Paradise Lost, John Milton (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay

John Milton


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Paradise Lost John Milton

The following entry presents criticism of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (published in ten books in 1667; enlarged into twelve books in 1674). See also, John Milton Criticism.

The story of the Fall of Man is known to many people not so much through the Bible as through John Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton's epic presents a version of Genesis that has become part of biblical lore, to the extent that many Christians who have never read the work nonetheless base their understanding of the Creation and the Fall on Milton's additions and elaborations. The poem's tremendous influence aside, the sheer breadth of Milton's undertaking and the unparalleled beauty of his verse have made Paradise Lost one of the most significant works in the English literary canon, and poets from his own era to the present have cited Milton as a major influence.

Biographical Information

Milton's greatest poem was first published not long after his fortunes had sunk to their lowest level. As a religious and political dissenter, Milton had been a supporter of the Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell. He had been strongly critical of King Charles I, whose execution marked the Interregnum period during which Milton acted as the Secretary for the Foreign Tongues for the Council of State and wrote several political tracts opposing the former monarchy. Among them was Eikonoklastes (1649), an answer to Charles I's Eikon Basilike, a work purportedly written the night before his execution, in which Charles depicted himself as a royal martyr. Although he became totally blind in 1652, Milton continued his duties as Secretary, hiring Andrew Marvell in 1653 to act as his assistant. Upon the death of Cromwell in September of 1658, however, the Commonwealth government became unstable. By mid-1659, Milton had gone into hiding. Parliament began pursuing his arrest, and his books—A Defense of the English People (1651) and Eikonoklastes especially—were burned publicly. Milton moved from house to house that year until he was captured and imprisoned for approximately two months. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, and although Milton was pardoned, his personal life remained troubled: his marriage to his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, in 1663, infuriated his daughters from his first marriage, who may have attempted retaliation by disposing of his books. He escaped the plague of 1665 by leaving London, but the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed his father's house. He had, however, finished Paradise Lost in 1664, according to some sources, and succeeded in publishing it in 1667; his contract with the printer Samuel Simmons is the earliest surviving author's contract. The poem was published again in a slightly expanded second edition in 1674, with prefatory poems by “S. B.” and Marvell. Thanks in large part to Paradise Lost, recognition of Milton's skill and talent as a poet had grown considerably by the time of his death that year.

Plot and Major Characters

Paradise Lost tells a story that is among the most familiar in Judaic and Christian cultures: the story of the Fall of humanity in Eden. The central figures in the poem include God, Jesus, Satan, Adam, Eve, and the archangels Raphael and Michael. Book 1 begins as Satan awakes in hell, having lost his rebellion against God in heaven. He awakens his followers; begins to plot revenge against God by corrupting God's newest creation, Man; and convenes a council of the fallen angels. Book 2 recounts the proceedings of this council, during which Satan volunteers to search out earth and this new creation. He escapes hell, passing through the gate guarded by Sin and Death, crosses the vast gulf between hell and heaven, and comes to the edge of the universe. In Book 3 God, who sees all, is aware of Satan's plan and creates a remedy for Man's imminent fall: the Son (Jesus) will come to earth and conquer death. In the meantime, Satan makes his way toward earth, deceiving the angel Uriel, who guards the way. Uriel directs Satan to earth. In Book 4 Satan finds Eden. There he sees Adam and Eve and listens to them talk. The couple recall their creation and their first meeting, and Satan burns with grief and jealousy. That night, in the shape of a toad at Eve's ear, Satan influences her dreams as she sleeps. However, he is discovered by angels guarding Paradise and departs. Book 5 opens with Eve relating her dream to Adam. In the dream, Satan, appearing as a good angel, leads Eve to the forbidden tree, eats the fruit, and encourages her to do the same. Later, the angel Raphael comes to talk to Adam and warns him of Satan's plans. In response to Adam's questions, Raphael relates the story of the war in heaven. This narration concludes Book 5 and continues through all of Book 6. In response to further questions from Adam, Raphael recounts the story of the Creation in Book 7. In Book 8 Adam in turn tells Raphael about what he recalls since his creation and the creation of Eve, the partner whom he requested from God, and they discuss the nature of human love. Book 9 presents the downfall first of Eve then of Adam. Satan sneaks back into the garden and hides inside a serpent. The next morning, as Eve is working in the garden, he goes to her and convinces her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, although she knows God has forbidden it. Knowing she has done wrong, and unable to bear being separated from Adam, she convinces him to eat the fruit too. From that moment, lust and anger define their relationship. In Book 10 the Son comes to judge Adam and Eve, who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. They are to be expelled from Eden. Eve will experience pain in childbirth and must submit to the will of her husband; Adam must labor for his food. Both will know death. Sin and Death are pleased with Satan's success and make plans to come live on earth, building a bridge between earth and hell in order to ease the path between them. Satan returns to hell to celebrate with the other fallen angels, but they are all turned into snakes. God reorders the heavens and earth, bringing about harsh weather and climates. Adam and Eve are despondent, and Eve considers suicide before Adam relents in his anger. They decide to ask God for forgiveness and are glad that they are still together. In Book 11 the Son is moved by their remorse and intercedes for them with God. God forgives them but insists that they leave Paradise, sending Michael to guide them out and instruct them on proper living. Beginning in Book 11 and continuing into Book 12, Michael shows Adam a vision of the future, telling the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham, Moses, David, and other Old Testament figures. He also reassures Adam that the Son will come and conquer death by taking on Adam's punishment himself. Michael also tells Adam that although they must leave Paradise, God is everywhere on earth and will be near them. Michael then leads Adam and Eve to the gates of Paradise, and they set off in the world together, hand in hand.

Major Themes

Milton's stated purpose in Paradise Lost was to “justify the ways of God to man.” Central to this project was defining the nature of obedience, free will, and just authority. Satan provides a foil for God, setting up an illegitimate kingdom in hell that contrasts with the natural and just rule of God in heaven. Satan's arguments are often compelling: he claims the angels have liberty in hell, if not comfort, and he opposes the hierarchies of heaven. The contrast compels readers to judge the true nature of liberty and the true source of authority, and encourages them to distinguish between genuine freedom and mere lawlessness or chaos, while firmly asserting humanity's free will with respect to God. Among the hierarchies of greatest interest to Milton in Paradise Lost is that found in marriage. As some critics have noted, Milton spends a large amount of time establishing and reinforcing an idea that almost no one in his age would have seriously contested: the inferiority of women to men. The extent to which the poem actually portrays women as inferior has long been a matter of debate, but it clearly states, more than once, that women must be in a mediated position: Eve relates to God through Adam; she is in the background when Adam talks to the angels; she is expected to follow Adam's lead. Nonetheless, despite the repeated stress on Eve's lower position with respect to Adam, the poem also describes in detail the ideal nature of wedded love as ordained by God. In long passages discussing love and marriage, Milton portrays the model relationship as an equal partnership of shared labor. God creates Eve to provide Adam with a companion worthy of him, after Adam complains that the beasts are not enough. While she is not Adam's equal in reason, she has merits he lacks, and enough reason to be fit for mutual conversation and work. Among the most fascinating of Adam and Eve's conversations are those in which they discuss their creation and self-recognition. The development of selfhood and the recognition of others as distinct from the self is a crucial part of Milton's creation story. In particular, Eve's awakening and subsequent introduction to Adam is a model for the gradual human development of self-awareness.

