Milton's takes his poem very seriously; Adam and Eve's fall was, for him, one of the greatest of human tragedies [it "brought death into the world, and all our woe," (1.3)]. Satan's rebellion, his plotting of revenge, these are not laughing matters. While Milton often paints incredibly beautiful, romantic themes, he's basically never funny (with the exception of one or two very subtle fart jokes in Books 7 and 8). How could he be? He was a radical protestant, and for him the Bible was the book of books. He didn't want to make light of it.
At the same time, we can often detect a sense of tragedy in Milton's verse. The poem was originally conceived as a tragedy like something Shakespeare might have written. Somewhere along the line Milton realized that he wanted to do something different. Even though Milton re-conceptualized his poem (from tragedy to epic), he still approaches the subject matter as if it were a tragedy. At a number of points, he can't resist interjecting, saying things to the effect of "oh, would that things had been different." In Book 9, he says flat out that he must "change/ Those notes [i.e., the previous 8 books of the poem] to tragic" (9.5-6).
But even when Milton isn't being so obvious, one can always detect a sense of sadness in his voice. Yes, Eden is lovingly painted as the most beautiful place ever, but Milton always makes it clear that such a place is no more, that the only way we can access it is through poetry or the imagination. That is very sad.
Paradise Lost is an epic poem; epic poems are…you guessed it, epic! They tend to be really long (hundreds of pages or more!) and usually deal with incredibly serious, heroic topics. So, for example, Homer's Iliad takes as its subject some of the most famous events of the Trojan War (a famous mythical war fought between the ancient Greeks and Trojans) while Virgil's Aeneid deals with the mythical foundation of Rome.
The other thing about epic poetry that you should know is that it always begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. This means that the poem begins, and then usually gives you a back-story before returning you to where you began, and then moving forward. For example, Paradise Lost begins with Satan already in Hell, but all the events leading up to it are narrated in Books 5 and 6. Similarly, the creation of the world, of Adam, and of Eve takes place sometime between Satan's fall and the solidification of his plans for revenge (Books 1-2), but the creation is described in Books 7 and 8. In other words, the poem begins somewhere in the middle of the story, but then goes back and fills in the details. In medias res, baby.
Now, Milton's poem doesn't deal with war or the foundation of one of history's greatest empires, and in this respect his epic poem is different than most of his major generic forebears (Homer, Virgil, and Spenser chief among them). While we do have a huge battle sequence in Book 6, something about it just seems funny. For example, it's hard to take the battle seriously because we already know the outcome (Satan loses, which we learn in the very first book of the poem); if we've somehow forgotten the outcome, however, we always get the sense that God is going to win. The weirdness of Book 6 is explained at the beginning of Book 9, where Milton says flat out that he's not interested in the type of martial heroism typical of epic poetry. He's more interested in a type of internal, spiritual, Christian heroism, what he calls the "better fortitude/ Of patience and heroic martyrdom/ Unsung [i.e., not sung about in previous epics]" (9.31-33).
And he sticks to his guns: one could very well characterize Paradise Lost as an epic poem about "patience," if only because it is Adam and Eve's impatience that is the cause of their downfall. Now you might be asking yourself, what's epic about patience, Adam, Eve, etc.? Well, for the Christian world, Adam and Eve's story is of comparable significance as the founding of Rome or the Trojan War. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, by eating the Forbidden Fruit, Adam and Eve introduced sin and death into the world, two very serious consequences. Seriously, who likes death?
Paradise Lost is an elaborate retelling of the most important – and tragic – incident in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Genesis narrates the creation of the world and all its inhabitants, including Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Initially, everything was just perfect; God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden to live in, there was no death, no seasons, all the animals were nice, etc. The only thing they were not allowed to do was eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Well, one day the devil disguised himself as a serpent and convinced Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She in turn convinced Adam to partake. God became very angry with Adam and Eve for disobeying his one rule; as punishment, he banished them from Paradise, instituted death, suffering, pains while giving birth, and a whole lot more. Adam and Eve effectively "lost" Paradise.
Milton wrote the bulk of Paradise Lost after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660; he very nearly lost his life. (Milton had written a pamphlet justifying regicide – the killing of the king – when Charles II assumed the throne. Milton – and many others who were not so fortunate – saw his hopes for an alternative English government ultimately end in defeat. For more on the Restoration, head over to "Best of the Web.") While Milton didn't perhaps see this alternative as a "paradise," and while he doesn't allegorize his political life in the poem in this way, the primal story of human loss and devastation must have appealed to the dejected John Milton.
