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A fine complete rendition in twelve books with the Life of Milton and Index
Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton (1608–1674). The first version, published in 1667, consists of ten books with over ten thousand lines of verse. A second edition followed in 1674, arranged into twelve books (in the manner of Virgil’s Aeneid) with minor revisions throughout. It is considered to be Milton’s masterpiece, and it helped solidify his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Synopsis: The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (in the midst of things), the background story being recounted later.
Milton’s story has two narrative arcs, one about Satan (Lucifer) and the other, Adam and Eve. It begins after Satan and the other fallen angels have been defeated and banished to Hell, or, as it is also called in the poem, Tartarus. In Pandæmonium, the capital city of Hell, 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 corrupt 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 traversal of the Chaos outside Hell, he enters God’s new material World, and later the Garden of Eden.
At several points in the poem, an Angelic War over Heaven is recounted from different perspectives. 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. At the final battle, the Son of God single-handedly defeats the entire legion of angelic rebels and banishes them from Heaven. Following this purge, 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 as having a romantic and sexual 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 – if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as an 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. 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. Realising that they have committed a terrible act against God, they engage in mutual recrimination.
Meanwhile, Satan returns triumphantly to Hell, amid the praise of his fellow fallen angels. He tells them about how their scheme worked and Mankind has fallen, giving them complete dominion over Paradise. As he finishes his speech, however, the fallen angels around him become hideous snakes, and soon enough, Satan himself turns into a snake, deprived of limbs and unable to talk. Thus, they share the same punishment, as they shared the same guilt.
Eve appeals to Adam for reconciliation of their actions. Her encouragement enables them to approach God, and sue for grace, bowing on supplicant knee, to receive forgiveness. In a vision shown to him by the Archangel Michael, Adam witnesses everything that will happen to Mankind until the Great Flood. Adam is very upset by this vision of the future, so Michael also tells him about Mankind’s potential redemption from original sin through Jesus Christ (whom Michael calls “King Messiah”).
Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, and Michael says that Adam may find “a paradise within thee, happier far.” Adam and Eve now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the tangible Father in the Garden of Eden).
Critique: The writer and critic Samuel Johnson wrote that Paradise Lost shows off “[Milton’s] peculiar power to astonish” and that “[Milton] seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others: the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful.”
Paradise Lost is, among other things, a poem about civil war. Satan raises ‘impious war in Heav’n’ (i 43) by leading a third of the angels in revolt against God. The term ‘impious war’ implies that civil war is impious. But Milton applauded the English people for having the courage to depose and execute King Charles I. In his poem, however, he takes the side of ‘Heav’n’s awful Monarch’ (iv 960). Critics have long wrestled with the question of why an antimonarchist and defender of regicide should have chosen a subject that obliged him to defend monarchical authority.
The editors at the Poetry Foundation argue that Milton’s criticism of the English monarchy was being directed specifically at the Stuart monarchy and not at the monarchy system in general.
In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis argued that there was no contradiction in Milton’s position in the poem since “Milton believed that God was his ‘natural superior’ and that Charles Stuart was not.” Lewis interpreted the poem as a genuine Christian morality tale. Other critics, like William Empson, view it as a more ambiguous work, with Milton’s complex characterization of Satan playing a large part in that perceived ambiguity. Empson argued that “Milton deserves credit for making God wicked, since the God of Christianity is ‘a wicked God.'” Leonard places Empson’s interpretation “in the [Romantic interpretive] tradition of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley.”
Blake famously wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This quotation succinctly represents the way in which some 18th- and 19th-century English Romantic poets viewed Milton.
Speaking of the complexity of Milton’s epic are John Rogers’ lectures which try their best to synthesize the “advantages and limitations of a diverse range of interpretive techniques and theoretical concerns in Milton scholarship and criticism.”
Empson’s view is complex. Leonard points out that “Empson never denies that Satan’s plan is wicked. What he does deny is that God is innocent of its wickedness: ‘Milton steadily drives home that the inmost counsel of God was the Fortunate Fall of man; however wicked Satan’s plan may be, it is God’s plan too [since God in Paradise Lost is depicted as being both omniscient and omnipotent]. Leonard calls Empson’s view “a powerful argument”; he notes that this interpretation was challenged by Dennis Danielson in his book Milton’s Good God (1982).
Blank verse was not much used in the non-dramatic poetry of the 17th century until Paradise Lost, in which Milton used it with much license and tremendous skill. Milton used the flexibility of blank verse, and its capacity to support syntactic complexity, to the utmost. Milton also wrote Paradise Regained and parts of Samson Agonistes in blank verse.
Although Milton was not the first to use blank verse, his use of it was very influential and he became known for the style. When Miltonic verse became popular, Samuel Johnson mocked Milton for inspiring bad blank verse, but he recognized that Milton’s verse style was very influential. Poets such as Alexander Pope, whose final, incomplete work was intended to be written in the form, and John Keats, who complained that he relied too heavily on Milton, adopted and picked up various aspects of his poetry. In particular, Miltonic blank verse became the standard for those attempting to write English epics for centuries following the publication of Paradise Lost and his later poetry. The poet Robert Bridges analyzed his versification in the monograph Milton’s Prosody.
John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674) was an English poet and intellectual who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Written in blank verse, Paradise Lost is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of English literature.
Writing in English, Latin, and Italian, he achieved international renown within his lifetime; his celebrated Areopagitica (1644), written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship, is among history’s most influential and impassioned defences of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. His desire for freedom extended into his style: he introduced new words (coined from Latin and Ancient Greek) to the English language, and was the first modern writer to employ unrhymed verse outside of the theatre or translations.
William Hayley’s 1796 biography called him the “greatest English author”, and he remains generally regarded “as one of the pre-eminent 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 he (a Tory) described Milton’s politics as those of an “acrimonious and surly republican”. Poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy revered him.
Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England is a 1644 prose polemic by the English poet, scholar, and polemical author John Milton opposing licensing and censorship. Areopagitica is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression. Many of its expressed principles have formed the basis for modern justifications. A quotation from Areopagitica is prominently displayed over the entrance to the renovated Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library: “A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life”.
The Supreme Court of the United States has referred to Areopagitica, in interpreting the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to explain the Amendment’s protections. The Court has cited Areopagitica by name in four cases. Most notably, the Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan to explain the inherent value of false statements. The Court cited Milton to explain the dangers of prior restraint in Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago. Later, Justice Douglas concurred in Eisenstadt v. Baird, citing the pamphlet to support striking down restrictions on lecturing about birth control. Finally, Justice Black cited Areopagitica when he dissented from the Court’s upholding of restrictions on the Communist Party of the United States against a free speech and free association challenge in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board. In each instance, Milton is cited by the Court’s members to support a broad and expansive protection of free speech and association.
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