve in Book 9 is the grandest temptation story in all of English literature. Milton calls it a “fraudulent temptation” (lines 531) for at least three reasons: Eve is misled into thinking that the Serpent is the speaker; Satan lies throughout the temptation; Satan masks his destructive intent as benevolent concern for humankind.

We now get a full version of the ingredients that were present in kernel form in Eve’s dream temptation in Book 5: Satan flatters Eve (lines 532–48 and 606–12); he makes the forbidden fruit provocative and alluring to Eve (lines 568–605); he lies about having eaten the forbidden fruit and having been transformed by the knowledge he gained through it (lines 679–99); he intoxicates Eve’s mind with thoughts of deity (lines 700–718). The epic narrator adds lines of commentary that guide our interpretation of what is happening, as when he tells us that Satan’s “words replete with guile / Into her heart too easy entrance won” (lines 733–34). In other words, Satan (a) deceives Eve and (b) sways her emotions.

In the earlier dream temptation, Eve’s mind had no chance to choose, but in the real temptation Eve deliberately chooses. She utters a whole speech that lets us into her thinking as she contemplates eating the forbidden fruit (lines 745–79). The key to Eve’s fall is that she has been deceived by Satan; her speech shows that she believes everything that Satan has said. “Eve’s prime sin,” writes E. M. W. Tillyard, “is a dreadful unawareness, despite all the warnings, of the enormous issues involved.” When Eve eats the apple (lines 780–81), we reach the climax of Milton’s plot. The fall is cosmic as well as personal. The immediate effect on Eve is that she engorges herself with the apple and descends to bowing in worship to the tree.

For Reflection or Discussion

We can begin with the subjective question: what interests you most in Milton’s story of Eve’s fall? Then we should press analysis in a more text-based direction: based on what is in the text, what can we infer interested Milton most? A premise of literary narrative is that the story tells us not only what happened but what happens; basing our answer on the story of Eve’s fall (how it happened), how does the fall into sin happen—anytime, anywhere?

Additional Notes

Temptation stories focus our attention on three ingredients: the character and subtlety of the tempter; the back-and-forth process by which the tempter manipulates the victim of temptation and by which the victim initially resists; the way in which the victim of temptation gives in at the end. This is the paradigm at work in the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve in Book 9.

The keynote of Eve’s fall is that she fell deceived. Milton took his cue from several famous Bible verses: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:13); “the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning” (2 Cor. 11:3); “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:14).

Milton conspicuously locates the time of Eve’s fall at noon (lines 739–40), and this has generated a great deal of critical comment. Actually, the detail explains less than it seems to explain. Yes, it explains why Eve was hungry and wanted to eat, but it does not explain why she ate of the forbidden tree of the garden when she could have eaten from any other tree.

In conventional epic, the epic feat (the central event around which the entire epic is constructed) consists of winning a battle and establishing or regaining an empire. Externally considered, eating an apple is too trivial an event to rank as an epic feat. Milton welcomed the seeming triviality of eating an apple because that very triviality focuses attention on spiritual reality—on the disobedience that was represented by eating the apple.

The Temptation and Fall of Adam (lines 853–999)

When Eve reconnects with Adam, she becomes his agent of temptation. There is barely a hint of this in Genesis 3, but the post-biblical tradition ran riot with Eve as the temptress of Adam. Eve’s speeches are brimming with irony. She is on the verge of “growing up to godhead” (line 877). Adam needs to join her or she might “too late renounce / Deity for [him]” (lines 884–85). Adam immediately senses the implications of what he hears Eve say, and tragically he at once decides to fall with her (lines 888–94). His inward speech (lines 896–916) is not a deliberation preceding choice (as Eve’s similar speech had been) but already expresses his moment of choice.

Whereas Eve had fallen because she was deceived by the claims of the Serpent, Adam sins “against his better knowledge” (line 998). In other words, he knows exactly what he is doing. Specifically and extravagantly, he chooses romantic love for his wife over obedience to God. When Adam follows his interior monologue (lines 896–916) with a speech addressed to Eve (lines 921–59), we observe the workings of a mind that is already fallen. Eve responds with the most ironic speech in the entire poem (lines 960–89). The irony of Eve’s embrace of Adam in celebration of the evil choice is nearly unbearable to read (lines 990–93).

For Reflection or Discussion

We can ask the same questions as we asked for the temptation and fall of Eve: What interests you most in the account? What can we infer interested Milton most? What universal principles are embodied in the story of how this one character fell into sin?

Additional Notes

In telling the story of a second fall that happens immediately after a preceding one, Milton had to avoid monotony. He does so by making the two falls foils to each other, on at least four counts: Eve falls only after a long process of temptation, while Adam falls immediately; Eve’s tempter is a supernatural being (Satan), while Adam’s tempter is his own wife; Eve falls deceived, while Adam falls “not deceived” (line 998); Eve’s desired goal in eating the forbidden fruit is a vaguely conceived desire to become divine, while Adam is “fondly overcome with female charm” (line 999).