The ending of Paradise Lost is one of the most beautiful and depressing scenes in all of English literature. Just think about it: humankind's one chance to have the perfect world (no suffering, no pain, no death, no disease, no angry lions in the forest that might kill you) goes up in smoke! The gates of Paradise are even barred with a "flaming brand," just in case Adam and Eve (the very first human beings ever, according to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition) should get any crazy ideas and try to get back in.
In the last two books of the poem, Adam receives a history lesson from the angel Michael; at the end of the history lesson, Michael leads Adam down from the mountain on which they have been standing. Adam goes and wakes up Eve, and the two of them exit Paradise, holding hands and shedding a few tears. A very big and dangerous world awaits them, but God (in the form of "Providence") will be there to guide them.
First, Adam and Eve's entrance into the world that is "all before them" marks the beginning of human history, from the Christian perspective. It is the beginning of the world of death, sickness, labor, war, etc. that we all know. In a sense, then, the "end" of Paradise is the beginning of human history as we know it now, the time between Eden (the beginning) and the apocalypse (the end of the world).
Second, this departure from Paradise also marks the beginning of the end for older types of literature, such as epic and religious poetry (Paradise Lost is both). Indeed, critics have often noted how English literature underwent many changes in the wake of Paradise Lost; within 40 years satire and comedy were the dominant genres, and within another 50 the novel began its ascendancy. As you can see, none of this happened overnight; it took some time, but eventually writers realized that they either didn't want to be all serious like John Milton, or that everyday life was way more interesting than angels and demons, or that Milton was just better than them and there was no point in trying to outdo him.
Whatever the causes (and there were a ton of them), literature changed a lot after Paradise Lost. It's almost as if Adam and Eve's departure from a supernatural place like the Garden of Eden – remember angels fly down from heaven and hang out here! – corresponds to a decline in literature about religious subjects. Milton didn't "intend" this, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
Paradise Lost takes place right around what Christians would say is the beginning of human history. The poem begins after Satan's unsuccessful rebellion and the creation of the universe. Milton's conception of the cosmos is slightly strange, but basically at one end is Heaven, at the other is Hell, and in between is a place called Chaos (described in some detail in Book 2). Now, our universe – the earth, the stars, Jupiter, the moon, etc. – is enclosed in some type of spherical structure that is attached to Heaven by a chain. Just imagine a doll house (Heaven) floating in the air with a balloon attached to the bottom of it (inside the balloon is the universe as we know it).
The first two books are set in Hell. Milton spends a good amount of time describing Hell's surroundings, even adding the little detail that Hell becomes a frozen, arctic tundra once one travels some distance from where the fallen angels initially congregate. After describing the frozen part of Hell, Milton says something to the effect of "it's so cold, it's hot." Very clever.
Heaven is the setting of Books 3 and 6; Milton segues from Hell to Heaven right away in order to highlight the contrast between them. Unlike Hell, which is really hot and really cold, Heaven is temperate (i.e., not subject to extreme temperatures); Hell is dark ("darkness visible" reigns there) while Heaven is bright. Even when it is "nighttime" in Heaven, it's not really dark, only dim. Hell isn't comfortable, but Heaven is the most peaceful place imaginable.
The Garden of Eden is, for the most part, the setting of the rest of the poem. Paradise is exactly what you would expect. Every single sweet-smelling plant and tasty fruit exists there; all the animals get along (lions and tigers appear to be vegetarians because Milton tells us they don't chase other animals); and the weather is always perfect. What really drives the point home is the part where Adam and Eve drink from a cool stream. They don't have a cup, so they use a hallowed-out piece of fruit. Doesn't it remind you of Hawaii? Kind of? Just a little bit?
While Milton does everything he possibly can to make Paradise appear pure and undefiled, his descriptions of the Garden of Eden always end up reminding us that we no longer possess it, that such a place can only be accessed through the imaginative productions of poets like Milton. When Adam and Eve leave the garden at the end of Book 12, a "flaming brand" or sword blocks the Gates of Paradise, reminding them (and us) of its ultimate inaccessibility.
Paradise Lost is an incredibly difficult poem; even those who have read it multiple times still have trouble with certain parts, and it still takes a lot of patience (and time!) to read through it. It's difficulty is the result of a combination of factors. Oftentimes, Milton uses obsolete words that need to be glossed by an editor; when you have to look at the footnotes on the bottom of the page rather frequently, it breaks the flow of reading.
Besides strange words, Milton's poem contains literally thousands of allusions and references to other texts (Biblical, classical, scientific, you name it); sometimes you can ignore these, but more often than not you have to read the footnotes about them so you can understand the passage.
