by John Milton
THE LITERARY WORK
An epic poem in blank verse set at the beginning of time in Heaven, Chaos (a state of turbulence where matter is in flux), Hell (a place of imprisonment at the bottom of Chaos), and earthly Paradise (whose center is the Garden of Eden); published in 1667 as 10 books, republished in 1674 as 12 books.
The poem dramatizes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise as a result of the War in Heaven between Satan and God.
Born in 1608 in London, John Milton forged a career that reflects the turmoil of English political, social, and religious life in the seventeenth century. Throughout the 1640s, civil war ravaged England as parliamentary and royalist armies battled for control of the country, a struggle that ended when the king, Charles 1, was publicly beheaded in Whitehall, London, in January 1649. Milton published prose works on issues of religious and political controversy during the decade, including Areopagitica (1644), which defends freedom of the press. From 1649-1659, after Milton’s writings attracted the attention of parliamentary leaders, he became diplomatic secretary for Oliver Cromwell’s government. Although Milton had been doing less official work toward the end of the 1650s (largely because of the complete loss of his eyesight in 1652), his close connections with Cromwell’s government jeopardized him in 1660, when the monarchy regained control in England and the Stuart kings were restored to the throne. After serving a few months in prison, Milton was released and suffered no further major reprisals. Meanwhile, in 1658, having earlier published a volume of verse (Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin, 1645), Milton turned again to poetry. The initial version of Paradise Lost consisted of 10 books, but by 1674, the epic had been restructured and a few lines added so that the final version encompassed 12 books, modeled after Greek epics. In addition to using classical epic conventions to tell the Judaeo-Christian story of humanity’s fall, Paradise Lost incorporates key features of seventeenth-century English history.
War in Heaven
Paradise Lost is set at the beginning of time. The epic’s early events center upon the Christian myth of the War in Heaven and the defeat of the evil angels, based loosely on three passages from Judeo-Christian scripture: Isaiah 14:12–21, Luke 10:18, and Revelation 12:7–12. The passage from Isaiah describes Satan as “the morning star, son of the dawn,” who has “fallen from the heavens,” and ascribes to him an overweening pride and arrogance that stem from his rivalry with God (Isaiah 14.12):
“I will scale the heavens;
Above the stars of God
I will set up my throne;
I will take my seat on the Mount of Assembly, in the recesses of the North.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will be like the Most High!”
Yet down to the nether world you go to the
recesses of the pit!
Pride and vainglory, traits of Satan that find their way into Paradise Lost, lead to the War in Heaven and impel the fallen angel to seek vengeance for his loss by wreaking havoc on God’s newly created beings, Adam and Eve. In the passage from the gospel of Luke, Jesus himself echoes the account in Isaiah of Lucifer’s downfall, noting, in particular, how the rebellious angel’s descent was like lightning. The passage from Revelation dramatizes the military conflict of the War in Heaven, identifying Michael as the leader of the good angels and Satan as his adversary, also called the “huge dragon,” “the devil,” and “the seducer of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-12). While Milton clearly relied on the three foregoing passages from scripture, he drew from Greek myth too—for example, from the War of the Titans against Jove (recounted by authors such as Hesiod and Pindar). In the first book of Paradise Lost he refers to Briareos and Typhon, of the Titans and earth-born Giants who warred on Jove (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.198). Jove’s use of lightning to defeat Typhon and to cause his nine-day fall into Tartarus, or into a cave near Tarsus (in Asia Minor) anticipates the Son’s use of thunderbolts to cause the fall of the evil angels from Heaven in Book 6 of Paradise Lost.
The later events of Paradise Lost deal with Satan’s seduction of Eve in the Garden of Eden and her relationship with Adam during and immediately after their downfall. Again drawing on scripture, Milton adapts and enlarges the account in Genesis 3:1–7:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’.” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
From this brief biblical account, Milton creates a luxuriant Garden of Eden as the center of an earthly Paradise teeming with plants, fruits, flowers, rivers, birds, fish, and beasts whose interaction is harmonious. Paradise has been traced back to the Persian word for “park” or “enclosure.” Genesis 2:8 tells us that the garden was in “the East,” which in this context generally means “Mesopotamia” (Metzger and Coogan, p. 178). We are also told that four rivers flow out of the garden—Gihon, Pishon, Tigris, and Euphrates—but the first two are unknown, making it impossible to pinpoint a precise location for the earthly Paradise.
In Paradise Lost, Milton situates the Garden of Eden on a plateau at the summit of Paradise, and along the slope of ascent lies a “steep wilderness, whose hairy sides” are “with thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild” (Paradise Lost, 4.135–36). Rising from the slope, as well, are various trees—cedar, pine, fir, and palm—creating “insuperable highth of loftiest shade” (Paradise Lost, 4.138). Such a lush paradise has numerous precedents in classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature. Among the precedents most likely to have influenced Milton are Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian myths, the most influential being the epic Gilgamesh, which predates the Book of Genesis by 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Paradise Lost is divided into 12 books that function much like the chapters of a novel. The narrative begins with the defeat of Satan after his failed attempt to take control of Heaven, follows him through the stages of his successful plot to subvert God’s newest creation, humankind, and ends with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Like most epics, Paradise Lost starts in medias res, or in the midst of things—that is, the story is not told in strict chronological order. For example, it is only midway through the epic that the seraph (or angel) Raphael recounts the earliest events, such as the War in Heaven, but the epic’s narrator recounts the consequences of that conflict, notably the punishment of the evil angels and their effort to avenge their downfall at the start of the poem, in Books 1 and 2. The following brief survey summarizes the sequence of events through the twelve books of the poem.
Book 1. The poem begins with a statement of its theme: to “assert Eternal Providence” and to “justify the ways of God to men” (Paradise Lost, 1.25-26). While the downfall of Adam and Eve and their loss of Eden are foreseen, the poem also emphasizes the role the Son as the redeemer, who offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of fallen humankind (Paradise Lost, 1.4). The narrator then recounts the aftermath of the War in Heaven, particularly the defeat and banishment of the fallen angels to Hell. Satan, who remains defiant, revives the fallen angels after their defeat and assembles them to plan how they will avenge their loss.
Book 2. A meeting takes place in Pandemonium, a structure built by the fallen angels in Hell. In this edifice, which resembles both a temple and a palace, Satan occupies the position of preeminence: “high on a throne of royal state” (Paradise Lost, 2.1). Four angels present their views concerning the options for vengeance, and there is overwhelming approval for a plan to attack the newly created race of Man, who is less than the angels “in power and excellence, but favored more” by God (Paradise Lost, 2.350). Satan volunteers to conduct a reconnaissance of these newly created beings. He persuades the gatekeeper, Sin, to unlock the gates of Hell and let him out. He then flies through Chaos, until he lands on the convex exterior of the cosmos, which is encased by a crystalline sphere or shell.
