Summary of the Work
A short summary, entitled The Argument, is presented by Milton as a preface to each of the 12 books of Paradise Lost. In the first book, he announces the subject of the poem, Man's disobedience and the loss thereupon of Paradise. The poem opens in the midst of things, after the war in Heaven but before the fall of Adam and Eve. Satan and his multitude of angels have been cast out of Heaven and into the Deep for rebelling against God and are chained on the burning lake in Hell. Satan awakens his legions of angels, comforting them in their dejected state by offering them hope of reclaiming Heaven. He recounts an old prophecy he has heard, while still in Heaven, of another world that will be created with a new kind of creature called Man. Satan calls a council in his newly erected palace, Pandemonium, to decide whether to wage another war on Heaven. After a lengthy debate, the council finally decides to send Satan to search for God's new creation instead. He flies toward the gates of Hell which are guarded by Sin and Death. They open the gates and Satan meets Chaos who directs him to the new world.
Seeing Satan flying toward Earth, God points him out to the Son, prophesying that Satan will tempt Man to sin. God demonstrates his justice by declaring his divine grace to Man, however, only if someone will offer himself as a ransom for his sin. The Son volunteers and is praised by the angels in Heaven. Meanwhile, Satan has travelled through the Limbo of Vanity and reached the orb of the sun. He quickly disguises himself as a Cherub before he asks Uriel for directions to Earth.
On Earth, Satan disguises himself as a water bird in the Tree of Life where he overlooks the beauty of Adam and Eve in their blissful state. Later that night, Satan is caught at Eve's ear, tempting her in a dream, and he flies from the Garden. In the morning, Eve relates her disturbing dream to Adam.
Raphael is sent by God to caution Adam about the evil that is lurking in Paradise. After dining, Raphael engages Adam in a long conversation, reminding him of his obedience to God though he has been given free choice. Raphael informs Adam of the war in Heaven and the victory of the Son who drove Satan and his legions over the wall of Heaven and into the Deep. The Son was later sent by God to perform the work of creation in six days. Taking his leave, Raphael again cautions Adam to beware of God's command.
Returning to Paradise by night, Satan enters the body of the sleeping serpent. The next day, Eve innocently suggests to Adam that they work in separate areas of the Garden. Remembering Raphael's warning, Adam refuses at first but finally consents. Left alone, Eve is approached and flattered by the Serpent. He tells her his human speech and understanding were brought about by tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He slowly convinces Eve to eat this same fruit. Although pleased with the taste and the exhilarating feeling, Eve approaches Adam with some reluctance. She convinces him to taste the fruit, and the effects are quickly felt, prompting them to cover their nakedness and blame each other for the sinful deed.
The guardian angels ascend to Heaven, and the Son is sent to judge the sinful pair. Out of pity, he also clothes them. In anticipation of their future appearance on Earth, Sin and Death build a broad highway over Chaos to make Earth more accessible. Satan returns to Pandemonium where he is greeted with a hiss from the fallen angels now transformed into serpents.
On Earth, Adam and Eve lament their fallen state. To avoid the curse that they have brought upon future generations, Eve considers taking her life, but Adam gives her hope that the promised Messiah, their seed, will avenge Satan by overcoming Death. The Son intercedes for the earthly pair, presenting their prayers of repentance to God who forgives them but proclaims that they must leave Paradise. Michael is sent from Heaven to deliver the unhappy message. Grieving his loss of Paradise, Adam pleads with Michael but finally abides by God's orders. Michael leads Adam to a high hill where he engages in a lengthy prophecy of the future of all mankind. He explains the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. Comforted by God's promise, Adam awakens Eve who has been dreaming gentle dreams that have composed her spirit. Taking each of them by the hand, Michael leads them out of Paradise, guarded by the Cherubim and ushered by God's blazing sword.
The Life and Work of John Milton
John Milton left a rich legacy of English poetry and prose comprised of sonnets, lyric and epic poems, and controversial political and social pamphlets defending divorce, freedom of the press, and the Puritan cause. He was born in London on December 9, 1608. Though his father had been disinherited for transferring his allegiance from the Catholic to the Protestant church, he had made a substantial fortune as a scrivener and had also dabbled in money lending. As a talented musician, perhaps a professional, Milton's father would have kept company with artists and patrons alike. From early childhood the young Milton was exposed to the culturally rich atmosphere of seventeenth-century London. It is noteworthy that Shakespeare was still writing plays when Milton was born.