Predictably, some modern readers believe that we automatically side with Adam’s choice of romantic love and cannot possibly believe that he did the wrong thing. But any work of literature needs to be allowed to set its own scale of values. Milton sets obedience to God above human love. So does the Bible and the Christian faith based on it. The story of Adam’s fall is the last major instance in the poem of the technique of the guilty reader: Milton constructs a narrative situation where it is easy to make the wrong response, and if we do, we have implicated ourselves as guilty readers.

The Immediate Effects of the Fall (lines 1,000–1,189)

Milton’s grand design is to create a great before-and-after scenario in our consciousness. For multiple books in the middle of Paradise Lost, we luxuriated in images of paradisal perfection. Now we are asked to endure the misery of life in a fallen world. The success of Milton’s venture depends on his ability to make the good attractive and the evil repulsive. As Milton now turns to the immediate effects of the fall, therefore, he is performing a task that is as important to his overall purposes as when he portrayed absolute goodness.

Milton’s way of portraying the immediate effects of the fall is to show the perversion of appetites that had been good before the fall. Eating becomes gluttony (lines 1004–11). Unfallen sexuality becomes lechery (lines 1013–45). Consciousness of sin sets in, followed by scenes of quarreling and mutual accusation of each other, in obvious contrast to earlier scenes of ideal love.

For Reflection or Discussion

Storytelling is affective art in which storytellers communicate what they wish to say by getting readers to feel certain ways toward characters, events, and even settings. Milton succeeds in making his moral and religious points only as he leads us to respond the right way to what he puts before us. Monitoring our responses and feelings is therefore part of how we absorb the truth of a work like Paradise Lost. What feelings are evoked for you as you read the account of the immediate effects of the fall?

Additional Notes

Paradise Lost is the most sustained system of contrasts in all of English literature. Milton transmuted the mass of individual details that had grown up in commentary on early Genesis into a work of art partly by imposing an unending network of contrasts on the material. In the concluding section of Book 9, we “live and move” in a world of the imagination that gives us contrasts to much of what has filled the pages of the poem up to this point. For example, what had been exalted up to this point has now become cheap and tawdry.

Milton’s unfallen Adam and Eve are heightened above ordinary people in numerous ways. They speak great poetry extemporaneously and can spontaneously sing a new song in varied styles every morning. They are intellectually superior to us. And so forth. One of the ways in which Milton portrays the superiority of Adam and Eve before the fall is to make them address each other in stately epithets (titles): “Daughter of God and man, accomplished Eve” (4. 660); “O sole in whom my thoughts find all repose, / My glory, my perfection” (5. 28–29). Late in Book 9 the narrator speaks of “altered style” (line 1132). What this means is that Adam and Eve no longer address each other in exalted language; they are just Adam and Eve to each other.

Book 10

Plot Summary

Milton portrays the fall as an ever-expanding vision of corruption. The effect is like a stone thrown into water that then produces a series of ripples outward. If the end of Book 9 portrays the immediate effects of the fall, Book 10 can be said to portray the next wave of effects.

The opening lines narrate the arrival of the angelic guards in Heaven after their failure to protect Adam and Eve. Then the Son is dispatched to the garden to judge Adam and Eve. The Son pronounces judgment and returns to Heaven. The narrative camera then shifts to Sin and Death at the gates of Hell and traces their journey toward Earth. As they build a grand bridge and highway from Hell and Earth, they meet Satan making a return trip to Hell in triumph.

The story then traces Satan’s return to Hell. In a scene replete with echoes of Books 1 and 2, Satan delivers a boastful speech of triumph. Instead of hearing applause, Satan hears a universal hiss and finds himself being physically transformed into a snake. When he attempts to eat fruit like that of the forbidden tree in Paradise, it turns into ashes in his mouth. That note of defeat for Satan is balanced by a return of our gaze to Sin and Death as they invade Earth. To complete the sadness that we feel toward the changes that Adam and Eve’s sin brought into the entire earthly sphere, God and his angels initiate elements of mutability and discord in the world of nature.

The final movement of Book 10 returns us to Adam and Eve in the fallen garden. Four powerful human scenes end Book 10: Adam’s soliloquy of despair; his outburst of anger against Eve; Eve’s imploring Adam not to reject her, leading to mutual reconciliation between wife and husband; Adam and Eve’s confession of their sin before God.

Book 10 is a book of epic adventure. For range of setting and agents, it reaches as high as any book in Paradise Lost. It encompasses all the principal characters and places: God and Satan, Adam and Eve, Heaven, Hell, and Earth.

  • Book 10

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

Things will fall into place if we consider the function of Book 10 in Paradise Lost. First, we need to remember that Milton constructed his epic on the principle of paired books; Books 9 and 10 together comprise the story of the fall and its immediate consequences (just as Books 11 and 12 will portray the long-term effects of the fall). Second, at the end of the opening invocation in the poem, Milton announced that he would exonerate (“justify”) God to us despite the fact that the fall brought terrible consequences into the world; now that the fall has happened in the story, Milton redoubles his strategy of portraying God in a favorable light.