Book 3. Seeing what has happened, God the Father informs the Son that Satan will succeed in his plan to subvert Adam and Eve, who will fall from their state of grace. Though God foresees their downfall, he emphasizes that the fault is theirs, not his, for they are creatures whom he created with free will. Meanwhile, Satan dives through an opening in the exterior of the cosmos and flies to the brightest body in the heavens, the sun. Disguising himself as a lesser angel, he seeks information about Adam and Eve from Uriel, the seraph who is regent of the sun. Directed to earth, Satan lands within sight of Eden.
Book 4. Having assumed the shape of a cormorant, Satan perches on the Tree of Life, from which he surveys Eden. When he notices Adam and Eve, he enters the shapes of other animals; and as if he were stalking prey, he approaches the human pair to overhear their conversation. He learns of their one prohibition—the divine command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—and plans their downfall. Uriel, who was tricked into directing Satan to earth, becomes aware of the deception, and alerts Gabriel, the seraph who protects Paradise, to the intruder. Satan creeps up to Eve while she sleeps and induces her to dream.
Book 5. In her dream Eve is awakened by a voice that resembles Adam’s, though it is spoken by an angelic being. (The being is none other than Satan in the guise of this angel.) Led in her dream to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve is urged to eat of the forbidden fruit and does so. She then accompanies the angelic being “up to the clouds,” from which she views “the earth outstretched immense” (Paradise Lost 5.86, 88). To warn Adam and Eve of Satan and his wiles, God the Father instructs the seraph Raphael to travel to earth. Raphael recounts how Satan, then called “Lucifer,” seduced one third of the angels to revolt against God, suggesting how formidable an adversary he is to the humans.
Book 6. Raphael continues his account of Satan’s revolt. After three days, the war becomes a stalemate, even though the resourceful and ingenious Satan invents gunpowder that ignites cannons. These “implements of mischief” over whelm the good angels, whose recourse is to uproot the mountains of Heaven and to topple them onto the weapons devised by Satan (Paradise Lost, 6.488). To bring the three-day war to an end, the Father urges the Son to mount “the chariot of Paternal Deity,” from which he will assault the evil angels (Paradise Lost, 6.750). Speeding toward them in the chariot, the Son discharges “ten thousand thunders” in a volley so intense that the evil angels leap from the precipice of Heaven, falling for nine days into Hell (Paradise Lost, 6.836).
Book 7. At Adam’s request Raphael recounts the story of the Creation. Sped by a chariot through the gates of Heaven, the Son, accompanied by angels, oversees “the vast immeasurable abyss,” which is “outrageous as a sea, dark, wasteful, wild” (Paradise Lost, 7.211–12). In a series of utterances, the Son begets one stage of the Creation after another. Plenitude, continuity, and hierarchy characterize Nature, which is full of diversity and innumerable creatures—fowl, fish, and beasts. The account focuses on the creation of humankind and the enjoinder that Adam and Eve, endowed “with sanctity of reason,” should “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Paradise Lost, 6.508, 531).
Book 8. Adam asks Raphael about the planets and other celestial bodies, their placement in the heavens, and their motions. But Raphael discourages such inquiry, even the query on whether the earth or the sun is the center of the universe. Instructing Adam to “be lowly wise,” Raphael encourages discussion more directly relevant to the human condition (Paradise Lost, 8.173). Adam, complying with his teacher’s guidance, affirms that it is more important to know what “before us lies in daily life” (Paradise Lost 8.193). Recollecting the first moments of consciousness after he was created, Adam indicates to Raphael that he felt the need for “collateral love,” and “dearest amity” (Paradise Lost, 8.426). The subjects of Eve’s creation, Adam’s conjugal union with her under the direction of God, and Raphael’s elaboration on the relationship of Adam and Eve conclude Book 8.
Book 9. Having infiltrated the Garden of Eden, Satan takes the form of a serpent and waits for an opportune moment to seduce humankind. Eve proposes that she and Adam divide their labors, because when they are together, they talk and become diverted from their duties to “tend plant, herb and flower” (Paradise Lost, 9.206). Spying Eve at work alone, Satan begins to seduce her to his purpose, leading her to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He accuses God of preventing humankind from becoming divine, for if, contends Satan, Eve were to eat of the forbidden fruit, she would become godlike. Emboldened by this argument, Eve eats the forbidden fruit and offers it to Adam, who also eats it. Soon they quarrel, each blaming the other for their transgressions.
Book 10. The Son travels to the Garden of Eden to judge Adam and Eve. Because of their transgressions, they are to be punished in various ways: Adam will toil for his living, and Eve will experience the pain of childbirth. In the meantime, the figures of Sin and Death, who had been in Hell, have followed Satan in his journey to the earth, and now prey on Adam and Eve, as they will on all humankind to come. Satan, exulting in his successful temptation of humanity, returns to Hell, mounts his throne, and reports his triumph to the evil angels. However, he is transformed into “a monstrous serpent on his belly prone” and the evil angels become serpents too (Paradise Lost, 10.514). When they try to alleviate hunger and thirst by eating fruit, they chew “bitter ashes” (Paradise Lost, 10.566). By the end of the book, Adam and Eve experience remorse and become contrite.
Book 11. The Son presents Adam’s and Eve’s prayers to God, who accepts them, but ordains the couple’s banishment from Paradise. The archangel Michael informs the pair of God’s verdict; but to prevent them from becoming disconsolate, God has instructed his angelic emissary to foretell “to Adam what shall come in future days” (Paradise Lost, 11.114). The revelation is to include mention of “the covenant in the woman’s seed renewed,” a reference to the Virgin Mary, to whom the Son will be born in human form as Jesus (Paradise Lost, 11.116). While Eve is asleep, Michael takes Adam to a mountaintop, from which they view future events: Cain’s slaying of Abel, various scenes of peace and war, the Flood, Noah’s ark, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Book 12. The vision of the future continues: the Israelites are enslaved by Egypt, liberated under the leadership of Moses, and then ruled by David, the ancestor of Jesus. In his narration, Michael emphasizes the coming of Jesus the Redeemer, and the foundation and growth of Christianity under the Apostles. Particularly highlighted is the Son’s final victory over Satan. At the “world’s dissolution,” the Final Judgment will occur (Paradise Lost 12.459). The reference here is to Doomsday, when the world will be cataclysmically destroyed and all humankind will be judged by the Son, who will determine the ultimate disposition of human souls to Heaven or Hell. After Eve awakens, she and Adam are escorted by Michael from the Garden of Eden.
Milton lived through one of the most dramatic periods in English history, a period that has been described by one historian as “the world turned upside down” (Hill, p. xv). The upheaval in Milton’s era challenged the medieval world-view, in which the various social classes—commoners, clergy, nobility, and the sovereign—were rigidly stratified, one above the other. Disrupting this hierarchy was the vastly expanding middle class, including craftsmen, tradesmen, merchants, and lawyers, who settled in urban areas and whose involvement in socio-economic culture modified traditional concepts of status. The Protestant Reformation also contributed to social instability by challenging the authority of the papacy and by encouraging people to read the Bible on their own rather than having it interpreted for them by a priest. In the early seventeenth century, many scientific discoveries, particularly Galileo’s confirmation that the earth revolved around the sun, challenged traditional worldviews as well. In this climate, leftist political, religious, and military groups questioned the hegemony of the sovereign as the head of church and state. That challenge eventually resulted in the English Civil War, in which Oliver Cromwell, commander of England’s army, defeated the royalists. With the beheading of King Charles I in January 1649, the Interregnum (years of English government between the reigns of monarchs) began, and Cromwell presided over the nation.
