John Milton prepared himself for many years to create an epic poem in English that would rank with the epics of Homer and Vergil. Paradise Lost is nothing less than the Christian epic of humanity. One of Milton’s models for Paradise Lost was the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), an epic poem of the oral tradition that evolved as the composition of a number of poets but is commonly attributed to Homer. The Iliad celebrates heroes. A model of even greater influence was the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), an epic poem written by a single poet, Vergil, whose intent was to celebrate the national glory of Rome. Milton’s original intent was to follow Vergil’s lead and write a patriotic epic poem of England, but he changed his mind, espousing an even greater enterprise. In retelling the story of the Fall of Man, he attempts to do nothing less than “justify the ways of God to men.”
To emphasize the importance of his subject matter, Vergil chose to write in a solemn tone using heightened language, and Milton adopted the same policy. Much of the difficulty of Paradise Lost for readers lies in the language. The poem uses uncommon words put together in long sentences containing multiple clauses constructed and ordered in peculiar ways. The convoluted syntax and unfamiliar language give the poem its distinctive cadences, its majestic rhythm, and its ceremonial atmosphere. The many classical, biblical, and geographical references add authority, pointing to the learning of the poet. In such ways, Milton brings grandeur to his poem.
The background to the poem is from the Bible and follows the teaching of Saint Augustine. Although Milton was involved in religious controversy in his life, this great poem, in its adherence to basic Christian doctrine, largely stands outside the issues of Milton’s time. The cosmos as it is described in the poem conforms to the popular view of Milton’s day. Chaos is bounded above by Heaven and beneath by Hell. Earth, at the center of a spherical “solar system,” is suspended into chaos from the floor of Heaven. Above all is God, who is dazzling light. Hell, at the other extreme, is absolute lack of light. Within the cosmos, all beings exist in a hierarchy under God, and all beings owe obedience to their hierarchical superiors. The hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being, is of central importance, as is the doctrine of obedience. Satan and his followers rebel against the authority of God and are thrown out of Heaven, and Adam and Eve disobey God and are ejected from the Garden of Eden.
The characterizations of God and Satan are problematic, not the least because neither is human. Milton’s readers, being human, however, understand character in anthropomorphic terms. God is invisible and can be defined by people only in terms of attributes, such as “Immortal” or “Almighty.” God thus tends to seem abstract and distant rather than real. God is absolute authority. In addition, God is omniscient, knowing all that happens and all that will happen, but has given the lower orders free will. Consequently, God can be seen as tyrannical and cruel in not preventing evil. Easier to understand is the reflection of God, as seen in the Son of God, superior to all but the Creator: “Beyond compare the Son of God was seen/ Most glorious, in him all his Father shone/ Substantially expressed.”
Satan, with his fallen nature, is easier to understand. Before his fall Satan was Lucifer, an archangel. In the early part of Milton’s poem readers see his magnificent qualities and then follow the progress of his self-destruction, which is caused by pride and envy. The danger in the characterization of Satan is that readers tend to find him attractive; they sympathize with his resentment and admire his passionate determination. The strength of the characterization lies in these qualities. His gradual degeneration, however, is convincing; awareness of his sinfulness grows in readers’ consciousness. At first Satan longs for good, but finally he embraces evil. Readers observe Satan metamorphose in a series of disguises, each a lower life-form than the one before—a continuum, recalling the Great Chain of Being, from archangel to serpent.
The problem of presenting Adam and Eve is that they must at first be innocent, free of sin, yet they must be intelligent and aware enough to be capable of choosing sin and strong enough to resist. Milton shows how the potential for their fall is present from the start. Satan is there in the Garden of Eden, observing, plotting, beginning to work at undermining Eve’s integrity. Reaching her through a dream, he acquaints her with temptation. She ultimately succumbs to the temptation of surpassing her true place in the hierarchy, and the sin of pride accompanies her disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. She tempts Adam to follow her into sin because she cannot bear to lose him, and Adam succumbs because he cannot bear to lose her. His sin also goes beyond disobedience. He violates the hierarchical order in putting Eve, who, the poem makes clear, is inferior to him, above himself and his power of reason, and therefore above God.
Adam and Eve and the world itself are incomparably diminished by the Fall, but it is also to be seen as the opportunity for a new hope and for the occasion of their later redemption. The Fall affords them the chance to develop for themselves virtues such as repentance, humility, and understanding.
Milton is considered the greatest poet after William Shakespeare, and Paradise Lost is his greatest poem. This huge work has not received universal acclaim, however. Some critics have objected to implications they see in the characterizations. It is hard to imagine that Milton could have better fit such a story into the form of an epic, but nevertheless critics have complained of what may be perceived as the work’s depiction of God’s tyranny and Satan’s heroism. Milton’s portrayal of Eve also has generated much criticism. In addition, some have voiced objections regarding the style of the poem, criticizing, for example, Milton’s overuse of abstractions and his unnatural syntax. A great many critics, however, have found Paradise Lost fascinating and satisfying, one of the truly great and enduring works of literature of all time.