By John Milton (1608-1674)
A Study Guide
Prepared by Michael J. Cummings © 2005
Revised in 2010 ©
Type of Work
.......Paradise Lost is an epic poem which—like the epic poems of Homer, Dante, Vergil, and Goethe—tells a story about momentous events while incorporating grand themes that are timeless and universal.
.......In describing the planets and other celestial bodies, Milton models God’s creation on the Ptolemaic design (also called the geocentric design) rather than the Copernican design (also called the heliocentric design). The former placed earth at the center of the solar system, with the sun and other celestial bodies orbiting it. Copernicus and other scientists later proved that the earth orbits the sun. Milton was aware of the Copernican theory, but he used the Ptolemaic design—either because he believed it was the more credible theory or because he believed it would better serve his literary purpose. In Paradise Lost, Adam inquires about the movements of celestial bodies—in particular, whether earth orbits the sun or vice versa—in his conversation with the archangel Raphael, but Raphael gives no definite answer. Raphael may have been speaking for Milton.
Style and Verse Format
.......(1) The invocation of the muse, in which a writer requests divine help in composing his work.
.......(2) Telling a story with which readers or listeners are already familiar; they know the characters, the plot, and the outcome. Most of the great writers of the ancient world—as well as many great writers in later times, including Shakespeare—frequently told stories already known to the public. Thus, in such stories, there were no unexpected plot twists, no surprise endings. If this sounds strange to you, the modern reader and theatergoer, consider that many of the most popular motion pictures today are about stories already known to the public. Examples are The Passion of the Christ, Titanic, The Ten Commandments, Troy, Spartacus, Pearl Harbor, and Gettysburg.
.......(3) Beginning the story in the middle, a literary convention known by its Latin term in media res (in the middle of things). Such a convention allows a writer to begin his story at an exciting part, then flash back to fill the reader in on details leading up to that exciting part.
.......(4) Announcing or introducing a list of characters who play a major role in the story. They may speak at some length about how to resolve a problem (as the followers of Satan do early in Paradise Lost).
.......(5) Conflict in the celestial realm. Divine beings fight and scheme against one another in the epics of Homer and Vergil, and they do so in Paradise Lost on a grand scale, with Satan and his forces opposing God and his forces.
.......(6) Use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a literary device in which a character in a story fails to see or understand what is obvious to the audience or readers. Dramatic irony appears frequently in the plays of the ancient Greeks. For example, in Oedipux Rex, by Sophocles, dramatic irony occurs when Oedipus fails to realize what the audience knows—that he married his own mother. In Paradise Lost, dramatic irony occurs when Adam and Eve happily go about daily life in the Garden of Eden unaware that they will succumb to the devil's temptation and suffer the loss of Paradise. Dramatic irony also occurs when Satan and his followers fail to understand that it is impossible ultimately to thwart or circumvent divine will and justice.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
All Hell broke loose
Book IV, Paradise Lost
The Invocation of the Muse
.......Milton opens Paradise Lost by asking a muse to inspire his writing. In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had always requested “the muse” to fire them with creative genius when they began long narrative poems, called epics, about godlike heroes and villains. In Greek mythology, there were nine muses, all
sisters, who were believed to inspire poets, historians, flutists, dancers, singers, astronomers, philosophers, and other thinkers and artists. If one wanted to write a great poem, play a musical instrument with bravado, or develop a grand scientific or philosophical theory, he would ask for help from a muse.
.......Satan and his followers rebel against God. But God and his mighty angels defeat the rebels in a terrible war. God casts them into a dark abyss with a lake of fire. There, the defeated legions deplore their fate and consider their future. In a great council, the many thousands of the fallen assemble in the capital
city and seat of government, Pandemonium, where Satan sits on his royal throne, to hear their leaders speak their minds on the course of action they should take.
Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire,But if any of them manages to break free, Satan says, he will encounter a dark void beyond which are unknown regions and unknown dangers. Nevertheless, Satan, as leader, says he will venture forth and "Through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all: this enterprise / None shall partake with me." His "enterprise," of course is to work his deceptive charms against the new creatures. He will subvert God’s plan and give hell a reason to cheer. None in the assemblage spoke against this plan. Instead, all rose with a thunderous noise to give assent:
Outrageous to devour, immures us round
Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant
Barred over us prohibit all egress. (Book 2, lines 444-447)
.................Towards him they bend.......And so the assembly broke up and ventured off into the regions from whence they came:.