In view of the foregoing events, Satan in Paradise Lost may typify the defiant rebel who challenges God’s absolutism, refusing to capitulate even when he privately despairs of victory. To the fallen angels who rally around him after their defeat in Heaven and downfall into Hell, Satan proclaims:
Powers and Dominions, deities of Heaven,
For since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigor, though oppressed and fallen,
I give not Heaven for lost. From this descent
Celestial Virtues rising, will appear
More glorious and more dread than from no fall,
And trust themselves to fear no second fate.
(Paradise Lost, 2.11–17)
In effect, Satan defines his existence by being adversarial. A number of readers considered this defiance of God to be heroic.
MILTON AND WOMEN
When he was composing his epic poem, the 56-year-old Milton had already outlived two wives and was entering upon his third marriage. Milton also had published two editions of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Undoubtedly some of his marital experiences affected the characterization of Eve and her relationship with Adam. It seems likely, for instance, that when Eve separates from Adam in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, Milton may have recalled his first wife’s separation from him in 1642, when she went home to her parents within two months of their marriage (she would return to him three years later). Evidently Mary Powell found Milton to be an inhospitable spouse, perhaps because she was only 17 years old, whereas he was 33. Also, Milton’s studious regimen, frugal meals, little social contact with others, and antiroyalist sentiments all ran counter to Mary’s upbringing. Significantly, in his divorce tracts Milton contends that the chief purpose for marriage is to alleviate loneliness. Similarly, Adam in Paradise Lost cites his “single imperfection”—how he is “in unity [his oneness or singularity] defective” and why he desires “collateral love, and dearest amity” (Paradise Lost, 8.423, 426). Such is the basis for marriage, and when the rapport of love and amity is severed, so too, Milton contends in the divorce tracts, is the marriage. Because of his personal experiences and the subordinate status of women in seventeenth-century England, Milton probably held the view concerning spousal relations that the Son himself expresses when punishing Eve after her downfall: to her “husband’s will” she “shall submit” and he over her “shall rule” (Paradise lost 10.195, 196). While such may have been his general view, his poem manifests a relatively open-minded outlook on women for his time, depicting a relationship between Adam and Eve that is more mutual and reciprocal than hierarchical.
Lord Byron all perceived Satan as a rebel-hero, in part, perhaps, because they, like Satan, challenged traditional authority. Satan may even be seen as an allegorical rendition of Cromwell, who not only rebelled against but also overcame the Stuart king of England. But Cromwell’s triumph supposedly occurred because the Stuart monarchy was an unjust rulership, an institution that appropriated power claimed by Parliament and that subjugated the people. Whereas the sovereignty of God may be construed as legitimate, a human sovereign who is an absolutist tends to become a tyrant, and a tyrant merits overthrow and punishment. In other words, Milton’s poem may be distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate sovereignty. Milton himself composed several anti-monarchical tracts justifying the forcible removal of King Charles I—and his execution. Alternatively, according to William Blake, although Milton’s poem glorifies Satan’s heroic energy and resourcefulness, its author may have been of the devil’s party without knowing it. In other words, the poem could be implying that any absolutist, even the Judeo-Christian God, is unjust, largely because decrees of salvation and damnation might be construed as arbitrary. The more likely implication, however, is that human institutions that presume to operate under the aegis of God (monarchy and the church) can be sacrilegious and corrupt.
Another point of view is developed in illustrated editions of Paradise Lost, the first of which appears in 1688, the year of the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution, in which the English Parliament replaced James II, England’s last Catholic king, with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange, with whom she ruled jointly. In the first illustrated edition of the poem, Satan’s face resembles that of a Stuart monarch, the dynastic house that the Revolution of 1688 terminated. The epic narrates how Satan elevates himself above his peers, extorting homage from them as if he were a deity. In doing so, he becomes an “idol of majesty divine,” as the epic recounts, and the evil angels who worship him are idolaters (Paradise Lost, 6.106). These images all suggest the Stuart monarchs, whom one can identify with the idols, and the royalists who assisted them, whom one can identify with the idolaters. Further, if Milton describes the council in Hell in Book 2 of Paradise Lost as a parliamentary debate, this too supports the view that Satan is meant to resemble the Stuart monarchs. The devil’s council offers only the pretense of debate—the consensus that finally issues from the deliberations is the same plan initially proposed by Satan, whose dominant will prevails. The same thing happened during Charles I’s kingship; when Parliament did not comply with his will, he threatened to dissolve it. Moreover, Satan enthroned in Pandemonium resembles both a political and a religious leader, the two roles of the Stuart monarchs.
Sources and literary context
In writing Paradise Lost, Milton relied primarily on Hebraic and Christian scripture. He also incorporated extensive commentary on that scripture by the rabbis and by the Church Fathers, who were the prominent Christian interpreters in the early centuries after Christ (people like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Jerome). To achieve the epic form of the poem, Milton consciously imitated previous long narrative poems, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, at the beginning of Book 9 of Paradise Lost, Milton refers to all three of these classical epics. Milton is likewise indebted to the epics of classical antiquity for the twofold themes of love and war that inform Paradise Lost and for numerous literary conventions and devices traditionally associated with long narrative poems, such as the invocation of the muse(s), a descent into the underworld, and epic similes (protracted comparisons and analogies). Milton depended as well on numerous medieval and Renaissance epics. Dante’s the Divine Comedy, for example, especially the Inferno, influenced Paradise Lost in numerous ways, particularly in the topography of Hell. Indeed, one of the most renowned paradoxes in Paradise Lost, in which “hope never comes” to the fallen angels though it “comes to all,” derives from the inscription on the portal to Dante’s underworld, which counsels all who enter its confines to abandon any hope of escape (Paradise Lost, 1.66–67).
Civil War, Interregnum, Restoration
Milton lived in an era of extraordinary turmoil, which derived from the clash of the Stuart sovereigns, James I and Charles I, with Parliament. This clash intensified under Charles I for several reasons:
- The tension between the king’s view that his right to rule came from God (the so-called divine right of kingship) and Parliament’s view that the power of the king derived from the consent of the people
- Parliament’s insistence of its right to meet and not to be dissolved by royal decree when its views challenged those of the king; Parliament’s reluctance to finance the king’s wars against France, Spain, and the Scots
- The appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury of William Laud, who enforced a uniform mode of worship and the use of a prayer book, both of which were favored by only a small minority of the English people
Antagonizing most Englishmen, as well, was Charles I’s marriage to the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria.
In this era Milton composed numerous tracts against high-ranking clergy and the monarchy. He opposed the episcopal hierarchy in the Church of England—namely, the ecclesiastical dignitaries headed by William Laud—and disapproved of a monarchy that abridged the liberties of the people, that arrogated powers belonging to Parliament, and that conducted what was tantamount to personal rule. More radically, Milton defended regicide and paved the way for later works in which he celebrated republicanism. At the same time, he was the victim of personal abuse in polemical tracts whose authors were employed by the son of Charles I.
