Paradise Lost: The Book at a Glance
Author. John Milton (1608–1674)
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.
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).
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.