Home >             Books & Literature >       English Fiction >       John Milton: Paradise Lost
Site Map
John Milton:  Paradise Lost
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1998, 2000

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the 2nd Ed of 1674 in the Norton Critical Edition (Ed. Scott Elledge) 1975.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall Impression: A great landmark in English literature, gratifying to read but presenting great difficulty for mastery due to its esoteric and unorthodox content and non-English syntax.

Notes from the Norton edition and Alan Rawn: Milton's life included the period of the Civil War 1640-9, and he supported and wrote extensively for Parliament and Cromwell against the monarchists (King Charles I was executed Jan. 30, 1649) and was for church reform sweeping away papist influences and the dominance of the C of England. He met Galileo while the old scientist was under house arrest. By 44 he had become completely blind. He was arrested 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II but somehow escaped execution, presumably because of the high regard for his literary works. P.L. was first published 1667 when he was 58 y.o. P.L. is in 12 Books written in "English heroic verse without rhyme", each prefaced with a prose "Argument" (summary) added by Milton after the first edition proved to be hard reading. Milton in P.L attempts to tell the biblical story of man in the style of epic poetry (like Aeneid and Homer), adding much that is not actually contained in the Bible. It is written in a difficult not-truly-English Latinate style, which brought Samuel Johnson to comment, "PL is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is..." and Keats, "[PL] though so fine is a corruption of our language..." Although Milton was strongly religious, he opposed the Church of England and the Catholic church on many issues and acted as a de facto church of one. The theology in PL is idiosyncratic and the work cannot be used as a standard religious source. Many, including Blake, were offended that Satan (along with Eve) seems to get the best lines and appears to be the epic hero for much of the work--also that A&E seemed to enjoy sexuality so much even in prelapsarian Paradise. Milton's theology is unorthodox, particularly in the private voice of the poem. Eve (women) is portrayed as weaker and less rational than Adam.

Cosmology and other underlying concepts in Paradise Lost:  The outer spherical shell of the universe ("whole turning", i.e., the world including the earth) is created by God out of a region of chaos (or abyss "bottomless") using a pair of golden compasses--the shell of the universe is suspended from heaven by a golden chain. A flight of retractable stairs goes down to it from heaven. Hell was a separate enclosure within chaos. According to traditional medieval ideas of cosmology (to which Milton partly subscribed), in the space between the center of the universe (which may either be the earth or the sun--Milton does not assume a geocentric universe) and the outer shell of the universe are ten concentric transparent and immaterial spheres: comprising the moon, 5 planets, sun [or earth], fixed stars, crystalline sphere, and the primum mobile or rhomb (which moved all the spheres within). The primordial waters were separated into two concentric spheres, the inner furnishing nourishment for earth and the outer "chrystalline" waters forming a cover for the universe to protect it from chaos. Between the earth's surface and the shell of the universe were two main divisions: the sublunar region (which included the moon and earth) consisted of earth, air, fire, and water, but what was beyond the moon's sphere was made of a fifth, heavenly, substance called "quintessence" or "ether". Angels are made of this quintessence. They can assume any size, shape, or sex and can travel at great speed.

Book I
General introduction, Satan recovers from the Fall

Milton invokes his Muse (here, a divine Judeo-Christian abstraction like the Holy Spirit) to inspire his tale to "justify the ways of God to men". Satan ("adversary", the Arch-Fiend or Arch-Enemy) has been cast down into an abyss within Chaos, a place of utter darkness, far from God, as a result of his revolt (this occurred before the formation of the universe, earth or Man). Satan recovers from his confusion, being allowed to raise his head by God, and finds himself in a burning lake that gives off no light. He confers with the fallen angel next in eminence, Beelzebub ("Lord of the Flies"). He next awakens the millions of fallen angels and speaks encouragingly and seemingly courageously, conveying hope to them. The angels include various types (the traditional medieval hierarchy of which Milton does not appear to subscribe), namely Seraphims, Cherubims, Thrones, ... , Archangels, and Angels. Major fallen angels (destined to become false gods and objects of idolatry of some men) are described in an epic-style catalog and include: Moloch (god of the Ammomites), Chemos (of Moabites), Astoreth (Astarte, Phoenician fertility goddess like Aphrodite), Thammuz (Adonis, Phoenician), Dagon (of Philistines), Rimmon (Phoenician), Osiris (Egyptian fertility god, bull), Isis (Egyptian fertility god, cow), Orus (Egyptian, their son), Belial (personification of wickedness as at Sodom and Gibeah), Azazel ("scapegoat"), and Mammon. [Later introduced are Andramalec (sungod), Ariel (like Mars), Arioc (a "spirit of revenge"), Asmadai/Asmadeus (in book of Tobit), Nizroch (Assyrian), Ramiel (in Enoch I)]. They build a palace of Satan, Pandemonium, where the principal leaders begin a great conclave.

