Paradise Lost overview
Paradise Lost is an epic poem (12 books, totalling more than 10,500 lines) written in blank verse, telling the biblical tale of the Fall of Mankind – the moment when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and God banished them from the Garden of Eden forever.
John Milton bases his story on the account of the Fall in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, promising very early in the poem to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ (Book I, l. 26). But he extends and elaborates the story in many other directions too, including narrations of the formation of the universe out of cosmic chaos, the rebellion of Satan and the other fallen angels in Heaven, the creation of the Earth and of mankind, and swathes of fallen, human history.
Paradise Lost incorporates the political tensions of Milton’s own day – he was writing during and after the Civil Wars in England, which saw King Charles I executed and the country temporarily controlled by a republican government, led by Oliver Cromwell, until Charles II returned to take up the throne – but deals complexly with both republicanism and the monarchy. Satan has long been seen by some critics as a republican hero, eloquent and determined, much more charming and persuasive than the ‘tyrannous’ and rather humourless character of God in the poem. But Royalist readers, especially after the Restoration, chose to see Satan as the figure of Cromwell seen through anti-republican eyes: someone who only pretended to believe in equality, who really wanted power for himself and whose project was doomed to fail.
Scientific and philosophical contexts
In addition to its political resonances, Paradise Lost includes poetic treatments of some of the most important scientific, philosophical and astronomical advances of Milton’s time. The poem offers insights into the animal kingdom, suggests different theories about whether Ptolemy or Copernicus were right about the sun revolving around the earth or vice versa and asks big, potentially controversial questions about the nature of God and religious worship.
Paradise Lost’s reception
Because of the ambitious and ingenious ways Milton approaches the enormous task he sets himself, Paradise Lost is often seen as the greatest poem ever to have been written in the English language.
- Article by:
- Matthew White
- Politics and religion
The 17th century was a time of great political and social turmoil in England, marked by civil war and regicide. Matthew White introduces the key events of this period, from the coronation of Charles I to the Glorious Revolution more than 60 years later.
- Article by:
- Sandra M. Gilbert
- Gender and sexuality, Politics and religion
Eve in Paradise Lost is vain vulnerable and evidently intellectually inferior to Adam. However, Sandra M Gilbert argues that, though Milton portrays her as a weak character, he also puts her on a par with Satan in her refusal to accept hierarchy and because of her ability to move the plot of Paradise Lost forward.
- Article by:
- Philip Pullman
- Politics and religion, Gender and sexuality
Philip Pullman first read Paradise Lost as a schoolboy and was dazzled by the sound of its poetry as he and his classmates read it aloud. Since then, he has become fascinated by Milton's tremendous powers of storytelling, and the ways in which he creates narrative tension, complex moods and vivid characters.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
Through exploring characterisation and setting in Paradise Lost, students will reflect on how transgressive actions and their consequences are presented, with particular reference to Books I, II, IX and X.
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