In the series, we’re excerpting summaries Ken Boa has produced over the years on classic works of literature. See the first post for a list of 16 classics every Christian should know.
Literary scholars generally acknowledge Milton to be one of the greatest English poets, second only to Shakespeare.Of all of Milton’s works, Paradise Lost is regarded as his supreme achievement and the greatest epic poem of the English language. It is a massive composition written in the classic style that was inherited from the Greeks and Romans. It concerns the biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve and elaborately describes the cosmic events surrounding this narrative through extraordinary movements from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell.
Milton is regarded by many as the most learned of the English authors. Certainly, he studied intensely and drank deeply at the well of classic writings while studying Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Along with his scholarly grasp of ancient literature and history, Milton possessed a tremendous ability to coherently mix allusions from the Bible, medieval angelology, ancient Jewish tradition, apocryphal accounts, and classical mythology. As a result, there is something for everyone in Milton’s works.
Born in 1608 in London, Milton grew up in prosperity. After his formal education was complete, he moved in some of the most intellectual and influential social circles, traveling widely in France and Italy. A Puritan, some of his beliefs were unorthodox (e.g., he misunderstood the doctrine of the Trinity), which came out in his writings.
His “middle years,” 1640–59, included a post as Oliver Cromwell’s Latin secretary. His political involvement during this period (which spilled over into his writings) occurred side by side with a time of great emotional tumult. In addition to experiencing a number of physical ailments, he gradually went blind and lost his sight completely by age 44. (Years later, he wrote “Sonnet 19” to convey his despair as he struggled to come to terms with his blindness.)
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton’s involvement during the Protectorate put him at risk, and he went into hiding when a warrant was issued for his arrest and for his writings to be burned. Milton was ultimately pardoned and thus reemerged, but in light of his loss of position, much of his wealth, and his eyesight, he retired to a quiet, personal life in London for his final years (1660–74). He remarried a third time during this period, having lost his first two wives following complications of childbirth. Also in this later period, he wrote several major works, including Paradise Lost.
John Milton wrote Paradise Lost toward the end of his life, after he had gone blind.
Penning the Poem
Milton wrote Paradise Lost in 1667 against the backdrop of profound personal despair and disappointment. Indeed, the depth of insight and mature perspective may reflect his transfer of hope from political machinations to the eternal verities.
Epic poems of the quality of Paradise Lost can only be completed at a stage in life when a person possesses extensive knowledge and poetic skills. Homer, Virgil, and Dante all wrote their epic masterpieces near the ends of their lives—in this, Milton is not alone.
However, Milton’s concept for Paradise Lost was birthed much earlier, in 1640. The idea, in summation, was to write an epic poem that would tell the whole human story from the beginning to the end. This dramatic scope required a great mind, a vast perspective, and much suffering—all of which Milton had by the time he wrote Paradise Lost.
The grand style of Paradise Lost reveals an attempt by Milton to do for England what Homer had done for the Greeks and Virgil for the Romans—that is, create his nation’s greatest epic poem. His narrative style reflects certain elements that both those authors employed.
Epic poems tell ancient stories and celebrate great national heroes. In the case of Paradise Lost, Christ is the hero while Adam and Eve serve as hero-protagonists. Also included in an epic is a central feat acted out within a cosmic scope that has a supernatural dimension.
We might even regard Paradise Lost as not so much an epic but an anti-epic, because the human heroes turn out to be archetypal sinners, and their epic feat is a fall from innocence.
We might even regard Paradise Lost as not so much an epic but an anti-epic, because the human heroes turn out to be archetypal sinners, and their epic feat is a fall from innocence. The crucial struggle of this story does not take place on a battlefield, as in the Iliad, but rather it takes place in the human soul. The great conquest consists not in military action, but rather it is reflected in repentance and salvation and obedience to the living God. The fall from innocence creates the desperate condition and the cosmic struggle of the story and also illustrates the human condition we still find ourselves in today.
Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost
“The subject … of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of a colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of worlds, the revolutions of heaven and earth; rebellion against the supreme King, raised by the highest order of created beings; the overthrow of their host, and the punishment of their crime; the creation of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to hope and peace.”
Paradise Lost incorporates intensely spiritual and biblically driven images. It is a sublime poem characterized by what we might call an expansive loftiness. In fact, I think Milton possessed a particular power to astonish. He was able to take the narrative of the first three chapters of Genesis and plausibly embellish it to provide the reader a credible picture of the Edenic paradise.
His art gives us an almost palpable experience of the spiritual warfare between God’s holy angels and Satan’s demons. Milton takes us into the demonic abyss, into their chaos, and into their councils in Pandemonium—the capital of hell in Milton’s tale. The word pandemonium originated from this work. Milton combined two Greek words, pan, which means “all,” and daimonion, which means “lesser god” or “demon.” There they hold their councils and scheme their revenge.
