A Return to Paradise Lost
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
John Milton turns 400 this year; his epic of the fall of humankind, Paradise Lost, just turned three hundred and forty years old last year. Does anyone—besides graduate students and Milton scholars like Stanley Fish—read Milton anymore? Are the regal lines of Paradise Lost or even the poignant odes, L’Allegro or Il Penseroso, memorized in English classes anymore? Is Milton’s poetry read at all these 400 years after his birth?
Of course, the reactions to Milton’s epic and to his work have been mixed over the centuries. Ezra Pound despised Milton’s “asinine bigotry, his beastly Hebraism, the coarseness of his mentality.” Samuel Johnson, who praises Milton and Paradise Lost early in his essay on Milton in The Lives of the Poets, finds the poem lacking. “The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.”
In the same essay, though, Johnson serves up a platter of praise for the poem. He observes that Paradise Lost was a “poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim first place; and with respect to performance the second, among productions of the human mind.” He continues that, “Before the greatness displayed in Milton’s poem, all other greatness shrinks away. The weakest of his agents are the highest and noblest of human beings, the original parents of mankind; with whose actions the elements consented; on whose rectitude, or deviation of will, depended the state of terrestrial nature, and the condition of future inhabitants of the globe . . . in reading Paradise Lost we read a book of universal knowledge.” Andrew Marvell paid tribute to the poem in his lyric, “On Paradise Lost,” written seven years after Milton’s poem and prefixed to the second edition of Paradise Lost. He calls Milton a “mighty poet” and declares that there is no room for any other writers left.
Milton was a great hero among the Romantic poets. Blake’s long Urizen cycle begins with the poem, “Milton.” The rebellious, heroic figures of Byron’s “Manfred” and Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” find their model in Milton’s Satan. Coleridge declared of Paradise Lost that “No one can rise from the perusal of this immortal poem without a deep sense of the grandeur and the purity of Milton’s soul . . . he was, as every great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations . . . he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendent ideal.” Of course, the most famous reader of Milton’s epic poem—and the most accurate one as well—is the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Indeed, that glorious little novel is in many ways a re-telling of Paradise Lost. When Victor Frankenstein meets the creature he has fashioned, and from whom in horror he is fleeing, the creature indicts Victor in language that owes its life to Paradise Lost. “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” Later, in his solitary wanderings, the creature, who has learned to read, picks up three books to read in his hovel; one of them is, of course, is Paradise Lost. “Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
Reading Shelley’s Frankenstein is certainly enough to drive readers back to Paradise Lost. Drawing on the myth of the creation and fall of humankind in Genesis 2:4a-4:1, generally known as the story of Adam and Eve, Milton creates his own epic of the relationship between humankind and God that, in the words of the poem, attempts to justify the ways of God to man. In order to create conflict and suspense, Milton introduces characters into his epic that are not present in the Genesis story. Chief among them is Satan, the rebellious archangel, who in Milton’s poem is kicked out of heaven and sets up his own kingdom on earth. There is no Satan in the Hebrew Bible, and there is no story of Satan being expelled from Heaven in the Hebrew Bible. However, Milton picks up an incorrectly translated single verse in the biblical book of Isaiah from the King James Version of the Bible—relatively new at the time—and creates his rebellious and enduring figure as well as the enduring Christian myth that Satan rules this earth because God had expelled from heaven. In the King James Version, Isaiah 14:12 declares, “How you are fallen, O Lucifer . . .,” but the Hebrew can only be translated as, “How you are fallen, O Day Star, Son of the Morning.” Milton picks up this mistranslation and around it builds his epic struggle of innocence, obedience, disobedience, love, and redemption. It is to Milton, not the Hebrew Bible, that we owe the legend of Satan falling from Heaven and Satan tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God (there is no Satan in the Genesis, either; only a serpent).
Paradise Lost instructs us in the miseries of guilt and pride and the joys of love and hope. In Book I, Satan utters the familiar lines that haunt us even now: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” In Book X, the narrator reflects on faults of Adam and Adam’s response to God’s grace and victory over Satan. Although Adam might be joyous at God’s defeat of Satan and God’s love for him, he feels shame.
Love was not in their looks, either to God
Or to each other, but apparent guilt,
And shame, and perturbation, and despair,
Anger, and obstinacy, and hate, and guile.
Because Milton’s epic poem draws us into deep reflections on the nature of humanity and humanity’s relationship to its world, it deserves to be picked and read in celebration of Milton’s birthday.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at