In April 1667, John Milton first published the greatest work of epic poetry in English. 350 years ago this month, Paradise Lost arrived to an initial quiet reception, but soon it would gain worldwide acclaim and influence.
That this anniversary occurs at Eastertime this year is also significant for while Milton’s poem tells the story of the Fall of Man, it ends with a portrait of the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.
What is Paradise Lost?
In the midst of Second World War, C. S. Lewis published A Preface to Paradise Lost, which contained a collection of lectures he had given on the poem. Dedicated to his friend, Charles Williams, Lewis noted that it was Williams’s The Poetical Works of Milton, published two years earlier, that had served to recover “a true critical tradition” of Paradise Lost “after more than a hundred years of laborious misunderstanding” (v).
Writing with typical clarity, Lewis began, “The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be …. The need is especially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers. He is writing epic poetry which is a species of narrative poetry, and neither the species nor the genus is very well understood at present” (1).
Indeed, if not very well understood in Lewis’s day, his explanatory aim is even more needed in our own where we find the term informally employed to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary as if we are all surfers who have just rode the wave of our lives. “That was an epic–meal, evening out, basketball pass, cup of coffee,” and the like. Using the term this way is fine, for there is a part of us all that would love to surf, but an understanding of the formal use of epic is needed as well.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem. Further, many consider it the last epic poem in Western Civilization, the caboose on a long train that starts with Homer. Leland Ryken, in his helpful introduction to Milton’s Work, gives the following as some of the key features of epic poetry:
- Long, flowing sentences that are best understood and enjoyed when read aloud
- Inversion of normal word order
- Exalted vocabulary
- Epic similes (extended comparisons between something in the poem and something from nature, history, mythology, or human experience)
- Pleonasm or periphrasis (taking more words than necessary to say something)
C. S. Lewis, too, spends time discussing the history of the epic poem for, he argues, that one must understand the Form of the poem to understand what it is the Poet intends:
Every poem can be considered in two ways—as to what the poet has to say and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exist to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers. Another way of stating this duality would be to say that every poem has two parents—its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world …. The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work (2-3).
Understanding that Paradise Lost is an epic poem, and the greatest of that Form in English, who, then is the Poet?
Who was John Milton?
Arguably the second only to Shakespeare in terms of the pantheon of English masters of verse, Milton (1608-1674) lived during a turbulent time in English history. Often his life is reviewed in three periods: (1) his youth and time of study at Cambridge where he would write his minor poems, (2) the two decades marked by the English Civil War and time where there was no King, 1640-1660, when Milton would engage in the cause of Puritanism and works of prose, (3) his final years, though now blind, where Milton would write Paradise Lost and his other major poems.
Milton attended Cambridge in the 1620s, a time when many young men were converted to Christianity after hearing the preaching of Richard Sibbes and others, and then joining the Puritan movement within the Church of England. Milton was slow to join up, and not until the 1640s did he engage the movement with zeal.
Milton’s The Reason for Church Government (1642), for example, advocates for a congregational form of church leadership and attacks the notion that episcopacy is grounded in the Old Testament priesthood, a common argument for that form of government then and now. As Gordon Campbell notes, “In the course of the five years between mid-1637 and mid-1642 Milton had moved from being a constructively critical member of the national church to taking up the cause of ecclesiastical reform, and eventually becoming an impassioned opponent of ecclesiastical abuses: he had become an Independent.”
How Should We Understand Paradise Lost?
As Leland Ryken notes, “This is a story of crime and punishment.” Milton states that his aim is to “justify the ways of God to men” as he presents the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their removal from the Garden of Eden. While written during times of English political tumult, Paradise Lost is not a cultural commentary or allegory, it is clearly a work of theology.
In the 350 years since the first publication. Milton’s work has received incredible scrutiny and both praise and criticism. Much has been made about the portrayal of Satan as a central figure as well as evaluations as to Milton’s orthodoxy. C. S. Lewis in his preface helpfully addresses this critical history as his aim, in part, is to “‘hinder hindrances’ to the appreciation of Paradise Lost (129). Lewis examines the theology of Milton’s poem in two chapters concluding that the so-called ‘heresies’ “reduce themselves to something very small and rather ambiguous” (91).
Elsewhere, Lewis explains that Milton’s version of the Fall is essentially Augustinian (66) and that the method that some employ of attempting to suspend any theological interpretation is misguided.
‘What is the Fall?’ The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience—doing what you have been told not to do: and it results from Pride—from being too big for your boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God. This is what St. Augustine thinks and what (to the best of my knowledge) the Church has always taught; this Milton states from the very first line of the first Book, this all his characters reiterate and vary from every possible point of view throughout the poem as if were the subject of a fugue (70-71).
“Milton’s thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist,” Lewis argues and that, given its basis in Christian theology, reading Paradise Lost as a Christian “is an advantage” (65).
