Best known for the epic poems “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”, the English poet & polemicist, John Milton was born on Bread Street, London, on 9th December 1608. He was a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, Milton’s poetry and prose reflect deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and the urgent issues and political turbulence of his day. Writing in English, Latin, and Italian, he achieved international renown within his lifetime, and his celebrated Areopagitica, (written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship) is among history’s most influential and impassioned defenses of free speech and freedom of the press.
During Milton’s life their were many major historical and political divisions in Stuart Britain. Under the increasingly personal rule of Charles I and its breakdown in constitutional confusion and war, Milton studied, travelled, wrote poetry mostly for private circulation, and launched a career as pamphleteer and publicist. Under the Commonwealth of England, the shift in accepted attitudes in government placed him in public office, and he even acted as an official spokesman in certain of his publications. Milton’s views developed from his very extensive reading, as well as travel and experience, from his student days of the 1620s to the English Revolution. Very early on, though, he was championed by Whigs, and decried by Tories: with the regicide Edmund Ludlow he was claimed as an early Whig, while the High Tory Anglican minister Luke Milbourne lumped Milton in with other “Agents of Darkness” such as John Knox, George Buchanan, Richard Baxter, Algernon Sidney and John Locke.
The Restoration of 1660 deprived Milton, of his public platform, but this period saw him complete most of his major works of poetry.including Paradise Lost, and once this was published, Milton’s stature as epic poet was immediately recognised. He cast a formidable shadow over English poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries; he was often judged equal or superior to all other English poets, including Shakespeare. By the time of his death in 1674, Milton was impoverished and on the margins of English intellectual life, yet famous throughout Europe and unrepentant for his political choices.
William Hayley’s 1796 biography called him the “greatest English author”, and he remains generally regarded “as one of the preeminent writers in the English language”; though critical reception has oscillated in the centuries since his death (often on account of his republicanism). Samuel Johnson praised Paradise Lost as “a poem which…with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind,” though Johnson (a Tory and recipient of royal patronage) described Milton’s politics as those of an “acrimonious and surly republican”. Milton sadly passed away 8 November 1674 (aged 65) Bunhill, London, England and is buried in St Giles-without-Cripplegate.
The print versions PARADISE LOST by John Milton and Rime of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge both contain wonderful engravings done by Gustave Doré.
Milton’s epic poem is separated into twelve “books” or sections, and the length of each book varies greatly (the longest being Book IX, with 1,189 lines, and the shortest Book VII, having 640). The Arguments at the head of each book were added in subsequent imprints of the first edition. Originally published in ten books, in 1674 a fully “Revised and Augmented” edition with a new division into twelve books was issued. This is the edition that is generally used today.The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (Latin for in the midst of things), the background story being recounted later.
Milton’s story has two narrative arcs: one being that of Satan (Lucifer) and the other being that of Adam and Eve. It begins after Satan and the other rebel angels have been defeated and banished to Hell, or (as it is also called in the poem), Tartarus. In Pandæmonium, Satan employs his rhetorical skill to organise his followers; he is aided by Mammon and Beelzebub. Belial and Moloch are also present. At the end of the debate, Satan volunteers to poison the newly-created Earth and God’s new and most favoured creation, Mankind. He braves the dangers of the Abyss alone in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus or Aeneas. After an arduous traverse of the Chaos outside Hell, he enters God’s new material World, and later the Garden of Eden.
At one point in the story, an Angelic War over Heaven is recounted. Satan’s rebellion follows the epic convention of large-scale warfare. The battles between the faithful angels and Satan’s forces take place over three days. The final battle involves the Son of God single-handedly defeating the entire legion of angelic rebels and banishing them from Heaven. Following the purging of Heaven, God creates the World, culminating in his creation of Adam and Eve. While God gave Adam and Eve total freedom and power to rule over all creation, He gave them one explicit command: not to eat from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil on penalty of death.
The story of Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented for the first time in Christian literature as having a full relationship while still being without sin. They have passions and distinct personalities. Satan, disguised in the form of a serpent, successfully tempts Eve to eat from the Tree by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric. Adam, learning that Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin. He declares to Eve that since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to one another so that if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure, but also as a greater sinner than Eve, as he is aware that what he is doing is wrong.
After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve have lustful sex, and at first, Adam is convinced that Eve was right in thinking that eating the fruit would be beneficial. However, they soon fall asleep and have terrible nightmares, and after they awake, they experience guilt and shame for the first time. Realizing that they have committed a terrible act against God, they engage in mutual recrimination. Eve’s pleas to Adam reconcile them somewhat. Her encouragement enables Adam and Eve both to approach God, to “bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee”, and to receive grace from God. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, and Michael says that Adam may find “a paradise within thee, happier far”.