Between 1649 and 1660, England was not a monarchy but a republic whose leaders experimented with national governments. First there was the Commonwealth (1649-53), under which Cromwell attempted to let others govern, then the Protectorate (1653-60), with Cromwell serving as head of state until he died in 1658. Eighteen months of strife followed before free elections
MILTON: PRIVATE LIFE AND PUBLIC SERVICE
|1642:||Milton marries Mary Powell; England is on the verge of Civil War.|
|1643-44:||The first and second editions of Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce are published.|
|1644-45:||Cromwell and his New Model Army win major battles.|
|1647:||Cromwell’s army occupies London.|
|1649:||The Commonwealth is declared; Charles I is beheaded; Milton is appointed diplomatic secretary to the Council of State.|
|1652:||Milton suffers total blindness; Mary Powell dies.|
|1653:||Cromwell is named the Lord Protector.|
|1656:||Milton marries Katherine Woodcock.|
|1658:||Katherine Woodcock dies; Cromwell dies; Milton begins in earnest to write Paradise Lost, some of which may have been composed earlier.|
|1660:||Charles II becomes king of England; Milton is arrested, but soon released from jail.|
|1663:||Milton marries Elizabeth Minshull and probably finishes Paradise Lost.|
|1665-66:||Milton escapes the plague in London by residing at a cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire.|
|1667:||First edition of Paradise Lost is published.|
|1674:||Second edition of Paradise Lost is published; Milton dies of gout on November 8th and is interred inside St. Giles Church in Cripplegate, London.|
led to the recall of Charles II to the throne. England’s 11 years of nonroyal rule ended. The experiment in government had failed.
Despite the military successes of Cromwell’s army at home and even abroad and the tolerance for the independent religious congregations and political radicals, the Commonwealth had not been a popular government; it fell because it was unrepresentative. The Parliament in session, called the Rump (because its members remained seated while others, who were unsympathetic to the army, were purged), was a thin disguise for military despotism. Because a freely elected Parliament would have seated many members sympathetic to the return of the monarchy, Cromwell and the officers of his army devised a constitution for a government called the Protectorate, which supplanted the Commonwealth. Cromwell was made Lord Protector and Head of State. The failure of the Protectorate can be traced to the military character of the government, Cromwell’s death in 1658, and the inability of his son, Richard, to elicit political support. Charles II took the throne in 1660, but his kingship was limited in its power; and within a few generations, religious toleration and the sovereignty of the people became important elements of the English constitution.
The military and political turmoil that beset the 1640s and 1650s in England informs Paradise Lost on many levels. The most graphic example is the War in Heaven, which occupies most of Book 6. The “spread ensigns” and “firm battalion” that assemble under the command of Satan and the cannons that discharge their fireiron balls dramatize the tactics of infantry, artillery, and cavalry during the English Civil War (Paradise Lost, 6.533, 534). In Adam’s dream-vision of the future, which spans Books 11 and 12, the biblical figure of Nimrod (from Genesis 10:8) typifies the military despotism that enforces political rulership:
… one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart, who not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth;
Hunting (and men not beasts shall be his game)
With war and hostile snare such as refuse
Subjection to his empire tyrannous.
(Paradise Lost, 12.24–32)
The characterization of Nimrod may glance back at not only Charles I but also Cromwell, whose excesses Milton disliked and whose military threats and intervention can be viewed as arrogant gestures of personal rule.
Milton and Puritanism
Puritanism in mid-seventeenth-century England was a religious orientation whose adherents, by their emphasis on scripture and on the practices of early Christianity, preferred simple religious beliefs, simple forms of worship, simple methods of church organization, and a strict moral code with reference to personal conduct. Puritans objected to the vestiges of Roman Catholicism in the liturgy and prayer book of the Church of England and in the episcopal hierarchy. They also preferred to eliminate priestly vestments, rituals and ceremonies, statues, colored windows, and music from churches. They abhorred the dissolute life of the Stuart monarchs and the extravagant masques at the court of Charles I that pandered to the king’s proud self-image, used garish scenery and theatrical devices, featured wantonness, and employed objectionable music. They disliked festivities, stage-plays, rural sporting games (especially when held on Sundays), maypoles, and folk dances. Doctrinally, Puritans embraced many of the views of the French reformer John Calvin.
Accordingly, Puritans were labeled Dissenters. Because they did not succeed in purifying the culture and in purging the Church of England of its excesses, which they perceived as vestiges of Roman Catholicism, some more radical Puritans broke away from the established Church and became separatists. Many separatists advocated the abolition of the priesthood and episcopacy, contending, as well, that each congregation should be independent of all others and have the right to choose its own pastor. Most important to Puritans was the right to express their religious views without oppression or persecution from the established Church, not a right they would enjoy. Instead the Laudians, or followers of the Anglican Archbishop Laud, who resented the Puritans, used civil authority to punish them. To escape the Laudians, some Puritans traveled to the colonies in America. While it may be argued that the Puritans failed in their immediate objective of reforming the established Church, a broader view will indicate that Puritanism had long-term effects: buttressing Protestantism against Catholic resurgence in England; advocating liberty of conscience; espousing religious toleration; resisting civil authority’s insistence on uniform religious beliefs; and upholding the rights of the people to limit the power of a sovereign. While Milton leaned toward Puritanism, he also manifested affinity with Presbyterianism, which also emphasized the doctrines of Calvin. Initially, Milton was part of a coalition, including the Puritans, the Presbyterians, and others, that sought to reform the Church of England. But when he discovered that the Scottish Presbyterians, in particular, were striving to impose their particular beliefs as the established religion, he castigated them for hypocrisy.
Paradise Lost reflects Puritanism in several ways. If the Puritans disliked the established Church because of its resemblance to Roman Catholicism, then the papacy, in particular, evoked their hatred. Pandemonium, the temple and palace that the devils construct in Hell, resembles St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like St. Peter’s, Pandemonium has ornate pillars, “golden architrave,” “cornice” and “frieze, with bossy sculptures grav’n,” and “the roof was fretted gold” even the “doors” with “their brazen folds” suggest the entrance to St. Peter’s (Paradise Lost 1.713–17, 724).
To provide a contrast to the excesses of Roman Catholicism, Milton in Paradise Lost depicts the evening and morning prayers of Adam and Eve as simple and spontaneous forms of worship. Before they withdraw to their innermost bower in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve celebrate the beneficence of the Lord in a short prayer. The commentary that follows accentuates the couple’s Puritanism:
This said unanimous, and other rites
Observing none, but adoration pure
Which God likes best, into their inmost bower
Handed they went.
(Paradise Lost, 4.736–739)
And after they awaken, the morning prayer of Adam and Eve likewise reflects the features admired by Puritans:
Lowly they bowed adoring, and began
Their orisons, each morning duly paid
In various style, for neither various style
Nor holy rapture wanted they to praise
Their Maker, in fit strains pronounced or sung
Unmeditated, such prompt eloquence
Flowed from their lips, in prose or numerous verse,
More tuneable than needed lute or harp
To add more sweetness.