With a little streamlining, we can see a carefully designed structure to Book 10: the effects of the fall in Heaven and as it relates to God (lines 1–228); the effects of the fall in Hell and as it relates to Satan (lines 229–584); the effects of the fall on Earth, with special attention to Adam and Eve (lines 585–1104).

The case can be made for Book 10 being an “epic within an epic.” It encompasses the entire cosmology of Paradise Lost, including Hell, Chaos, Earth, and Heaven. The five principal characters are present: the Father, the Son, Satan, Adam, and Eve. The interplay of loss and restoration is fully operative.

God's Judgment of Adam and Eve (lines 1–228)

The plot line of Paradise Lost is a story of crime and punishment. The first nine books have narrated what led up to the crime and the committing of the crime. The last three books narrate the punishment for the crime. God is of course the one to administer the punishment.

The rhythm of the opening section of Book 10 follows a now-familiar pattern: (1) the facts about what is happening on Earth are made public in Heaven (lines 1–31); (2) the Father and Son deliberate on what must be done (lines 31–84); (3) the Son descends to Earth to carry out the divine will (lines 85–223); (4) the Son ascends to Heaven (lines 224–28). The Son’s calling Adam and Eve to account is based directly on Genesis 3.

For Reflection or Discussion

Woven throughout this section are statements that place God in a favorable light despite the fact that he judges Adam and Eve; where are these passages? More specifically, what gestures of mercy mitigate God’s judgment? Adam and Eve are our representatives in this episode; how does this “play out” as we read and assimilate what Milton puts before us?

Additional Notes

Book 10 is laden with theological implications. Most importantly, the book is organized around two related ideas: (1) the consequences of human sin in the world, and (2) the beginning of regeneration in the sinful human pair. Judgment against sin and grace to mitigate that judgment operate and interact in beautiful ways in Book 10.

The reconciliation of Adam and Eve and their resolution to ask God’s forgiveness is one of the great scenes in Paradise Lost. At this point it becomes useful to recall Milton’s claim in the invocation to Book 9 that the story of the fall of Adam and Eve is “more heroic” than the military conquests of previous epics. Adam and Eve are heroic in facing the worst about themselves and in seeking forgiveness and grace from each other and God.

Sin, Death, and Satan (lines 229–409)

Seen from the divine perspective, the fall was the great tragedy of human history. But to the demons, it is a great triumph, and that is the subject of the next phase of action in Book 10. Sin, Death, and Satan, a demonic parody of the Holy Trinity, are the actors. In a passage replete with echoes from the creation story of Books 7 and 8, Sin and Death build a cosmic causeway or bridge from Hell to Earth. The symbolic effect of this is to show the terrible access that evil now has to the entire earthly sphere. Throughout these lines, we are led to recoil from the triumph that evil asserts in a fallen world. We cringe as we read.

For Reflection or Discussion

The more uncomfortable we feel as we read this celebration of demonic characters, the more Milton has achieved his intention; in what specific ways does Milton make evil terrifying to us? What Milton describes in epic and cosmological (mythical) terms is what is daily reality for us; what “bridges” or applications can you formulate between Book 10 and the daily news or your own experiences in the world?

Additional Notes

Paradise Lost is a vast network of echoes and contrasts. Numerous details in this section of the poem represent a demonic echo of something perfect earlier in the poem. For example, Sin begins her address to Death with the vocative, “O Son” (line 235), the same address that started the dialogue in Heaven in Book 3. Sin begins a poem of praise to Satan with the line, “O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds” (line 354), and the morning hymn of Adam and Eve had begun, “These are thy glorious works, Parent of good.” “On earth/ Dominion exercise” (lines 399–400), Satan tells Sin and Death in parody of God’s command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. And so forth.

Satan's Transformation (lines 410–584)

Milton’s design in Paradise Lost is ultimately to expose sin as ugly (despite its appearances of splendor). Additionally, an important part of Milton’s moral vision is his conviction that in the long run evildoers bring destruction on themselves. Satan has had many impressive moments in Paradise Lost, though over the course of nine books he has undergone a process of degeneration. That process reaches its climax in the scene where Satan returns to Hell after his exploits on Earth.

Externally, this scene has all the right ingredients for a scene of triumph in the old heroic (military) code. As epic “hero,” Satan has achieved his quest. When Sin and Death present Satan with their bridge from Hell to Earth, they declare them to be Satan’s “trophies” (line 355). As conquering epic “hero,” Satan addresses his followers in a boastful, self-congratulatory speech (lines 460– 503). The moment for thunderous applause arrives (lines 504–6). Then Milton springs a reversal on Satan and us as Satan hears a chorus of snakelike hissing and feels himself being physically reduced to a snake (as are his followers). Whereas in Book 1 the apparent plot (heroic energy and impressiveness) and hidden plot (heroic evil and futility) had been mighty opposites, here at the climax of Satan’s development as a character they are brought together in the sense that Satanic evil reveals itself as it really is.