To top it all off, Milton also writes very long, complicated, Latinate sentences; there are often words left out that you have to supply, and sometimes verbs are separated from their subjects in a way that takes some getting used to. Also, there are elaborate subordinate clauses stacked on top of each other, and plenty of strange words used in strange ways just to up the ante.
But…if you can get used to Milton's style – and you can because Milton isn't so hard he can't be mastered or enjoyed – you will find that the difficulty has its own rewards, chief among them clarity and precision yoked with beauty.
Milton writes in a very elevated, allusive, and dense style. If we had to pick one word to sum up his style that word would be Latinate. Latinate means characteristic of the Latin language (a "dead" language used in Virgil's Aeneid and father of modern Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian). In Latin, word order doesn't matter (we could tell you why but it would take forever), which allows for some very cleverly structured poetry. Milton, being a lover of classical languages, attempts to emulate Virgil's style in particular, often leaving words out (and thus expecting the reader to supply them), using a funky word order (verbs are often placed in strange places), using words in older senses that play upon the word's roots (Milton refers to Satan's "ruin," playing on the Latin root ruere, to fall) and the like.
Milton writes in Book 5: "Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain" (666). What he means is that they were "conceiving" "deep malice" and "disdain." However Milton sandwiches the participle (a verbal form ending in "ing") "conceiving" in between its two objects, "deep malice" and "disdain." As another example, take the very first sentence of the poem (which is sixteen lines longs!). There, he delays the main verb for nearly six lines. What Milton means is "Sing Muse of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that Forbidden Tree," but he inverts the order and starts with "Of man's first disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree […]," finally arriving at "sing" in line 6.
Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve's loss of Paradise; their eating of the Forbidden Fruit has often been called the "Fall" (as in, "fall from innocence" or "fall from grace"), so it's no surprise that images of falling occur throughout the poem. The first characters we meet – Satan and his legions – are newly fallen, both morally (they disobeyed God and attempted to overthrow him) and literally (in Book 6 they actually fall out of Heaven and into Hell). Satan's first words to his legions are: "Awake, arise, or be forever fallen." To be fallen, in this poem, is to have sinned, or to have disobeyed God.
It is important to note that in this poem people make themselves fall; there is no "fate" or other force that causes Adam, Eve, Satan, and the rebel angels to fall. Thus, in Book 3 God says that he created Adam "Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (3.95-96, our emphasis). And in Book 6, God doesn't push Satan and his legions out of Heaven. They actually throw themselves out of Heaven. Let's repeat that: God doesn't throw them out, they throw themselves out! In Milton's words: "headlong themselves they threw/ Down from the verge of Heav'n" (6.864-865).
In addition to these two falls, Milton also uses a number of other connected images. Now, an object that has fallen is no longer standing; it is no longer upright. In Book 11, Michael tells Adam that "man's woe" (11.632) begins with "man's effeminate slackness" (11.634). Michael implies here that Adam was effeminately "slack" when he listened to Eve and ate the fruit. In other words, he implies that Adam was like a woman, not a man (it is hard not to associate "slackness" with something that is supposed to be hard but is not – wink, wink). Just remember that "slackness" is associated with something going limp, with not being a 'real' man, with the Fall, and with a general lapse in judgment.
If being fallen or "slack" is a sign of one's state of sin, doing the opposite – standing – is a sign of goodness, innocence, and distinction. So, for example, in the passage from Book 3 above Milton's God says that he created mankind "sufficient to have stood," which sounds a lot like "with sufficient capabilities to stand tall and do the right thing." We see the same type of language in Book 7, where Raphael talks about how one distinguishing feature of man is that he is "not prone" (506); in other words, he walks upright, unlike the animals. When Satan first sees Adam and Eve, Milton tells us that he saw "Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,/ Godlike erect, with native honor clad" (4.288-289). In this passage, the fact that Adam and Eve stand "erect" (or upright) is a sign of their distinction as (innocent) human beings; it is what separates them from the animals, and thus makes them closer to God. For another passage, check out 11.509.
In addition, the action of standing up can mean something like what it does nowadays in phrases like "why don't you stand up for something?" So, in Book 9 Adam encourages Eve to keep her reason "erect" (9.353), by which he means something like "stay sharp and do the right thing." In Book 5, when Abdiel realizes that Satan's rebellion is a bad idea, Raphael says he "Stood up, and in a flame of zeal severe/ The current of his [Satan's] fury thus opposed" (5.807-808). At the end of Book 6, Raphael says of the rebel angels: "firm they might have stood,/ Yet fell" (6.911-912). And of course, in Book 3 God explicitly contrasts standing and falling: "Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell" (3.102). And let's not forget that when he was in Heaven Satan was "upright and pure" (4.837).
