Paradise Lost Book 1, lines 1 - 26

Paradise Lost begins

If the great Greek epics were the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and the the great Roman epic was Virgil’s Aeneid, the great English epic is without question Milton’s Paradise Lost. If you would like to compare, links from the titles of the ancient epics in the previous sentence will take you to the beginning of each poem, with a reading in the original languages alongside a parallel English translation.

The ancient epics start with an invocation to the Muse, and make it clear straight away that they are about great men and their accomplishments and misfortunes. In Paradise Lost, the Muse is still there, but in a secondary role, and only two humans so far exist – Adam and Eve. While the poem does tell their story, its real subjects are less personal than theological – good and evil, sin and redemption and the relationship between humanity and God. The character in the poem who is most fully developed as a personality, and of whose thoughts and feelings we hear most, is Satan, paradoxically making him very much its tragic anti-hero.

Milton’s stage is not first and foremost the earthly world, though that is where Eden is and where Adam and Eve live. Much of the action plays out over vast, cosmic settings whose extent dwarfs anything in ancient epic. Milton was blind by the time he wrote the poem, which seems to have made it possible for him to transcend physical constraints as he imagined the infinite, unearthly settings inhabited by God, the Devil and their subjects. When he deals with Satan and the other fallen angels, it is perhaps his blindness that also explains a dimension of darkness that is unique to his writing: the splendour and light of his Heaven are conventional and (let’s be honest) a bit dull in comparison.

The Latin language and literary tradition could not be more obvious as an influence: at the time it was an international language, much as English is today. It was widely used in scholarship and diplomacy, and Milton wrote much of his poetry in it. His English style lies somewhere between ancient rhetoric and a ceremonious version of vernacular speech. In his choice of metre, he broke free both from classical epic hexameters and (thank heaven) the rhyming schemes that were common in English at the time. It is blank verse, with five stresses in a line usually containing ten syllables, not dissimilar to the scheme used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in writing drama, but with more weight and less variation.

For many, Milton’s great theme of the fall and hope for eventual salvation will be less compelling than it once was, and much in his attitudes is now deeply unappealing. They include, not only taking as given the total subordination of women to men, but also seeing them as the weak point in humanity through which evil has entered the world and man has lost the society of God. Milton was of his time, and the challenge is to find a way to appreciate what is great in his work, while probably disagreeing with most of the thought and belief which has created it.

See an illustration of Paradise Lost by another visionary, William Blake, here.

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.