For Reflection or Discussion

Decide whether you think this is a surprise ending to the characterization of Satan or whether this is the culmination of a long process that has been going on throughout the story. What evidence can you adduce in support of a critic’s comment that Milton has done everything possible in the first nine books of Paradise Lost to warn us as readers that Satan’s grandeur is only apparent and not real? How does this transformation scene fit into Milton’s strategy that we have called the technique of the guilty reader?

Additional Notes

Several important literary conventions converge in the story of Satan’s transformation. Mythical stories of transformation from one level of being into another have fascinated the human race from time immemorial, and the Roman author Ovid’s anthology of such stories entitled Metamorphoses was one of the most popular books of the Renaissance. Additionally, Aristotle in his Poetics extolled the plot device of recognition—“a change from ignorance to knowledge. . . .

The best form of recognition is coincident with a reversal of intention.” Aristotle would have loved this moment of reversal and recognition.

The Corruption of Nature and Adam's Response (lines 585–862)

When Satan met Sin and Death on his return to Hell, he dispatched Sin and Death to exercise dominion on Earth while he proceeded to Hell. With the second of those actions completed, Milton now unfolds the simultaneous action of Sin and Death. We are shown the effect of the fall on the cosmos and what we familiarly call “nature.” Since God is sovereign over the universe, he and his angels instigate such changes in nature as mutability and decay, as well as the violence of predatory animals to each other. This is nature as we ourselves know it—bad as well as good, hostile as well as nurturing. In contrast to how nature was portrayed up to this point in Paradise Lost, we are suddenly led to feel that it was the fall that introduced all of this into our world. Within the total context of Paradise Lost, we understand that what seems natural to us is really unnatural (not God’s design for the world).

Adam becomes our representative as he observes and responds to these changes in nature. What the narrator calls his “sad complaint” (line 719) is a fullscale soliloquy in which Adam voices complete despair over his situation. He even expresses a death wish.

For Reflection or Discussion

One avenue of response is to observe and register our feelings as we experience the fallenness of nature as we progress through this passage. One of the functions of literature is to awaken longings; what longings arise as you read about the fallen aspects of nature in this passage? Adam’s long soliloquy (lines 720–844) covers many different topics; what are they?

Additional Notes

Starting with Adam’s soliloquy of despair, Milton systematically delineates what theologians call “the order of salvation” in the lives of Adam and Eve. The process of salvation begins with conviction of sin and acknowledgment of one’s lost state. This is what Adam expresses. No matter how much the speech might depress us, it is the point from which salvation starts.

Quarreling and Reconciliation (lines 720–1,009)

On the heels of Adam’s speech of despair, Milton gives us one of the inspired moments of his epic. It is a masterpiece of human poignancy. When the despairing Adam catches sight of Eve, he attacks her without restraint (lines 867–908). Eve is heartbroken and pleads with Adam not to desert her (lines 814–922). Equally moving is her confession of fault in bringing about the fall (lines 923–36). Eve’s gesture of tenderness is so powerful that Adam immediately relents (lines 940–65). Eve further replies in tones of despair similar to what Adam had expressed in his soliloquy (lines 966–1006).

For Reflection or Discussion

This is life as we know it; with what aspects of the reconciliation scene do you resonate? How has Milton managed this scene of human reconciliation in such a way as to make it like and unlike divine-human reconciliation?

Additional Notes

Eve had been a leading cause of Adam’s fall, and now she is the agent of his recovery. Throughout the story Milton has ascribed distinctive feminine excellences to Eve; perhaps this scene

is the climax of that motif. One scholar calls Eve’s conciliatory speech “one of the most resplendent human occasions the poem has to offer.” This scene of human reconciliation leads directly to the scene of reconciliation with God that follows.

Repentance (lines 1,010–1,104)

Eve’s sense of remorse is so intense in the reconciliation scene that she proposes death as an escape from misery. With this challenge before him, Adam rises in our estimate by proposing that he and Eve cast themselves on God’s mercy. The speech in which he elaborates his evolving thoughts in this direction (lines 1060–96), followed by the couple’s confession toward God (lines 1097–1104), is one of the most movingly devotional passages in Paradise Lost.

For Reflection or Discussion

What view of God emerges from Adam’s words? How does this fit into Milton’s determination to “justify the ways of God to men”? A leading purpose of epic is to give readers images of heroic virtue; how does this passage do that?

Additional Notes

In a theological treatise that Milton wrote, Milton defined the “progressive steps in repentance” (roughly equivalent to what theologians call the order of salvation) as “conviction of sin, contrition, confession, departure from evil, conversion to good.” Adam and Eve’s speech of despair over their sin is a picture of conviction of sin. In lines 1086–96 Adam paints a picture of contrition. The final scene of Adam and Eve bowing before God adds confession to their contrition.

