Milton (1608-1674)

Milton unavoidable, a central part of the canon of English, or world literature.

Review Norton introduction:





Areopagitica (1644)


Paradise Lost (1667/1674)

"radically reconceives the epic genre and epic heroism" (Norton 696)

You don't have to accept its theology to find its narrative powerful, true in some sense; as with other powerful myths from Greek or Roman literature (or cf. Beowulf, Twelfth Night).

Cf. Areopagitica: "For books are not absolutely dead things…" (712). The power of the mind -- here, Milton's, but also ours as readers (powers of imagination, feeling)

Previous myths: most obviously Genesis in the Bible; but many other sources, such as Ovid, Homer,Vergil, Tasso.

Illustrations (note poem's imaginative appeal to visual artists, here Romantic period)

Overall: poem shows two ways beyond primary sin: to further evil (Satan) or redemption (Adam and Eve).

-- and that good will come from the Fall, by showing God's mercy, the role of the Son of God.


Storyline. What happens? -- summary:

To bear in mind:

Book I: that Milton's Muse is the Holy Spirit. Invocation typical of epics, but Milton showing that while he includes himself in this tradition he will surpass it.

-- and compare earlier epics, journeys of one or a few men, but with Milton's epic all mankind are implicated.

Primary focus in first three books on Satan, as if he is the protagonist -- he isn't intended to be; Adam is. But use of epic similes to suggest his power and significance. His great size -- but only at first (later takes the form of a toad, a serpent).

Satan's defiance, speeches to the assembly: celebrate martial values -- but a contrast to the Christian virtues of mercy, humility, obedience. Note solipsism of:

Invocation. Ian Richardson reads opening lines: 1-26 (YouTube)


Lines 1-26, Invocation

-- look over following section, 27-83 -- then:

Lines 84-124, first speech of Satan / to summarize:

(Satan finds Beelzebub by his side) Satan. How you have changed in this fall, who once was joined with me! But despite this dire outcome of the enemy’s greater power (who would have guessed it?), I repent nothing, and not the pride that led us and our companions to oppose him in Heaven. We haven’t lost our determination, and to seek reconcilation would be the worst shame. Through our strength we can wage war overtly or subtly, even though he lords it still in Heaven.

Lines 128-155 Beelzebub's reply / to summarize

Beelzebub. O Prince, who challenged Heaven’s King! although we suffer this terrible defeat, yet in spirit we are invincible. But what if our strength is left us only to bear further suffering or to do his bidding?

David Daiches, Milton (1957):

Attractiveness of evil, as in the magnificent speeches of Satan and his colleagues; “they represent the attractiveness of plausible evil” (153-4). Their high rhetoric: we easily thrill “to grandiose rantings about honour and revenge uttered with all the mock passion and the theatricality of a Nuremberg rally” (154).

Satan’s first speech, “a magnificent set-piece, beginning with the broken cadences of elegy” (157). But irony of Satan’s determination not to change: he has changed already, as opening of speech shows; and he is to change further (toad, serpent, etc.). His commitment to “study of revenge, immortal hate”: this “suggests no action at all but simply brooding on revenge and hate” [I, 107] (158). But note: resolves to wage war "by force or guile" (I, 121).

Overview of Book I (just to help locate passages):

1. Invocation
27. Condition of fallen in Hell
84. Satan's first speech to Beelzebub; his fortitude
128. Beelzebub's reply: they are invincible; but further punishment?
157. Satan's reply: to pervert God's aims; to take counsel
192. Satan's appearance
242. Satan greets Hell; welcomes freedom
271. Beelzebub: their fellows in Hell will recover
283. Satan's appearance; calls up the legions
331. All arise and assemble
376. Names of the most notable: Moloch, Chemos, Astoreth, etc.
522. Assembly of the hosts in battle order
589. Description of Satan: care, pride, revenge
622. Satan: reviews their history; resolves on war; to spy on new creation
670. Mining the earth, erection of a temple (Pandemonium)
752. Hosts summoned for a counsel, all except principals shrink to fit in

Group work:

1. To note plight of Satan and comrades, commitment to evil, shown in part by numerous classical (mythic), historical, Biblical, and other allusions (choose passage for analysis).

2. Effects of diction (phonetic, syntactic, figurative, metre). Choose a short passage for analysis, show how our understanding of the poem is developed or intensified through such means.

3. Analyse Satan's attitude towards his condition as shown in his opening speeches (cite key phrases).


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Document prepared February 12th 2007 / updated November 9th 2010