Paradise Lost, John Milton (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

John Milton


(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 fallen angels. Satan returns to earth, and enters as a sleeping serpent. The serpent finds Eve alone and speaks to her in flattering tones. He explains that he learned speech and reason, neither of which he knew before, by tasting of a certain tree in the garden. Eve asks him to bring her to that tree, and finds it to be the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent uses his wiles and arguments to induce her to eat. Eve is pleased with the taste, and deliberates a while whether to take it to Adam or not. She brings him the fruit and tells him what persuaded her to eat it. Adam is at first amazed, but he resigns himself because of his love for her and eats also, thereby joining her in her fate. As a result, their innocence is lost, they become aware of their nakedness, and they begin to accuse each other. The guardian angels return to heaven, saddened by man's failure, and the Son of God descends to earth to judge the sinners, and sentences them accordingly. God instructs his angels what alterations must take place on earth and in heaven because of what has transpired. Adam laments his fate as he begins to understand his fallen state. He rejects Eve's consolation, but she persists and he forgives her. She proposes they commit suicide, but Adam reminds her of God's promise that her offspring will wreak vengeance on the serpent. God sends Michael and his cherubim to dispossess the pair from Paradise, but first reveals to Adam the future events until the Great Flood that will result from his sin. Michael says also that the Seed of woman shall be the Savior who it was promised shall redeem mankind. Adam takes comfort in these later revelations. He rejoins Eve, who in her gentle sleep has regained quietness of mind and a sense of submission. Adam and Eve are sent away from Paradise, and a flaming sword is placed to guard the gates behind them.

Major Themes

Paradise Lost reflects, on its most transparent level, the poet's major concern to justify God's way to men, to assert God's mystery, and give dramatic voice to the events we read about in Genesis. But the poem goes much deeper, and it has been read in a number of ways by critics: as a political allegory that deals with the issues of freedom that Milton had concerned himself with during the Revolution; as an unorthodox depiction of the Christian God and his treatment of humankind; as a thesis on predestination; and as a study of the epic hero in a Christian context. Critics interested in the political dimension of the work have read the poem in many different ways. Some see it as Milton's commentary on the events during and after the English Revolution: Milton, the advocate of a righteous cause who saw that cause destroyed and corrupted by evil forces, mourns the loss and looks for redemption not in this world but the next. Other readers have viewed Satan, for example, as “an unsuccessful Cromwell,” and have compared Satan's failed rebellion to that of Oliver Cromwell. There are of course familiar Biblical themes in the poem, including downfall and regeneration, and the triumph of good over evil. Scholars have pointed out also that the theme of loss pervades the poem, and this is underscored by images of darkness; the hope of regeneration is emphasized by references to light. Some others of the myriad thematic concerns include the interaction of male and female aspects (the sun's rays against the earth are a model for the union of Adam and Eve); the interrelation of love and war (the Son leads the angels into battle and also shows the greatest love in his self-sacrifice); the boundlessness of God's power and capacity (depicted in the recurring references to and sense of vastness in the poem); pride (embodied in Satan); loss of innocence; the power of poetry (depicted in Eve); and the beauty of creation (often seen in the nature imagery).

Critical Reception

No poem in the English language has earned such extremes of praise and censure as Paradise Lost. It was very well received upon publication of the first edition in 1667. By the end of the seventeenth century, the poem was thought of in England and Europe as one of the great epics and a major work of literature and was generally admired for its boldness and originality as well as its exalted theme and rousing language. Appreciation of the poem, particularly of its epic features, continued into the eighteenth century. Many critics noted also the defects in the work, including Milton's personal intrusions into the poem, the badly wrought allegorical characters, and the excessive display of learning. Samuel Johnson's in 1781, for example, asserted that the poem “lacked human interest” and that we read the poem for “duty rather than pleasure,” but acknowledged the poem's loftiness and extraordinary imaginativeness. Blake admired Satan's energy and spirit of rebellion, remarking that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil's Party without knowing it,” spawning a great deal of interest in the character of Satan. Some critics have suggested that Satan is the true hero of the epic: he is the one with the most memorable lines, whose character is most fully developed and interesting, and with whom we almost cannot avoid having sympathy. Many readers have admired the spirit energy of rebellion that pervades the character. Others, however, have taken pains to point out that for Milton to make Satan the hero of the epic would be to contradict his own theology, and that while he finds Satan interesting, he does not admire him. As a Biblical epic, it is pointed out, Paradise Lost is an interpretation of Scripture, and God is the central figure.

The Romantic critics of the nineteenth century turned to considerations about the relationship between Milton's life and mind and his art. They also admired Milton as a revolutionary, with some like Percy Shelley extending Blake's notion of Satan as a glorious rebel. Later nineteenth-century critics generally held the poem in high regard, remarking especially on what many considered to be Milton's flawless rhythm and diction.

