Paradise Lost


Milton was born in London in1608 and died in 1674.
            Milton's vision of poetry was essentially that which he received through the Italian tradition, that had already deeply influenced French and English poets such as Ronsard and the Pléiade in France, or Spenser. In this tradition, rooted in the classics, the highest form of poetic expression was the epic and a country could only claim artistic maturity if it had produced an acclaimed epic. Milton knew that if he was to be the great British poet God seemed to intend, he would have to write an epic, since Spenser had failed to complete the Faerie Queene. For a time he imagined that it would be a national British epic, perhaps about King Arthur. Milton originally (in about 1640) seems to have intended to use the subject matter of Paradise Lost, the Fall of Adam, for a tragedy.

Nobody knows when Milton decided to write his epic on the Fall of Man, instead of on the glories of Britain under God, but it seems likely that it was only when he realized that the Commonwealth had failed. It is hard to imagine Milton's disappointment when human pride and ambitions frustrated his dream of seeing the reign of God on earth, yet he did not lose his hope in God's Providence. Instead, he set out to show that even sin was a part of God's plan for humanity, and that the Fall leads towards an eternal promise of life. Human history, he seems to say, full of pain and death though it is, has meaning for those who know what God has in store for those who trust in him. The epic mingles tragic and comic perspectives, which has been a problem for critical purists. There is even much debate as to whether its ultimate meaning is pessimistic or optimistic.

Starting perhaps in 1658, Milton began to dictate his great poem to secretaries. Nothing is known of the details of its composition, for example whether Milton composed it from beginning to end as it now stands. He often composed the day's section mentally during the night, somewhere between sleeping and waking probably. It seems that often the poem almost wrote itself and Milton felt that God was guiding him.

The style of Paradise Lost has usually been criticized for its power rather than for its failings. Milton had read all the great European epics and chose to write in a high style often heavily marked by Latin. He develops many visual passages of great power, the poem's landscapes are frequently grandiose. Yet the enterprise was a daunting one, in many senses impossible, since Milton has to use words and images to portray the unspeakable and unimaginable. At the heart of the poem, and probably its greatest problem, is the representation of God. Milton's God has very often been criticized for seeming less than loving.

Milton knew very well that we cannot know God as God is, but only as God allows us to conceive of God with our fallen and severely limited human minds. (since the Eternal has no gender, it is today considered improper to use "he" or "she" of God, which is very awkward; Milton's "God" is the "Father" of the traditional Christian Trinity and may nonetheless therefore sometimes be referred to as "He"). Milton's God is therefore not to be seen as a failed picture of God, but as a precise picture of how people and the Bible have spoken of God. To become aware of the unsatisfactory aspects of this picture is not to find a weakness in Milton's art but to sense that God as God is other than anything humans can know. Similarly, Christians believe that Heaven has neither dimensions as we know them nor time as we know it, and that angels have no shape, locality, or history in our sense. Milton knows this, and expects his readers to feel the contradiction in his use of heroic conventions to describe the unimagin­able War in Heaven.

In its final form, Paradise Lost tells the familiar story of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve in its second half, starting with book seven. The first half of the poem tells a story that is barely hinted at in the Bible. According to this ancient tale, that originated in the Middle East and was already current in Jewish circles before the birth of Jesus, Satan (the name means Adversary) was created by God to be the greatest of all angels, God's very special partner in love. His name then was Lucifer (Light-bearer, also the name of the "morning star"). In the instant of his coming into being, Satan was, like every angel, given the freedom to choose to accept God's love. Love cannot, by definition, impose itself on another person by force. Only Satan was so much "like God" that he chose to know no other than himself. He became the "rebel angel" and gathering part of Heaven's angelic host about him he waged war against God.

Modern thought is so accustomed to the idea of God's absolute omnipotence that we can hardly deal with the idea of a real struggle against him. In the Middle East, though, the nations were accustomed to the idea of clusters of gods ruling different parts of the universe and there were many tales of enmity and battles between the gods. In Old Testament times, the temple in Jerusalem celebrated the worship of YHWH as the Lord of Israel but its walls also sheltered shrines of other gods. The victory of monotheism in Israel was never assured and the concept of the absolute nature of God was always threatened.

