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.
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).
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.