(Paradise Lost, 5.144–52)
Finally, there was a belief among Puritans, and other Protestants, that marriage was not simply for procreation—marriage partners owed each other mutual comfort and support. Manuals of the early 1700s (The Compleat Housewife, 1734, for example, and The Young Ladies’ Companion, 1740) promoted the idea of husband and wife as helpmates in their spiritual, emotional, and working lives, an ideal clearly reflected in Eve’s relation to Adam.
Milton and science
Much as upheavals in politics and religion characterized seventeenth-century England, so too radical changes in the field of science challenged traditional views of the design of the universe that contributed to the instability of the era. The Royal Society, an association of scholars dedicated to individual research and the collective evaluation and publication of findings, was established in 1660, about the time Milton began Paradise Lost. Since its founding, the Royal Society has exercised great influence on science and on scientific education. In Milton’s era one of the most significant scientific findings included the verification by telescope of the Copernican or “heliocentric” (sun-centered) model of the universe.
While Milton surely knew about this model, in Paradise Lost he uses the Ptolemaic or “geocentric” (earth-centered) model, which dates back to the second century c.e. In the geocentric conception, the fixed earth is at the center, encompassed, in turn, by seven spheres or tracks in which the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn revolve. The eighth sphere includes the fixed stars; the ninth, though crystalline, is watery; the tenth, called the primum mobile or “the first mover,” imparts motion to the other spheres. Encasing the universe is a hard, crystalline shell, called the “firmament.” This schema of the universe informs much of Paradise Lost, including the account in Book 7 of the creation of the world. Incorporated in literature and theology since at least the Middle Ages, the geocentric model of the universe was congruent with the biblical account of Creation in Genesis: God made the sun, moon, and stars revolve around the earth as a sign of his care and concern for humankind—one of the dominant themes of Milton’s epic.
But scientific findings in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries began to prove the truth of the heliocentric model of the universe. Such findings, which resulted from Galileo’s invention of the telescope late in the sixteenth century, included topographic features of the moon (its valleys and mountains and its reflection, not radiation, of light), sunspots, the satellites of Jupiter, the peculiar form of Saturn, the phases of Venus and Mars, and the Milky Way. Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church in Italy, primarily because his revolutionary findings were construed as challenges to ecclesiastical authority (and also to the biblical account of the Creation). Milton, during his journey through Italy in 1638–1639, visited Galileo, who at the time was blind and under house arrest. From atop a mountain in Fiesole outside Florence, in the region of Tuscany, Milton viewed the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. That experience so stimulated his imagination that Milton refers explicitly to Galileo three times in Paradise Lost, calling attention to the astronomer’s major discoveries involving the moon and the sun. First, to highlight the “broad circumference” of Satan’s shield, Milton likens it to “the moon, whose orb / Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views” (Paradise Lost, 1.287–88). Second, when Satan lands on the sun, Milton contends that he produced
TO RHYME OR NOT TO RHYME
When Paradise Lost was first published in 1667, some readers asserted that the poem should have been composed in rhyme. Milton’s revolutionary act of dispensing with the principal marker of English verse was perceived as an eccentric and possibly elitist gesture against the native rhyming tradition. Milton himself in a prefatory note to the epic explains that his “measure is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin” (Shawcross in Milton, pp. 249-50). Milton composed his epic in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, a measure that includes ten syllables per line. Because the metrical foot called the iamb is disyllabic, including an unstressed and a stressed syllable, there are five iambs per line of verse. This was the same measure used by Renaissance dramatists, such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Milton may have chosen this measure not only because of its use by classical forbears, such as Homer and Virgil, but also because of the dramatic features of his epic. After all, Milton initially conceived of Paradise Lost as a drama, which was to have been called “Adam Unparadised,” for which only an outline survives. He furthermore dismissed rhyme as an invention used to set off weak subject matter and meter—that is, to conceal poetic deficiencies.
… a spot like which perhaps
Astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb
Through his glazed optic tube yet never saw.
(Paradise Lost, 3.588–90)
Third, to elaborate on the clearness of the firmament, Milton describes the atmosphere as ideal for the use of a telescope:
… As when by night the glass
Of Galileo … observes
Imagined lands and regions in the moon.
(Paradise Lost, 5.261–63)
Sometimes the two models of the universe—the geocentric and heliocentric—are juxtaposed, but the intent does not seem to be to affirm the validity of the latter. When, for example, Adam inquires about the design of the universe, Raphael discourages such “studious abstruse thoughts” (Paradise Lost, 8.40). He cautions Adam:
God to remove his ways from human sense,
Placed heaven from earth so far, that earthly sight,
If it presume, might err in things too high,
And no advantage gain. What if the sun
Be center to the world, and other stars
By his attractive virtue and their own
Incited, dance about him various rounds?
(Paradise Lost, 8.119–25)
Raphael’s admonition speaks to a human inclination toward presumption and pride in probing the mysteries of the Creation. While science as such is not rejected, Raphael admonishes scientists who are motivated by the quest for fame and self-glorification, even to the extent of seeking out “other worlds” (Paradise Lost, 8.175). The seraph’s guidance to Adam—to “be lowly wise” and to “think only what concerns thee and thy being”—counsels obedience to God (Paradise Lost, 8.173–74). Another way of framing Raphael’s guidance is to highlight the distinction between scientia (or knowledge), on the one hand, and sapientia (or wisdom), on the other. The latter is clearly preferable to the former. And when the latter is combined with humility, as when Raphael enjoins Adam to “be lowly wise,” Milton is epitomizing his understanding of humankind’s ideal relationship with God.
When it was first published (1667), Paradise Lost elicited less than glowing praise because its author was John Milton. Milton’s religious and political views branded him as an unpopular author after the Restoration, so that the excellence of his greatest work went largely unheralded, except for the admiration of a few close associates, such as Andrew Marvell, who worked with Milton while he was diplomatic secretary during the Interregnum. Another admirer was John Dryden, who toward the end of the century rendered parts of Paradise Lost in rhymed couplets for an opera called The State of Innocence, which was published in 1677 but never performed.
Not until the eighteenth century did Milton’s epic achieve more universal praise. In a series of essays in the literary journal called The Spectator (1712; also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), Joseph Addison ranked Paradise Lost with classical epics. A generation later, in 1727, the French writer Voltaire expressed unbounded admiration for Milton and his epic. By the mid-eighteenth century, political liberalism and the Romantic movement, which involved renewed attentiveness to nature, had registered an impact on English society; in 1756 the English critic Joseph Warton focused, among other aspects, on the natural setting for the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, describing the unbridled imagination of its author as sublime. Later in the eighteenth century, however, in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1783), Samuel Johnson expressed a mixed reaction: though he praised Milton’s imagination, he decried the images from nature as being derived more from books than from direct experience.
In the early nineteenth century, especially in the wake of the French Revolution, Paradise Lost evoked the admiration of William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, all of whom perceived Milton’s Satan as a heroic rebel and God as a tyrant.