According to the mythical tale of Satan, there was a great battle (reflected in the Apocalyptic battle described in the New Testament book of Revelation 12:7) which God and his army won by ejecting the rebel forces from Heaven. As in Greece, beings like angels were considered to be invulnerable and immortal so that not even God could abolish them. The fall of Satan and his angels ended when they arrived in the lowest point possible, which later cosmology came to turn "Hell". In Israel, the myth continued by showing God looking around his half-empty Heaven and deciding to create Humanity as an experiment in the hope that, if all went well, human beings would finally prove worthy to occupy the place of the fallen angels. Satan could no longer confront God directly, so he decided to continue the struggle against him by trying to turn the newly-created human beings into rebels like himself. It is from this tale that comes the interpretation of Genesis by which the snake who causes Eve to eat the fruit is seen as Satan in disguise.

Milton's intention in writing Paradise Lost was to give epic form to his own understanding of what it means to be human. Human life, for him, is given by God and is destined to be lived in obedience to God's commands; ultimately, after human history has run its course, God will raise to a life of eternal happiness all who have served him. Milton was a radical Protestant, but not a "fundamentalist". He was convinced that the Bible was God's revelation of himself but that each human person had to come to an understanding of the sense of the words by thinking about what they mean.

Milton's Latin text De doctrina christiana shows that he was often far from conventional Protestant ideas. In particular, Milton believed that the human person could not be divided into separate body and soul, as the Greeks and most christians did. Milton knew that the Hebrew word for "soul" meant "(God-given) breath" and he believed that human life ceased when breathing stopped. He thought that eternal life would start on the last day when God raised the dead to life by giving them breath again. This position was known as "mortalism" and by it Milton avoided the problem of explaining what happens to the soul after the death of the body.

Milton's greatest difference from other Protestants, who mostly followed Calvin and Augustine in believing that the Fall had corrupted human nature so utterly that no one could do anything good. Milton detested this doctrine of "absolute depravity". He considered, with the Greeks, that although people were weak and found virtue hard, still there was always the possibility of using our powers of reason to see correctly what is right and our will to do it.

Milton's vision of the place of the individual in human society was dominated by a fierce concern for individual freedom. He was convinced that Adam and Eve before the Fall had been free and happy. They lived in harmony with Nature, which was in turn totally harmonious and knew no cycles of growth and decay. In the Garden God gave them, Adam and Eve could enjoy total freedom because they were completely bound by the laws of Reason. Milton did not believe that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil had any magic powers; he thought that God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat its fruit merely as a kind of test of their readiness to obey him, a token of their freedom. When they disobeyed God's command, they followed their passions instead of their reason. That was the Fall. The tree of the "knowledge of good and evil" was so called because, after disobey­ing God's command, Adam and Eve were in a state where they knew the good they had lost and the evil they had gained.

Milton was convinced that humanity needed to know both good and evil in order to become truly free. The Fall was something terrible, but potentially wonderful; after it comes the development of human history, culminating in Christ's Redemption of a wiser humanity. Milton did not think we could know how or why the cosmos itself lost its primal perfection after Adam's sin.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Paradise Lost is the power of its overall structure. When he first published the poem, in 1667, Milton divided the poem into ten books of varying length, books seven and ten being much longer than the rest. He perhaps thought of the work as being comprised of two five-act dramas, while ten is also a symbolic number (1+2+3+4). Virgil's Aeneid has twelve books, though, and in the second edition (1674) Milton divided books seven and ten into two books each to bring the total to twelve. The summary of the contents placed at the start of the books dates from the second edition.