Book II
Satan begins his journey through Chaos to the world

At the consultation, Moloch advocates open war, Belial counsels "ignoble ease and peaceful sloth, Mammon counsels acceptance of their plight, and Beelzebub advises that they should research man and his weaknesses and try to seduce him to their cause. Satan, portraying his motivations heroically, decides to go alone to explore the newly created world, hoping thereby to maintain his grip on power. The fallen angels disperse and begin to explore hell. Satan puts on wings and soars to the adamantine gates of hell. There he encounters and fights Sin (who sprang like Athena from his head, half-woman, half-serpent) with her hell-hounds, and her incestuous son by Satan, Death. Satan offers to provide them a life of ease in the new world if they open the gates and let him pass, which Sin does. As the gates open, fire and smoke pours out into chaos from hell. Satan crosses the abyss and encounters Chaos and Night personified, from whom he asks directions. He then encounters Nature at the edge of chaos and approaches the new world. 

Book III
Satan's arrives on earth; God prophesies man's disobedience

Milton invokes Light, reflecting on his own blindness: "but thou / Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn..." In heaven, a realm of pure light, God sees Satan traveling to the earth. The Son of God (S.G., not called Jesus or Christ yet) sits to his right in the pure empyrean (heaven, realm of pure light). They discuss how the fallen angels elected their rebellion through their own free will. S.G. is concerned for man and they discuss man's future. God prophesies that man will also disobey Him and must die unless the death of a sacrificial victim is offered. S.G. is willing to let God's anger over man's disobedience fall on him instead, and will die for him. God praises S.G. and says he will not be tainted by assuming human trappings. They speak of the Last Judgement to come. The angels dutifully and subserviently rejoice. 

Satan is in limbo (the Paradise of Fools) at the edge of the universe--here Milton offers some anti-Catholic sentiments. Satan continues down, assisted by the stairs from heaven, and encounters the angel Uriel at a sunspot on the sun. Concealing his evil intentions disguised as a young cherub, he inquires where man is to be found, so that he may glorify him. Uriel describes the creation and directs him to Paradise on earth. Satan descends and lands on the mountain Niphates, north of Eden. 

Book IV
Satan views Adam and Eve and tempts her in a dream

Milton invokes Light and comments on his blindness. In a soliloquy, Satan curses the sun, which reminds him of his former glory. Ambition and envy were his downfall, and he feels momentary regret and ?repentance--but he is overcome with hate and soon restores his resolve to embrace evil. Uriel has spied his fraudulence. Satan arrives at Eden ("delight, place of pleasure"), which is compared to the classical paradises, and its crowning glory, Paradise ("Park, pleasure ground") and sits like a cormorant on the Tree of Life, pondering his next move. He views the lovely and innocent Adam and Eve ("to live") and is envious of their beauty and unearned pleasures. 

Adam praises God and Eve returns his praise; Adam warns Eve of their one commandment. Satan despises them, and overhears that the Tree of Knowledge is forbidden to man. Eve recounts her first awakening, seeing her beautiful image in the lake (like Narcissus), her thought that she is more beautiful than the more rational Adam, and a voice that spoke to her and led her to Adam. The couple exhibits innocent sexual desire, which inspires Satan's hatred, and he works on his malignant plan.

