The Reading Room
Paradise Lost, Perhaps the Greatest English Poem. Banned for 216 Years
Paradise Lost, published more than 350 years ago (1667), is still almost routinely characterized as the greatest poem in English. More guardedly, it is called “the greatest epic poem.” (Yes, there are others, such as Beowulf, TheFaerieQueene, Don Juan, John Brown’s Body, and Song of Myself. . . .)
Greatness did not prevent John Milton’s epic from being banned by the Catholic Church in 1732 during the papacy of Clement XII, who placed an Italian translation on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, where it remained until 1940.
In retrospect, that is not surprising. Both Milton’s prose works and poetry were banned. The prose was banned by King Charles II because Milton passionately and publicly opposed the two most powerful institutions of his day: the British monarchy and the established church (Anglican in England and Scotland and Catholic worldwide).
At one time, the proclamation against his prose works, duly burned by the hangman, was the least of Milton’s problems. He was in hiding, sought by the forces of Charles II, in danger of being executed. Milton was two kinds of dissident—a republican and a Puritan—both types viewed as fanatical by the British monarchy and the Anglican Church.
Thus, when the English Revolution (“War of the Three Kingdoms”) broke out into civil war, in 1642, Milton early in the conflict sided with the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell. The Puritans overthrew the regime of Charles I, executed him in 1649, and briefly established (in 1653) the “Commonwealth,” or “Protectorate,” under Lord Protector (and virtual dictator) Cromwell. Milton devoted all his efforts to the new government as a translator of Latin dispatches and author of propaganda pamphlets to defend the new regime and respond to its critics. Among these publications was one specially commissioned to defame Charles I publicly (see Eikonoklastes, 1649), thus preparing the way for his execution. (These publications were later called “the regicide tracts.”)
Cromwell himself died in 1658, briefly succeeded by his son, who soon lost power. When the “Restoration” of the Stuart monarchy arrived in 1660, with Charles II, son of the executed king, on the throne, Milton was, to say the very least, “out of favor.” Three of his books connected with the revolution were publicly burned and he himself was sought for trial. In the event, Charles II soon declared a sweeping general pardon and declaration of tolerance, the April 1660 Declaration of Breda, for all who recognized him as king. Milton came out of hiding and was promptly arrested and imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London but released in time for Christmas. The most tumultuous phase of his life had passed.
The significance of the upheaval for the creation of Paradise Lost, our focus here, can hardly be exaggerated. Milton had hoped to write an enduring epic rivaling the fame of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid and had begun thinking about the task as early as his first years at Cambridge University. For almost any other young man, these would have been the fond dreams of youth; for Milton, a rare genius, it was a plan.
Born in 1608 to a wealthy family, he was raised in a fashionable section of London, on a street with views of the Thames, London Bridge, and the Tower of London. He was educated at the prestigious St. Paul’s School (founded in 1509 and still in existence), then the University of Cambridge. Add him to the impressive list of famous men such as Adam Smith and John Locke who took little pleasure in the university’s curriculum, which was rooted in Scholasticism.
Milton excelled academically, however, and later, on his own, became enormously erudite (commanding, it is said, at least ten languages) in literature, history, theology, philosophy, and natural sciences—so much so that there has been endless debate about from which play or poem he may have “lifted” the story and ideas in Paradise Lost. Milton himself reportedly said his chief model was Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. But he acknowledged that he borrowed avidly from Homer and Virgil, and perhaps defended his other borrowings when he wrote “to borrow and better in the borrowing is no plagiary [sic].”
Milton early on became celebrated, publishing lyrics, including his famous sonnets, and two longer poems, a drama (Comus) and a pastoral elegy (Lycidas), which alone probably would have ensured his lasting fame. But always he was contemplating the epic he would write. We have notes in his handwriting, in the library at Cambridge’s Trinity College, listing possible topics. He always said he wished only to study and write poetry, but his intellect and character mandated that he become an ardent controversialist.
John Milton’s abiding passions were morality and religion. He believed, for example, that no great poetry could be written if a man were not a moral exemplar and “ought himself to be a true poem . . . [a] pattern of the best and honorablest things.” Anything else was false, hypocritical. M. Macmillan, in his introduction to Paradise Lost (the version from which all quotations from the poem used here are taken), concluded that “Milton was one of the noblest characters that England ever produced.”
His perceived duty to devote all his energy and genius to the Puritan and republican causes not only delayed the epic (and virtually any other poetry) for almost twenty years (1639–1658) but also shaped his choice of its subject. From the time Milton returned from fifteen months touring Italy (viewed by Puritans as a sure sign of a young man’s vicious sexual immorality and corrupt disposition, although Milton mostly attended plays and visited architectural and art museums), he devoted himself to the republican cause in the civil war. He did not ease off until he felt his full-time efforts no longer were needed.
The upheaval likewise shaped his choice of subject for his great epic. He had planned an epic on early England’s legends and heroes (for example, an early Saxon king or King Arthur), with knights, chivalry, castles, jousts, and streaming banners. But how could he glorify the history of the monarchy, kings and queens—feudalism—when the “Parliamentarian” republican forces of Cromwell were fighting to sustain their hard-won gains? And how to do so later, when his party had gone down to defeat, Cromwell’s head on a spike above Westminster Hall for decades, the English Commonwealth no more, and monarchy restored?
He could not. And so, freed from toil for the cause, he turned to an alternative subject, one utterly compatible with his character and temperament—but also characterized by critics as the most sweeping, ambitious, sublime subject ever attempted by a poet. Paradise Lost, more than 10,000 lines of blank verse in ten (later twelve) “books,” is the story of the spiritual fall of mankind by Adam’s freely chosen sin, his rebellion with Eve against God, and man’s forfeit of Eden and eternal life for all mankind. Thus, it encompasses an account of Satan and his angelic forces (“one third of Heaven”) challenging God’s absolute power, their defeat, and their headlong expulsion from Heaven down to Hell; man’s creation and life, including marriage, in Paradise; Satan’s vow to avenge his defeat by destroying God’s new and beloved creation; and the subsequent temptation by Satan of Eve and the sin of Adam.
Milton, while embracing this subject, regretted that he could not create an epic of English glory. His love for his country was genuine, his political efforts driven by the conviction that in this direction lay England’s future glory. Incredibly (as viewed from today’s perspective), Milton contemplated writing Paradise Lost in Latin, the literary language of Europe and still in vogue. He was certain his epic in Latin would have more currency on the Continent. Incredibly (again, today), he resigned himself to the risk of writing in English—the only way left to him, he felt, to pay tribute to his country—even if this denied his epic the immortality he intended.
When Milton finally turned to the epic, he was blind. He confidently believed that God intended this in order to focus him on the world of sound. But he was forced to dictate the epic over more than four years—much of it to his daughters. He was ill much of this time, and his second wife, whom he married in 1656, died only fifteen months later in childbirth. The civil war still continued, at this time, but without Milton’s work in government, and, in 1660, with the Restoration, it was now that he was forced to go into hiding, as mentioned earlier.
For more than 350 years, literary critics, historians, theologians, and philosophers have commented on every aspect, almost every line, of Paradise Lost. One debate, mentioned in Macmillan’s introduction, began in the Romantic era, following the Age of Enlightenment, and focused on Satan’s character, specifically the startling assertion that Satan is the true protagonist of Paradise Lost, secretly (perhaps “unconsciously”) Milton’s hero. Blake, Byron, and Shelley, among others, for example, maintained this position.
There is a case for this, although it has been argued that the evidence is mostly in the first two books (viewed as the greatest, “flawless” books). Satan, his rebellion against omnipotent Heaven (a monarchy?), dashed into a burning lake in Hell with his fellows, fallen from a paradise of utter joy and peace into darkness (even fire in Hell casts no light), is first to lift his head. He wings his way to land, draws himself to his full height (his lance is compared with the tallest fir tree cut for a ship’s mast), his figure and face still of a god, and in a passionate and dauntless speech rallies the fallen (we are given to believe there are tens of thousands). Before long, they form their old ranks, spears raised, shields on their backs, lighting a vast field with their torches and streaming banners—and Hell raises a terrible cheer for Satan and against God (the absolute dictator?). One of the poem’s most famous lines is Satan’s: “Better to reign in hell than/serve in heaven.” And he refers to the “Throne and Monarchy of God.”
Satan continues: “ ‘but of this be sure—
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high willWhom we resist.’ ”
Other critics reply that naturally Milton had to make Satan powerful, resolute, determined—or there was no story. Since God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (sees every move Satan is making in Hell and as he wings toward Eden to destroy man), is there any real struggle? There is no suspense, of course, no expectation that Satan in the end will prevail, but a reader is drawn to Satan’s strength, resolution, and daring. Satan even sheds tears, occasionally, thinking of his followers expelled from Paradise because of him, consigned to darkness and pain—but still loyal to him and the cause of challenging God’s omnipotence.
“Thrice he assayed, and thrice, in spite of scorn,Tears, such as Angels weep, burst forth: at last
Words interwove with sighs found out their way—
‘O myriads of immortal Spirits!
O Powers matchless, but with th’ Almighth [sic]!—
and that strife Was not inglorious, though th’ event was dire.’ ”
Why did the Church of Rome for some two centuries (1732–1948) forbid all Catholics, including those in school and college, to read and discuss this story of the Fall, which includes, to take but one example, a moving scene in which the Son of God (who will become Jesus Christ) is the only volunteer to become a man and die to redeem Man? God, omniscient, knows in advance that Adam and Eve will fall (he sends St. Michael to warn them of Satan), commit their “treason,” and that Man
“ ‘with his whole posteritie must dye,Dye hee or Justice must; unless for him
Som other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.’ ”
The Father then asks:“ ‘Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare?’ ”
In reply, the Son volunteers himself, and Heaven’s legions cheer, breaking into song, music of harps, and crying “hallelujah!”
We do not know to this day the precise reasons for the ban because they are secrets of the Vatican archives, but scholars readily identify the anti-Catholic sentiments and the anti-Catholic theology throughout Milton’s epic. His portrayals of God, Satan, and Adam and Eve, for example, are contrary in many places to the teachings of the Church.
Milton went on to write Paradise Regained (the New Testament story of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the desert) and Samson Agonistes (the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah). Both were published in 1671.
Milton died just three years later, in 1674, of kidney failure at age sixty-six. He was buried beside his father in the parish church of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate (London). Although Dr. (Samuel) Johnson and numberless others have quipped that Paradise Lost is greatly admired but not read, and no reader ever wanted it to be longer, Milton today typically is considered, along with Shakespeare, as one of the greatest poets in the English language.