With awful reverence prone; and as a God
Extol him equal to the highest in Heaven. (Book 2, 477-479)
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death,.......Meanwhile, Satan "with thoughts inflamed of highest design / Puts on swift wings, and toward the Gates of Hell / Explores his solitary flight. . . " (Book 2, lines 630-632). Later, Satan's daughter, Sin, who was born from the archfiend's head, and his son, Death, who was born of Satan's union with Sin, decide to follow and assist their father.
A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse. (Book 2, 621-626)
.......In heaven, God the Father and God the Son observe Satan flying in a rage toward earth. Satan will corrupt his new creatures, the Father says, even though they possess the willpower to reject sin. Their penalty will be death. However, because they will not rebel against God but instead succumb to Satan’s temptation, they will be redeemable—if someone takes on the burden of their sin by suffering and dying on their behalf. When the Son offers himself for this task, the Father accepts the offer and approves of his incarnation in the world of man.
.......To reach earth, Satan must fly past Uriel, a member of the highest-ranking order of angels, the Seraphim. Uriel watches over earth from his post at the sun. Disguising himself as one of the cherubim—the second-highest-ranking order of angels—Satan asks Uriel to point out the planet where man dwells so that he may go there, admire this new creature, and praise his great Maker. Uriel instructs him, and Satan resumes his journey and arrives at earth.
.......The sight of Paradise disheartens him, for it reminds him of all that he lost in his rebellion against God. After struggling with self-recrimination and doubt, Satan regains himself and enters Paradise, taking the shape of a cormorant—a web-footed sea bird—and perching in the Tree of Life (a tree producing fruit which, when eaten, yields everlasting life) to observe the newly created Adam and Eve. They are beautiful, happy creatures who surprise Satan with their ability to speak and think logically.
.......Later, when they are asleep, Satan whispers evil thoughts into Eve’s ear—of “vain hopes” and “inordinate desires.” When the archangel Gabriel learns of Satan’s presence in Eden, he sends two angels to expel him. When they confront him, Satan defiantly scorns them and prepares for a fight. An angelic squadron descends toward Eden under the command of Gabriel, and a sign appears in the heavens in which God weighs the adversaries in his golden scales. When Gabriel tells Satan to look at the scales, the archfiend sees that they tip in the favor of the celestial forces, and he flees.
.......On a mission from God, the angel Raphael warns Adam and Eve about Satan. So that they understand the nature of their foe, Raphael tells them the story of Satan’s rebellion and the great war in which angels on both sides fought fiercely. It ended in Satan’s expulsion from heaven, Raphael says, after the Son of God intervened on behalf of the celestial forces. A new world with new creatures was then created to fill the void left by the rebels cast into the deep.
.......Adam, a curious creature, asks Raphael about the earth and its place in creation. Raphael explains the universe but warns Adam to temper his desire for knowledge with humility. When Adam expresses his great satisfaction with Eve as a mate, Raphael again cautions him to be careful. Living with and loving a creature such as Eve, with all of her charm and beauty, is wonderful; however, Adam must not let her divert his attention from his responsibilities to God.
.......Satan returns to the Garden of Eden in the form of a snake and tempts Eve to eat fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in defiance of a divine command never to do so. If she and Adam taste the fruit, he says, they will become gods. Eve eats. After Satan leaves, Adam—though reluctant—also eats. And so Adam and Eve fall from grace, and the Son of God pronounces judgment on the transgressing humans.
.......When Satan returns in triumph to hell, the multitude of fiends cheer him but suddenly turn into serpents. Earth becomes a place of changing seasons; the eternal spring is no more. Adam is downcast, wishing for death, and blames Eve for leading them astray. But they reconcile and decide to go on, confessing their wrongdoing and pleading for forgiveness.
.......God decrees that heaven will remain open for them. But He sends the archangel Michael down to evict them from Paradise. Before Michael leaves, he tells them about events to come in the history of the world and, from a hilltop, shows Adam his progeny—Cain and Abel (and the murder of Cain by Abel) and the descendants who later will form a covenant with God after a great flood.
.......Michael then foretells the advent of a Redeemer, who will die for the sins of humankind—then rise from the grave and leave earth but return later in a second coming. Adam and Eve then walk into their new life.
