While the novel is by and large our culture’s favorite style for enjoying long stories, until its rise in the mid-18th century, poetry dominated as the preferred narrative form in written storytelling. Published in 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is not only a central text in English literature, it is also our language’s greatest epic poem, a form with many classical conventions considered to be the grandest and most exalted form of story.
Amazingly, Milton was completely blind when he began its composition, and his references to darkness and light throughout the poem thus carry a double, and highly personal, meaning. We owe to Milton much of our cultural assumptions of the Bible’s creation story detailed in the first chapters of Genesis, including the apple as the forbidden fruit. For the record, I have always thought that it more likely resembled a gloriously juicy peach, for who under any temptation would risk eternal damnation for even the best of apples?
Following the strictures of the ancient epics found within the verses of Homer and Virgil and paired with the more recent Shakespearean influence of iambic pentameter, Milton crafts an artistic retelling of Satan’s revolt and expulsion from heaven; God’s creation of Earth, Eden, and Adam and Eve; Satan’s temptation via the serpent; and Adam and Eve’s subsequent fall and expulsion from Eden. Central from the beginning, though, is Christ’s redemption of man and God’s ultimate plan to use the introduced evil for good by showing the lengths to which He is willing to go to rescue His beloved creation from it.
This central theme plays into Milton’s stated purpose in composing his magnum opus, which is an audacious one to say the least. True to the classical epic form, Milton opens his poem with an invocation to his muse for inspiration, but instead of a plea to the mythical Muses of ancient Greece, it is rather a prayer to the Holy Spirit. “What in me is dark/Illumine, what is low raise and support,/That to the heighth of this great argument/I may assert Eternal Providence/And justify the ways of God to men.”
As if justifying the ways of God to men were not ambitious enough, Milton’s choice of subject is also quite bold. Not only does he take upon himself the task of expanding and fictionalizing one of the most well-known stories in the Western world, but in doing so he must flesh out God, Adam, Eve, Satan, and the hosts of heaven and hell into fictional characters who stay true to their representation in Scripture. The triune God is obviously the most difficult component of this challenge, and many feel this characterization is the poem’s greatest flaw.
By contrast, Satan emerges as the most vivid and vibrant character, which has caused more modern critics often to assume that he is the actual hero of the epic. Milton, however, has actually created an anti-epic in which he inverts many of the conventions and values, including an anti-hero. It is true that Satan operates in the archetypal hero’s space, like Achilles in The Iliad or Odysseus in The Odyssey, but he does so as an opposite.
Rather than achieving military victory, Satan is utterly vanquished in his revolt against heaven. Instead of beginning as an unsympathetic character and developing into one of great admiration and triumph, we first encounter Satan still glowing with the remnants of majestic, empyreal glory and leave him at the end smoldering in the immutable form of a hissing, inarticulate serpent slithering through hell, a metamorphosis that C.S. Lewis describes as his “progressive degeneration.” He also functions as a sort of anti-Christ who comes up from hell to Earth to cause man’s damnation, as opposed to descending from heaven to effect his salvation.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis writes, “It is a very old critical discovery that the imitation in art of unpleasing objects may be a pleasing imitation. In the same way, the proposition that Milton’s Satan is a magnificent character may bear two senses. It may mean that Milton’s presentation of him is a magnificent poetical achievement which engages the attention and excites the admiration of the reader. On the other hand, it may mean that the real being (if any) whom Milton is depicting … is or ought to be an object of admiration and sympathy, conscious or unconscious, on the part of the reader. The first, so far as I know, has never till modern times been denied; the second, never affirmed before the times of Blake and Shelley … From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake — such is the progress of Satan.”
Similarly striking in its vibrancy and poetic achievement is the nature poetry Milton crafts about pre-fallen paradise in Eden. “Flow’rs of all hue, and without thorn the rose./Another side, umbrageous grots and caves/Of cool recess, o’re which the mantling vine/Lays forth her purple grape and gently creeps/Luxuriant. Meanwhile murmuring waters fall/Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake/That to the fringed bank with myrtle crowned/Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams./The Birds their choir apply.” In Milton’s paradise, there is no change of season because the earth sits upright on its axis — it is always spring and autumn both, with all of their joint splendors and none of summer and winter’s harshness that comes after the fall.
While it may not be written in the form we modern readers typically choose, I cannot recommend enough diving into this dazzling work. In so doing, I suggest the Second Norton Critical Edition, which has, in my opinion, just the right number of footnotes to elucidate but not inundate, as well as Leland Ryken’s short companion commentary. The beauty you will find is worth the plunge.