Critical Reception

Milton's poetic contemporaries were generally awed by his achievement. John Dryden, the leading poet of Restoration society, remarked that in Paradise Lost Milton had outdone any other poet of his time: “This man has cut us all out, and the ancients too,” he was reported to have said. Some scholars have verified Dryden's assessment, suggesting that the decline of the epic genre was the direct result of Milton's supreme achievement, making any further efforts in the epic impossible and superfluous. Although in many ways Milton was very much out of step with his contemporaries—religiously, politically, and artistically—his accomplishment in Paradise Lost was readily acknowledged, and his stature as a poet only increased through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, perhaps reaching a peak during the Romantic era. Romantic poets, including John Keats, William Blake, and Percy Shelley, celebrated Milton's genius and drew heavily from his influence. By the early twentieth century, however, some literary scholars began to question Milton's talent. Inconsistencies in the poem became a target for the criticism of such luminaries as F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot. Milton's artistry and reputation was already established, however. Criticism of the later twentieth century falls generally into three broad schools: political readings of the work, stylistic readings, and thematic interpretations. Scholars take for granted that Paradise Lost reflects Milton's frustration with the failed Revolution. Joan Bennett has argued that Milton's depiction of Satan has strong connections to Charles I, linking his exploration of tyranny in Paradise Lost to his prose writings on the tyranny of the monarchy. More broadly, historian Christopher Hill has suggested that the Fall of Man was for Milton analogous to the collapse of the Commonwealth government, each constituting a failure of humanity to choose the right path. Criticism on the form of Paradise Lost has investigated Milton's innovations with the epic: Mary Ann Radzinowicz has detailed the poet's adaptation of psalm genres to the epic form, and Barbara Kiefer Lewalski has found that Milton appropriated a wide variety of genres to create the multiple voices of his characters, particularly in the difficult task of characterizing God. Among the studies of the major themes in the poem, scholarship on Milton and women has been dominant. Opinions on Milton's misogyny or feminism have varied widely, with some scholars declaring that Milton was obsessed with the inherent wickedness of women, and others finding Milton to be a true champion of women's worth. More nuanced readings of Paradise Lost have acknowledged Milton's insistence on women's subordination while also observing how the poem portrays women as independent humans with free will. Diane Kelsey McColley's study of Eve in Paradise Lost was among the first important studies attempting to strike a balance in the interpretation of Milton's depiction of the first woman. Other critics, such as Maureen Quilligan, have noted that much of the movement of the poem depends upon Eve and her use of free will. And, as Linda Gregerson has argued, Milton's narration of Eve's coming to selfhood makes Eve, and not Adam, the model for human subjectivity.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmas Night, before the Right Honorable John Earle of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly (drama) 1637

“Lycidas” [published in Obsequies to the Memorie of Mr. Edward King, Anno. Dom. 1638 Epitaphium Damonis] (poetry) 1640

“On Hobson the Carrier” [published in Witts Recreations, Selected from the Finest Fancies of Moderne Muses] (poetry) 1640;

Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence, against Smectymnuus (essay) 1641

An Answer to a Book Entitled “An Humble Remonstrance,” in Which the Originall of Liturgy Episcopacy Is Discussed (essay) 1641


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Diane Kelsey McColley (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McColley, Diane Kelsey. “Shapes of Things Divine: Eve, Myth, and Dream.” In Milton's Eve, pp. 63-109. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

[In this excerpt, Colley examines the scene in which Eve observes herself in the pool after her creation. Colley disputes interpretations that view Eve's actions as a narcissistic impulse, instead maintaining that the scene asserts Eve's free will.]


The allusion to pagan fable that most haunts views of Milton's Eve is her Narcissus-like behavior when, fresh from her Creator's hand, she pauses at the verge of the mirror lake attracted by her own reflection and has to...

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Maureen Quilligan (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Quilligan, Maureen. “The Gender of the Reader and the Problem of Sexuality.” In Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading, pp. 175-244. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

[In this excerpt, Quilligan looks at the role of reading and listening in Paradise Lost, noting that much of the action in the poem turns on whether Eve assumes a mediate position and with whom, concluding that Eve comes close to demonstrating the poem's “fit reader.”]


If we turn now to that superior song and look at one of Milton's invocations in Paradise Lost, we shall see...