Paradise Lost is clearly divided into two halves, six books each in the second edition. Each half then can be subdivided by its contents into three sets of two books:

The poem starts with its most well-known portion, the initial invocation of the Spirit-muse and the exposition of the theme of the entire work in a dramatic question-and-answer which seems to suggest that the entire poem is the Spirit's reply to Milton's initial question about "the cause" of human society's and the cosmos's corruptions:


Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing heavenly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God; I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

And chiefly thou O Spirit, that dost prefer

Before all temples the upright heart and pure,

Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first

Wast present, and with mighty wings outs[read

Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss

And madst it pregnant: what in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support;

That to the highth of this great argument

I may assert eternal providence,

And justify the ways of God to men.

   Say first, for heaven hides nothing from thy view

Nor the deep tract of hell, say first what cause

Moved our grand parents in that happy state,

Favoured of heaven so highly, to fall off

From their creator, and transgress his will

For one restraint, lord of the world besides?

The infernal serpent; he it was...

                                                                                                            (Book 1 line 1-34)


Books 1 and 2 are centered on Satan. The poem begins, as tradition requires, in medias res with Satan and his fellows lying on the floor of Hell. Satan's first speech, to Beelzebub, indicates his fixed nature as rebel against God:

    If thou beest he; But O how fall'n! how chang'd
   From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
   Cloth'd with transcendent brightnes didst outshine
   Myriads though bright: If he whom mutual league,
   United thoughts and counsels, equal hope,
   And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
   Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd
   In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
   From what highth fal'n, so much the stronger provd
   He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
   The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those
   Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
   Can else inflict do I repent or change,
   Though chang'd in outward lustre; that fixt mind
   And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
   That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
   And to the fierce contention brought along
   Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
   That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
   His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
   In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
   And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
   All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
   And study of revenge, immortal hate,
   And courage never to submit or yield:
   And what is else not to be overcome?
   That Glory never shall his wrath or might
   Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
   With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
   Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
   Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
   That were an ignominy and shame beneath
   This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
   And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
   Since through experience of this great event
   In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
   We may with more successful hope resolve
   To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
   Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
   Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
   Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

    So spake th' Apostate Angel, though in pain,
   Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:

How to continue the fight? The hall of Pandemonium rises and they gather in assembly round Satan, their manipulative dictator. In Book 2, after a debate on continuing resistance to God, in which Satan strikes poses of rebel hero, he sets out to find the newly-created world. At the gates of Hell he finds the figures Sin and Death; Sin says that Death is her son and that Satan is his father. Satan journeys through Chaos and arrives at the world.

Books 3 and 4 form a strong contrast. Book 3 is set in Heaven; the Father tells the Son what will happen to Adam and Eve as a result of Satan's journey. The Son freely offers to give his own life for the redemption of their sin. Meanwhile Satan is trying to find where Adam and Eve are living. In Book 4 Satan slips into Paradise disguised as a bird.