The World was all before them, where to chooseThey enter the imperfect world, with all its perils..
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (Book 10, lines 1537-1540)
.......Milton's imagery is at times graceful and elegant, as in this memorable personification in Book 6:
Morn,At other times, the imagery is imposing and awe-inspiring, as in this description in Book 7 that ends with hyperbole:
Waked by the circling hours, with rosy hand
Unbarred the gates of light. (lines 2-4)
..................................There Leviathan.......In Book 8, Milton describes the commission of the first sin in simple, straightforward language, followed by a succinct personification summing up the terrible effects of the iniquity:
Hugest of living creatures, on the deep
Stretched like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land, and at his gills
Draws in, and at his trunk spouts out a sea. (lines 412-416)
[H]er rash hand in evil hourMilton also uses personification in Book 4 in this beautiful passage about a quiet night, the starry sky, and the ascendancy of the moon:
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost. (line 780-784)
..............................The wakeful Nightingale;Enjambment
She all night long her amorous descant sung;
Silence was pleased: now glow'd the Firmament
With living Sapphires: Hesperus that led..............[Hesperus: evening star which the Greeks associated with the brother
The starry Host, rode brightest, till the Moon........of Atlas; later Hesperus was associated with Lucifer's brilliant light.]
Rising in clouded Majesty, at length
Apparent Queen unveiled her peerless light,
And o'er the dark her Silver Mantle threw. (lines 602-609)
.......Milton uses frequently uses enjambment (also spelled enjambement) in the poem. It is a literary device in which a poet does not complete his sentence or phrase at the end of one line but allows it to carry over to the next line, as in these passages from the poem:
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruitMilton's use of enjambment helps the poem flow from one line to the next.
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world. . . (Book 1, lines 1-3).
Yet Chains in Hell, not Realms expect: mean while
........In Book 1 of Paradise Lost, Milton reveals the central theme of the work: to justify the ways of God to man. Justify here means to explain and defend, and ultimately to vindicate, God’s course of action in dealing with Adam and Eve after they succumbed to the temptation of Satan and ate forbidden fruit.
Inordinate pride: It leads to Satan's downfall and his continuing defiance of God.
Envy: Arising from Satan's pride, it makes him jealous of God the Son, who is the favorite of God the Father.
Revenge: It motivates Satan to corrupt Adam and Eve and thereby subvert God's plans.
Vanity: It leads Eve to believe—under the temptation of Satan—that she can become godlike.
Deceit: Satan appears in many disguises and tells many lies during his mission to trick Adam and Eve.
Infidelity: Adam betrays God by siding with Eve and eating the forbidden fruit.
Unbridled pursuit of knowledge: It leads Adam and Eve to seek knowledge beyond their ken, knowledge that will make them godlike.
Volition: Angels and humans alike possess free will, enabling them to make decisions. Satan freely chooses to rebel against God, and Adam and Eve freely choose to eat forbidden fruit. The consequences of their actions are their own fault, not God's. Milton uses this theme to help support the central theme, "to justify the ways of God to man."
Disobedience: All sins are acts of disobedience against God, impairing or cutting off the sinner's relationship with God. Adam and Eve and all of the devils disobey God through their sins.
Loyalty: Loyalty to God and his ways are necessary for eternal salvation. Loyalty requires obedience. All of the good angels exhibit loyalty.
Repentance: Even though Adam and Eve have disobeyed God, their repentance makes them eligible for eventual salvation.
Hope: At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve enter the imperfect world with hope; they can yet attain eternal salvation.
Redemption: Through the suffering and death of the Son of God, sinful man can reconcile himself with God if he is sincerely sorry for his sins.
.......The climax, or turning point, of Paradise Lost occurs when Adam and Eve succumb to Satan's temptations and eat the forbidden fruit. This act of disobedience results in their downfall and eviction from Paradise.
.......An angel is a supernatural being that serves God by praising and adoring Him and by carrying out special missions that assist humans. Angels have the additional task of opposing and punishing devils. Devils are angels cast out of heaven because they rebelled against God. The word angel derives from the Greek word angelos, meaning messenger. The major western religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all accept the existence of angels. The rank of angels from highest to lowest is as follows:
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. What does Satan mean when he says, “Better to reign in hell, then [than] serve in heav’n” (Book 1, line 263)?