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John Milton and Paradise Lost
By Paul Williams
Last edited: Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Posted: Tuesday, September 06, 2005

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I've recently started writing short pieces on my favourite poets for LI Times so it only seemed logical I share them with my AD family too, enjoy.

John Milton and Paradise Lost

John Milton is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the English language and best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Since his own lifetime his reputation has changed constantly, he has been seen as political opportunist, an advocate of ‘immorality’(he wrote in favour of divorce and married three times), an over serious classicist, and arrogant believer in his own greatness as a poet. He was all these things. But above all he was the last great liberal intelligence of the English renaissance. The values expressed in his works are the values of tolerance, freedom and self-determination expressed by Shakespeare, Hooker and Donne. The basis of his aesthetic studies was classical, but the modernity of his intellectual interests can be seen in the fact that he went to Italy (in the late 1630s) where he met the astronomer Galileo, who had been condemned as a heretic by the Catholic church for saying the Earth moved around the sun.

Milton’s early poems, from the 1620s and 1630s, include L’ Allegro and Il Penseroso two companion pieces that advocate contrasting styles of life, the carefree and the studious. In 1651 he became blind, but his blindness helped stimulate his verbal richness as can be seen in his sonnets, On his Blindness is perhaps the best known, with its last line:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

All Milton’s works are specifically Christian in their outlook, but his beliefs go beyond any single doctrine, as can be seen in the wide range of political and social pamphlets he wrote between 1640 and 1660 – a time when he wrote few poems. These twenty years saw the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland) go through the only real revolution in its history. It overthrew the monarchy. And after a few years, parliament decided to recall the executed King’s son to the throne. It was a time when a great many issues that had arisen since the Reformation came to a head: religion, politics, power and freedom were questioned as never before. Milton addressed all these issues as well as others such as divorce education and famously, the freedom of the press in Areopagitica (1644), in which he anticipates his great epic Paradise Lost by more than twenty Years.

It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without knowledge of evil?…

Milton continued to defend his ideals of freedom and republicanism. But at the time of the Restoration, by which time he was blind, he was arrested. He was eventually released by powerful contacts after paying a fine.  During his remaining years he was devoted to the composition orally, in the form of dictation to his third wife – of his epic poem on the fall of humanity, Paradise Lost, which was published in 1667.
It is interesting to note that like Spenser and Malory before him, and like Tennyson two centuries later – Milton was attracted to the Arthurian legends as the subject for his great Epic. But the theme of the fall goes beyond a national epic, and gave the poet the scope to analyse the whole question of freedom, free will, and individual choice. He wished, he said, to ‘assert eternal providence, /and justify the ways of God to men’. This is seen by some as confirmation of Milton’s arrogance, but it also signals the last great attempt to rationalise the spirit of the Renaissance: mankind would not exist outside Paradise if Satan had not engineered the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, noble style. Moreover, its cosmic vision is not actually based on the Copernican system, but more in the traditional Christian cosmology of its day, where the Earth is the centre of the cosmos, not the sun. The poem tells a biblical story of Adam and Eve, with God, and Lucifer (Satan), who is thrown out of Heaven to reign supreme in Hell. Lucifer (Satan), the most beautiful of the angels, is at his most impressive: he wakes up, on a burning lake in Hell, to find himself surrounded by his stunned followers. He has been defeated in the War of Heaven. "All is not lost; the' unconquerable Will, / and study of revenge, immortal hate, / and courage never to submit or yield... /"  Revenge is the ultimate goal for Satan and succseeds in bringing about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Milton created a powerful and sympathetic portrait of Lucifer. His character bears similarities with Shakespeare's hero-villains Iago (Othello) and Macbeth, whose intellectual nihilism is transformed into metaphysical drama.

The final image of Paradise Lost is profoundly forward-looking, an image of gain through loss. As Adam and Eve go hand in hand towards the future, the loss of Paradise is seen as humanity’s gain:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
through Eden took their solitary way.

Milton's view influenced the Romantic poets Blake and Shelly who saw Satan as the real hero of the poem and a rebel against the tyranny of Heaven. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake stated that Milton was "a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Many other works have been inspired by Paradise Lost, among them Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, John Keat's poem Endymion, Lord Byron's The Vision of Judgment, satanic Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's saga The Lord of the Rings.  And to some extent, Nietzsche's Zarathustra who has a more superficial than real connection with Milton's Lucifer, although Nietzsche knew Milton's work.

further reading

Milton's Grand Style C. Ricks (1963), Divided Empire: Milton's political Imagery R. T. Fallon (1996), Private Lifeof John Milton Peter Levi (1997), History of Literature in English J Carter & John Mcrae,(1997) John Milton: A Comprehensive Research Study Guide Ed. by Harold Bloom (1999)


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Reviewed by ~Indigo~ Elga 8/16/2006
Dear Paul,

Thank you for this exceptionally well executed and inspiring write on John Milton, it's certainly something on my "to do" list. Whether I will comprehend, is another matter altogether! ;)

Warm hugs and love
Reviewed by Andre Bendavi ben-YEHU 4/9/2006

An introduction to Master Milton's life and works that takes the readers on an imaginative trip to the Master's world.

Educating and inspiring reading in "John Milton and Paradise Lost".


Andre Emmanuel Bendavi ben-YEHU
Reviewed by Aberjhani 11/9/2005
Concise, informative, and intriguing--truly appreciated this scholarly and yet passionate article on Milton. The first time I read "Paradise Lost" I was about 13 and just learning the distinctions between prose and poetry. What I understood of Milton's masterwork at that time I took quite literally, and so was simultaneously shocked, mesmerized, and terrified. Much later, I saw Milton's Lucifer as one of the original anti-heroes of classic literature. Thanks for the great read.
Reviewed by Shoma Mittra 11/1/2005
Enjoyed this essay and your simple direct style of writing.:-) shoma
Reviewed by L. Figgins 9/6/2005
The pursuit of freedom and the expression of free-will have throughout history been catalysts for change and the establishment
of new cultures, along with the advancement of humanitarian ideals (The same ideals that founded America)and science. Milton had an
intuitive understanding of life's duality and the wisdom wraught
in the struggle between good/evil. But where lay the evil in his
world? The tyrantic Church and State of his day. Gallileo "played ball" with the Church until he could no longer contain the truths
within himself and was, as you say, imprisoned, branded a heretic
and his writings destroyed. A very fine essay, Paul!
Reviewed by Tinka Boukes 9/6/2005
Thanks for sharing this most informative essay on John be honest..I have never heard of him in my entire!!

Says alot about my poetic knowledge....or wharever you call it!!

Brilliant offering Chuck!!

Love Tinka
Reviewed by Jerry Bolton (Reader) 9/6/2005
Enjoyed reading your take on Milton. I cannot do anything but nod my head and say, "Yup, that sounds about right," or "If you say so." I have, of course, attempted a number of times to read "Paradise Lost," and once got as far as the second page. I didn't understand what I had read but was determined to move off the first page. He isn't alone in his stupefying this Arkansas Traveler who attempted too "git him sum kulture" sans the university route, but he is the most aggravating. I wonder how many who claim to have read AND understodd him really did, present company excluded, of course. Enjoyed your essay.

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