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
   The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
   Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
   Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
   To them who liv'd; nor on the vertue thought
   Of that life-giving Plant, but only us'd
   For prospect, what well us'd had bin the pledge
   Of immortalitie. So little knows
   Any, but God alone, to value right
   The good before him, but perverts best things
   To worst abuse, or to thir meanest use.
   Beneath him with new wonder now he views
   To all delight of human sense expos'd
   In narrow room Natures whole wealth, yea more,
   A Heaven on Earth, for blissful Paradise
   Of God the Garden was, by him in the East
   Of EDEN planted; EDEN stretchd her Line
   From AURAN Eastward to the Royal Towrs
   Of great SELEUCIA, built by GRECIAN Kings,
   Or where the Sons of EDEN long before
   Dwelt in TELASSAR: in this pleasant soile
   His farr more pleasant Garden God ordaind;
   Out of the fertil ground he caus'd to grow
   All Trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste;
   And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
   High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit
   Of vegetable Gold; and next to Life
   Our Death the Tree of Knowledge grew fast by,
   Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill.
   Southward through EDEN went a River large,
   Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggie hill
   Pass'd underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
   That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais'd
   Upon the rapid current, which through veins
   Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up drawn,
   Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
   Waterd the Garden; thence united fell
   Down the steep glade, and met the neather Flood,
   Which from his darksom passage now appeers,
   And now divided into four main Streams,
   Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realme
   And Country whereof here needs no account,
   But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
   How from that Saphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
   Rowling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
   With mazie error under pendant shades
   Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
   Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
   In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
   Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine,
   Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
   The open field, and where the unpierc't shade
   Imbround the noontide Bowrs: Thus was this place,
   A happy rural seat of various view;
   Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
   Others whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
   Hung amiable, HESPERIAN Fables true,
   If true, here onely, and of delicious taste:
   Betwixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
   Grasing the tender herb, were interpos'd,
   Or palmie hilloc, or the flourie lap
   Of som irriguous Valley spread her store,
   Flours of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose:
   Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
   Of coole recess, o're which the mantling Vine
   Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
   Luxuriant; mean while murmuring waters fall
   Down the slope hills, disperst, or in a Lake,
   That to the fringed Bank with Myrtle crownd,
   Her chrystall mirror holds, unite thir streams.
   The Birds thir quire apply; aires, vernal aires,
   Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
   The trembling leaves, while Universal PAN
   Knit with the GRACES and the HOURS in dance
   Led on th' Eternal Spring. Not that faire field
   Of ENNA, where PROSERPIN gathring flours
   Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie DIS
   Was gatherd, which cost CERES all that pain
   To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
   Of DAPHNE by ORONTES, and th' inspir'd
   CASTALIAN Spring might with this Paradise
   Of EDEN strive; nor that NYSEIAN Ile
   Girt with the River TRITON, where old CHAM,
   Whom Gentiles AMMON call and LIBYAN JOVE,
   Hid AMALTHEA and her Florid Son
   Young BACCHUS from his Stepdame RHEA'S eye;
   Nor where ABASSIN Kings thir issue Guard,
   Mount AMARA, though this by som suppos'd
   True Paradise under the ETHIOP Line
   By NILUS head, enclos'd with shining Rock,
   A whole dayes journey high, but wide remote
   From this ASSYRIAN Garden, where the Fiend
   Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
   Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:
   Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
   Godlike erect, with native Honour clad
   In naked Majestie seemd Lords of all,
   And worthie seemd, for in thir looks Divine
   The image of thir glorious Maker shon,
   Truth, Wisdome, Sanctitude severe and pure,
   Severe, but in true filial freedom plac't;
   Whence true autoritie in men; though both
   Not equal, as thir sex not equal seemd;
   For contemplation hee and valour formd,
   For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
   Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
   His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
   Absolute rule; and Hyacinthin Locks
   Round from his parted forelock manly hung
   Clustring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
   Shee as a vail down to the slender waste
   Her unadorned golden tresses wore
   Dissheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav'd
   As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli'd
   Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
   And by her yeilded, by him best receivd,
   Yeilded with coy submission, modest pride,
   And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
   Nor those mysterious parts were then conceald,
   Then was not guiltie shame, dishonest shame
   Of natures works, honor dishonorable,
   Sin-bred, how have ye troubl'd all mankind
   With shews instead, meer shews of seeming pure,
   And banisht from mans life his happiest life,
   Simplicitie and spotless innocence.
   So passd they naked on, nor shund the sight
   Of God or Angel, for they thought no ill:
   So hand in hand they passd, the lovliest pair
   That ever since in loves imbraces met,
   ADAM the goodliest man of men since borne
   His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters EVE.
   Under a tuft of shade that on a green
   Stood whispering soft, by a fresh Fountain side
   They sat them down, and after no more toil
   Of thir sweet Gardning labour then suffic'd
   To recommend coole ZEPHYR, and made ease
   More easie, wholsom thirst and appetite
   More grateful, to thir Supper Fruits they fell,
   Nectarine Fruits which the compliant boughes
   Yeilded them, side-long as they sat recline
   On the soft downie Bank damaskt with flours:
   The savourie pulp they chew, and in the rinde
   Still as they thirsted scoop the brimming stream;
   Nor gentle purpose, nor endearing smiles
   Wanted, nor youthful dalliance as beseems
   Fair couple, linkt in happie nuptial League,
   Alone as they. About them frisking playd
   All Beasts of th' Earth, since wilde, and of all chase
   In Wood or Wilderness, Forrest or Den;
   Sporting the Lion rampd, and in his paw
   Dandl'd the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
   Gambold before them, th' unwieldy Elephant
   To make them mirth us'd all his might, & wreathd
   His Lithe Proboscis; close the Serpent sly
   Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine
   His breaded train, and of his fatal guile
   Gave proof unheeded; others on the grass
   Coucht, and now fild with pasture gazing sat,
   Or Bedward ruminating: for the Sun
   Declin'd was hasting now with prone carreer
   To th' Ocean Iles, and in th' ascending Scale
   Of Heav'n the Starrs that usher Evening rose:
   When SATAN still in gaze, as first he stood,
   Scarce thus at length faild speech recoverd sad.

