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ClassicsOnline Home » MILTON, J.: Paradise Lost (Abridged)
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit of the Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…’ Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language. In words remarkable for their richness of rhythm and imagery, Milton tells the story of Man’s creation, fall and redemption—to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. Milton produced characters which have become embedded in the consciousness of English literature—the frail, human pair, Adam and Eve; the terrible cohort of fallen angels; and Satan, tragic and heroic in his unremitting quest for revenge. The tale unfolds from the aftermath of the great battle between good and evil to the moving departure of Adam and Eve from Eden, with human and eternal anguish intertwined in magnificent resonance.
Paradise Lost, the epic meditated and planned by Milton over
many years (years which included the turbulence of the Civil War and the
strictures of the Commonwealth), was completed in 1663 and published in 1667.
In 1668 he added the prose arguments, which provide plot summaries for each of
the twelve Books into which the poem is divided.
John Milton, born in 1608, was educated at St. Paul’s School
and Christ’s College, Cambridge. He achieved early fame as a scholar, poet and
pamphleteer, arguing vehemently for the Puritan cause against King and Church.
Political activity then occupied him for many years and he only truly returned
to his first love, poetry, after the Restoration in 1660. Meanwhile, his
private life had proved almost as controversial as his public life: he married
Mary Powell in 1642, but her swift return to her Royalist parents spurred
Milton to some provocative pamphlets arguing for divorce. Reconciliation with
his wife was followed by the birth of three children. Mary died in 1652 and
Milton remarried in 1656: Katherine Woodcock, however, lived only until 1658.
His third marriage, to Elizabeth Minshull, took place in 1663; she outlived
Paradise Lost is Milton’s greatest work: Dryden described it
in 1767 as “one of the greatest, most noble and sublime poems which either this
age or nation has produced.” Milton set himself the task of ‘justifying the
ways of God to men’: in other words, to tell the story of Man’s creation, fall
and redemption so that his readers might be moved to appreciate God’s wisdom
The poem paints unforgettably vivid and powerful pictures,
both of characters and places, in a magnificently subtle and sonorous blank
verse. One of the most interesting aspects of his epic is the characterization
of Satan, who (in spite of Milton’s efforts to disparage him) emerges as a
tragic and in some ways heroic figure, evil though his intentions are.
Satan, the fallen rebel angel, defies God and seeks revenge
by seducing Adam and Eve into disobedience to their creator. The human pair are
poignantly evoked: paradoxically frail yet perfect, their sense of their own
humanity (after the fall) is Everyman’s plight – we find ourselves, our
capacity for wonder, love, shame, hope and despair, in them.
This abbreviated version of the poem focuses especially on
Books I, II, IV, IX, X and XII. Prose summaries, based on Milton’s own, are
provided for those
sections of the poem not included.
Books I and II: Satan, and his comrades arise from their
place of punishment, Hell, build the infernal city of Pandaemonium, and resolve
to seek the destruction of mankind. Satan undertakes the journey alone, passing
through Chaos towards Earth.
Book IV: Describes Satan’s penetration of Eden and
introduces “our first
parents” Adam and Eve, in the perfection of Paradise.
Book IX: The dramatic climax of the poem: Satan successfully
Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, she in turn draws Adam
into sin, and their lustful union (followed by shame) represents the new truth
of their situation.
Book X: The story of God’s judgment, and Satan’s triumphant
return to Hell, swiftly followed by shameful and monstrous transformation.
Book XII: Adam and Eve are consoled by an account of the
future redemption of Man by Christ and, gently grieving, the pair departs from
Eden to begin human history.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Anton Lesser is one of Britain’s leading classical actors.
He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal
Shakespeare Company including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His career has
also encompassed contemporary drama, notably The Birthday Party by Harold
Pinter. Appearances in major television drama productions include The Oresteia,
The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida and The Mill on the Floss.
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MILTON, J.: Paradise Lost (Abridged)