Over 10,000 lines of verse on the fall of man, temptation, knowledge, sin, and exile from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Lost is a tremendous work, and to attempt to summarize it is kinda pointless – you’ve got to read it to get it, and read it we all should, several times in fact. Think you know the story of Adam and Eve? Not this one. It’s not that Milton’s epic version is entirely at odds with the short, canonical version; but it is detailed, nuanced, and tells one hell of a back story. The serpent, the Tree of Knowledge, the shame of nakedness – those are here. But also Satan’s story, his version of the angelic rebellion that led to his expulsion from Heaven, his own experience on the path that Adam and Eve – real people, with personalities, love, and relationship in this account – are about to walk.
Milton’s time was the time of civil war, overthrow of the monarchy, triumph of Cronmwell’s roundheads, and a tremendous social, political, and religious upheaval that saw new theologies and radical philosophies emerge and contest one another – Puritans, with their dour piousness and strict judgement, Diggers for whom the gospel of Christ was a call to agrarian communism, Mennonites out of Germany whose radical pacificm and congregational democracy set them apart, Ranters like Abiezer Coppe, whose politics resembled anarchism and who saw salvation in a life of vibrant community with whores, gamblers, and all those cast off or criminalized by church and state. And then the fall of Cromwell, restoration of the Crown and the poet’s own imprisonment. It was a pretty wild time for England all round. And John Milton took sides. A republican and staunch anti-Catholic, Milton put the questions of free will and divine rule at the centre of his work, churning out a whole lot of political tracts as well as his literary pieces. And Paradise Lost comes out of this upheaval and debate – a reflection on civil war, theology, human will and human frailty, the struggles and questions of his social world considered through a re-telling of the first great rebellions to shake the Creation.
You’ve gotta be good if William Blake considers you the best ever, illustrates your work, and writes his own massive epic in your honour. You’ve gotta be good to fundamentally transform literature, re-writing the parameters of what poetry looks like and shaping literature – verse, prose and otherwise – for the next couple of hundred years. You’ve gotta be good to take a tried and true form like the traditional poem and decide, ‘Y’know, screw rhymes. I don’t need’em’ and turn English verse on its head. You’ve gotta be good to inspire countless works of art, literature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels, and at least a dozen songs by various heavy metal bands around the world. And Milton did all that. Blind. Yeah, that’s right – blind. Paradise Lost and the vast majority of his important work was not written so much as recited to family members and aides willing to handle the transcription. Wow. ‘Nuff said.