    O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
   Into our room of bliss thus high advanc't
   Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
   Not Spirits, yet to heav'nly Spirits bright
   Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
   With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
   In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
   The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.
   Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh
   Your change approaches, when all these delights
   Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
   More woe, the more your taste is now of joy;
   Happie, but for so happie ill secur'd
   Long to continue, and this high seat your Heav'n
   Ill fenc't for Heav'n to keep out such a foe
   As now is enterd; yet no purpos'd foe
   To you whom I could pittie thus forlorne
   Though I unpittied: League with you I seek,
   And mutual amitie so streight, so close,
   That I with you must dwell, or you with me
   Henceforth; my dwelling haply may not please
   Like this fair Paradise, your sense, yet such
   Accept your Makers work; he gave it me,
   Which I as freely give; Hell shall unfould,
   To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
   And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
   Not like these narrow limits, to receive
   Your numerous ofspring; if no better place,
   Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
   On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd.
   And should I at your harmless innocence
   Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just,
   Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg'd,
   By conquering this new World, compels me now
   To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.

The angels detect his presence and arrest him while he is trying to tempt the sleeping Eve, now reduced to the shape of a toad.

Book 5 introduces Adam and Eve in their perfect but slightly precarious harmony. God sends the archangel Raphael to warn them of the approaching danger. While Eve cuts fruit for their meal, Raphael starts to describe to Adam in suitably adapted heroic style how Satan rebelled, created an opposition party and easily fooled a host of angels by his seeming sincerity.

            In Book 6, Raphael's tale continues: there is open warfare in epic mode; the hosts of God's angels are led by Michael and Gabriel. The first day's battle is inconclusive; on the second day, Satan's army invents heavy artillery but the guns are buried by God's angels under uprooted mountains. On the third day, the Son himself comes out to battle as Messiah and by his unique power drives the rebels straight through the wall of heaven.

The two halves hinge around the division between books 6 and 7, the fall of Satan in book 6 being followed in Book 7 by Raphael's story (from Genesis) of the six days of creation by the Son who then returns to Heaven. They reach the point in the story where Adam is already created. In Book 8, Adam shows his human nature by taking over the story-telling from Raphael and plying him with questions about the mechanics of the cosmos. Raphael discourages too much scientific curiosity. The creation of Eve to be Adam's "fit companion" is described by Adam, who tells how they fell in love at a moment when Eve was in danger of falling in love with her own reflection in a pond. Raphael warns Adam and Eve again of the danger Satan represents, then withdraws.

The climax of the story comes in Books 9  and 10. Satan takes the shape of the serpent, tempts Eve while she is working away from Adam, she eats. Hearing what has happened, Adam is horrified. He recalls God's "you shall surely die" and decides he would rather die with her than live alone again. He eats and they are both overcome by liberated sexual passion of a degenerate kind that leads to discord. In book 10 the Son comes to judge them and give them clothes. Sin and Death create a highway linking earth and Hell while Satan returns to Pandemonium to tell of his success. All the inhabitants of Hell are turned into serpents eating ashes. The cosmos itself is corrupted as a result of humanity's Fall, although God in heaven promises the final victory of good. Adam and Eve consider suicide but Adam begins to use his reason, finds grounds for hope, and they turn towards God in prayer.

