Paradise Lost is an epic on the order of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, both of which Milton used as models. Like them, it consists of twelve books; likewise, the story begins in the middle (in medias res) and doubles back on itself by means of a series of flashbacks. The characters, among whom Satan looms largest in Books I and II, are imbued with a nobility of stature but are at the same time flawed. In the course of the action, Milton employed various descriptive devices derived from Homer and Virgil, such as the long, elaborate point-for-point comparison known as the epic simile. (See, for instance, the comparison of Satan to Leviathan in I, 202–208.)
The action of Paradise Lost takes readers from the rebellion and defeat of certain angels in Heaven, headed by Lucifer, through their fall into Hell, the Creation, the subversion of Adam and Eve by Satan (hitherto Lucifer), and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Included in their parting instructions is a forecast of mankind’s eventual redemption through the coming and sacrifice of Jesus. Books I and II, in which the fallen angels, headed by Satan, deliberate about their next evil steps, are considered among the greatest artistic achievements of all time.
In Paradise Lost, Milton wrote in verse paragraphs, and the verse form that he employed is blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The term iambic refers to the prevailing rhythm in a poem. An iamb consists of two syllables, one short followed by one long; the words “because” and “along” are iambs. The term pentameter refers to the number of rhythmic units or feet on a line; penta means “five,” so a pentameter line would normally consist of five units or feet. An ideal iambic pentameter line would consist of five iambs, as in the following line from John Keats’s sonnet: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
Milton’s blank verse in Paradise Lost and that of Shakespeare, who came before him, are quite different. Shakespeare wrote for the stage, and his lines tend to be end-stopped and rather irregular, especially as to length; his signature-line consisted of ten syllables with an extra single-syllable or truncated foot at the end. Milton, by comparison, wrote what I like to call armchair blank verse, with many more consecutive ten-syllable lines and many more run-on lines, called enjambments.
Let the beginning of Hamlet’s famous speech and the opening of Paradise Lost serve as examples of the two:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep —
No more — and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
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 Heav’nly 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 Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
The Composition and Publication of Paradise Lost
Various attempts have been made by scholars to pinpoint just when Milton began composing Paradise Lost. It seems to us that the germ or seed was present at the outset of his poetic career in On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity; only needed was an elaboration of idea and a ripening of technique. Milton’s sojourn in Italy in 1638-39, where it seems that he was quite outspoken about his position with regard to religion, provided time and opportunity for crystallization, either conscious or unconscious. Shortly after his return, he listed, in a notebook commonly referred to as The Cambridge Manuscript, a hundred-odd topics and outlines for dramas from biblical and English history, and among them are four dealing with the fall of man and an additional title, “Adams Banishment.” Of the aforementioned four entries, two are lists of characters, while the third is an outline for a drama divided into five acts with lists of characters and brief summaries, and the fourth, titled “Adam Unparadiz’d,” provides comparatively elaborate summaries.
Scholarly opinion favors Milton’s having begun the actual composition of Paradise Lost as an epic in the early-to-middle 1650s. The work, in ten books, was finished before the autumn of 1665 and published two years later. Five more issues of the first edition appeared in 1668 and 1669. In the second printing of 1668, Milton added the prefatory arguments to the books and the note on the verse as an introduction. In the second edition, which appeared in 1674, before Milton’s death, Books VII and X were each divided into two books to make the total of twelve that we now have. The arguments were put in their present places, before each.
Just when and why Milton decided to make Paradise Lost into an epic and drop the idea of drama is nowhere indicated by him. Some scholars have pointed out that the closing of the theaters in 1642 would have been a decisive factor and that a play of that nature written later by a defender of regicide would certainly not have been welcome in Restoration circles. One cannot help adding that the play-for-performance is a specific art form requiring considerable hands-on experience on the part of its author for a successful presentation. This Shakespeare had — the theater and its particular ways were in his blood, so to speak — but Milton had as performance-experience only one presentation of his Arcades and one presentation of Comus, and these occurred when he was a young man. Surely the production of a mature play-for-performance by Milton would have been a painfully uphill experience, very likely with a disastrous result — indeed similar to those of Charles Lamb and Henry James, who have left accounts of their agonies.
Interestingly, Milton opted for drama to tell the story of Samson in Samson Agonistes, his last work. However, it should be borne in mind that in the introduction, he made it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that this work was not intended for performance.
In keeping with the Puritan spirit of Paradise Lost, The Lark Ascending decided to offer a simple dramatic reading of Books I and II unadorned by costumes, sets, and visuals. It should be noted that for ease of performance, we cut the long list of pagan deities, doing so in the belief that under similar circumstances, Milton would have done likewise. Hopefully we achieved this without doing violence to the whole.
There were three performances in all: on February 4, 2001, and on February 3 and 10, 2002. The performers remained the same except for Beelzebub, Jean-Claude Vasseux being replaced by Jason Bauer, and Mammon, Brent Bouldin being replaced by Isidore Elias.
A Personal Note
When I was a little girl, we used to have a drum table in our living room, whose virtues I discovered around the age of 9. All you had to do was grab its edge and give it a good yank — and round and round it would spin. What fun! One day, in my enthusiasm, I gave it an extra-hard yank, causing it to spin round extra fast — drunkenly, it seemed. Apprehensive lest the drum become separated from the base and cause a catastrophe, I threw myself across it and grasped the edge firmly with both hands to slow it down. Stop turning quickly it did indeed do, but the sudden change in momentum caused one of the books in the drum’s side to fly out onto the floor. I stooped over to pick the book up and put it back, but as it had landed flat and open, I couldn’t help but examine it. And then realizing that it was some kind of poetry, by force of habit I began to read to see what it was about.This it was not easy to ascertain. Clearly, whatever its subject was — a bunch of devils, geography — it threatened to be tough going. However, one thing was for sure: this was no ordinary work; indeed, it was a far cry from the poems they’d made us read in school, like “Old Ironsides” and “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” Yes, unquestionably there was something different about this poem; it had something, some very special quality, that the others lacked. Later on, when I read Paradise Lost in high school, and again later in college and graduate school, it always occupied a special place in my heart — a place akin to holiness. With this performance it was my hope to share that sense of it with others.