Paradise Lost by John Milton
Background: After the King James Version of the English Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare, the poetry of John Milton (1608-74) had the most profound effect on the development of the English language. His early life was spent in study and travel, and from 1640 he was engaged in the writing of prose tracts in favor of the “parliamentarians” in the British civil struggles against the “royalists.” Milton’s Christian sensibilities inclined him toward the “reformed” strain of the Protestant Reformation [i.e., one influenced by John Calvin and present in the civil conflicts of the times through Scottish Presbyterianism and British Puritanism]. This background helps explain his defense of the right of Christian citizens to execute an unjust sovereign and his Areopagitica (1644), probably the most famous plea for freedom of the press ever penned. [Note in this regard that the American sense of the individual in the face of civic government was highly influenced by such Puritan religious ideals.] During the last part of his life Milton was blind (from 1652), and after the restoration of Charles II in 1660 he lived in relative isolation, his public hopes dashed and much of his personal wealth confiscated. During this disappointing period of his life, the blind Puritan dictated his major epic, Paradise Lost (1667). Milton’s work is marked by an amazing breadth of images from Greek, Latin, and Biblical (Hebrew) classics, which makes his work difficult for beginning readers in spite of its inherent beauty. Persistent effort is rewarded, however, because of the magnificent cosmic themes, lofty idealism, engaging stories, and very human portraits. [Indeed, some critics have charged he made “Satan” in Paradise Lost too human, i.e., too likeable, so that he is almost the most sympathetic figure.]
To what does the term, “holy Light,” refer? (line 1) Notice that Milton is “addressing” this figure.
Notice how Milton brings in his own blindness (20-55). To whom (or what) is he comparing his status? Why?
What is the scene (56ff) Milton describes next? Notice the lines where God beholds past, present, and future (78). This is a strained way of speaking of God’s knowledge from the vantage point of eternity which became prominent in Reformed Christian circles, particularly with Calvin’s emphasis on the divine “predestination” of all humanity toward salvation or damnation.
What is Milton describing next (80f)? Why is he at pains to ascribe “fault” (96-7) and whom is he calling “ingrate”? Why is there an extended exploration of “freedom” (99f) in this context? What is the point of bringing in “foreknowledge” (116f) here?
Notice the images through which the next major figure (135) is introduced. What do they intimate? Who is this figure? What does figure have to say?
Consider what God the great Creator (169f) replies: his eternal purpose is that those who will it will be saved, but through divine grace. Such paradoxical expressions, again, exhibit the “Reformed” character of Milton’s understanding of Christianity.
After expressing his plan to offer grace to humans who listen to his “umpire” conscience, God states (209f) that humans must die in any event — or justice must. What is going on here in Milton’s emerging picture of God?
What is the force of Milton’s depiction of the “response” (236f) of God’s son to this problem? How does Milton explore God’s “response” (274f) to this offer by the Son? [Notice how this includes a “poetic” expression of classical dogmatic Christian formulations about the “nature” of Jesus Christ.]
What happens in heaven (344f) after God finishes speaking? Is this your image of what heaven is like? Notice how this section of the canto concludes with a hymn of praise to the Father and the Son of God (372f). Notice also [but keep in mind this is not the whole text of Milton’s work] how there is no reference to what Christians term the “Spirit” of God. Does this matter to you?
Do you believe this selection from Milton’s poetry appropriately fits this step of the “intellectual journey”? Explain why or why not.