The final two books, Books 11 and 12, are oriented towards the future. The Son prays to the Father for Adam and Eve; his prayers are accepted. Adam and Eve must leave Paradise and live out in the harsh world. Michael is sent to tell them of their exile. Michael tells Adam of the future consequences of the Fall, as portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis, with the murder of Abel, the corruptions that follow, until God decides to send the flood to destroy humanity. Adam is appalled. Book 12 turns from disaster to hope, with the call of Abraham and his obedience to God. Michael tells Adam all the history of Israel, constantly wavering between obedience and sin, until one woman, Mary, says yes to God and the Son is born. The life and death of Jesus are reported, and the continuing work of salvation in the Christian Church with the same alternations of disaster and hope until finally the Last Day brings the Return and final victory of the Son. Adam is comforted. Eve, who has been asleep, dreams similar things and together they set out to begin human society's history:


Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and providence their guide:

They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.

                                                                                                      (Book 12 lines 645-9)


Books 1 and 3, 7 and 9 each begin with an invocation to the muse who, in book 7, is named "Urania"--not one of the classical muses but a figure used in the Reformation times to refer to the inspiring Spirit of Christian poetry. These invocations divide each half of the poem into sections of two books followed by four, a significant pattern of harmony as well as indicating the proper proportion between reason and concupis­cence according to Pico.

At the same time, the last book of the first half and the first of the second are marked by a double triumph of the Son; he drives the rebels from Heaven, then he creates the world. We see him mounting his chariot in book 6 lines 760-3:


He in celestial panoply all armed

Of radiant urim, work divinely wrought,

Ascended, at his right hand victory

Sat, eagle-winged...


It is no coincidence that in the first edition of the poem the exact half-way point in terms of line-count fell between "wrought" and "ascended". Similarly, though ambiguously opposite in content, the second half of the second edition in terms of books-count begins "Descend"!

The reception of Paradise Lost is a long story in itself. In many ways the work was a challenge. The choice of a biblical theme was criticized by Dryden, for example.  Yet the greatness of the work was quickly recognized. The first edition, for which Milton received ten pounds, sold well over one thousand copies. The second edition, the final text, continued to be published after Milton's death.

In the coming Age of Reason, Milton's poem might appeal because of its reasonableness. Milton was not much interested in the laws of universal mechanics that were the dominant interest of the scientific age, he never chose between the old earth-centred system and the new sun-centred one, but he did consider that Christian belief, based on the Bible, was in accordance with the demands of reason. Milton wanted to know and express in words the truth, as much as any other seventeenth or eighteenth century philosopher.

Milton was writing in an age that had largely lost the ability to take seriously the old myths of Greece and Rome, or even to use them in metaphorical ways. He benefits from this, since his subject matter is still universally recognized as true and treated with the deepest respect, even though many of the details of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, were already beginning to be found unacceptable to a modern enlightened sensibility.

One of the most influential writers in the elevation of Paradise Lost to the rank of a great classic was Joseph Addison (1672-1719) who wrote a long series of articles centred on Paradise Lost in the Saturday issues of The Spectator, starting in January 1712. He compares the poem to the great classical epics and applies Aristotle's criteria, to show that Milton's work is in effect superior to the old epics, in part at least because it is Christian and therefore "true" in ways their pagan mythologies could not be.

Later in the century, Dr. Johnson published a well-known essay on Milton's works in 1779 in which he spends a long time on the excellence of Paradise Lost:


   Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a great accumulation of materials, with judgement to digest and fancy to combine them: Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study and exalted by imagination.


His main complaint is that the poem has "neither human actions nor human manners" since all happens in Heaven, in Hell, or in Paradise where Adam and Eve "are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know".

Dr. Johnson was blunt enough to add a celebrated comment with which many have had to agree:


   But original deficience cannot be supplied. 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. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for compan­ions.


The history of reactions to Paradise Lost is one of admiration and rejection.



John Milton