Today, Paradise Lost is commonly held to be a classic of Western literature, which engages present-day topics of intense interest, such as patriarchy, humankind’s relationship with God, gender relations, and environmentalism.
—Albert C. Labriola and Martin Griffin
Empson, William. Milton’s God. Revised ed. Corrected, with Notes and an Appendix. London: Chatto [and] Windus, 1965.
Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd. ed. with a new preface. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Flannagan, Roy, ed. The Riverside Milton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Hanford, James Holly, and James G. Taaffe. A Milton Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Meredith, 1970.
Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1977.
Marjara, Harinder Singh. Contemplation of Created Things: Science in Paradise Lost. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
The New American Bible. Mission Hills, Calif.: Benziger, 1986.
Rogers, John. The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry and Politics in the Age of Milton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Zwicker, Steven N., ed. The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1650-1740. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
by John Milton
THE LITERARY WORK
An English epic poem, set in Heaven, Hell, and the Garden of Eden at the time of the creation of humanity; first published in ten books in 1667, published in its final form of twelve books in 1674.
Milton relates the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s (humanity’s) fall from grace in a poem that deals with the issues of evil, disobedience, damnation, and salvation.
War in Heaven
The immediate prehistory of Paradise Lost is the War in Heaven, during which the rebel angels, under Lucifer (Satan), try to overthrow God the Creator and are flung into Hell as punishment. Lucifer refuses to be subordinate to God or his divine Son (Christ) and decides to achieve a perverse revenge by seducing God’s newest creation, Adam and Eve, to his party, or forcing God to destroy them. This subject of heavenly clashes for dominion has a rich history, not just in the Judeo-Christian tradition but in other belief systems as well. Prominent among these are the classical Greek myths upon which Milton draws so frequently in his poem.
Biblical passages that discuss the War in Heaven are actually rather scant; in the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Christ says “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18); the Book of Revelation speaks of the dragon (Satan) whose tail swept down “the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth” (Rev. 12:4) and who was “cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Rev. 12:9). In Milton’s poem, the rebels who fall with Lucifer amount to one-third of the angels in Heaven.
Greek myths about fallen deities are much fuller. Several versions of such tales exist, and Milton seems to have been familiar with them all. In his poem, for example, when Christ routs the devils from Heaven, forcing them into the abyss, they fall “Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night / to mortal men” before they find themselves in Hell (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.50-51). In Greek myth, a nine-day fall is the fate of the Titans, who attempted to oust Zeus and his younger group of gods, the Olympians, who had seized control of the heavens. Hundred-armed giants come to Zeus’s aid, hurling hundreds of boulders at the enemy Titans and driving them beneath the earth; the fall down to the depths takes nine days and nine nights. Milton almost certainly had this scene in mind when he described enemy angels throwing mountains at each other in Paradise Lost.
Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden
Milton’s poem is based on the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis, in which God creates the entire universe in six days. Beginning with light and darkness on the first day, God proceeds to create waters, plants, stars, fish, birds, and other animals, including
REBEL ANGELS IN PARADISE LOST
Lucifer (also called Satan): leader of the fallen angels
Beelzebub: Lucifer’s first lieutenant, favors seducing man to the fallen angels’ side
Belial: fallen angel who favors doing nothing; counsels ignoble ease, and peaceful sloth
Moloch; toughest rebel angel, who argues for violent war against God
Mammon: rebel angel who favors building a kingdom in Hell to rival God’s kingdom in Heaven
Sin: Lucifer’s daughter
Death: son of Sin and Lucifer
Mulciber: architect of a palace in Hell called Pandemonium
the first man and woman. Genesis 2:18-25 describes God’s creation of Eve out of Adam’s rib, an act that Milton refers to in his poem.
Eve is created as Adam’s helper. Although the Bible and Milton agree that their home, the Garden of Eden, is beautiful, it is also a place in which humankind can live and work, not just bask in the splendid surroundings.
The Bible describes this lush garden as located in the “east,” which to the ancient Hebrews would have meant Mesopotanda, in today’s Iraq. Four rivers flow from the center of the garden, including two that are known today—the Tigris and the Euphrates. The other two are either purely mythical, or located in another geographical area, which makes it impossible for modern scholars to settle on a precise location for the garden.
Two trees grow at the center of the garden—the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the latter, but despite God’s prohibition, they eat the forbidden fruit. The immediate consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden; the long-term consequence is the loss of immortality.
Paradise Lost begins in Hell, where Lucifer and the rest of the fallen angels have newly alighted.
As Paradise Lost begin, the rebel angels convene at Satan’s palace in Hell to determine their next move. Beelzebub informs the congress that God has created Earth and peopled it with humans, who are good beings. He proposes that they seduce humanity to the side of the fallen angels.
Lucifer, the leader of the revolt against God, sneaks out of Hell to confirm the rumor of the creation. God notices Lucifer winging his way toward Earth but does nothing to stop him, knowing that Adam and Eve are destined to fall prey to Lucifer and disobey God. (This betrayal of God’s trust is referred to as the “Fall of Man.”)
Christ, the Son of God, offers at this point to take upon himself the responsibility of making amends to God for what man is about to do; his offer is accepted. Meanwhile, Lucifer arrives in Eden, which is guarded by one of God’s angels, Gabriel. At Gabriel’s command, the angels Ithuriel and Zephon find Lucifer whispering into the ear of the sleeping woman, tempting her to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the only act that God has forbidden.
Lucifer returns temporarily to Hell, and another of God’s angels, Raphael, is sent to instruct Adam about the War in Heaven and inform him about the enemy. Despite this forewarning, when Lucifer disguises himself as a serpent and tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, she does. Adam’s love of his mate is so great that he eats the fruit too, so that Eve will not suffer punishment alone.
God sends his son, Christ, to the garden to pass judgment. Eve’s sorrow will be to bear children in pain, and she must serve Adam forever. Meanwhile, Adam must earn his bread by hard labor. Asking Christ for mercy, Adam and Eve beseech him to speak to God on their behalf.
God administers both hardship and hope. He replaces perpetual springtime with a stormy round of seasons and condemns the creatures of Earth to prey upon one another. Soon to be turned out of Paradise, Adam and Eve contemplate suicide. They dismiss the notion, though, after God’s angel Michael brings Adam a vision of the future. According to this vision, evil is to grow on earth until a great flood destroys everything but Noah and his ark full of creatures. A return to evil will follow until the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ on Earth takes place. Moreover, the corruption will persist in the church up to Milton’s day and beyond until the Second Coming of Christ.
Satan—hero or villain?
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the notion that the real hero of Paradise Lost is not the hapless human couple, nor God the Creator, but rather Lucifer (Satan), became a popular one. The poem opens with a scene wherein Lucifer bravely shakes off his terrible fall into Hell and resolves to do something about it: “To wage by force or guile eternal War / Irreconcileable to our grand Foe” (Paradise Lost, 1.121-22). Lucifer is a compelling figure. Beautiful and brilliant, he is engaged in a battle against insurmountable odds, angry about his subordinate position to God:
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedom equal?