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Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “‘Other Excellence’: Generic Multiplicity and Milton's Literary God.” In Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms, pp. 110-39. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

[In this excerpt, Lewalski suggests that Milton made use of earlier epic types, merged with biblical allusions, to approximate divine models of heroism and power, and to convey the wonder of the Creation.]

It is a commonplace of criticism that the most difficult problem Milton faced in Paradise Lost involved the portrayal of God. Milton indeed undertook to “justify the ways of God to men,” but the problem for many readers—from his...

(The entire section is 11361 words.)

James Grantham Turner (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Turner, James Grantham. “Love Made in the First Age: Edenic Sexuality in Paradise Lost and Its Analogues.” In One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton, pp. 230-309. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1987.

[In this excerpt, Turner examines Milton's depiction of sexuality before the Fall, observing that Milton appears to envision an innocent eroticism and equal partnership not entirely in keeping with the later admonitions of Raphael and Christ.]


Milton's vision of pre-lapsarian sexuality, like the landscape of Paradise where it unfolds, is distinguished from all others...

(The entire section is 9156 words.)

Mary Ann Radzinowicz (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Radzinowicz, Mary Ann. “‘Smit with the Love of Sacred Song’: Psalm Genres.” In Milton's Epics and the Book of Psalms, pp. 135-69. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

[In this excerpt, Radzinowicz suggests that the mixture of psalm genres and classical influences apparent in the work allows Paradise Lost to transcend the epic genre and become an expression of religious worship as well.]

Milton's use of psalm genre in Paradise Lost is not only prior to that in Paradise Regained, but richer. This richness owes something to the greater sweep of Paradise Lost, a sweep that allows him both to exploit all the literary...

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Joan S. Bennett (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bennett, Joan S. “Satan and King Charles: Milton's Royal Portraits.” In Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems, pp. 33-58. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

[In this essay, Bennett contends that although Paradise Lost is not a true political allegory, a comparison between Milton's prose works on English history and his characterization of Satan reveals a strong connection between the tyranny of Charles I and the false freedom of the fallen angels.]

Milton's conception in Paradise Lost of the fall of Lucifer has always been recognized as political in nature. Because of the poet's twenty years'...

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Linda Gregerson (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gregerson, Linda. “Fault Lines: Milton's Mirror of Desire.” In The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic, pp. 148-97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In this excerpt, Gregerson discusses the development of subjectivity in Paradise Lost, focusing on the issue of sexual difference and subordination.]


I have discussed Eve's tale of origins as though we had somehow been given unmediated access to it. But though the story is our first encounter with Eve's speaking voice in Paradise Lost, it is addressed in the first place not to us but to Adam and if...

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Sharon Achinstein (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Achinstein, Sharon. “Milton's Spectre in the Restoration: Marvell, Dryden, and Literary Enthusiasm.” Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 1 (1997): 1-29.

[In this essay, Achinstein compares Andrew Marvell's and John Dryden's responses to Paradise Lost in terms of the postrevolution issues of political and religious toleration.]

No doubt but the thoughts of this Vital Lamp
lighted a Christmas Candle in his brain.

The Transproser Rehears'd (1673)

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book,” Milton had written in 1644: the Restoration government saw fit to do both. Milton somehow escaped the death penalty...

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Paul Stevens (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stevens, Paul. “Paradise Lost and the Colonial Imperative.” Milton Studies 34 (1997): 3-21.

[In this essay, Stevens addresses the issue of colonialism in Milton's poem, countering an earlier argument that Paradise Lost maintained an implicit critique of empire.]

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis i, 28

Colonies … have their warrant from...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Fessenden, Tracy. “‘Shapes of Things Divine’: Images, Iconoclasm, and Resistant Materiality in Paradise Lost.Christianity and Literature 48, No. 4 (summer 1999): 425-43.

Suggests that Milton counters the negative position on images set forth in his prose tracts, instead creating the possibility that images could be redeemed.

Fish, Stanley. “‘Not so much a Teaching as an Intangling’: The Good Temptation.” In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost,” second edition, pp. 38-56. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Argues that the challenges of reading...

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