Critical opinion of the poem in the twentieth century was extensive, with literally hundreds of books being produced about the poem's every nuance. Early twentieth-century commentators noted Milton's humanism and his intellectual heritage that informed the work; others admired his knowledge of physical nature reflected in the poem. In the 1930s, the poem was criticized by a number of prominent thinkers, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the critic F. R. Leavis, who argued that Milton's style was rigid and lacking in sensuousness. Others defended Milton, with some predicting that the tide of criticism against Milton's style would disappear with the disappearance of the “modernist” poetic movement that spawned it. This seems largely to have been the case, and critical appreciation of Milton in the latter half of the twentieth century tended to acknowledge the epic's inherent greatness while pointing out its weaknesses. In the late twentieth century scholarship on the poem moved in innumerable directions, with, for example, feminist scholars examining Milton's treatment of women, Freudian critics trying to understand it in terms of the Oedipal nature of Milton's art, and deconstructionists applying to it the theories of Jacques Derrida. That critics of every generation have found and continue to find in the poem so many subjects so worthy of debate is a testament to its mystery and complexity and a clear indication of its profound importance to world literature.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

A Maske [Comus] 1637

Lycidas 1638

Epitaphium Damonis [Damon] 1640

Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin, Compos'd at Several Times 1645

Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books [also published as Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books] 1667

Paradise Regain'd: A Poem in IV Books. To Which Is Added Samson Agonistes 1671

The Sonnets of John Milton 1883

The Reason of Church-Governement Urg'd against Prelaty (essay) 1642

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor'd to the Good of Both...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Samuel Johnson (essay date 1781)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “From The Lives of the English Poets,” in The Critical Response to John Milton's Paradise Lost, edited by Timothy C. Miller, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 103-13.

[In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in his nine-volume work on the lives of the English Poets, Johnson examines the epic's defects—claiming that we do not readily identify with the human protagonists and noting that “none wished it longer than it is”—as well as its greatness, saying that “in reading Paradise Lost we read of universal knowledge.”]

I am now to examine Paradise Lost, a poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim the...

(The entire section is 5793 words.)

William Vaughn Moody (essay date 1899)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “From The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton,” in The Critical Response to John Milton's Paradise Lost, edited by Timothy C. Miller, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 192-95.

[In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in his edition of Milton's poetry, Moody praises Paradise Lost as one of the greatest poems and declares that it is the epic's style which is its surest claim to enduring admiration.]

As for his poetry, Milton must be thought of first and last as a master stylist. Keats is more poignant, Shakespeare more various, Coleridge more magical; but nobody who has written in English has had at his command the same unfailing...

(The entire section is 1614 words.)

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1942)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “From A Preface to Paradise Lost,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in his highly influential full-length treatment of Paradise Lost, Lewis calls Satan “the best drawn of Milton's characters” but insists that the poet did not admire his creation.]

Before considering the character of Milton's Satan it may be desirable to remove an ambiguity by noticing that Jane Austen's Miss Bates could be described either as a very entertaining or a very tedious person. If we said the first, we should mean that the...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Helen Gardner (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Milton's “Satan” and the Theme of Damnation in Elizabethan Tragedy,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 205-17.

[In the following essay, originally published in English Studies in 1948, Gardner considers the character of Satan, responding to other critics' assessments of him and determining that Milton developed the figure dramatically throughout the poem and “expended his creative energies and his full imaginative powers in exploring the fact of perversity within a single heroic figure.”]

We are all familiar with the progeny of Milton's Satan and the effort of most recent...

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Arthur E. Barker (essay date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Structural Pattern in Paradise Lost,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 142-55.

[In the following essay, originally published in Philological Quarterly in 1949, Barker discusses how in Paradise Lost Milton moved away from a Virgilian ten-book, five-act structure to a twelve-book form that ultimately serves to reduce Satan's power over the poem.]

Milton, as Professor Thompson has said, “realized that form is determined not by rule or precedent but by the thought to be expressed. Hence he adapted the pattern of the epic to his own ends, and wrote as a creative...

(The entire section is 5775 words.)

Geoffrey Hartman (essay date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Milton's Counterplot,” in Milton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis L. Martz, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 100-108.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History in 1958, Hartman claims that there are two plots in the epic that work to contrapuntal effect and which serve to emphasize God's remoteness and power.]

Milton's description of the building of Pandemonium ends with a reference to the architect, Mammon, also known to the ancient world as Mulciber:

                                                  and how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry...

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Frank Kermode (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Adam Unparadised,” in The Living Milton: Essays by Various Hands, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 122-42.

[In the following essay, Kermode contends that the basic theme of Paradise Lost is the recognition of lost possibilities and says that to embody this theme Milton exhibits life in a “great symbolic attitude” and not through explanations of how and why.]

Miss Rosemond Tuve, in her magnificent and too brief book, has persuasively expounded Milton's treatment in the minor poems of certain great central themes. They lie at the heart of each poem and govern its secondary characteristics of imagery and diction; given the theme, the poet thinks...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Don Cameron Allen (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Descent to Light,” in The Harmonious Vision: Studies in Milton's Poetry, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 122-42.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology in 1961, Allen suggests that Paradise Lostshould be thought of as an allegory about allegory and sees the movement in the epic as similar to that in the myths of Orpheus and Hercules, as the characters descend into darkness before ascending to light.]

Though the English Protestants of the seventeenth century were, to their ultimate spiritual distress, so devoted to the literal interpretation of the Bible that...

