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.
Milton's writings were heavily influenced by the political and religious climate of his day. When Charles I became king in 1625, he repeatedly dissolved the Parliament whenever the members would not defer to his wishes. In his eagerness for complete power, King Charles finally ruled without Parliament altogether for 11 years. The King promoted William Laud to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud became omnipotent in both church and state. He used his authority to impose certain religious ceremonies in the Church of England and forced the use of the prayer book on the populace. In preparing a list of the clergy for King Charles, Laud labelled each name with an O for orthodox or P for Puritan. The Puritans were identified for suppression, while the orthodox were designated as possible candidates for promotion. He went as far as ordering the justices of the peace to search houses and bring people before the commissions if they were caught holding private religious services. It became increasingly difficult for Milton to consider committing himself to a career as a minister of the church under the tyranny of Archbishop Laud.
Civil war finally broke out and Charles I was beheaded by the Puritans. Milton responded with a series of pamphlets in support of regicide. He defended the deposition and execution of the King in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and argued against the power of the bishops in Of Reformation in England. These publications brought him an appointment as Latin Secretary under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth government.
At the time of the Restoration, when King Charles II replaced the Commonwealth, Milton went into hiding for a time. He was finally taken into custody but released for a substantial fee. There has been much discussion concerning the reasons for Milton's release. Many men who were guilty of fewer political crimes than Milton were put to death. It is believed that Andrew Marvell, the poet, was one of his friends in the council who interceded for him.
Though Milton's pamphlets, written in his middle years, reflect the political and religious life of seventeenth century England, his poetry depicts the cultural aspects of those times. Though he had sketched his idea in dramatic form as early as 1642, it was not until he had given up his post as Latin Secretary and become totally blind that he began work on the epic poem Paradise Lost. Published in 1667, it was followed by Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, both published in 1671.
Paradise Lost, written in blank verse, follows the common characteristics of the epic that were established by Homer. The epic is a long, narrative poem, written in an exalted tone and an elevated style, glorifying characters of high position. The epic hero is a noble character with heroic stature whose virtues represent a particular culture or race and are of great historical or legendary significance. The setting is vast, covering a whole nation or the entire universe. The action consists of deeds of courage and boldness. Supernatural beings, gods, angels, and demons periodically intervene in the action.
To these characteristics are added some common conventions or devices employed by the poet who begins by stating his theme and invoking the muse or some higher power to guide or inspire him. The poem opens in medias res in the middle of things. The rest of the narrative, the beginning and ending, is then completed, when necessary, throughout the poem. The main characters are given long formal speeches. The expanded epic simile is employed with repeated frequency, and epic battles are described to present the conflict.
It was Milton's ambition to emulate the ancients Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin. Though he owed his medium of expression to the classical poets, Milton borrowed his subject, the Fall of Man, from the biblical narrative in Genesis and the War in Heaven from Revelation. He was influenced by the Spenserian tradition of religious poetry and patterned his verse after the unrhymed iambic pentameter of Shakespeare's poetic drama.
In 1674, Andrew Marvell wrote a poem as a preface to the second edition of Paradise Lost in which he praised Milton whose poetry sings with so much gravity and ease. Dryden, Milton's contemporary, was a poet who declared that Satan was Milton's hero in the epic poem. This idea surfaced again in the late eighteenth century when William Blake also wrote that Milton was a true poet, but was, unknown to himself, in sympathy with the rebellious Satan. But C. S. Lewis a modern critic, refuted his idea on the grounds that it is the reader, not Milton, who admires Satan. Samuel Johnson criticized Milton's unskillful allegory of Sin and Death, but praised him for his composition of a great individualistic work.
