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In the mid-seventeenth century, John Milton was a successful poet and political activist. He wrote scathing pamphlets against corruption in the Anglican Church and its ties to King Charles. In Milton’s day Puritanism meant having politically radical views. And at one point Milton was actually jailed for recording them on paper. Paradise Lost, as much as anything, is a series of arguments put forth by the characters, which in turn ultimately expresses Milton’s personal truth. It is, in that sense, a Puritanical work.
Milton had contemplated the composition of an epic poem for many years. For his subject matter he chose the fundamentals of Christian theology. By the time he began writing Paradise Lost in the late 1650’s, Milton had become blind. He dictated the entire work to secretaries.
Paradise Lost has many of the elements that define epic form. It is a long, narrative poem; it follows the exploits of a hero (or anti-hero); it involves warfare and the supernatural; it begins in the midst of the action, with earlier crises in the story brought in later by flashback; and it expresses the ideals and traditions of a people. It has these elements in common with the Aeneid, the Iliad, and the Odyssey.
The poem is in blank verse, that is, non-rhyming verse. In a note he added to the second printing, Milton expresses contempt for rhyming poetry. Paradise Lost is composed in the verse form of iambic pentameter—the same used by Shakespeare. In this style, a line is composed of five long, unaccented syllables, each followed by a short, accented one.
The first edition of Paradise Lost was published in 1667, in ten chapters or books. In 1674 Milton reorganized the poem into twelve books, by dividing two of the longer books into four. He also added an introductory prose “argument” summarizing the plot of each book, to prepare readers for the complex poetry that was to follow. Part of that complexity is due to the many analogies and digressions into ancient history and mythology throughout the poem.
The central story line is built around a few paragraphs in the beginning of Genesis—the story of Adam and Eve. The epic also uses elements from many other parts of the Bible, particularly involving Satan’s role. Focusing his poem on the events surrounding the fall of Adam and Eve, Milton intended, in his words, to “justify the ways of God to men,” by tracing the cause and result for all involved.
In the last two books of the epic, Milton includes almost a complete summary of Genesis. This lengthy section may seem anti-climactic, but Milton's mission was to show not only what caused man's fall, but also the consequences upon the world, both bad and good. A concept central to this tale is that of the “felix culpa” or fortunate fall. This is the philosophy that the good which ultimately evolves as a result of the fall—God's mercy, the coming of Christ, redemption and salvation—leaves us in a better place, with opportunity for greater good than would have been possible without the fall.
For centuries critics have both praised and derided Paradise Lost. A common observation is that, in his portrayal of the thoughts and motivations of Satan, Milton seems to unwittingly cast him as the hero. Nevertheless, the general consensus holds that Paradise Lost remains the greatest epic poem in the English language.
In 1671, Milton published Paradise Regained. The title suggests some sort of sequel, but, although a great work in its own right, Paradise Regained is a very different kind of poem, shorter and more contemplative than action oriented, and therefore less popular than the earlier work. It centers around the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness.