John Milton (1608-1674) was a great fan of epic poems. He was very familiar with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (both written in Greek) as well as Virgil’s Aeneid (written in Latin). For many years he thought about writing an epic poem in English, but had trouble settling on an appropriate subject. Finally, he chose to write about the revolt of Satan against God, and about the fall of Adam and Eve. Milton was completely blind by 1652, so Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667, was dictated to others who wrote it down for him. It was divided into ten books when first published, but was slightly modified and divided into 12 books when the second edition was published in 1674. Each book in the second edition began with an “Argument” – essentially a brief description of what that book was about. The “Argument” is valuable for two reasons: Milton’s English was only slightly more modern than that of Shakespeare; and because Milton’s writing style seems stilted to us today. For instance, one sentence reads in part, “. . . I ere thou spak’st, / Knew it not good for man to be alone, / And no such company as then thou saw’st / Intended thee, for trial only brought, / To see how thou couldst judge of fit and meet.”
When I set out recently to read it for my Reading the Classics book club, I knew that I would need a version that could help me to understand and appreciate this work. I looked at a number of different copies and settled on the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. It has a long introduction, numerous footnotes on every page to help me understand the meanings of unfamiliar words (as well as those that relate to Greek mythology, Bible verses, etc.), the lines are numbered so I can refer to specific lines when talking about it to others in my book club, and it has endnotes that go into detail about various words, passages, and ideas presented in the work. I also chose the online version of CliffsNotes to get a compact synopsis of each book and its important points.
This may seem to be a lot of work, but the end result is that I have thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I highly recommend Paradise Lost to you. Milton gives us his view of why Satan and his followers revolted, describes the battle Satan and his forces fought with the angels that remained loyal to God (The two sides threw mountains at each other!), explains how Satan escaped from Hell, tells of Satan’s determination to destroy God’s newest creation since he would never be able to defeat God, and describes how Satan succeeded in his attempt to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Milton presents Eve as a faultless being before she eats the forbidden fruit, and then shows her as immediately flawed as the result of her offense against God. When she realizes that she has become mortal as a result of her transgression she, at first, decides not to let Adam eat the fruit because he will then become mortal and, like her, will one day die. Then she realizes that if she follows that plan, she will die and Adam will fall in love with another woman. The new Eve can’t bear that, so she revises her plan and convinces Adam to eat the fruit. You may not agree with Milton’s portrayal of Eve, but you’ll have to argue with him about his misogynous viewpoint.
The title of this post can be interpreted in two ways. It could be a statement about how things went from bad to worse (as in a barroom brawl, for instance) or you can take it literally. In Paradise Lost Satan and his followers decide to create a home in Hell that they name Pandemonium (literally “all demons”), and later in the poem Gabriel asks Satan why he didn’t take the other devils with him when he broke out of Hell. “But wherefore [why] thou along? Wherefore with thee / Came not all hell broke loose?”
The word pandemonium and the phrase all hell broke loose are both attributed to John Milton – we can’t say for sure that he invented them, but their use in Paradise Lost is the first place we find them in writing. In fact Milton is credited with adding over 600 words to the English language – more than anyone else. Shakespeare, by comparison, gave us only 230 or so new words. Words and phrases attributed to Milton include terrific, padlock, sensuous, earthshaking, moon-struck, lovelorn, jubilant, impassive, didactic, unprincipled, stunning, liturgical, unaccountable, self-delusion, dismissive, irresponsible, arch-fiend, debauchery, fragrance, gloom, embellishing, literalism, by hook or by crook, better to reign in hell than serve in heav’n, the light fantastic, and outer space.
Milton is not as well known as he should be – either for his writings or for his contributions to the English language – but Paradise Lost has been a classic for almost 350 years and deserves a high place on every serious reading list. Buy a copy such as the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, use an aide such as Cliffsnotes, and you will be surprised at how much pleasure you derive from Milton’s magnum opus. When you finish Paradise Lost, you might consider his much shorter poem Paradise Regained, and his play Samson Agonistes.