(The entire section is 6988 words.)

B. Rajan (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Language of Paradise Lost,” in Milton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis L. Martz, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 56-60.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1964 as a introduction to his edition of the first two books of Paradise Lost, Rajan surveys other critics' responses to the style of the epic and claims that the work's diction, sound, and imagery contribute to the poetic result of a lucid surface whose depths are charged with meaning.]

Paradise Lost has not one style but several, as Pope was among the first to recognise. There is, at the simplest level of discrimination, an infernal...

(The entire section is 2391 words.)

Michael Fixler (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Milton's Passionate Epic,” in Milton Studies, Vol. 1, 1969, pp. 167-92.

[In the following essay, Fixler shows that Milton conceived Paradise Lost as a form of devotional celebration, a revelation and praise of God and his mysteries.]

I grateful to the anonymous reviewer who recently in the Times Literary Supplement called for a study of Paradise Lost that would show it to be not only a logical epic and a deliberate epic, but a passionate epic as well. May I here offer a partial installment of an essay in this direction, covenanting with my audience for its later more complete fulfilment, though probably in a context where Milton's...

(The entire section is 10975 words.)

Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Milton on Women—Yet Once More,” in Milton Studies, Vol. VI, 1974, pp. 3-20.

[In the following essay, Lewalski responds to a feminist study of Paradise Lost that looks at the work in terms of sociological role definitions and asserts that such analyses are limited in their ability to assess the true complexity of Milton's treatment of women and the universality of the poem's concerns.]

It was bound to happen sooner or later—a feminist analysis of Milton on women. So bad, though, has been Milton's press on the “woman question” that the exercise might have seemed hardly worth the trouble, a merely ritual beating of a very dead horse. However,...

(The entire section is 7275 words.)

Louis L. Martz (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Power of Choice,” in Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton's Poetry, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 3-19.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Milton's poetry, Martz discusses the importance of the notion of choice in the epic, pointing out that for Milton human dignity depends on the power of choice—which includes choosing to err as well as make amends for errors.]

Adam and Eve, before the Fall, have all our basic psychological qualities: they are “frail” in the sense that their power of choice may wrongly choose; choice is difficult because “wandering thoughts” and passions and the wild work of fancy are all part of the...

(The entire section is 5109 words.)

Joan Malory Webber (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Poetry: Feminism and Paradise Lost,” in Milton Studies, Vol. XIV, 1980, pp. 3-24.

[In the following essay, Webber claims that Milton, however awkwardly and imperfectly, breaks new ground when he raises issues concerning women's rights and importance.]

In the highly delicate investigation of the relationship between politics and poetry, epic makes an obvious, though exhausting, field of inquiry. Traditionally, epic is described as a mingling of history with myth. Whatever this formula may actually mean, its effect is always that we are pulled in two ways, between a concern for the facts of the story (where was Troy? and when?) and a...

(The entire section is 10164 words.)

Balachandra Rajan (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Paradise Lost: The Uncertain Epic,” in Milton Studies, Vol. XVII, 1983, pp. 105-19.

[In the following essay, Rajan argues that Paradise Lost is a mixed-genre poem whose primary genre of epic undergoes revisionary treatment in Milton's hands and holds that the work seeks its identity between possibilities of epic and tragedy, or loss and restoration.]

The problem of the genre of Paradise Lost seems to have been a problem from the day the poem was published. Dryden may have said that “this man … cuts us all out and the ancients too,”1 but it did not take long for the caution of the critic to make its inroads on the...

(The entire section is 6889 words.)

Diane McColley (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eve and the Arts of Eden,” in Milton and the Idea of Woman, edited by Julia M. Walker, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 100-19.

[In the following essay, McColley argues that for Milton, Eve is the embodiment of poetry, as “she personifies poesy in her work, in the imagery associated with her, and in the method of her vocation.”]

Near the end of Book 4 of Paradise Lost, we come upon a multilayered image. Innocent Adam and Eve, in the innermost, flower-decked, awe-encircled bower, sleep in one another's arms. Squatting by Eve, Lucifer turned Satan turned toad pours poison into her ear in the form of “Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate...

(The entire section is 8654 words.)

Michael Wilding (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thir Sex Not Equal Seem'd’: Equality in Paradise Lost,” in Of Poetry and Politics: New Essays on Milton and His World, edited by P. G. Stanwood, Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995, pp. 172-85.

[In the following essay, Wilding argues that in Paradise Lost Milton is less concerned with the issue of sexual equality than with the revolutionary aim of achieving total human equality, “of restoring us to that still unregained blissful seat.”]

The first description of Adam and Eve is a crucial passage for our understanding of Paradise Lost:

… but wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where

(The entire section is 5238 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Klemp, P. J. Paradise Lost: An Annotated Bibliography. Magill Bibliographies. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 1996, 249 p.

Bibliography with descriptions of secondary sources organized by subject and individual book in the epic.

———ed. The Essential Milton: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989, 474 p.

Bibliography of secondary criticism on Milton, with a section devoted to works on Paradise Lost.


Barker, A. E, ed. Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, 483...

(The entire section is 1266 words.)