The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In Heaven, Lucifer, unable to abide the supremacy of God, leads a revolt against divine authority. Defeated, he and his followers are cast into Hell, where they lie nine days on a burning lake. Lucifer, now called Satan, arises from the flaming pitch and vows that all is not lost, that he will have revenge for his downfall. Arousing his legions, he reviews them under the canopy of Hell and decides his purposes can be achieved by guile rather than by force.

Under the direction of Mulciber, the forces of evil build an elaborate palace, Pandemonium, in which Satan convenes a congress to decide on immediate action. At the meeting, Satan reasserts the unity of those fallen and opens the floor to debate regarding what measures should be taken. Moloch advises war. Belial recommends a slothful existence in Hell. Mammon proposes peacefully improving Hell so that it might rival Heaven in splendor. His motion is received with great favor until Beelzebub, second in command, rises and informs the conclave that God has created Earth, which he has peopled with good creatures called humans. It is Beelzebub’s proposal to investigate this new creation, seize it, and seduce its inhabitants to the cause of the fallen angels.

Announcing that he will journey to Earth to learn for himself how matters are there, Satan flies to the gate of Hell. There he encounters his daughter, Sin, and his son, Death. They open the gate, and Satan wings his way toward Earth.

God, in his omniscience, has beheld the meeting in Hell, knows the intent of the evil angels, and sees Satan approaching Earth. Disguised as various beasts, Satan acquaints himself with Adam and Eve and with the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which God has forbidden to them.

Uriel, learning that an evil angel has broken through to Eden, warns Gabriel, who appoints two angels to hover about the bower of Adam and Eve. The guardian angels arrive too late, however, to prevent Satan, in the form of a toad, from beginning his evil work. He has influenced Eve’s dreams.

Upon awaking, Eve tells Adam that in her strange dream she was tempted to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God, seeing that danger to Adam and Eve is imminent, sends the angel Raphael to the garden to warn them. At Adam’s insistence, Raphael relates in detail the story of the great war between the good and the bad angels that led to the fall of the bad angels to eternal misery in Hell. At Adam’s further inquiries, Raphael tells of the creation of the world: how Earth was created in six days, an angelic choir singing the praises of God on the seventh day. He cautions Adam not to be too curious, saying that there are many things done by God that are not for humans to understand or to attempt to understand. Adam then tells how he has been warned against the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, how he asked God for fellowship in his loneliness, and how Eve was created from his rib.

After the departure of Raphael, Satan returns to the garden as a mist and enters the body of a sleeping serpent. In the morning, as Adam and Eve proceed to their day’s occupation, Eve proposes that they work apart. Adam, remembering the warning of Raphael, opposes her wishes, but Eve prevails, and the two part. Alone, Eve is accosted by the serpent, which flatters her into tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve, liking what she has tasted, takes the fruit to Adam, who is horrified when he sees what Eve has done. In his love for Eve, however, he also eats the fruit.

Having eaten, Adam and Eve know lust for the first time, and after their dalliance they know sickening shame. They also eat many apples, adding gluttony to their list, which they are rapidly completing, of the seven deadly sins. The guardian angels now desert the transgressors and return to God, who approves their efforts, saying they could not have prevented Satan from succeeding in his mission.

Christ descends to Earth to pass judgment. Before Adam and Eve, who had been reluctant, in their shame, to come out of their bower to face him, Christ sentences the serpent to be forever a hated enemy of humankind. He tells Eve that her sorrow will be multiplied by the bearing of children and that she will be the servant of Adam to the end of time. Adam, says Christ, will eat in sorrow; his ground will be cursed, and he will eat bread only by toiling and sweating.

Meanwhile, Death and Sin, having divined Satan’s success, leave the gates of Hell to join their father on Earth. Within sight of Earth they meet Satan, who delegates Sin and Death as his ambassadors on Earth. Back in Hell, Satan proudly reports his accomplishments to his followers. He is acclaimed, however, by hisses as his cohorts become serpents, and Satan himself is transformed into a serpent before their reptilian eyes. Trees similar to the Tree of Knowledge appear in Hell, but when the evil angels taste the fruit, they find their mouths full of ashes.

God, angered at the disaffection of Adam and Eve, brings about great changes on Earth. He creates the seasons to replace eternal spring and creates the violence and misery of storms, winds, hail, ice, floods, and earthquakes. He causes all of Earth’s creatures to prey upon one another. Adam and Eve argue bitterly (adding anger to their sins) until they realize they have to face their common plight together. Repenting their sins, they pray to God for relief. Although Christ intercedes for them, God sentences them to expulsion from Eden and sends the angel Michael to Earth to carry out the sentence. Adam and Eve, lamenting their misfortune, contemplate suicide, but Michael gives them new hope when he brings to Adam a vision of life and death; of the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires; of the activities of Adam and Eve’s progeny through their evil days to the flood, when God will destroy all life except that preserved by Noah in the ark; and of the subsequent return to evil days and Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension as the redeemer. Despite the violence, evil, and bloodshed in the vision, Adam and Eve are pacified when they see that their children will be saved. They walk hand in hand from the heights of Paradise to the barren plains below.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Heaven. Unlike the other places described by Milton in Paradise Lost, the scenes in heaven are not memorable for their physical description. When God the Father and his Son Jesus speak in book 3, they do so from the heights of Heaven. All the speaker asserts about the scene of this dialogue is that it is high above both Earth and Hell, and that it is bathed in celestial light. God’s throne is mentioned, along with the choirs of angels surrounding it, but traditional images of clouds and stars are absent. The book opens with Milton’s famous hymn to light, and the overall effect is the repeated emphasis on the brilliance of the empyrean, the highest heaven which, in the medieval cosmology surviving in Milton’s day, was the home of God and the angels.