We never actually see Milton's God; the only real thing Milton says about him is that he's really bright, or that he's like a giant light, hidden away somewhere. One of the ways in which Milton indicates a particular character's virtue is by how "bright" they are. So, for example, Satan refers to the "bright confines" (2.395) of Heaven, and Milton notes that "God is light,/ And never but in unapproachèd light/ Dwelt" (3.305). Other references to God's "glorious brightness" (2.376) are scattered throughout the poem (such as 3.375).
The angels are also always described as bright, luminous beings. For example, in Book 3 Milton says they "Stood thick as stars" (61), stars being some of the brightest objects in the universe (the sun is a star!). In Book 5, Adam sees Raphael approaching from the east (where the sun rises) and even thinks it's a second sunrise ["seems another morn/ Risen on mid-noon," (5.309-311)].
Satan provides a nice contrast. When he lived in Heaven, he was "Clothed with transcendent brightness" (1.86) and "didst out-shine/ Myriads" (1.86-87). Later we learn that, after he fell from Heaven, Satan "his form had yet not lost/ All her original brightness" (1.591-592), a remark that suggests he has lost at least some as a result of his sin. Our suspicions are confirmed by Raphael, who notes that he was "brighter once" (7.132). A similar description occurs at 10.445.
The idea of the "one man" is very important in Paradise Lost. It represents Milton's idea of the difference that one man can make – whether literally or symbolically. The poster child for the "one man" is Jesus Christ, the son of God. At the very beginning of the poem, Milton notes that the damage caused by Adam and Eve's disobedience can only be remedied by "one greater man" (Jesus) who will "restore us" and "regain the blissful seat." In Book 3, we actually see Jesus – he's not called that yet because he has yet to become mortal and assumed that name; he's just the Son – volunteer to become mortal and die for man's sins.
Christians believe that Jesus is prefigured (a fancy word that means something like foreshadowed) in Biblical history by a number of Old Testament prophets. So, when Michael gives Adam his little history lesson near the end of the poem, Adam sees "one rising, eminent/ In wise deport" who "spake much of right and wrong" (11.665-666); this is Enoch, a man referred to later as a "just man" (11.681). Later, Adam witnesses everything that happens to Noah, you know that guy who built a huge ark and put every single animal in it while God flooded the world? Well, Michael tells Adam the following: "So all shall turn degenerate, all depraved,/ Justice and temp'rance, truth and faith forgot;/ One man except, the only son of light/ In a dark age" (11.806-809). Finally, there's Abraham, the man whose descendants will be God's chosen people. Michael tells Adam that "A Nation from one faithful man" (i.e., Abraham) will "spring" (12.113, emphasis ours).
Let's forget about Abdiel, the angel who does what all the other rebel angels should have done; he attends Satan's initial council in Heaven before the war (Book 6), but then decides the whole thing is a huge mistake. When he returns to the fold of good angels, Milton writes: "gladly then he mixed/ Among those friendly pow'rs who him received/ With joy and acclamations loud, that one/ That of so many myriads fallen—yet one!—/ Returned not lost" (6.21-25; our emphasis). Among the "many myriads fallen," Abdiel is the only "one" who doesn't make the wrong decision.
In many ways, Adam is a failed "one man." He's the original "one" from whom the human race springs, but he's not as successful as the others. Granted, Jesus is the only really truly successful one, but that's because he's God's son. Adam's sin, however, greatly outweighs the failures of all the other men Milton describes as singular in their excellence.
Paradise Lost is about the loss of…well, Paradise. So it's no surprise that images of paradises abound. First and foremost, we have the Garden of Eden. Milton makes it abundantly clear in Book 4 (our first view of paradise) that this is the best paradise of them all. He mentions a number of famous artistic and literary paradises, only to say that the Garden of Eden is much better than them all. In addition to Adam and Eve's Paradise, there's Heaven. It's really bright there, and it doesn't even really get dark.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, well Adam and Eve lose Paradise too. This is true, but there are two other paradises to compensate for this one. First, in Book 12, Michael tells Adam that if he lives the perfect Christian life (he doesn't call it this because Christianity hadn't been invented yet), if he learns to love God by obeying him, he shall "possess/ A paradise within…happier far" (586-587). In other words, paradise is no longer imagined as a place like Hawaii, but rather as an internal sense of peace or calm that occurs when one obeys God as one should. Finally, at the end of time those who have been saved will be able to live either in Heaven or on earth because the earth will have been turned into a paradise, and a much better one than the Garden of Eden. As Michael tells Adam: "for then the earth/ Shall all be paradise, far happier place/ Than this of Eden, and far happier days" (12.463-465).
