An Introduction to Paradise Lost
Last updated: 2/24/02
Any introduction for students to Paradise Lost must acknowledge that it is a difficult work. Its language is dense, its length daunting and its theme challenging. Moreover, critics have wrangled over its merit and meaning for over 300 years. The question arises, then, why should we read it if no one agrees on its meaning and much of it seems willfully obscure? The answer, of course, is that reading Paradise Lost is, for all its problems, enormously rewarding. It contains majestic beauty, fascinating characters, memorable scenes and great metaphoric power. To be honest, though, I should admit that there are several parts of the poem that are, to many readers anyway, less than stirring. But if we wade through these to get to the poem's riches, our patience will be rewarded. I'll let you in on another secret, too. In the years I have taught this course, it has been Paradise Lost that has time and again produced the most interesting and enjoyable discussions. I'm sure that will prove true this time as well.
In approaching the poem, however, there are a few things we should keep in mind. First, Milton was self-consciously writing in a specific literary genre, the epic, a form that has existed since antiquity. Some of the oldest literature in Western civilization comes to us in epic form. Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad are epics, and they set a standard that later writers strove to match. Traditionally, an epic is a long poem written in 12 or 24 books that describes the great theme of a people or nation. Some have even suggested that the Old Testament is the epic story of the ancient Israelites. Epics also employ elevated language, invocations to the muses, supernatural interventions in the affairs of humanity and descriptions of great and hazardous journeys. Lastly, they usually begin in the middle of the story (in medias res).
In writing Paradise Lost, John Milton (1608-1674) was making a bold poetic statement, for his epic would not be just a story of a nation or a people. Instead, he would take it upon himself to write the entire story of the human race. And, more daringly, he would attempt to justify why God allows us to suffer and why evil exists. He would even prescribe what our response to this situation should be. For his starting point, he turned to the Hebrew creation story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, but he elaborated it far beyond the biblical version. Indeed, the entire story of the poem fits into a much larger narrative framework, which some critics have referred to as "the four battle structure" of Paradise Lost.
This sequence of battles reflect the Christian millennial view of history from before the creation of the world to the end of time. The battles comprise a series of conflicts between the forces of good and evil, although we are always aware that good will triumph in the end. These battles, roughly sketched, cover the following events:
Battle 1: An Epic battle between the good and bad angels in Heaven. This takes place before the action in Paradise Lost.
Battle 2 : Satan versus Adam and Eve in the mythic dawn of human civilization. The results of this battle last throughout all of human history.
Battle 3 : The life, death and resurrection of Christ, especially the temptation of Christ by Satan and Christ's rejection of it.
Battle 4 : The second coming of Christ and the final victory of good over evil.
Paradise Lost, of course, is a Christian epic (or more specifically a Protestant epic) reflecting Milton's own unique brand of radical Puritanism. As a result it is helpful when approaching the poem to have some historical background, especially as it relates to the contemporary religious tensions that played such a large part in Milton's life. The first ten books of the poem were published in 1667 when Milton was 59 years old, completely blind and living in retirement. But the Protestant theology that underlies Paradise Lost traces its origin to the early 1500s and Martin Luther's attack against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther, an Augustinian monk, was certainly not the first to rebel against the popes in Rome, but he was the most effective. Before Luther, the Catholic Church had always been successful in quelling challenges to its authority. Traditionally it had used either excommunication (which in effect meant damnation for eternity) or an accommodation of the calls for reform (as in its creation of new orders that emphasized various aspects of the religious life).
Luther's challenge, however, succeeded and there are several reasons for this. First, he was tenacious; second, he had the help of the printing press to spread his ideas so the Church could not contain his "heresy" in an isolated geographical region. Third, Luther had aid from the princes of Southern Germany. They offered him protection and a base of operations. But Luther also had a uniquely dangerous idea, one that the Catholic Church could not possibly accommodate and hold onto power; for Luther believed that salvation was not the Church's to give or deny.
Rather, he argued that salvation was a radically personal and subjective experience between God and the believer. The only essential ingredients for it, he said, were access to the holy revealed word of God and faith. Just as importantly, Luther held that God's grace was a gift to the faithful. In other words, it could not be won, earned or purchased. It could only be given (and, theoretically, taken away) by God. In fact, it was the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences-- literally buying one's way into heaven-- that triggered Luther's decision to challenge papal authority.
And this challenge had immediate and long-lasting effects. Within a short time Protestantism created hundreds of new sects that were united only in their hostility toward Rome and each other. One sect, the Calvinists, believed in the doctrine of predestination, the idea that God has predetermined whether or not each of us will be saved (yet we can never know if we are saved). The Protestant Reformation also led to the 30-Years War (1618-1648), a bloody conflict between mutually hostile Protestant sects and Rome that devastated much of Southern Germany and ended with no clear winner.
This, then, was the general religious environment into which Milton was born. In England, he would have been familiar with three versions of Protestantism: Anglicanism, the official state religion and the most theologically conservative; the radical protestants, whose extreme insistence on individualism would later give rise to Methodism; and the Puritans, a group who opposed the "worldliness" and corruption of the official Anglican Church. The Puritans, in fact, were an industrious people who composed a highly successful business class. They also were non-conformists who wanted to purify religious practices, and when they were persecuted they sometimes set off for the New World, which was the case for the Pilgrims of the Thanksgiving story.
It was the Puritans with whom Milton was affiliated. Indeed, after the English Civil War, when the Puritans took control of England and executed King Charles I (who was the head of the state and the Anglican Church), Milton took a position in the new government and defended its actions. In 1659, when the Puritan government fell and England restored the monarchy, Milton had to go into hiding and was briefly imprisoned. Soon freed, he retired from political life and began to work in earnest on Paradise Lost, which, because of his blindness, was composed in his head (supposedly 20 lines a day) and dictated to his daughter.
Some critics have said that epics are often written at the passing of an era. We know, for instance, that Homer's epics of heroes and gods and the Trojan War were composed hundreds of years after the war ended, and Virgil's Aeniad in many ways commemorated the passing of republican Rome. Similarly, Milton wrote his epic after the Puritan cause in England had failed. He, of course, had been a part of that movement and one of its most passionate advocates, so it's hard not to think that in some ways Paradise Lost reflects his feelings about the lost cause. Into the story of Adam and Eve's fall, he poured his passion for God, his sense of tragic loss and his hope for the eventual redemption of humanity.
Before we begin our discussion, there is, perhaps, something else I should say. And I really want to put a heavy emphasis on this point. Sometimes when discussing the poem with students who are Christians, I get the feeling that any criticism suggesting that Milton failed to justify God's ways to humanity is somehow an attack upon their religious beliefs. As a result, the discussion can degenerate into an argument over the validity of Christianity itself. It should be clear in Logos by now that the beliefs you are affiliated with are beside the point. Our purpose here is to entertain serious ideas by serious thinkers, to wrestle with them ,and, hopefully, to gain some general familiarity with them. So let us discuss Milton in this spirit, with an openness to the points he tried to make and a willingness to criticize when we feel he has not quite brought them off.