Book 11

Plot Summary

Books 9 and 10 have presented the fall and its immediate effects. Books 11 and 12 tell the story of the effects of the fall throughout human history. A familiar epic convention underlies these two books. It is called the “vision of future history.” Just as an epic story itself was supposed to be a success story, the vision of future history was conventionally a flattering picture of the poet’s own nation. By making the vision of the future a relentless exposure of human sinfulness, Milton adds to his strategy of writing a poem that is both epic and anti-epic.

Book 11 picks up where Book 10 had ended— with Adam and Eve bowing in contrition and confession before God. As God sees them, he responds with favor. In yet another reenactment of epic ritual, the angel Michael is dispatched on an instructive mission from Heaven to Adam and Eve (the “descent from Heaven” motif). His purpose is double: to expel Adam and Eve from the garden, but to do so in such a way that the human couple will leave in a comforted frame of mind and soul. When Michael arrives with the news that Adam and Eve must leave the garden, they are devastated by the news. After the human pair has recovered from the shock, Michael takes Adam to a hill of vision where Adam sees a pageant of fallen human experience, starting with the story of Cain and ending at the conclusion of Book 11 with Noah. Interspersed with the events are passages of give-and-take dialogue between Adam and Michael. Adam shows himself to be greatly in need of instruction, which Michael supplies.

  • Book 11

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

A critic named Kenneth Muir speaks for many when he theorizes that “the last two books are poetically on a much lower level” but nonetheless “are essential to the scheme of the poem.” To begin, Milton’s story of the antecedents, occurrence, and consequences of the fall requires a proportionate attention to the third of these phases. Second, it is ultimately in human history that God’s fairness to the human race will be most forcefully tested, and this is that task that Milton set for himself in justifying the ways of God to men. Third, the vision of future history leads up to Milton’s magnificent conclusion to the whole poem.

The subject of the last two books is human history. This is reminiscent of the Bible. Also reminiscent of the Bible is the way in which the vision of future history is continuously kept within an interpretive framework that clarifies the involvement of God in human history. Human history is the arena within which God’s acts of judgment and redemption are the ultimately important story.

Another Council Scene in Heaven (lines 1–125)

By now we are completely familiar with the situation of events on Earth prompting a response in Heaven, where the Godhead formulates a plan to send an emissary to Earth. As Adam and Eve pray to God, the Son offers to take the penalty of their sin on himself (lines 22–44). The Father has already decreed this, but it does not cancel the need to expel Adam and Eve from the garden. God therefore charges Michael with the task of expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise.

But this is only part of Michael’s mission. He must also “reveal / To Adam what shall come in future days” (lines 113–14). This is a familiar epic convention, though turned somewhat on its head here by being a story of human waywardness. In turn, the vision of the future is actually the means by which Michael reconciles Adam and Eve to leave the garden. Everything has a balanced quality in the last two books of Paradise Lost. For example: “Dismiss them not disconsolate” (line 113). Or, “So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace” (line 117). On the literal level, Michael is informing Adam’s mind about the facts of human history. On a more interpretive level, he is giving Adam and Eve a survival kit for living in a fallen world, and even more, a theology lesson about the gospel.

For Reflection or Discussion

How does the portrayal of God in the council scene support Milton’s theodicy (his reconciling God’s goodness toward the human race with the fact of evil and suffering in the world)? What details show the care with which Milton wove a sense of doubleness (loss and consolation) into the poetry of this passage?

Additional Notes

God says to Michael, “Without remorse drive out the sinful pair” (line 105). Remorse would be inappropriate because Adam and Eve have brought punishment on themselves. But the rest of God’s speech of instruction (lines 108–17) stresses the consolation that God wants Michael to impart to Adam and Eve.

Losing the Lease on Paradise (lines 126–369)

Michael’s descent from Heaven and his early interaction with Adam and Eve are strongly reminiscent of Raphael’s descent and arrival in Book 5. Adam’s optimistic words to Eve about the peacefulness he felt in prayer, followed by an equally hopeful comment on the arrival and angelic guest, are the familiar and ironic “false dawn” so beloved of storytellers. Michael immediately dispels the false optimism by announcing that he has come to remove them from the garden (lines 251–62). Adam and Eve both respond with moving speeches of lament about what they will miss from their garden existence.

The counterbalance to this bad-news scenario is the background chorus of encouragement and consolation that accompanies Michael’s eviction notice. When Eve laments her loss of the beauty of the garden, Michael assures her that Adam’s companionship will accompany her (lines 287–92). When Adam laments that he will no longer receive visits from God, Michael informs him that God is everywhere (lines 335–42).

Even more evocative are the lines in which Michael explains his purpose in coming. He first states that he has come “that thou may’st believe, and be confirmed” (line 355). This is strongly religious vocabulary and makes it clear that Adam and Eve will leave the garden as redeemed people. Second, Michael gives a preview and interpretive framework for the vision of future history that balances loss with consolation: “good with bad / Expect to hear, supernal grace contending / With sinfulness of man” (lines 358–60). Here is the balanced view of life that Christianity postulates.