The guardian angels Uriel and Gabriel converse as night approaches, and Uriel warns that an evil Spirit has arrived. Night falls: "Now glowed the firmament/ With living sapphires: Hesperus that led/ The starry host, rode brightest, till the moon/ Rising in clouded majesty, at length/ Apparent queen unveiled her peerless light, / And oe'r the dark her silver mantle threw." Adam and Eve exchange love and praise and retire after prayers to their blissful bower and connubial love. Milton hails wedded love. Satan, squatting like a toad next to the sleeping Eve's ear, tempts her in her dreams. He is confronted by the angels Zephon and Ithuriel and brought to Gabriel-- they question him and he is haughty and boastful. He flies from Paradise after viewing a warning sign from heaven.

Book V
Eve's Dream; 
Raphael comes to warn them, tells of the war in heaven

The next morning, Eve appears discomposed, blushing, and excited, and tells Adam of her dream in which a seeming angel tempted her to partake of the Tree of Knowledge, that it would make her godlike. She dreamed she tasted the apple, and flew up, then fell. Adam is fearful and troubled by her uncouth dream of temptation. Adam argues that other lesser faculties of the soul (e.g., the passions) must be subservient to reason. He argues that merely thinking these thoughts is not sinful (but does he believe this?) She is grateful for and cheered by his reassurance, but nevertheless sheds a silent tear (out of fear?, guilt?, worry about how the exciting temptation of the vision has appealed to her?, disturbance at her state of subordination to Adam?) They pray and begin their morning's work, which involves pruning and lopping the exuberant plant growth.

God sends Raphael to visit with Adam and to warn him of the consequences of his freedom and disobedience, and to remove any excuse that their disobedience might occur out of ignorance. He dines with them while warning them--some of this time Eve is away gathering fruit or otherwise not participating actively. Raphael eats with gusto, though an angel. He tells them that man will gradually become more godlike if he remains obedient. He descirbes heaven: God, the Son, Satan's pride and envy of the Son of God's promotion over him to the second in preeminence, Satan's refusal to submit to God, his gathering of 1/3 of the angels in a rebellion, the history of the fallen angels and Satan, God's requirement for the angels voluntary obedience, Abdiel's opposition to Satan, Satan's clever arguments and defiance, Abdiel's prophecy of Satan's downfall.

Book VI
Raphael completes the war story and tells of victory by the Son

Abdiel returns and God praised Abdiel's loyalty. Gabriel and Michael are sent into battle against the rebellious angels--trumpets call the angels to battle. Satan disparages Abdiel's subservience to God, which he defends, and Abdiel fights and wounds Satan. God limits the might of the warring angels and the damage they can inflict. Satan seeks out Michael, and they fight in single combat (epic-style)--Michael wounds Satan, and Satan is borne away (angels are immortal and quickly heal, though they feel pain). Gabriel wounds Moloch, and the rebels are routed. 

After a night to regroup (during which the rebels make gunpowder and devilish engines), the rebels take the offensive on the second day. Satan and Beelzebub make many bad puns about his cannons and taunt the good angels, comparing their cannons to a negotiation and alimentary outbursts. On this day, the good angels are routed. God calls the Son in to help (so that he may have the final victory). S.G. arms himself as in the Iliad. On the third day of battle, the irresistible warrior Son conquers them with overwhelming force (like Zeus conquered the Titans) and drives them from heaven through a gap exposing chaos. They fall 9 days. Son returns to God victorious and all the heavens rejoice victoriously. Eve seems to be absent, so Raphael warns Adam to warn "thy weaker".

Book VII
Raphael tells of the creation of the world and man

Milton invokes his muse Urania, like the Holy Spirit. He recalls his personal danger from hostile political forces (?Restoration society). At Adam's request (Eve seems to absent, though she has heard the story), Raphael tells him or them of the creation of the world and man. Adam wants to know of their own origins. Raphael is willing to tell some, but warns of the limits to their knowledge, which they must not go beyond--God has left some things unrevealed and incomprehensible to them and too much knowledge can be dangerous.