Hell. The underworld into which the rebel angels fall in book 1 of Milton’s epic is the first fully visualized scene. After describing the precipitous fall of Satan and his cohorts amid the chaos of floods and whirlwinds, Milton has the demons remark on how different this place appears in comparison with the Heaven from which they have come. Just as Heaven is characterized mostly by light in book 3, Hell is known by its dimness. Even flames give forth no light, and there is no land, though Milton teases the reader’s visual imagination by speaking of lakes of liquid fire and lands of solid fire. Specific locations within Hell include its capital, Pandemonium; the large gates through which Satan flies; and the Paradise of Fools, a borderland where foolish monks believe, in their vanity, that they are in Heaven.


Pandemonium. Word coined by Milton to describe the capital of Hell in this epic that now has a broader meaning. Milton invented the word by analogy with the Pantheon, the temple of all gods in ancient Rome. The Pandemonium is thus an infernal temple honoring all demons. Milton describes it near the end of book 1, and the first half of book 2 takes place there as well. As in Milton’s other place descriptions in Paradise Lost, the emphasis is on the spaciousness of this capital of Hell, the throngs of demons filling the hall, the wide gates and porches. Yet, since Milton is using this spaciousness as an emblem of greatness, he effects a sudden change in point of view at the end of book 1, making the demons, who seemed gigantic, become minuscule. The change is due to their fall, which has just taken place. In Pandemonium, as elsewhere in Milton’s cosmology, place has moral significance.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden. Biblical site in which the bulk of Paradise Lost after book 3 takes place. For Adam and Eve, the physical beauty of paradise represents the unfallen world. They are in harmony with all creatures, and they receive all the food they need without effort. To Satan, however, the place represents a painful reminder of all the joys he and the other fallen angels have lost forever. His first reflection on the sight of Eden, near the beginning of book 4, is a curse hurled at the Sun for showing him its beauties. There, it becomes clear that place is a function of one’s moral state. For example, Satan, though in paradise, brings his Hell with him because of his unrepentant, fallen nature. Conversely, at the end of the epic, Adam and Eve, though banished from paradise, carry a small reflection of it with them in their love for each other.

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

The English Civil Wars, Interregnum, and Restoration
The civil wars of the 1640s in England were rooted in the...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

Subject Matter
The standard definition of an epic, or heroic poem, is that it is a ''noble story told in noble verse''...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

1642-1660: The English civil wars resulted in an Interregnum, during which England was a republic, although not a democracy,...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

Milton presents the political consequences of the Fall in Michael's preview of human history (Book XII). Discuss this presentation in light...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

Paradise Lost has never been adapted as a film or play. However, it is discussed in the video Milton and 17th-century...

(The entire section is 337 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Paradise Regained (1671) is the sequel to Paradise Lost, in which Milton explores the...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Adams, Robert M. and George M. Logan, eds. ''The Seventeenth Century'' in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., Vol....

(The entire section is 1775 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Broadbent, John Barclay. Some Graver Subject: An Essay on “Paradise Lost.” New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1960. Serves as an excellent introduction to Paradise Lost. Acknowledging the difficulties of reading the poem, Broadbent systematically analyzes and explains Milton’s meanings.

Danielson, Dennis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 1989. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Essays by scholars and critics, with a useful bibliography.

Gardner, Helen. A Reading of “Paradise Lost.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Focuses on reading the poem with a twentieth century sensibility, including discussion of twentieth century Milton criticism.

Kelley, Maurice. This Great Argument: A Study of Milton’s “De Doctrina Christiana” as a Gloss upon “Paradise Lost.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941. According to reviewer A. S. P. Woodhouse, “For the student of the history of thought the volume is a clear and useful compendium of Milton’s opinions on a large range of theological topics. . . . Kelley demonstrates in detail . . . that many of [Christian Doctrine’s] doctrines are reflected in Paradise Lost.”

Kranidas, Thomas, ed. New Essays on “Paradise Lost.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Essays by American scholars examine such topics as form, style, genre, and theme. Links the poem with its biblical sources.

Lewalski, Barbara. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2002. Focuses on Milton’s religious, political, and literary development.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Considers epic form in general and continues with a discussion of Milton’s epic, based on a specifically Christian interpretation. Rather dogmatic, this is nevertheless a lucid, enormously helpful analysis of form and doctrinal issues.

Miller, Timothy C. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997. A documentary history of reviews and articles, with an introductory account.

Lieb, Michael and John T. Shawcross, eds. Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2007. Volume one of this two-volume set contains the original 1667 edition of Paradise Lost, which was broken into ten books. The second volume is comprised of ten scholarly essays that explore the differences between the original edition and the better-known 1674 edition, which consists of twelve books. The essayists look at the poem in its literary and historical context, and some make arguments that the 10 book format was a better venue for Milton to convey his thoughts.

Patrides, C. A., ed. Approaches to “Paradise Lost.” London: Edward Arnold, 1968. Contains a series of lectures offering a wide variety of approaches, such as literary, doctrinal, musical, and iconographical. Illustrations. The broad range of this book is an aid to appreciating the complexity of the poem and the vast array of Milton criticism that is available.