For Reflection or Discussion

The first thing to do is come to peace in your own mind about the justness of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden. What help does the text offer in that acceptance of this viewpoint? Then we need to experience the balance between opposites that Milton weaves into the texture of the poetry in this unit; at what places in the text are we made to feel the doubleness with particular intensity?

Additional Notes

Milton does a lot with the archetype that underlies this passage and some later ones, namely, the expulsion from Paradise. This archetype carries an enormous weight of regret and nostalgia, and we need to open ourselves up to these feelings. The human race once lived in a perfect garden, and the homeland burns bright in the human psyche. Everyday experience reminds us that we are living as displaced persons.

Each main phase of Paradise Lost is built on a powerful contrast that is a variation on the motif of hidden and apparent plots. In the early books Satan’s apparent grandeur was juxtaposed to hints of his actual evil and the futility of his venture in evil. In the middle books, it was obvious to us that the perfection that Milton portrays has been lost, and only by a more conscious interpretive effort can we see that the garden portrayed by Milton is nonetheless perfect. Here at the end, the apparent story line that everything has been lost is countered by a background chorus that assures us that all can be restored in Christ.

Vision of Fallen History, Part 1 (lines 370–901)

There are two ways to understand why Milton includes a vision of the future in his epic. First, it is an epic convention to devise a place in the story where the protagonist receives a vision of what will happen later in history. This is part of “epic sweep” (the desire to tell “the story of all things,” as one critic calls epic), and also a sign of the seriousness with which cultures that produce an epic regard history. Second, it is an important part of Milton’s theological purpose to explore the effects of the fall on the human race and also the possibility of achieving restoration from those effects.

The key to assimilating the last two-thirds of Book 11 is provided by Michael in his lead-in to the vision of the future: “good with bad / expect to hear” (lines 358–59). This is what Milton gives us. In keeping with the narrative principle of swinging back and forth between opposed elements, Adam (and we with him) is primarily subjected to a vision of terrible effects of his primal sin, but there is also an undercurrent of hope.

There is an additional rhythm as well. The basic paradigm is for the material to unfold in the following threefold sequence: (1) Michael presents a scene for Adam to view; (2) Adam responds to the scene and offers a tentative interpretation of what is happening; (3) Michael either commends Adam for his insight or adds further information to complete what Adam has expressed. Sometimes the examples that are put before Adam come from Old Testament history, but other instances are more universal.

For Reflection or Discussion

Milton offers a catalog of types of evil and misery that characterize life in a fallen world; what categories constitute the list of ills? What theological truths are embodied in this melancholy picture of life in a fallen world? What elements of hope are interspersed in the predominantly negative account of human history?

Additional Notes

Milton’s vision of the future has always been regarded as a problematical part of Paradise Lost. C. S. Lewis called the writing in this part of the poem “curiously bad,” and the effect “inartistic.” Conclusion: “Milton’s talent temporarily failed him.” As often happens in literary criticism, once the gauntlet has been thrown, critics take it as a project to refute the negative verdict. Many critics have written in defense of Milton’s vision of

the future. The defense is based on the ideas presented in the last two books and the place of the vision of the future in Milton’s overall design. If a case can be made for artistic success of the passage, it needs to rest on the element of ongoing adventure, as we are led to wonder what Milton will have chosen next and how Adam will respond to it.

The figure of Noah receives unexpected attention in Michael’s pageant (lines 807–67). The lone person of integrity was an important archetype for Milton. Earlier in Paradise Lost the angel Abdiel had been an example of this heroic archetype.

Book 12

Plot Summary

The first half of Book 12 continues the vision of future history. The general framework is Old Testament history, but more universal material is also present. The whole tone changes from Book 11. The center of gravity gradually shifts from pessimism to optimism. Most significant of all is the prolonged vision of the promised Messiah and his defeat of Satan for the redemption of humankind.

Accompanying this upward trajectory is the spiritual progress of Adam as he responds to the information he receives about Jesus. Two especially important passages are Adam’s assertion of relief based on a theological tradition known as “the fortunate Fall” (lines 469–78) and his expression of his final state of soul as he leaves the garden (lines 557–73). Michael, in turn, responds with statements that finalize the wisdom that he came to impart to Adam and that Milton wishes to impart to his readers (lines 575–605).

The final event in Book 12 and in the poem is Michael’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The writing soars, and the passage immediately emerges in our experience as on a par with the best in Paradise Lost.

  • Book 12

    Public Domain LibriVox Recording

Additional Notes

As we stand on the threshold of the last book of Paradise Lost, questions naturally arise in our minds. What will be the final state of mind and soul of the fallen human couple? In what mood will they (and we) leave the happy garden? How will Milton bring his grand epic enterprise to a proper conclusion? Milton is at his very best in answering our questions in a narrative manner.