(Paradise Lost, 5.794-97)
In fact, such reasoning led Milton and many of his fellow Englishmen to condone the 1649” execution of England’s King Charles I. One reason for the execution was the king’s decision to act alone in important matters, such as raising funds and starting battles, without consulting or heeding Parliament. The English king was supposed to be subject to certain limitations imposed by the members of Parliament, the elected representatives of the people. Charles, however, felt that the king ought to be set far above the people whom he ruled. Unrepentant until the very end, he is reported to have said just before he was beheaded that “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things” (Tomlinson, p. 160). Milton had written a heated defense of the decision to kill the king, arguing that Charles overstepped his bounds in ignoring Parliament: “Parliament is the supreme council of the nation, established and endowed with full powers by an absolutely free people. . . the king was created to carry out all the decrees of . . . [Parliament]” (Milton in Tomlinson, p. 168).
Despite his own involvement in unseating the king, Milton defends the right of God to unopposed monarchy throughout Paradise Lost. For Milton and others of his deeply religious time, there was a profound difference between a divine king and an earthly one. People of the era viewed Lucifer’s heavenly revolt as unjustifiable and purely evil. Certainly they did not regard Lucifer as the hero of Paradise Lost, no matter how intelligent and brave his character might seem. Milton himself did not view Lucifer as a heroic figure, although his rebellion bore some resemblance to one stage of Milton’s own political views.
Milton probably did have politics in mind when he wrote his poem. After the beheading of Charles I, England had experimented with a kingless form of government, ruled by a council in which Milton held a position, but this government collapsed. Milton, who had wholeheartedly embraced the commonwealth, must have taken its downfall particularly hard. Like others of his time, he firmly believed that God took part in human history and that changes came about as a result of God’s almighty will.
MILTON’S PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST
Paradise Lost is written in “blank verse,” iambic pentameter verse that does not rhyme. Before Milton, blank verse was used in composing dramas, such is Shakespeare’s plays. For poetry, the must popular verse forms in Milton’s culture were probably the sonnet and heroic couplets, which used rhyme. In the preface to his poem, Milton felt compelled to defend his choice of blank verse: “The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Creek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works” (Milton, Paradise Lost, p. 210),
Milton regarded the beheading of the king as God-inspired. He may have attributed the failure of the experimental government to God as well. In seizing and attempting to reshape England’s government, perhaps the rebels whom he so admired had interfered with God’s timing. The inability of the rebels and Parliament to work together may have been proof of this interference. Their noble effort to overcome the tyranny of King Charles I had collapsed due to their own vicious squabbling. In his poem, Milton appears to be looking closely at human weakness in an effort to comprehend why good turns to evil. He might then understand why the political experiment in his own time went amiss.
Before his blindness, Milton was able to read works in six foreign languages—French, Italian, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Spanish—and
Paradise Lost is teeming with references to classical literature, the Bible, other national epics, and Jewish historical and literary works.
The scientific discoveries of his time also influenced Milton. The dominant model of the universe—and one that Milton used because his audience was familiar with it—was that of the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy. According to this model, the earth was the center of the universe, and the other heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolved around it. Copernicus’s On Celestial Motions (1543) demonstrated that the reverse was in fact true, that the earth revolved around the sun. The idea had obvious theological consequences that were not popular at the time; if the earth was not the center of God’s universe, then it was possible that mankind was not the center of God’s plan.
Well aware of the scientific discoveries, Milton seems fairly unconcerned about such religious fears. He visited the groundbreaking astronomer Galileo and referred to both him and his telescope in the poem. The poem also mentions the concept of possible life in other worlds and includes the opinion, voiced by Adam, that the earth may be only a “punctual spot” in a vast universe (Paradise Lost, 8.23).
Civil war and the Restoration
The England in which Milton studied and wrote was a nation troubled by civil war, the execution of King Charles I, and a confused period of government. The poet had his own personal trials during this period as well.
1642: Civil war breaks out in earnest in Great Britain
1649: Rebels execute King Charles I; Milton publishes The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a pamphlet defending rights of citizens to kill a tyrant-king; Milton is appointed the Secretary for Foreign Tongues in new government
1652: Milton goes totally blind; his first wife, Mary Powell, dies
1653: Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell is named Lord Protector of the new English government; Milton works under him
1656: Milton marries Katherine Woodcock, who dies in February 1658
1658: Cromwell dies; Milton begins Paradise Lost
1660: Puritan government collapses; monarchy restored with Charles II on the throne; Milton is jailed
1663: Milton likely completes Paradise Lost, marries Elizabeth Minshull
1667: Paradise Lost, A Poem in Ten Books published
1674: Paradise Lost, A Poem in Twelve Books published; Milton dies on November 8
England’s civil strife arose in part from the financial difficulties of the monarchy, which had been selling off property ever since the time of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Charles I was heavily invested in waging wars against France and Spain. He financed his political ambitions by levying huge taxes on his subjects, particularly London merchants. He also refused to summon Parliament between 1629 and 1640. Unable to meet without his bidding it to do so, the government was therefore unable to stop the king.
THE MILTONS AT HOME
By the time he produced Paradise Lost, Milton was completely blind. He composed the poetry in his head and then dictated it to a scribe, sometimes one of his two youngest daughters. His daughters also had to read to him in any one of the six foreign languages that he—but not they—knew: “[Milton’s two youngest daughters] were condemned to the performance of reading . . . all the languages of whatever book he should at one time or other think fit to peruse . . . . All . . . without understanding one word” [Phillips in Milton, pp. 1036-37).
At the heart of the battle between the king and the people was the question of authority—the king thought he was justified in acting alone, while his opponents, the Parliamentarians, thought that the people had the right to regulate the king’s actions. By 1640 Charles needed more money than he could raise on his own to fund his Scottish war, so he was forced to summon Parliament. It remained in session until 1653, becoming known as the “Long Parliament.” The Long Parliament resisted Charles’s plans, threw out his favorite ministers, and abolished the king’s “Star Chamber,” a secret court. The conflict climaxed when Parliament pronounced itself the sole authority in the land. Hearing that he had been ousted from power, the king attempted to seize the rebellious leaders, but failed. Civil war became inevitable. It erupted in August 1642.
Religious fears added to the tension between the king and the people of England. Back in the 1530s, the English had separated from the Catholic Church and formed their own Protestant-based Church of England. Those worshippers who belonged to this new church were called Anglicans. Catholic-Anglican tensions became a factor in England almost immediately.
King Charles I was Anglican, but he married a Catholic woman, Queen Henrietta Maria, and many of his closest advisors were Catholic. Charles embarked on a program of religious control in which he tried to force everyone, including the Scots, to use the same prayer book. Society balked at the idea, for it smacked of the old authoritarian ways of Catholicism. To make matters worse, the powerful Archbishop of Canterbury was slowly reintroducing certain Catholic practices. The Scots rebelled against the king in 1637. Two years later, in the first act of the civil war in 1639, the king tried to carry out his religious program with armed force. Unable to raise an army of sufficient strength, he failed. Meanwhile, in 1641 the Irish, mostly Catholics, rebelled against English settlers. Charles’s Catholic tendencies were blamed for the loss of English life in Ireland, an almost certain injustice.
