340 years after John Milton’s death, Leonie Dunn considers Milton’s epic portrayal of the Fall of Man
Who is the author?
John Milton passed away 340 years ago this month and yet he still remains one of the most quintessential names in the world of Literature. Whilst Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, his influence outstretches that of the Miltonic verse. His stance as a vigilant polemicist and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell means that Milton has had a large impact in shaping the world we know today. Writing in English, Latin, Greek, and Italian, he achieved international renown within his life time. His Poetry and prose reflect the thoughts of a true republican and his celebrated Areopagitica, which openly condemns pre-publication censorship is amongst the most historically influential defences of free speech and press.
What is it about?
Paradise Lost chronicles the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, through Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve and their eventual expulsion from the Garden of Eden. What may strike you is that Satan is often regarded as the protagonist and equally the hero of this work. Whilst it is divided into two halves consisting of six books each, which reflect on the lives of Satan as the fallen angel, and the Son as Jesus Christ. As Satan is cast out of heaven for hubris he creates his own realm in Pandemonium. He is a rebel against the divine authority of God, which is often regarded as a mirror to the Commonwealth as a rejection of kingly authority. Milton’s intentions are divided in making God attractive to humanity and yet making Satan admirable. One thing for you to muddle over: Who do you think is the hero of this epic?
Why should you read it?
It is Milton’s magnum opus, his definitive work. It is firmly striding through the footsteps of the greats like Ovid, Homer and Virgil, as the great Epic Poem in English Language. Whilst it is certainly not the easiest to digest it is worth the eventual struggle. Not only is this epic in plot but it is epic in verse and poetic technique. It was one of the few works of true genius working on the basis of vast intertextuality and widespread knowledge. If that isn’t enough then how about its controversial stance. To put it simply, Milton as a devout Christian presents to you one of the most sensual and erotic accounts of Adam and Eve from the 16th century and to top it off Satan comes out as the tragic hero.
“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”