John Milton's Paradise Lost

Description

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. This copy was printed in 1668, with an adapted title page.

In this ‘advent’rous’ poem (1.13), Milton announces his ambition to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ (1.26). The first book starts with Satan, who has been banished to Hell after his revolt against God. The poem goes on to explore God’s creation of humankind, the temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden, and the concept of sin.

Milton faces two major difficulties in the story. Having created Satan as a dynamic and not unattractive villain, he has to find a way of debasing him. Secondly, he has to reconcile Adam’s free will with the idea of predestination, seen as God’s foreknowledge of future events. He does this by proposing that humankind has free will, but that God, having set the framework of the Creation in motion, does not control events, though He is aware of the outcome in advance.

In this edition, the poem is divided into ten books, but Milton reworked it as 12 books in 1674 following the model of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Portrait of Milton by William Faithorne, 1670

An engraving of Milton by William Faithorne the elder (c. 1620–1691) has been pasted into this copy. It shows the poet, aged 62, soon after Paradise Lost was published. George Vertue says, in his notebook entry of 10 August 1732 that he showed this image to Milton’s daughter Deborah. She recognised ‘immediately’ that it was her father, proving that it was more ‘authentick’ than some of the poorer engraved portraits that appeared in other volumes.

Paradise Lost, the Romantic poets and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Paradise Lost was a source of inspiration and fascination for Romantic poets such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Romantic interpretation of Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost stems from Blake’s statement that Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Shelley wrote in A Defence of Poetry that ‘nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost’.

The poem was also a crucial influence on Frankenstein. Shelley gave his wife Mary Shelley a copy of Paradise Lost on 6 June 1815. Milton is thought to have visited Villa Diodati, a place on the banks of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley first conceived the idea for Frankenstein.

In the novel, Mary Shelley highlights the connections between her work and Milton’s poem. The epigraph on the title page of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein is from Paradise Lost: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?’ The creature also reads the poem with ‘wonder and awe’ as part of his self-education.

The circumstances of the creature and Frankenstein echo many aspects of Milton’s poem: being expelled or refused access to Paradise, having or not having a partner, having or not having the chance of redemption, playing God by creating man.

Frankenstein recognises that ‘like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell’. The creature also compares himself to Satan. Expelled from human society, the creature falls from light into darkness. As he says at the end of the novel, ‘the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil’. His resolution to commit acts of aggression against people around him echoes Satan’s ‘Evil, be thou my Good’.

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