Paradise Lost is rife with insurrection—Lucifer’s, Adam’s, and Eve’s. By the poem’s conclusion, it is clear that obedience to God ought to provide a system of ordering man’s behavior in the world. But it is equally clear, according to the poem, that political struggle is a sad fact of fallen humanity, one that perhaps may never be satisfactorily resolved, and that this struggle is rooted in the original battle in the Garden of Eden, in which desire was allowed to overpower reason. God’s angel Michael says as much to Adam just before the human beings are thrust from Eden.
Since thy original lapse, true Liberty
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinn’d, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscur’d, or not obey’d
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free. Therefore, since hee permits
Within himself unworthy Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords.
(Paradise Lost, 12.83-93)
In this dark philosophy, upon which the poem ends, one perhaps sees Milton’s own hard-learned political lessons.
Heavily involved in political events of the period, Milton had fired off writings on behalf of the reformers. In 1649 he assumed the post of Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the new interregnum (“between rulers”) government run by those who had beheaded Charles I.
New relations had to be established with foreign governments; Milton’s job demanded that he translate letters for the governing council and serve as interpreter and advisor, although he had no vote on the council. Troubled by repeated conflict between rebel leader Oliver Cromwell and Parliament, the new government foundered. Finally, Parliament voted for a return to kingship, a move known as the Restoration. They invited Charles II to take the throne with reduced powers, a condition that would apply to all monarchs after him.
After the king’s coronation in 1660, Milton was jailed for his role in the now disgraced regicidal (“king killing”) government. He probably expected to lose his life, but he had certain powerful friends in the new regime. He may also have been pitied because of the blindness that had by this time become complete. Some of his enemies suggested that God had stricken Milton blind because of his wicked political writings.
In Paradise Lost, Adam loves Eve so much that he takes a bite of the forbidden fruit on purpose. Adam’s actions illustrated his willingness to join in her fate, whatever it might be, rather than live without her or force her to live without him. In addition, while the fallen couple bicker and place blame for their plight on each other, Adam intends to remain with his mate no matter what the consequences may be. His position reflects the perfect state of marriage before the fall of man and woman.
Milton was regarded as something of an expert on marriage because he wrote extensively on the subject of divorce. Perhaps it was his personal circumstances that drove him to tackle the topic: his first wife, the eighteen-year-old Mary Powell, left him after a month or so of their marriage. She returned to her parents’ home, where she remained for three years. The reason for her departure remains a mystery. During his wife’s prolonged absence, Milton wrote a tract on divorce, in which he maintained that the perfect marriage was sacred and worth pursuing to such an extent as to make divorce from an unsuitable spouse a socially desirable thing. His Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (published in 1643, revised 1644) was such a huge bestseller that for twenty years he was popularly known as “Milton the Divorcer.” He was rumored to have had many wives, all still living.
Milton’s work on divorce also got him in trouble with the authorities; in 1644 he was forced to appear for questioning before the House of Lords. He stopped writing for publication for the next five years, during which time his wife returned and the first of his children was born. In 1652 his wife died. Altogether Milton would marry three times—in 1642, 1656, and 1663—perhaps gaining greater expertise on the subject through personal experience.
Milton’s religious beliefs were similar to his political beliefs in that they were difficult to pin down to a convenient category. He wrote tracts in defense of Puritan ideas, showing his disenchantment with mainstream Anglican religious politics, but he also acted in ways that went against the spirit of Puritanism.
Broadly speaking, the Puritans were a Protestant sect, composed generally of people from the citizen and craftsman classes (as opposed to the nobility). They were practical in their religion, studying those passages in the Bible that could teach them how the individual soul might best struggle for salvation. Much of their study thus focused on the subjects of sin and the devil. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Puritan leanings are probably most evident in his treatment of the character of Satan and his clever seduction of Eve. The Puritans were also revolutionaries, convinced that the world, though teetering on the brink of chaos and iniquity, could be set right if sufficiently dramatic changes were made. To set it right, they were willing to stage a civil war. Milton apparently agreed with this drastic action, in which he took part.
But Milton’s views also differed from the Puritan ideal in important ways. His ideas about divorce—that a man should be able to obtain one without any bother if he really wanted or needed it—shocked the Puritan mainstream, and his attention to beautiful poetic wording ran counter to the Puritan ideal of the straightforward use of language. Clearly Milton did not consider Catholicism to be a reasonable choice under any circumstances. His views were atypical, though, in that he seems also to have believed that man owes allegiance not to any one sect or religion—but to God alone.
America and Milton
Milton tried to reform English society throughout his lifetime; perhaps this explains why he was so popular in early America, a country filled with people who had recently fled the very same England that Milton wanted to change. His writings on many social issues, from marriage to church government to the relative merits of monarchy and republics, assumed a huge importance in early American culture. It was reported that his example inspired the liberal laws of Rhode Island and that Thomas Jefferson scoured Milton’s characterization of Satan for evidence of heroic rebellion. Paradise Lost was quoted from pulpits and bandied about in national political debates.
Popular for the ideas that it contained, the poem also became the model for a flood of imitation American epic poems. Not until the 1800s, when the nation had calmed significantly in its discussion of competing views on how a nation should be run, did the American public fall out of love with Paradise Lost.
English critics of the 1700s produced some of the most important reviews of Paradise Lost. In the influential English literary journal The Spectafor, Joseph Addison wrote a series of eighteen short essays on Paradise Lost. His introductory essay, published on January 5, 1712, puts Milton in the same class as Homer and Virgil, and speaks of Milton’s careful enlargement of the Bible’s scanty descriptions of the fall of the angels and man:
[Milton] was . . . obliged to proceed with the greatest caution in everything that he added out of his own invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the restraints he was under, he has filled his story with so many surprising incidents, which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate reader, without giving offense to the most scrupulous.
(Addison in Abrams, p. 2205)
On the other hand, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1779) contains a section on Milton in which Johnson criticizes Paradise Lost as a dull work:
The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again… Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.
(Johnson in Abrams, pp. 2427-28)
Throughout its history, Paradise Lost has inspired variations on these two opinions. There is, meanwhile, general agreement that the impact of the poem has been enormous. For centuries, observed one writer, Paradise Lost “determined the way in which the majority of the English-speaking world read and interpreted the Bible” (González, p. 163).
Abrams, M. H., et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. New York: Norton, 1986.
Ashley, Maurice. The English Civil War. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1957.
Newlyn, Lucy. Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Sensabaugh, George F. Milton in Early America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.
Tomlinson, Howard, and David Gregg. Politics, Religion and Society in Revolutionary England, 1640-1660. London: MacMillan, 1989.
A. S. Hargreaves
1. Opera in 2 acts by Penderecki to lib. by Christopher Fry adapted from Milton's poem (1658–64, pubd. 1667). Comp. 1976–8. Prod. Chicago, 1978, Stuttgart 1979.
2. Dramatic cantata by Christopher Steel, Op.34, for sop., ten., and bass soloists, ch., and orch. Comp. 1966. F. public p. Gloucester Fest. 1974.