Paradise Lost moves the reader through the vast fabric of Christian doctrine, not merely to inform but also to contrast the good life God planned for us at creation with what that life has become through the tragedy of sin.
Paradise Lost does not merely inform the reader but contrasts the good life God planned for us at creation with what that life has become through the tragedy of sin.
Paradise Lost was originally published in 10 books; a later version (in 1674) divided the work into 12 books. These books were intentionally aligned into couplets of six books each that provide us with a movement of contrasting flows, like the movements of a symphony.
- Books 1 and 2: Images of Hell
- Book 3: Imagery of Heaven
- Book 4: Paradise on Earth (Garden of Eden)
- Books 5 and 6: Angelic War in Heaven and Eviction of Satan and His Forces
- Books 7 and 8: Creation of Heaven and Earth
- Books 9 and 10: The Fall of Adam and Eve (and Effects of the Fall)
- Book 11: The Fall to the Flood
- Book 12: Abraham to the Second Coming
Book 4 is an astounding achievement and is my favorite part. It is characterized by a lucidity, a lightness, a clarity, and a beauty that I think Milton deliberately used to illustrate the corresponding qualities of the spiritual realms.
Key Aspects of Paradise Lost
Milton intricately wove all the threads of Scripture together to present the story of God’s redemption of humanity through a rich tapestry of extraordinary imagery. Milton’s work is difficult to read because he wrote in such a lofty style, employing very long sentences and an extensive vocabulary. However, Paradise Lost is a unified poem. There is not a single line or sentence that is not connected to preceding material; everything works backward and forward in a fluidity of syntax and significance.
The Great Argument
I think much of the power of Paradise Lost is found in what has been called its great argument, that is, its architecture of themes and ideas. The moral and spiritual conflict between good and evil is the most obvious. It presents a Christian view of history, which unfolds as a sequence and emphasizes a hierarchy. In Milton’s age, that hierarchy was portrayed as a great chain of being, with reason as a means to virtue when it is achieved by governing the emotions and the appetites, thereby moving us forward toward God’s reasonable commands.
The poem appeals to and touches the emotions. Milton achieved this by guiding his readers to vicariously imagine themselves in the events and tensions of the epic. This, I think, is significant because it allows the story to become personal and experiential and to touch us on a deeper level in that regard.
Fresh Access to Familiar Scenes
Those familiar with the first books of Genesis—and the Bible as a whole—know what will happen in the end. But Milton gives us fresh access to familiar scenes. For example, somehow Milton creates a tension and a dread that cause us to almost believe that Adam and Eve will resist temptation in the garden. In his depiction of Eden, Milton reminds us that the fall of mankind did not happen accidentally. The fall was an intentional choice of disobedience.
The fall of mankind did not happen accidentally. The fall was an intentional choice of disobedience.
—Ken Boa, on John Milton’s Paradise Lost
From Baroque to Celestial
The first two books of the poem are written in what some literary critics have termed the demonic style. This style is very “baroque”—ornate, flashy, highly involved, dense, and weighed down with allusions to classical mythology. It is difficult to follow even for the reader who is familiar with mythology. This style itself illustrates the pandemonium, the confusion, the chaos, and the discordant wills that are represented in the councils of Satan.
In book 3, Milton’s writing shifts to the celestial style, which, by comparison, is simple, elegant, and light; it’s easier to follow and filled with allusions to Scripture.
Illustrative of the Human Condition
Paradise Lost does a wonderful job of illustrating and illuminating the human condition. I believe this book shows, through the use of emotions and vivid imagery, how the fall into sin happens in our own lives and how we ought to live in light of this.
Combining Passion and Reason
Aristotle once said: “Intellect of itself ‘moves nothing’: the transition from thinking to doing … needs to be assisted by appropriate states of feeling.” In the ancient world, rhetoric consisted of three elements; it combined passion and reason to compel action. Similarly, poetry calls on emotion to support an imaginative vision that promotes wisdom . Poetry can build spiritual health when it is written in a soul-enriching, truth-enhancing way. This is what Milton sought to do. His imaginative vision touches our emotions and elevates our minds into spheres of comprehension and experience we might not otherwise attain; it also gives us a sense of connection with the created order and with the One for whom we were created.
There is an analogy between the Christian and the creative life. It is this: a Christian has to work hard at living a Christian life, in terms of the disciplines of the faith. Yet the one essential act of the Christian life is the surrender of the will.
The one essential act of the Christian life is the surrender of the will.
—Ken Boa, on John Milton’s Paradise Lost
In a very interesting way poets must work hard at their craft, and yet their greatest achievements are not theirs, but they are inspired by surrendering the will, as it were. I hope that we would take away from this epic poem the desire to surrender our own rebellious wills and selfish ideas about life and, instead, embrace the mysterious counsels of God, because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV).
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1
Image credit: Illustration of Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.