Leland Ryken concurs. He explains, “I think that Christian readers should begin by reminding themselves that they live not only by a Christian world view but also by a Christian world picture. In addition to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, we live by the great images of the faith. Milton’s poem puts us in touch with the images of the Christian faith—images of Satan and hell, of God and heaven, of Paradise and original perfection, of temptation and fall, of sin and salvation.”
A Selection of Paradise Lost for Easter
In 2013, Justin Taylor shared Ryken’s suggested plan for reading Paradise Lost, which I have found helpful. For many of us not accustomed to tackling lengthy poetry, or not even sure we should, a plan like this is needed. For starters, reading or re-reading passages aloud brings much clarity and ease to reading.
The passage that follows takes place near the end of the poem just before Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden. In Milton’s rendering, God sends the angel Michael to escort the humans, but before he does he reveals to them what will happen in the future. Beginning with the Flood and then to Abraham, Michael discusses at length who is the Offspring of the woman who was promised after the Fall (Gen 3:15).
After describing the incarnation, what follows is Michael’s accounting of not only the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a beautiful piece to read during the Easter season, but also points toward Jesus’s commissioning of the church to take the gospel to all nations.
I first came across this a few years ago, and keep coming back to it at this time of year. Whenever I do, I appreciate it all the more. I hope is serves to encourage you this Easter as well as give some measure of appreciation for the genius of John Milton on the 350th anniversary of his epic.
Paradise Lost, Book XII
He shall endure by coming in the flesh 
To a reproachful life and cursed death,
Proclaiming life to all who shall believe
In his redemption, and that is obedience
Imputed becomes theirs by faith, his merits
To save them, not their own, though legal works. 
For this he shall live hated, be blasphemed,
Seized on by force, judged, and to death condemned
A shameful and accursed, nailed to the cross
By his own nation, slain for bringing life;
But to the cross he nails thy enemies, 
The law that is against thee, and the sins
Of all mankind, with him there crucified,
Never to hurt them more who rightly trust
In this his satisfaction; so he dies,
But soon revives; Death over him no power 
Shall long usurp; ere the third dawning light
Return, the stars of morn shall see him rise
Out of his grave, fresh as the dawning light,
Thy ransom paid, which man from Death redeems,
His death for man, as many as offered life 
Neglect not, and the benefit embrace
By faith not void of works. This godlike act
Annuls thy doom, the death though shouldst have died,
In sin for ever lost from life; this act
Shall bruise the head of Satan, crush his strength, 
Defeating Sin and Death, his two main arms,
And fix far deeper in his head their stings
Than temporal death shall bruise the Victor’s heel,
Or theirs who he redeems, a death like sleep,
An gentle wafting to immortal life. 
Nor after resurrection shall he stay
Longer on Earth than certain times to appear
To his disciples, men who in his life
Still followed him; to them shall leave in charge
To teach all nations what of him they learned 
And his salvation, them who shall believe
Baptizing in the profluent stream, the sign
Of washing them from guilt of sin to life
Pure, and in mind prepared, if so befall,
For death, like that which the Redeemer died. 
All nations they shall teach; for from that day
Not only to the sons of Abraham’s loins
Salvation shall be preached, but to the sons
Of Abraham’s faith wherever through the world;
So in his seed all the nations shall be blest. 
Then to the Heaven of Heavens he shall ascend
With victory, triumphing through the air
Over his foes and thine; there shall surprise
The Serpent, Prince of air, and drag in chains
Through all his realm, and there confound leave; 
Then enter glory, and resume
His seat at God’s right hand, exalted high
Above all names in Heaven, and thence shall come,
When this World’s dissolution shall be ripe,
With glory and power to judge both quick and dead, 
To judge the unfaithful dead, but to reward
His faithful, and receive them into bliss,
Whether in Heaven or Earth, for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days. 
 C. S. Lewis, A Preface To Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1942).
 See Douglas Bush’s “Introduction,” in The Portable Milton, 1-28.
 See further my “A Wrinkle on Catholicism: The Anglican Understanding of Church Government,” in Merkle and Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock (Kregel, 2014), 256.
 Gordan Campbell, “Milton, John (1608-1674), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
 Leland Ryken, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Crossway, 2013).
 Such continues even today. See Boyd Tonkin, “Why Milton Still Matters,” The Spectator (March 2017). See also, Ryken via Taylor, “An Interview,” (Dec 2008).
 For even C. S. Lewis noted upon reviewing used copies of long narrative poems where he found “a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book is virgin. It is easy to see what happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’—little ebullient patches of delight—such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and had thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop in themselves, he has had no conception” (1-2).
 This selection is taken from Paradise Lost, XII in Douglas Bush, ed., The Portable Milton (Penguin, 1949).