By the nineteenth century, Milton had taken his place with Shakespeare, Homer, and Virgil. Matthew Arnold saw him as a master, in English, of the great epic style of the ancients. In our own century, Milton was attacked by T. S. Eliot as a poet whose visual imagery contained an inherent weakness. In comparing God to the classical Zeus, who is not a loving god, and Satan to Prometheus, who is a friend to man, Werblowsky suggests that Milton, unknowingly, transposed his main characters, leading the reader to empathize with Satan and to fear God. Stanley Fish argues, however, that it was Milton's intention to lead the reader through the Fall in order to experience the fallen state with Adam. If the reader then finds Satan attractive and God distant and unloving, he is, just as Adam was, still separated from God by his own sin.
Master List of Characters
God-He is the omniscent creator of Heaven and Earth and all its creatures.
The Son-He is called the Son in Heaven. He has not yet come down to earth as Jesus Christ. He volunteers to give his life as a ransom for Man's sin.
Adam-The first man created by God and placed in the Garden of Eden, he is forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Eve-The first woman created by God from Adam's rib; like Adam, she is forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but is tempted by the Serpent and finally succumbs. She then convinces Adam to eat the fruit.
Satan-The archangel, Lucifer, who is cast out of Heaven for leading a group of angels in a revolt against God; he is the ruler of Hell after his fall. Disguised as the Serpent, he seduces Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Mulciber-He is the architect for Pandemonium, Satan's capitol in Hell.
Beelzebub-A fallen angel who is the second in command in Hell; he speaks last at the devilish council, convincing the fallen angels to accept Satan's scheme of revenge toward God, which involves the destruction of God's last creation, Man.
Moloch-He proposes that he and all the other fallen angels in Hell fight an open war with Heaven in order to reverse their miserable state.
Belial-A fallen angel who argues that it is better to exist in Hell than not to exist at all; he reasons that if they anger God, he might destroy them completely.
Mammon-He suggests to Satan's council that the fallen angels dismiss all thoughts of war against Heaven and retain their freedom in Hell. He digs for gems and gold so that Hell will equal Heaven in magnificence.
Sin-Satan's daughter who was born full-grown from his head; Sin was once alluring to the angels in Heaven but is now repulsive and ugly as she guards the gates of Hell with her son, Death.
Death-Born from the union of Satan and his daughter, Sin; Death, in turn, rapes Sin, producing yelling monsters, the fruits of the second incestuous act.
Chaos-Personifies confusion and disorder in the place of utter darkness where he reigns with his consort, Night.
Uriel-An archangel who is nearest to God's throne, he is ready to serve at his command. Satan, disguised as a Cherub, deceives Uriel on his way to Earth.
Gabriel-God's angel, Gabriel guards Adam and Eve at the gate to Paradise.
Abdiel-An angel who defies Satan in the war in Heaven; Abdiel stays faithful to God.
Michael-Leads God's angels in battle in the war in Heaven. He instructs Adam after the fall and leads Adam and Eve out of Paradise at the end of the poem.
Raphael-A six-winged angel, Raphael has been sent by God from Heaven to protect Adam and Eve, warning them of the evil (Satan) that lurks in the Garden.
Urania-The classical muse, the Muse of Astronomy, adopted by the Christian poets for divine inspiration. Milton identifies Urania as heavenly born.
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.
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Considered the greatest epic poem in English literature, John Milton’s monumental Paradise Lost, a twelve-book narrative poem written in iambic pentameter, tells the story
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruitOf that forbidden tree whose mortal tasteBrought death into the World, and all our woe,With loss of Eden. . . .
Like classical epics of Greco-Roman antiquity, Paradise Lost opens in the midst of things (in medias res), at a central point of the action. In books 1 and 2, Satan and his peers have been defeated in the War in Heaven...
(The entire section is 821 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In the tradition of the epic poem, Paradise Lost begins in medias res, in the middle of the story, showing in the first two of twelve books how Satan and his followers gathered their forces on the burning lake of Hell and sought out the newly created race of humans on Earth. (The revolt and resulting war in Heaven that preceded this action and earned the devils their place in Hell is reported in books 5 and 6.)
