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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Milton's Paradise Lost, the Epic Poem of Man's First Disobedience

The year 2017 marked the 350th anniversary of the first publication of one of the greatest epic poems in the English language, John Milton's Paradise Lost. The work tells the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton's purpose for writing this poem was to "justify the ways of God to men." Paradise Lost is considered to be Milton's master piece. It solidified his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time, and eventually of the entire British literary tradition.

In this long poem written in blank verse, the theme and procedure point to the dialectical contrast and ultimate synthesis of Christian and ancient elements. There are several levels of action in it: hell, heavens, Eden, and the world after the Fall. The story opens in hell, where Satan and his followers are recovering from defeat in a war they waged against God. They build a palace, called Pandemonium, where they hold council to determine whether or not to return to battle. Instead they decide to explore a new world prophecied to be created, where a safer course of revenge can be planned. Satan gains entrance into the Garden of Eden, where he finds Adam and Eve and becomes jealous of them. He overhears them speak of God's commandment that they should not eat the forbidden fruit. Uriel warns Gabriel and his angels, who are guarding the gate of Paradise, of Satan's presence. Satan is apprehended by them and banished from Eden.

He later returns to earth, and enters a serpent. Finding Eve alone he induces her to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam, resigned to join in her fate, eats also. Their innocence is lost and they become aware of their nakedness. In shame and despair, they become hostile to each other. Upon his return to hell, Satan and his crew are turned into serpents as punishment. Adam reconciles with Eve. Adam is saddened by the visions of his future life, but ultimately revived by revelations of the future coming of the Savior of mankind. Overcome by sadness, but mitigated with hope, Adam and Eve are sent away from the Garden of Paradise.

In this epic poem, Milton uses all his vast erudition and personal experience. He employs many elements of the classical heroic verse: the beginning in medias res, digressions about past and future events, listing and description or armies. Although very ambitious, this work, according to most critics, does not fall short of its intentions.

Paradise Lost was generally received with great admiration. The most influential 18th-century critic, Samuel Johnson, wrote that the work shows off Milton's "peculiar power to astonish" and that he "seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others: the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful." The prominent 20th-century Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, interpreted the poem as a genuine Christian morality tale. Not all the critiques were as favourable, though. William Blake famously said that Milton was on Satan’s side because God and his angels are not as powerfully described in the third part of the poem.

JOHN MILTON

With Andrew Marvell, John Milton (1608-1674) was the only English poet who openly supported the Puritans during the Civil War. His father was a composer, and Milton received a wide humanist education and a puritan spirit in an affluent London environment. He planned to become a great poet from his childhood, and the Renaissance concept of a poet also included being a prophet, a teacher, and a socially engaged person, which Milton certainly was.

Milton’s work is usually divided into three periods: early creativity, the period of preparation (before 1640), participation in political and religious conflicts and polemics (1640-1660), and the period of his greatest works, including Paradise Lost. After finishing St. Paul’s School in London (1615-1625) and Cambridge (1625-1652), he moved to his father’s estate to complete his education by reading and studying on his own (1632-1638). His early poetry was mostly in Latin and Italian. His first collection of poetry did not appear until 1645. One of Milton's first successful early poems with the religious theme, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” contains a dynamic, dialectic relationship between Christian and pagan elements, the trend he would continue in his later poetry. The only published works from the first period of his creativity were the play Comus (1637) and the elegy Lycidas (1638).

After a trip to Europe, Milton started tutoring in 1640. He rarely produced poetry in the second period of his creative life, but it is without exception of high quality, especially the sonnets. Perhaps his most impressive sonnet is XVII, or “When I consider how my light was spent" about the biblical talents, which could also be interpreted as creative talents. In his sonnets he follows the Italian models, but there are is no love theme. They are usually about politics, various opinions, personal events and praises to other people. 

The reason for reduced creation during this period can be found in the exterior circumstances, the Civil War and his private life. His first wife left him and died shortly after coming back to him, and the second died at childbirth in 1658. He also completely lost his sight in 1652. During the Civil War and shortly afterwards, he wrote many articles and political pamphlets. His most famous ones include “Of Education,” in which he recommends humanist learning, “Areopagitica” about the freedom of the press, and "De doctrina Christiana" about his religious views. He worked as a foreign secretary during Cromwell’s reign. After the Restoration, he was imprisoned, but soon released because of his blindness and intervention of his friends, Marvell and Davenant.

In the last period of his creative life, Milton dedicated himself to writing. He produced Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671). Paradise Regained, a “minor epic,” describes Christ’s temptation in the desert from the Gospel according to Luke, and it does not match the first work in scope and quality. It was also written in blank verse. Finally, Samson Agonistes, a tragedy, represents a union between a biblical story and structural procedures of the great ancient writers of tragedies, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It mainly describes Samson’s moral recuperation after being blinded, and it explores again his favourite themes: the conflict between good and evil overcome by moral firmness, persistence and confidence in God’s help, awareness of one’s own limitations and the temptations one has to experience.

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