Raphael continues: God, to make up for the loss of his fallen angels, resolves to create a new world peopled by man at the apex--man will attain the way to heaven through merit. Raphael tells of the seven days of creation. The Universe is created with golden compasses, then light, night and day, the firmament, the waters are divided by the heavens, dry land (earth) appears in the lower waters (surrounded by the seas), the grass, plants, and trees, the sun and the moon, the stars and planets, reptiles, whales and fish, fowl, cattle and other animals, and finally man. Angels in heaven praise the creation. Man is made in God's own image to rule over other beasts. Eve is created as his companion.

Adam tells his own story; Raphael again cautions him

Adam is grateful for all Raphael has said. He asks about celestial motions, and Eve departs when this abstruse subject comes up to visit her fruits and flowers (she prefers to learn from her husband rather than from the angel). Raphael again warns of limits to knowledge--God has concealed the secrets of planetary motion, it is not for man to know all the details: "Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, /Leave them to God above".

Raphael, who was spying on hell when Adam was created, asks about Adam's own recollection of the time immediately after his creation. Adam relates his own story after he awoke from his creation. He was led by God to Paradise, warned to avoid the Tree of Knowledge or face death, but told man will reign over the earth. Adam gave names to the species of animals. After Adam expressed his loneliness through a lack of an intellectual equal, Eve was created (God had actually planned this all along but had been testing Adam). He soon led her blushing to the nuptial bower, where he first felt passion. He expresses his awe of her (the story of their downfall has been described as one of an excessively uxorious husband).

Raphael praises higher love but cautions Adam about excessive interest in carnal passion and again warns Adam: "Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all / Him whom to love is to obey, and keep / His great command [not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge]". To Adam's question, he states that angels in heaven too can unite in love: "Let it suffice thee that thou know'st / Us happy, and without love no happiness. / Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st / (And pure thou wert created) we enjoy / In eminence, and obstacle find none / Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars: / Easier then air with air, if spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure / Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need / As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul." He departs for heaven.

Book IX
Satan succeeds in tempting Eve, and she corrupts Adam

Milton again invokes his muse. Satan returns, after seven days of hiding behind the other side of the earth--he arrives concealed in a mist. He admires the beautiful earth but is tormented by this beauty. He boasts about the destruction he will cause. He enters the hapless serpent.

We return to Eve, who now proposes to Adam to divide their labors--she wants to work away from Adam (is she restless, prideful like Satan, chafing under his constant domination, implanted already with the seeds of their destruction?) Adam argues she should stay by his side and do her role of promoting her husband--he fears for her safety. She interprets this as unkind, and responds with "sweet austere composure", saying he should not distrust her or her ability to fend for herself. He reminds her of the danger from the foe they have been warned about. But she is confident of her ability to resist temptation. She argues that their happiness in Paradise is illusory if they must live in such constant fear and confinement. Adam fears her free will and faulty reasoning. But finally he is worn down, and she overcomes his hesitation and concern. He consents to her leaving, though in a sentence (IX:370) which seems like irrational gibberish. Eve is pleased to leave with his permission, and says, in parting, the pride of their foe would prevent him from coming after the weaker of the two humans. By now, Eve has assumed somewhat of the role of the epic hero, like Satan--irrational, defiant, interesting compared to the rational but somewhat unexciting Adam. Milton laments: "O much deceived, much failing, hapless Eve, / Of thy presumed return! event perverse! / Thou never from that hour in Paradise / Foundst either sweet repast, or found repose; / Such ambush hid among sweet flow'rs and shades / Waited with hellish rancor imminent / To intercept thy way, or send thee back / Despoiled of innocence, of faith, of bliss."

When she is alone, Satan seeks her out, shunning her husband's higher intellect. He again notes her angelic beauty and is temporarily awed by her. He appears to her as a lovely serpent, and addresses her with flattery, saying she is like a goddess. She marvels that the serpent can talk. He attributes this ability to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and leads her to it. She offers resistance, saying it is forbidden, but he is more clever, and says she will become goddess-like, that even death is not bad if it leads to this, that God wanted to keep the animals ignorant of the fruit's real benefit. He has eaten yet has not died. She sees how he has benefited and desires the same for herself, and eats her fill of the uniquely delicious fruit. Nature immediately gives off ominous rumblings and portents. She makes an idolatrous soliloquy to the tree, then debates whether to tell or involve Adam. But if she is to die, she does not want Adam to have a new Eve, instead wanting him to die with her. Thus she resolves to have him eat too.