In book 3, God observes Satan traveling toward Earth, predicts the fall of human beings, and asks for someone to ransom them. Christ, the Son, accepts. In book 4, Adam and Eve are introduced, as Satan lies hidden in the Garden of Eden. Satan appears in Eve’s dream, encouraging her to taste of the...
(The entire section is 993 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Book 1 Summary and Analysis
Satan: the archangel, Lucifer, cast out of Heaven and ruling in Hell
Beelzebub: a fallen angel, second to Satan in power
Moloch: a fallen angel who later proposes “open war” with Heaven
Chemos: a demon who was later the god of the Moabites
Astarte: goddess of the moon fallen from Heaven and now in Hell
Thammuz: a fallen angel who later became a Babylonian god, symbol of fertility
Dagon: a fallen angel who later became a god of the Philistines; a sea monster who is half man, half fish
Rimmon: a fallen angel; later became a Syrian god
Osiris: an Egyptian male deity
Isis: wife of...
(The entire section is 2181 words.)
Book 2 Summary and Analysis
Sin: Satan’s daughter, born out of his head in Heaven
Death: born as the son of Satan and Sin’s incestuous relationship
Chaos: rules the region of confusion between Hell and Earth
Night: the consort of Chaos
As he is ready to begin the consultation, Satan sits on his exalted throne in Pandemonium, the capitol of Hell. Addressing his angels as “Powers, Dominions, and Deities,” Satan, in his vanity, is comparable to the monarchs of the Orient. He assures them that Heaven is not lost, and with a spirit of unity, they can return again to claim their “just inheritance.” He offers the alternatives of “open...
(The entire section is 2326 words.)
Book 3 Summary and Analysis
God: creator of Heaven, the new world (Earth), and a new race called Man
The Son: sits on the right hand of God, the Father; volunteers to go down to Earth and give his life as a ransom for Man’s sins
Uriel: the angel of the sun; one of seven archangels who stands ready at God’s command
The poet opens Book III with an invocation to “holy Light,” the essence of God. “Since God is light,” it has coexisted with him eternally and flows from His very being. This light, the poet says, was the first thing to appear in God’s creation, emanating from him as the “offspring of Heaven first-born.” The poet has come out of...
(The entire section is 2687 words.)
Book 4 Summary and Analysis
Adam: first man created by God; forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in Paradise
Eve: first woman created by God out of Adam’s rib; tempted by the Serpent to eat the forbidden fruit
Gabriel: an angel guarding the gate of Paradise
Uzziel: an angel, who is next to Gabriel in power, guarding Paradise
Ithuriel: an angel appointed by Gabriel to search for Satan in ¬Paradise
Zephon: an angel who helps Ithuriel find Satan and bring him to Gabriel for questioning
Satan has reached the top of Mount Niphates which overlooks Eden. As he anticipates his “bold enterprise” against God...
(The entire section is 2557 words.)
Book 5 Summary and Analysis
Raphael: God’s angel; sent to Adam and Eve to warn them of the sin of disobedience to God
Abdiel: the only follower of Satan who remains faithful to God in the war in Heaven
In the morning, Adam awakes to the sound of birds singing in the trees. He has slept well but is alarmed at the sight of Eve’s disheveled look. Rousing her from a night of fitful sleep, Adam learns that she has had a disturbing dream. Someone, whose voice sounded like Adam’s, had spoken into her ear, she says, asking her to join him during the moonlit hours to enjoy the cool and silent beauty of the night. She rose at Adam’s call but did not see him. Searching...
(The entire section is 2675 words.)
Book 6 Summary and Analysis
Michael: leads God’s angels in battle in the war in Heaven
Zophiel: one of Michael’s angels who warns them of the approaching foe, Satan and his legions of angels
Nisroch: one of Satan’s angels who becomes discouraged with the war
Raphael continues his account of Satan’s rebellion and the subsequent war in Heaven. Abdiel has flown all night long after leaving Satan and his legions of angels in the North. He arrives in the morning, expecting to warn God’s loyal angels of Satan’s impending uprising but, to his surprise, finds them in preparation for war. They welcome his return and lead him to the “sacred hill”...