The narrator of Paradise Lost is an omniscient third person. This means that the narrator is not a character in the story (like Satan or Adam or Eve), but rather an external observer that can enter the thoughts of all of the characters in the story. Milton does this on numerous occasions, often telling us what Satan is thinking about, or what Adam is really feeling. Because he is not a character in the story, our narrator can be in several places at once. For example, in Book 9, he tells us what Eve is doing, but then he shifts and tells us what Adam is doing. In a sense, the narrator is like a puppeteer. He knows the whole story, and he knows how he wants to present it, so he sits back and feeds his readers information as he sees fit.
At many points in the poem it becomes clear that John Milton, the poet, is our omniscient third person narrator. Several times throughout the poem, he interjects, wishing that things could have turned out differently. He even refers to his blindness (beginning of Book 3) and English politics (beginning of Book 9). Not to mention, he often inserts references to his own poem and its relationship to previous literature (especially in Book 1). For all intents and purposes, we can say that our narrator is John Milton, the blind guy who lived in the 1600s, only he doesn't always like to talk about himself, so it's easy to forget.
In this section we like to explain how a particularly literary work fits into one of seven basic plots; the problem here is that Mr. John Milton has made the task difficult, actually nearly impossible. At first, we thought Paradise Lost should fall under The Quest plot, you know the Lord of the Ringsh type story where a group of characters set out to achieve something and have to fight a bunch of monsters on the way? Well, that sort of works, except our "hero" is more of an anti-hero: Satan. He wants to ruin Adam and Eve, and he confronts various obstacles, etc. At the end, he achieves his goal, but he doesn't live happily ever after in the same way that the hobbits do.
So, then we decided, well what about tragedy? That sort of works. Adam and Eve suffer pretty badly in the poem, but they're not tragic characters in the same way that Macbeth and Othello are. But then we said, "Well, what about Satan"? He fits the tragic character role OK (his tragic flaw is pride), but the thing is we don't really feel sorry for him the way we do for other characters. Or rather, when he is turned into a snake in Book 10, we don't really feel the kinds of conflicting emotions that we do at the end of Romeo and Juliet.
The poem opens with Satan, who has just fallen from Heaven and wakes up on burning lake. He realizes he's lost everything and is now stuck in a horrible place. He's so angry at God, he wants to get back at him. He's heard rumors about a new world with some new creatures on it, whom he vows to seduce to his side or destroy.
Satan easily leaps over the wall and into the garden. We don't know what's going to happen at this point, but we do know that he's up to no good. This marks the real beginning of his malicious plans. He just might succeed in ruing Adam and Eve…
Satan easily sneaks into the garden. He doesn't get a chance to do anything except gather some information because God's angels sniff him out and take him away. Adam and Eve are safe…for now.
This is the moment when Adam and Eve finally lose their innocence; immediately after Adam eats the fruit he looks at Eve with "lascivious eyes." In other words, lustfully rather than romantically. They will soon realize that they are naked, cover themselves up with some fig leaves, and be kicked out of Paradise, all because of their eating of the Forbidden Fruit. This is, without a doubt, the most important moment in the poem.
We all know the story of Adam and Even but we can't help hoping that God will be nicer this time. Adam and Eve continue to live as if nothing's wrong, and we continue hoping things won't go according to the Bible story. This isn't the Bible, after all, it's Milton. It's art. Maybe Adam and Eve won't get kicked out of Eden this time.
This is the consequence of Adam and Eve's disobedience, as God has said all along. To make things even more comforting, Adam gets a little history lesson from Michael about all the consequences of he and his wife's actions (mortality, war, murder, every major Biblical event, etc.). All this badness that's about to enter the world is made painfully literal in the bridge that Sin and Death build from Hell to the world. The stakes are really clear now.
The last twenty lines or so of the poem describe Adam and Eve's departure from the happiest place on earth (no, not Disneyland, that hasn't been built yet). They are crying as the gate is closed and a flaming brand is placed over it. This is the end of a pain-free, immortal life for humans. Paradise has been lost.
Satan plots revenge in Hell (Books 1-2).
Satan is kicked out of Eden (Book 4); Raphael and Adam have a long talk (Books 5-8).
Adam and Eve eat the fruit and are forced leave Paradise (Books 9-12).
There are literally hundreds of allusions in Paradise Lost, many of them to the Bible. Rather than list every single possible allusion – which would probably take a few years – we've listed some of the more important ones below. If you're craving more, any decent edition of the poem will list many that we've left out. And of course, the entire poem is one gigantic allusion to the book of Genesis, from which the story of Adam and Eve is taken.