Recognizing their son's exceptional intellectual aptitude, his parents provided private tutors for him at an early age. In 1620, he attended St. Paul's school in London with Alexander Gill as his tutor. When he was 17, Milton entered Christ's College at Cambridge. His first years at Cambridge were not as happy as they had been at St. Paul's. Milton left college in his second year after a quarrel with his tutor, William Chappel. When he returned, he was assigned to a more compatible tutor, Nathaniel Tovey. Milton took his B.A. degree from Cambridge in 1629 and his M.A. three years later.
Though it had been Milton's intention to become a clergyman, his disillusionment with the Church of England under the leadership of Archbishop Laud had led him to direct his course toward the writing of poetry instead. Following his years at Cambridge, he went to live with his parents at Horton, their newly acquired country estate, where he enjoyed a period of uninterrupted leisure. Here he devoted his time to writing poetry and studying the Greek and Latin authors.
After the death of Milton's mother, his younger brother, Christopher, moved to Horton with his new wife. Perhaps his broken solitude and the loss of his mother influenced Milton to leave the family home and travel to the European continent in 1638. His travels through France and Italy, where he met many distinguished intellectuals and literary men, proved to be 16 of the most rewarding months of his life.
Upon arrival in England in 1639, Milton established residency in London. His nine-year-old nephew, John Phillips, boarded with him, receiving private tutoring. A year later John's older brother, Edward, joined them. When several other boarders moved in for private lessons, Milton's house began to resemble a small, private boarding school.
In 1642, Milton began to compose the dramatic version of Paradise Lost based on the ancient Greek model of tragedy. That same year, Milton, now 35 years old, brought a 17-year-old bride, Mary Powell, into the scholarly atmosphere of his boarding school. Her aversion to the studious life, along with the differences in their ages and interests, resulted in an unfortunate match. After several months she went back to her parents for a visit and did not return. The Powells, a strong Royalist family, were perhaps afraid of their daughter's close association with Milton, a parliamentarian who had openly opposed the King's cause. Milton's rebuttal to his wife's desertion took the form of a series of pamphlets defending divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. Mary Powell returned to him after two years of separation. The Royalist cause had been defeated, and the Powell family needed Milton's protection. His wife and several of her family members moved in with him, resulting in noise and confusion that was not conducive to scholarly concentration.
Mary Powell bore him four children. In 1652, Milton's fortunes rapidly declined when his only son died. It was in the same year that Milton became totally blind. The following year his wife died just after the birth of his third daughter. At the age of 45, Milton, in his desolation, was a blind widower with three small children, Anne, six years old, Mary, only three, and Deborah, an infant.
After five years he married Katharine Woodcock, but the happy marriage ended when she, along with their three-month-old son, died 16 months later. In 1663, he married Elizabeth Minshull, a 24-year-old woman who gave him the support and stability that had been lacking with his three grown daughters. He had sought their help as readers and amanuenses in his work, but they had, without his knowledge, attempted to sell his books and other possessions.
Milton died on November 8, 1674, from a sudden attack of gout or rheumatism. He was buried in St. Giles Cripplegate near his father. Elizabeth Minshull lived to cherish his memory, providing biographers with valuable information about his final years.
Estimated Reading Time
Milton's epic poetry is laced with classical and biblical allusions, and his language is elevated with a distinct departure from common speech. For an adequate understanding of the poem, it is, therefore, necessary to pay special attention to the difficult words and phrases and the allusions that are translated at the bottom of most texts of Paradise Lost. During the first reading, the 12 book, 282-page epic poem should be read for an understanding of the plot only. In this case, it can be read in approximately seven hours. After the initial reading, the poem should be read more carefully, making repeated use of a good dictionary and the glossary of the text to clarify the archaic language and Latinisms that frequently appear in Milton's verse. The second reading would probably take a little more than 12 hours for the entire epic poem, allowing about an hour for each book. Since the books vary from 15 to 34 pages, the reading time will not be the same for each book.