Milton was born in London in1608 and
died in 1674.
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
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.
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
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.