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Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Paradise Lost John Milton

The following entry presents criticism of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. See also John Milton Literary Criticism, Paradise Lost Literary Criticism, and John Milton Poetry Criticism.

Milton's great blank-verse epic poem, which retells the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise, has been hailed since its initial publication as one of the towering achievements of English literature. The poet John Dryden, writing in 1677, called Paradise Lost “one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems, which either this Age or Nation has producd,” and others from William Blake to W. H. Auden have used it as a source of inspiration for their own writing. The work has also provoked more negative criticism than any other acknowledged classic: Samuel Johnson called the language of the poem “harsh and barbarous,” Sir Walter Raleigh declared the work consisted of “dead ideas,” and T. S. Eliot claimed Milton's style in the epic would have a harmful influence on English poetry. Despite the controversy sparked by the poem, however, it continues to be one of the most widely read and discussed works of English literature, with a reputation for greatness surpassed only by Shakespeare's plays. Critics have found the narrative poem rich with meaning on its many levels: political allusions, cosmology, use of language, Biblical content, characterization, use of the traditional epic form, moral and spiritual meanings, and philosophical implications. And all commentators on the poem, including its detractors, have marvelled at the range of subjects it treats, which include the universe, human physiology and psychology, the forces of nature, God and other celestial beings, and human reason and freedom.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem begins by declaring its subject—“man's first disobedience” and the consequences that ensued from that act—and invokes a “Heav'nly Muse” to aid the poet that he may assert Eternal Providence and “justify the ways of God to men.” The first action takes place in hell, where Satan and his followers have recently been defeated in their war against God. They decide to take a different course of revenge by entering a new world that is to be created. Satan alone undertakes the journey to find this place. He travels across chaos, which is the great gulf between hell and heaven, until he sees the new universe. God sees Satan flying towards this world and foretells the temptation and Fall, clearing his own justice and wisdom from imputation by explaining that He has created man free and able enough to have withstood his tempter. Meanwhile, Satan enters the outer reaches of the new creation. He flies to the sun, where he disguises himself as a cherub and tricks the angel Uriel into showing him to man's home. He finds Adam and Eve in their happy state and becomes jealous of them. He overhears them speak of God's commandment that they should not eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and so plots to seduce them to transgress. Uriel warns Gabriel and his angels, who are guarding the gate of Paradise, that some evil spirit had escaped hell and entered here in the shape of a good angel. Gabriel appoints two strong angels to look over Adam and Eve, lest the evil spirit should do some harm to them as they sleep. They find Satan at the ear of Eve, tempting her in a dream. The next morning Eve tells Adam of her troubling dream. God sends Raphael to warn Adam and Eve about Satan, and to render them inexcusable by telling them of their free will and the enemy at hand. On Adam's request, Raphael recounts to them the story of how Satan came to be as he is; how this favored angel waged war against God in heaven, how the Son, Messiah, cast him into hell, and how Satan persuaded his legions to follow him. He describes the war in heaven and the triumphant return of the Son after battle. Raphael goes on to explain how the world was created so mankind could replace the...

(The entire section is 99,998 words.)