(The entire section is 2780 words.)
Book 7 Summary and Analysis
The poet invokes the muse, Urania, but he makes it clear that it is “the meaning, not the name” that he is calling forth. His muse is not one of the nine sisters who was born on Mount Olympus but is “heavenly born” instead. Wisdom is her sister and the two played in the presence of the “Almighty Father” before the hills were created. The poet asks the muse to guide him safely down to Earth, his native element, from his wanderings in Heaven. His poem is only half sung, but he now feels safer and more familiar with mortal things on Earth despite the danger and “evil days” that have come upon him. He asks the muse to find an audience for his words and to drive away “Bacchus” and his...
(The entire section is 1936 words.)
Book 8 Summary and Analysis
Adam has been so captivated by Raphael’s discourse on the creation of the World that he waits expectantly for him to continue. When he realizes that Raphael has finished, he thanks him appropriately. His thirst for knowledge has been allayed, Adam says, but yet another doubt remains that can only be resolved by the archangel. Adam is troubled by the disproportions in Nature in which a superfluous number of celestial bodies revolve around the ¬“sedentary Earth” that is merely a spot or atom compared to the firmament.
When Eve sees that Adam is entering into an intellectual conversation with Raphael, she excuses herself to attend to her garden. She would be delighted by such...
(The entire section is 2362 words.)
Book 9 Summary and Analysis
The poet must now dispense with all the talk about God or angel as the guests of Man in Paradise, he says. He can no longer indulge them in food and conversation but must now change the epic to a tragic tone. Man will disobey God, and Heaven will rebuke Man, judging him for bringing Sin, Death, and Misery into the World. Though it is a “sad task,” it has a more heroic theme than those of prior epics dealing with the wrath of Achilles (the Iliad), the anger of Neptune against Odysseus (the Odyssey), and Juno’s hostility toward Aeneas, Cytherea’s son (the Aeneid), along with the anger of Turnus for...
(The entire section is 4755 words.)
Book 10 Summary and Analysis
Since nothing escapes the eye of the omniscent God, it is known in Heaven that the Serpent has perverted Eve and she has, in turn, tempted Adam to taste the “fatal fruit.” God has not hindered Satan from tempting Adam and Eve, however. In his wisdom and justice, God has armed them with free will, but they have chosen to disobey him and have, therefore, deserved to fall.
The guardian angels from Paradise arrive in Heaven with the sad news. They are greeted by multitudes of angels who are displeased but also show pity for Adam and Eve. God’s voice appears from a cloud amidst the thunder, and the angels gather to listen. God calms the angels’ fears and tells the guards of Paradise...
(The entire section is 2785 words.)
Book 11 Summary and Analysis
Adam and Eve now stand repentant before God who has sent his prevenient grace down from Heaven to soften their hearts. Their prayers are heard by the Son who intercedes for them, asking for their peaceful reconciliation with God. Though he grants them forgiveness, God will not allow them to remain in Paradise because its “pure immortal elements” will no longer mix with their sinful nature. God has provided Death as Man’s “final remedy” which will be followed by a “second life” for the just who live by faith.
God then calls an assembly of his heavenly angels to inform them of his judgment of mankind. To prevent Adam and Eve from tasting the fruit of the Tree of Life and,...
(The entire section is 2401 words.)
Book 12 Summary and Analysis
After the vision of Noah and the destruction of the world by flood, Michael pauses for a moment to give Adam an opportunity to ask further questions. Since he does not respond, Michael hurries on to resume the story of human history, but instead of showing the events he will now tell about them.
With the judgment of God by flood still fresh in their minds, Noah’s descendants live righteous and peaceful lives, Michael says, until Nimrod, ambitious for power, rises up in rebellion to God. To make a name for himself that will be remembered throughout the world, he gathers a crew to help him build the Tower of Babel “whose top may reach to Heaven.” It is made from brick and the...
(The entire section is 2252 words.)