Milton Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Milton published Paradise Lost, arguably the greatest epic poem in English. The poem justified the ways of God philosophically, and it enriched the body of Christian literature with detailed descriptions of the Fall, Heaven, and Hell. It has since been adopted by poets and readers as a key text in the struggle for human liberty.

Summary of Event

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) was published in ten books in its first edition and in twelve books in its second edition. The poem’s composition may have begun as early as the 1650’s and was based on an outline conceived sometime near 1640. Milton initially conceived of his work as a sacred drama modeled on Greek classical tragedy, and his final version contains long speeches reminiscent of soliloquies in Elizabethan plays. Poetry;England [kw]Milton Publishes Paradise Lost (1667) [kw]Paradise Lost, Milton Publishes (1667) [kw]Publishes Paradise Lost, Milton (1667) Literature;1667: Milton Publishes Paradise Lost[2280] England;1667: Milton Publishes Paradise Lost[2280] Paradise Lost (Milton) Milton, John

Paradise Lost was the product of Milton’s long career of dissent. He disliked the ritualism of the Church of England, giving up his plan to become a minister and resolving to be a poet. In 1639, he supported the attempts of Presbyterians to reform the Church of England and published several pamphlets on the reformation of England and its church. He gradually broke away from the Presbyterians and took a more radical stand, writing that subjects had the right to depose and execute an unworthy king. He was a defender of Oliver Cromwell, Cromwell, Oliver;Milton and whose Puritan followers beheaded Charles I in 1649 and had Cromwell declared lord protector of England in 1653. A member of Cromwell’s government, Milton went into hiding after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Emerging when a general amnesty was declared, Milton lived quietly in the years during which he produced his most important poem—often considered the greatest epic in modern literature. Literature;England

Milton dictates Paradise Lost to his daughter.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Milton based his masterpiece on the Bible and on the subsequent commentary by the Catholic Church fathers and by Protestant theologians. Also important was his reading of classical writers, especially Homer and Virgil, who established the epic form that Milton emulated. Other sources include Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered, 1600). Indeed, part of the distinction of Paradise Lost is its simultaneous embodiment of both seventeenth century European and classical learning.

The poem centers on Satan’s rebellion against God. Out of this transgression of divine law, the universe was created and the Garden of Eden spoiled. The genesis of human nature was to be found in this prelapsarian world (world before the Fall), and Milton’s great object was to elaborate the idea of the felix culpa, or fortunate Fall, a doctrine in which the Fall from Eden was part of God’s great plan, because it was necessary to realize the potential both of humanity and of the larger Creation. Milton saw human beings as challenged by the Fall to transcend their corruption and the burden of mortality that Original Sin had imposed upon them.

Paradise Lost is not only a religious poem, however. The contest between Satan and God and their battle for humankind’s soul reflect Milton’s own concerns about the nature of power, of government, and of social relationships. His poem was created in the aftermath of the English Civil Wars and the restoration of the monarchy. In Milton’s mind, religion and politics were inseparable. In both the political and religious realms, he felt pressed to argue for the concept of just authority.

As a republican who opposed the monarchy and believed in representative government, Milton created characters who reason and debate rather than simply purvey received wisdom. Ideas in Paradise Lost are conceived through the exchange of free minds and are not justified by the concept of authority alone. Indeed, this spirited language of dissent prompts some readers to view the poem as an allegory of events in mid-seventeenth century England.

Reason, free will, and predestination—as well as God’s decision to send his only Son to redeem humankind—are debated by Adam, the angel Raphael, and Christ. In spite of Raphael’s careful explanations, Adam and Eve yield to Satan’s temptation, and the last third of the poem concerns their repentance and quest to establish “a Paradise within,” as they are banished from their perfect garden. This event is what Milton terms fortunate, for out of the pain and sorrow of this lapse, human beings struggle with good and evil, enlarging their souls even as they continue to battle their sinful natures.

Significance

Paradise Lost has been treated as the repository of English tradition, a great poem that stands on the merits of its brilliant blank verse, the extraordinary characterization of Satan, and the high quality of its drama and intellectual disputation. Satan is revealed as a great field general, mustering his troops, defying God’s central authority, establishing his own kingdom in Hell, and seducing humankind to his manic and ambitious project. Endowing this supernatural figure with a very human personality made evil a compelling, intimate reality that readers of all generations have found fascinating, if troubling.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century readers admired the sheer genius of Milton’s architectonic poem, the way he structured his arguments and boldly retold biblical passages as narrative, bringing key episodes to the climaxes associated with classical drama, yet later critics such as Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson viewed Milton’s achievement warily, becoming somewhat disturbed by the force of Satan’s subversive arguments, which coursed through the poem in a way that threatened to overturn its pious purpose. Romantic readers fastened on precisely this insurgent quality, fascinated with Satan as the questing Romantic hero, opposed to the status quo and boldly pursuing a new world of his own making. For poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, Paradise Lost became a touchstone, exemplifying the individual’s quest for distinction and his or her right to challenge the status quo. Unlike their predecessors, the Romantics did not shy away from the suspicion that Satan, not God, was the center of the poem. This emphasis tended to overlook Satan’s self-destructive and antisocial aspects, however.

Twentieth century commentators expressed widely differing views as to the nature and the quality of the poem. One group found it excessively abstract, for all its drama and moments of narrative drive. Another group defended the work’s integrity and the unity of Milton’s poetic and political themes, restoring a reading of the poem close to Milton’s own. A still later generation of critics explored Milton’s belief in patriarchal authority, challenging his creation from feminist and Marxist standpoints. Psychoanalytic critics have examined the poem’s characters, finding that Milton employs an extraordinarily sophisticated psychology that repays repeated readings.

In many respects, Paradise Lost remains what it was on its first day of publication, a contentious and capacious work that invites contrary interpretations and fierce debates. The poem’s great stature derives from its dialectic structure and story line. It is, in sum, an engine of argument, an intense series of exchanges about the nature of the universe, the existence of God, the quality of human nature, and the power of poetry to embody a universal vision.

Paradise Lost has been called an “open text,” whose meaning accrues with each generation’s interpretations. Although Milton’s own politics and personality clearly infuse his work, his employment of language and issues of identity rivals Shakespeare’s poetry as a constantly moving vehicle of expression that continues to generate alternative readings.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. John Milton: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Contains several essays on Paradise Lost with extensive index entries, chronology, and bibliography. Bloom’s introduction is an excellent introduction to the poem and its background.
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    xlink:type="simple">Danielson, Dennis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Essays on Milton’s epic style, use of language, theology, his treatment of Satan, and his treatment of women. Illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Stevie. Milton: New Readings. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A detailed discussion of the process of reading Paradise Lost. Includes notes, chronology, and bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking Press, 1977. A classic study, especially fine on the development of Milton’s politics, his interpretation of Christian doctrine, and his use of history, myth, and allegory in Paradise Lost. Extensive notes and bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Recounts Milton’s life and career, focusing on how he developed his ideas and art. Lewalski demonstrates how Milton invented himself as a new kind of author with radical politics, reformist poetry, and a prophetic voice. Detailed notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, David M. John Milton: Poetry. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Highly recommended as an introduction to Milton’s life, times, and major poems. Includes chronology, notes, and selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1957. The best and most comprehensive one-volume edition of Milton’s work, with very detailed notes.
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