Paradise Lost by John Milton
The best well-known work of John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost. A Poem in Ten Books, was first published in London in 1667. In 1674, a new edition was published with some amendments and was divided into the twelve books we are most familiar with now.
The ‘books’ are what we would think of as chapters or sections. The whole book is an epic poem – which is a long story told in verse form. The poem is written in blank verse, or lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, and is over 10,000 lines long. Milton had become blind by the time he composed much of this poem and so dictated it to different scribes including his daughter, Deborah.
The poem is a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve from the biblical book of Genesis which describes the creation of Heaven and Earth and of Adam and Eve. This poem fleshes out this story and imagines the couple’s reactions to the events that led to them being expelled from the Garden of Eden (or Paradise).
The poem opens with the lines:
"Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe."
And in doing so it briefs the reader about the whole plot of the epic tale it is about to relate. The ‘first disobedience’ comes about when the devil, in the form of a serpent, tempts Eve to take and eat some fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve then tells Adam what she has done and he too tastes the forbidden fruit. This episode is so well-known that the phrase ‘forbidden fruit’ is widely used in society to refer to something tempting which is often morally dubious. Many people assume that that fruit was an apple, and like other writers before him, Milton calls the ‘fatal fruit’ in Book 9 an apple, but the Bible itself doesn’t name the type of fruit.
A key aspect of Paradise Lost is that Milton does not portray the couple’s decision to eat the fruit as inevitable. Instead, it shows that the couple exercised their free will. While Eve was seduced by the serpent, she still chose to eat the fruit, as did Adam in turn. The couple had the power to rule over everything on Earth with the only caveat that this particular fruit was out of bounds, and God expected this rule to be kept on trust as a sign of their obedience to Him. This is key because, as the poem states, Milton wanted to use the events to demonstrate the ‘ways of God’ to people. The poem illustrates how He considered Adam and Eve to have within themselves the capacity to withstand temptation, but that they chose not to. This decision is known as ‘the fall’ because it is the moment when the couple – and all their descendants – fell from God’s grace.
As well as telling the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, the poem also narrates the story of Satan. Also known as Lucifer, Satan was a fallen angel who was banished to Hell. After his expulsion, the devil famously claims that ‘it is better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven’. Milton coined the name Pandemonium for the capital of Hell. Satan’s motivation to lead Adam and Eve into sin is part of his scheme to extract revenge on God for his banishment.
While living in innocence in Eden, Adam and Eve had the pleasurable task of tending the garden – the reason the clown in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet comments that,‘There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam's profession’ (5.1). After the Fall, however, the son of God is sent to Earth to mete out punishments. Adam is told that henceforth he will have to toil in backbreaking labour on the land to grow food. Eve’s punishments include that she will ‘bring forth in sorrow’ or experience pain in childbirth. The ultimate consequence of the Fall is that it brings death to Earth. Book 10 ends with Adam and Eve prostrate on the ground, their tears watering the earth as, full of remorse, they beg for forgiveness. This is the moment in the poem when the couple show that they have learnt from their actions and want to make amends.
|Sin||In the poem Eve breaks God’s ban on eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.|
|Punishment||God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise as a result of their actions; he also makes Adam work hard to farm difficult land to produce food and that Eve will suffer pain in childbirth from now on.|
|Temptation||Adam and Eve have free will and were trusted to keep God’s commands.|
- The Bible: The website Biblegateway allows users to search for any biblical phrase in all the main versions of the Bible.
- The British Library has some images from the 1667 edition of Paradise Lost.
- ‘Luminarium’ is a literary hub and has a page of Milton resources.
- Websites such as Sparknotes provide an overview of the poem and its contexts.