Multiple structure schemes have been proposed for Paradise Lost as a whole. The simplest one is to see the sequence in terms of the antecedents, occurrence, and consequences of the fall. We have seen that Milton operates on the principle of pairs of books, with the last two devoted to the long-term effects of the fall. Paradise Lost also belongs to a venerable tradition known as “ring composition” in which the units making up the second half of a work correspond to the units in the first half, but in reverse order. Here is how this works out for Paradise Lost: the first three books focus on Satan’s sinful actions and the last three on humankind’s sinful actions; Book 4 is our entry into Paradise, and Book 9 narrates the loss of Paradise; Books 5 and 6 narrate the destructiveness of the war in Heaven, and Books 7 and 8 balance it with God’s creation of the world.

Vision of Fallen History, Part 2 (lines 1–269)

At the outset of Book 12, Milton clinches the point about the utter corruption of humans and their deeds with a further pageant of people behaving badly. The material comes directly from the Old Testament historical chronicles (starting with Genesis). The thing that gives direction to the pageant is Michael’s instructive mission: the vision of the future is tailored to what Adam and Eve need to know as they take up life in a fallen world. Thefirst thing they need to know is how bad the effects of the fall really are. The opening movement of Book 12 completes that lesson.

For Reflection or Discussion

It is instructive first to focus on Milton as the composer of the vision of future history: why do you think Milton chose the specific episodes that he chose from Old Testament history? Second, we can ponder Milton’s purposes in composing the specific responses of Adam to various scenes and the commentary that Michael then adds to Adam’s responses. As we end the negative portions of the vision of future history, what are the overall lessons that Adam (and we) should carry away from the vision?

Additional Notes

When we move from Book 11 to Book 12, a shift occurs in the means by which Michael reveals the future to Adam. As Michael himself notes (lines 8–12), the medium shifts from actual scenes that Adam sees to Michael’s narrating the action in his own words. What remains constant is a picture of people and events, to which Adam responds and to which Michael ad

The Triumph of Christ (lines 270–551)

The vision of the future has not been totally without hope, but thus far it has been mainly a litany of evil and suffering. Starting with line 270, Michael’s vision becomes increasingly oriented to the incarnation of Christ and the redemption that Jesus accomplished for humankind. The cost is great, and certainly Milton does not give us a version of cheap grace. Nonetheless, in a key passage Michael declares that with the return of Christ at the end of history the earth will be a happier place than Paradise now is (lines 458–65).

Adam’s response to this vision of Christ’s redemption is an exclamation of relief and praise. In fact, he stands “full of doubt” as to whether he should repent of his sin or be happy at the display of divine grace that resulted from his sin. In another key passage, Michael cautions against undue optimism on Adam’s part, inasmuch as the world will continue to decline until Christ returns at the end of history (lines 535–51).

For Reflection or Discussion

First it is important to trace the arc of increasing hope that now enters the vision of future history. Second, in keeping with Milton’s making the last two books of Paradise Lost an equilibrium between loss and consolation, we should note the passages that embody this doubleness with particular clarity. In particular, what passages emphasize the high price that Jesus paid as the atonement for Adam’s sin? It is important to extract this same balance between opposed viewpoints in Adam’s famous response in lines 469–78.

Additional Notes

Adam’s outburst of relief at lines 467–78 is based on a famous theological tradition known as “the paradox of the fortunate fall.” This was the idea that although the fall of humankind was a truly terrible event, it made possible the greatest display of goodness that can be imagined (Christ’s redemption of humankind on the cross). Adam’s words echo a medieval hymn titled “O Happy Sin,” based on this paradox. Milton wished to incorporate some aspects of this tradition, but he does not accept a naive version of it. Adam’s speech expresses the emotional response of the moment and is not a complete theological position. It is a variation on the theme of Romans 5:20—“where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

The Climactic Moment (lines 552–605)

The customary way to structure a story is to move it toward a climactic moment of epiphany (insight, revelation) near the end of the story. This is exactly what Milton does in Paradise Lost. The moment of epiphany consists of Adam’s speech in which he expresses his final state of mind and soul (lines 557–73). These lines express the sum of Milton’s wisdom regarding how people should live in a fallen world.

One strand in this marvelous speech is the Christian values and virtues that it asserts: obedience to God, love of God, faith in God’s providence, overcoming evil with good, viewing death as the gate of life. Second, this speech sums up Milton’s epic norm (standard for living), and it is the opposite of what prevails in the classical epic tradition. Even though Milton uses the old military terminology (overcoming, accomplishing great things, fortitude, highest victory), he inverts the traditional meanings of those words. Milton celebrates spiritual rather than physical and earthly victory and accomplishment, and he elevates virtues such as meekness and suffering for truth’s sake. Here we see a final restatement of Milton’s anti-epic intentions in Paradise Lost.

Finally, the last two books of Paradise Lost have dramatized the stages through which Adam progresses as he reenacts the order of salvation. His turning from sin was displayed in some of his responses to the examples of sin in the vision of the future (e.g., Book 12, lines 63–66). His conversion to the good appears in this climactic speech, especially in the concluding statement that he acknowledges Christ as “my Redeemer ever blest” (line 573). Michael’s response to Adam’s wonderful words (lines 575–87) underscores and extends the final moment of epiphany.

For Reflection or Discussion

What makes this passage a summary of the Christian vision of Paradise Lost? How do the lines relate to earlier parts of the epic? How do they revolutionize the epic tradition that Milton inherited and partly imitated? What is anti-epic about the passage? How does the passage complete Milton’s strategy of replacing the warrior as epic hero with the Christian saint as epic hero?

Additional Notes

Adam’s speech in lines 557–73 repeatedly elevates the spiritual over the physical and external. The passage naturally evokes our memories of biblical passages that do the same thing. Examples are the beatitudes of Matthew 7:3–12 (where the virtues praised are the opposite of earthly success) and 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 (with its sustained put-down of the worldly strong and impressive).

Michael’s addition to Adam’s words are also splendid and evocative (especially lines 581–87). They add a list of Christian virtues that are reminiscent of the fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians 5:22–23; Michael lists faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love. Further, Michael emphasizes the need for practical Christianity—the need for Adam to “add /Deeds to thy knowledge answerable” (lines 581–82).

A Moving Day in Paradise (lines 606–49)

Milton brings his grand epic enterprise to an end with a splendor that is impossible to overpraise. These lines will repay all the attention that we can give them. The external action is the archetypal expulsion from the perfect garden. The internal action is what matters most, particularly what we see of the final state of mind and soul of Adam and Eve as they leave the garden as redeemed people.

Milton’s picture of Adam and Eve leaving the garden is a metaphor or paradigm of life as we know it. Its essential quality is its double quality. The picture is of a mingled web—unspeakably sad but somehow also dear, a dreary existence that we can endure with a degree of happiness because of the consolations of human love and divine providence. Milton’s closing lines are a masterpiece of equilibrium—of things held in tension and balance to create a final repose. Images of movement are balanced by images of lingering.

For Reflection or Discussion

We must start at a subjective level: what feelings dominate as you read and ponder these lines? Then we can move to the level of analysis: what details balance loss with restoration? What details evoke our memory of earlier moments in Paradise Lost? What things make this a satisfying conclusion to Paradise Lost?

Additional Notes

One thing that a great conclusion to a story gives us is echoes of earlier parts of the story. Milton meets that standard. For example, Eve’s speech to Adam plays with the motif of “with thee/ without thee” (lines 615–16), the main motif in her love poem to Adam in Book 4 (lines 639–56). The nostalgic designation of Paradise as “so late their happy seat” (line 642) repeats the summary statement in Book 4 (247) of Paradise as “a happy rural seat of various view.” The picture of Adam and Eve leaving the garden “hand in hand” (line 648) recalls numerous points in the story that portray Adam and Eve as holding hands. And so forth.

Paradox dominates the last three lines. Using a “stair step” arrangement, Milton puts a word in one line that contrasts with a word in the next line: rest and steps; guide and wand’ring; hand in hand and solitary.

Leading Topics in Paradise Lost

The Big Ideas in the Poem

Paradise Lost is more than a book of ideas, but it is not less than that. Here are some of the ideas that unify the story and that Milton wants his readers to believe: (1) the supremacy, goodness, and sovereignty of God; (2) the presence of a great battle in the universe between good and evil; (3) in view of this great spiritual conflict, the need for every creature to choose between good and evil; (4) the Christian view of history: eternity → life before the fall → fallen human history → eternity; (5) a partly similar view of human nature in its fourfold state: perfect as created by God → fallen → capable of being redeemed → glorified in heaven; (6) the human-divine relationship (the belief that people are inescapably related to God and have dealings with him); (7) the importance of hierarchy in the universe, in the family, and within the human psyche; (8) the necessity for reason to control one’s appetites and feelings; (9) evil consists of disobedience to God.

Paradise Lost as Epic

Paradise Lost meets all the formal requirements of the epic genre. Some of them are as follows: an epic hero of national or international importance who embodies the norms (approved standards) of the culture producing the epic; a central epic feat around which the whole story revolves; the presence of supernatural characters and events; exalted style (including epithets and epic similes); epic invocations to deity to aid the poet in composing the poem; vision of future history; warfare; cosmic setting (epic sweep).

Paradise Lost as Anti-Epic

Even though Paradise Lost meets the formal requirements of an epic, Milton’s Christian worldview led him to invert many of the conventional epic motifs so drastically that Paradise Lost emerges as an anti-epic or counter-epic. Here are some dimensions of this revolution: instead of making the battlefield the scene of the crucial action, Milton made the individual human soul the central scene of action. For the praise of people, Milton substituted the glory of God. Milton transposed military conflict into spiritual conflict. In Paradise Lost, pastoral (rural, natural) and domestic values replace military values. Instead of celebrating human greatness and self-sufficiency, Milton’s story exposes human weakness and sinfulness. Milton’s epic norm is not winning a kingdom for oneself but obeying God and trusting in Christ as savior. In summary, if Paradise Lost imitates previous epics, it also refutes them. Not surprisingly, Paradise Lost was the last major epic of the Western world.

Further Resources