Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost was John Milton's great epic in blank verse, a form of poetry which had been very little used in English until then.

Publication

The first edition of Paradise Lost, in ten books, was published in 1667; the now standard twelve book version was published in 1674. In his lifetime Milton received a total of £10.00 for this work.[1]

Verse - form and character

The first poet to have used blank verse in English is said to have been the Tudor poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), in a translation of the second book of Virgil's Aeneid. It was scarcely used after that, except in the drama, so that when Milton took it up for Paradise Lost it was in effect an innovation.[2] He defended it strongly in a prefatory note: "The measure is English Heroic Verse, without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works expecially, but the invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them."

Outline

Book I sets out the theme of the whole work and starts with the fallen angels, expelled from Heaven, lying on the burning lake of Hell, until Satan rouses them to build a palace in which the great ones sit in council.

Book II: The Council decides to seek the new world said to have been created by God, and Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais'd /Above his fellows, sets out to find it, all others having held back. He finds the gates of Hell guarded by Sin and her son Death ( black it stood as Night, /Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, /And shook a dreadful Dart), but passes through them, and through the realm of Chaos.

Book III: God sees Satan making towards this world, and predicts coming events. Satan, arriving at the new creation, disguises himself as a lesser angel and deceives the guardian Uriel.

Book IV: Satan has his first sight of Adam and Eve in Paradise, but is discovered by the angelic sentinels and expelled.

Book V: God sends Raphael to tell Adam and Eve about Satan and his revolt, occasioned by God's announcing of his Son as vice-regent. Satan's withdrawal to form his own army is described.

Book VI: In the war in Heaven, the loyal angelic forces prove incapable of overcoming the rebels, and victory is reserved to God's Son, the Messiah.

Book VII: At Adam's request, Raphael narrates the story of the creation.

Book VIII (originally a continuation of Bk VII): Adam relates what he remembers of his own creation and Eve's.

Book IX (originally Bk VIII): Satan returns surreptitiously into Paradise, takes the form of a serpent, and, finding Eve alone, persuades her to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam, rather than be separated from her, does likewise.

Book X: (originally Bk IX): God's Son descends to judge Adam and Eve. Satan, returning to Hell while Sin and Death create a broad bridge between Hell and this world, recounts his achievement with triumph, which is received with hissing as all the fallen angels are transformed to serpents.

Book XI (originally the first part of Book X): Michael is sent from Heaven to reveal the future of the world and expel Adam and Eve. He shows Adam biblical events before the Flood

Book XII (originally part of Book X): Michael completes his story, and Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise.

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Reputation

From the beginning, the book had steady sales, despite its author being out of political favour. John Dryden, although politically and religously opposed to Milton, described it as “undoubtedly one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.”[3] In the next century, Samuel Johnson called it "a poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind", asking "what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?"[4] The poetry of Milton served as a profound inspiration to the Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Shelley (e.g., Prometheus Unbound), Keats (e.g., the two Hyperion poems) and William Blake (e.g., The Four Zoas). In the 20th century, Milton's poetry fell out of favour, as the Metaphysical poets came into fashion, though T.S. Eliot rather condescendingly noted that poets can study Milton “with profit to their poetry and to the English language”,[5] but Christopher Ricks decisively restored his reputation with his extended essay on Milton's Grand Style.[6]

Controversial features

Theology

It is surprising that contemporary enemies of Milton did not attack his theology, which was by no means a Trinitarian orthodoxy.[7] In the poem, the person of the Son is not co-eternal with God, but is brought into being at a specific point; and there is no mention of the Holy Spirit.

Misogyny

The very first words that Eve is made to speak are:

O thou for whom
And from whom I was formd flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my guide
And Head[8]


She is later given many speeches of similar meaning, except when she is arguing that she should work separately from him. The whole blame of the Fall (as in Genesis) is laid upon her, and it is only because of his love for her that Adam is involved in it.

In some ways this is typical of Milton's time. But in the preceding century there had been examples of powerful women whom few would have presumed to speak of in this way (such as Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth I); and in his own time there were sects that Milton must have known of who were proclaiming the virtual equality of women, even if they did not live up to it. Milton belonged to no sect, having worked up his religion for himself, and his opinions on women were likewise peculiar to him.

Artillery

Although the appearance of artillery in the war in Heaven serves certain of Milton's purposes, it has always been considered ludicrous. The purposes which Milton clearly intended were, firstly, to show that gunpowder is a devilish invention, and, secondly, to emphasise that the war could not be won by either side, without divine intervention, because the combatting angels could not be killed. The ridiculous aspect of this episode is not improved by the dreadful puns with which Satan introduces his new weapon and mocks its effect on the opposing ranks.

References

  1. Gordon Campbell, "Milton, John (1608–1674)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2008).
  2. Johnson, S. Lives of the Poets. 1779
  3. See the Prefatory Essay in Dryden’s The State of Innocence, 1674.
  4. Johnson, S.
  5. Eliot, T.S., "Milton II" in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 274.
  6. Ricks, C. Milton's Grand Style. Oxford University Press. 1978
  7. Hill, C. Milton and the English Revolution. Faber & Faber. 1977. ch 23 (citing, among others, Empson, W. Milton's God. 1961)
  8. Bk IV l.440