Adam has become worried and seeks her out, finding her near the Tree. She tells Adam that the fruit is not harmful after all and extols its merits, wanting him to eat as well. She appears flushed, intoxicated. Adam is stunned, drops the garland he has made for her, knows he cannot live without her or undo her deed, believes she is lost, deflowered, and that she has ruined him as well. But he is tightly bound to her by love, and though expressing his deep regret at her action, rationalizes the act he must do through his love for her. He reasons that the threat of death must have been exaggerated, that they will benefit more from the fruit than they were told, and will become more godlike. He doubts God would destroy his prize creation, mankind, or let Satan triumph. Finally he is resigned to his fate with her as one flesh, and she views his compliance as a kind of test or trial of his love. At last he eats his fill, and she has more as well.

As if intoxicated, they are overwhelmed with carnal lust for each other and take their fill of love's disport on a bank of flowers in the afternoon (obviously sinful). They awaken the next morning from troubled sleep, their innocence lost, overcome with remorse and shame at their nakedness, filled with turmoil. Adam wants to hide and to cover their sexual parts. They sew fig/banyan leaves together to cover themselves. They blame each other and argue, exhibiting increasing discord and distrust. Their appetites have usurped reason. Eve claims the serpent would have as easily deluded Adam, and demands to know why he did not simply command her not to go to work alone. Adam resents the lack of gratitude she shows at the supreme sacrifice he has made for her. He had too much confidence in her. They each blame the other but accept no self-responsibility.

Book X
Divine retribution; 
Adam and Eve's remorse and reconciliation

God has seen the snake's actions. The angelic guards of Paradise ascend to heaven and are exonerated by God--he foresaw this outcome. He plans to rule on the death sentence, and decides to send the Son of God to earth to judge the sinners--S.G. will temper justice with mercy. 

S.G. finds them hiding their nakedness and feeling shameful, lacking love and showing guilt. They explain their actions, he blaming her and she blaming the serpent. The Son condemns the serpent to enmity by women. Son judges them: Women will bear children in pain and be ruled over by the husband; men will live and eat in sorrow, die and return to dust, eat bread earned by the sweat on their face. Their lives will be harsh. Son returns to heaven.

Satan ("Lucifer"=Morning Star) returns to hell. At the gates he again encounters Death and Sin. He sends them to earth along the wide path from hell to earth they build, to rule as his substitute until he returns to share in the rule. Satan recounts his deeds in Pandemonium but finds that the devils all have become serpents under God's influence, and are tormented by God with fruit that becomes ashes. After this, God permits them to resume their normal shapes.

Sin and Death arrive in Paradise, which is according to God's plan for punishment. Sin instructs Death to begin with the plants, then beasts, fish, and fowl, reserving man's death for later. God observes this havoc being wreaked, but knows that eventually the world will be purified. God causes the sun to move and changes the tilt of the earth, creating the seasons of cold and heat. New planetary movements cause astrological alignments and malignant influences. The animals turn on and begin to eat each other. 

Adam laments his fate, believes the punishment is too severe, wishes to die (but fears extinguishing the human race), wonders if God's wrath is infinite, curses his creation. He berates Eve, calling her a serpent and a fair defect of nature. She wretchedly begs him, clutching at his knees, to forgive her and not forsake her--where would she go? She acknowledges she has sinned against him as well as God. He relents and forgives her, accepting responsibility: "If Prayers / Could alter high decrees, I to that place / Would speed before thee, and be louder heard, / That on my head all might be visited, / Thy frailty and infirmer sex forgiv'n, / To me committed and by me exposed. / But rise, let us no more contend, nor blame / Each other, blamed enough elsewhere, but strive / In offices of love, how we may light'n / Each others burden in our share of woe..." She hopes eventually to regain his love and confidence. 

She wonders about abstaining from sexual pleasures and not having children, and even about suicide. Adam sees the sublimity and excellence of spirit in her self-sacrificing suggestions, but says God would not allow this shortcut. He counsels acceptance of their situation and playing out the role God planned for them. To remain childless would be to let Satan win, and Adam knows childbearing is their role. He is resigned to hard work, which will help to keep him warm. They pray together for forgiveness with penitence and reverence.

Book XI
The Son's intercession, God's decision, Michael's prophecies

Praying has lifted some of the weight from their hearts. The Son and God hear their prayers and the Son intercedes on their behalf. God accepts Son's saving role but insists that they are to be ejected from Paradise. God calls a synod. Man now, like the angels, knows the distinction between good and evil, and must be deprived of partaking of the Tree of Life, else they would be too god-like.

God charges Michael with this expulsion, but beforehand he is to reveal to Adam what good as well as evil shall come in the future, so they will be less disconsolate. 

Adam tells Eve he believes their prayers have been favorably received and hails her as mother of mankind. Eve is ready for her labors and vows to stay by Adam's side and to obey him. Bird signs direct them to the eastern gate. 

Michael appears to them, says their prayers have been heard, and says they are to be expelled from the garden. Eve laments, and Michael counsels resignation and recognition that her place is beside her husband. Adam wonders if they will no longer be seen by God. Michael offers consolation-- God is everywhere to be found and will always be with them. For Eve, he advises wherever Adam is found shall be her native ground. 

Michael puts Eve to sleep, then takes Adam to a mountain and shows him visions of the future: of exotic cities and civilizations; the effects of their sin: the murder by Cain of Abel, sickness and suffering, aging, and death (for which Michael counsels temperance in life, living life well, and acceptance of the many forms of death), Seth's pious descendants, Giants of mighty bone, Enoch, the effects of ill-mated marriages, war, rape, luxury, adultery, Noah and the ark and flood, a new covenant with Noah's descendants, the rainbow. Adam recognizes that future men would not want to know what will befall them or their descendents. The luxuriously wealthy are devoid of virtue. All will turn degenerate and depraved, until a son of light [the Messiah] shall admonish them and show them the path to righteousness like another Noah with an ark. He will show them a new covenant, pledging never to destroy the world again with flood, but fire will "purge all things new, Both heav'n and earth, wherein the just shall dwell [in the Millenium].

Book XII
Michael's prophecies, continued, and the final expulsion

Michael continues his prophecies: Noah's descendants (the second source of men), the excessively ambitious Nimrod builds the Tower of Babel, the confusion of languages resulting, subjection of men to tyrants, the relation of right reason to civil and religious freedom. The chosen nation: Abraham leads his followers from Ur to the Promised Land in Canaan; Isaac, Jacob (Israel), Joseph in Egypt, Moses, the plagues in Egypt, the Exodus, Ark of the Covenant, the Mosaic Law, prophecy of a Messiah, Joshua, Solomon, Babylonian captivity, Antipater, prophecy of the birth of Christ the Messiah from David's royal stock; the crucifixion and Resurrection, the disciples, his Second Coming, Last Judgement, Millennium. He speaks of the charge by the Holy Spirit to spread the word (evangelize the nations); the corruption of the clergy ("wolves [C of E] shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves, / who all the sacred mysteries of heav'n / to their own vile advantages shall turn / Of lucre and ambition..." Christ's second coming, and age founded in righteousness and peace of love.

Adam is consoled and feels greatly instructed to know all this foreknowledge, and vows to obey and love with fear the only God. Michael tells him that he has attained sufficient wisdom and should hope no higher. Adam should emphasize faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love and charity--by these, he shall carry Paradise within himself. They descend from the mountain and waken Eve, who is ready and accepting (having heard God's intentions through propitious dreams in her sleep), consoled that by her the Promised Seed shall restore and bring deliverance. Michael takes each by the hand, and leads them out the eastern gate of Paradise to the plains of Eden, past the Cherubim who will guard Paradise--Michael then disappears. The flaming sword begins to parch the land like Libya, and waves behind them guarding the eastern side of Paradise against any attempt to reenter.