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The Biblical Basis of "Paradise Lost" by Milton


The Biblical Basis of "Paradise Lost" by Milton
Paradise Lost: John Milton’s masterpiece. The best English poem ever written ( 10,000 lines) and a wonderful story. Drawn from the Bible.

We have looked at Paradise Lost before, as it is among the 28 MOST IMPORTANT WORKS of Christian Literature.

Paradise Lost: What is it?

It is a long English poem, (over 10,000 lines in 12 books) and a wonderful story.

Here is a very short summary: (click here for a SHORT SUMMARY BY BOOK)

Once before time or a world, there was a war in heaven. The most beautiful, powerful and glorious angel decided he should be God. He got one-third of the angels to join him and rebelled against the Almighty. They were defeated and cast into Hell.

But this rebel was not deterred.

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n….Paradise Lost, Book 1: line 263

He plotted his revenge and began to attack the world and the people God created. Disguising himself as a serpent he led Adam and Eve into sin and death. For this, he was cursed and the 2 sinners were cast out of the Garden of Eden and barred from re-entry by an angel with a mighty sword.

But our loving God also promised them a Savior who would die for their sins and grant them eternal life!

Milton composes his poem and develops its themes and structure masterfully. It is universally recognized as a masterpiece by all, and its author the greatest English poet next to Shakespeare. One atheist critic (Christopher Ricks) has called it “Art for God’s sake.” One believer and literary giant said this:

A poem which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind. — Samuel Johnson

Paradise Lost: Who is the author?

John Milton (1608-1674) was a brilliant author and public figure, certainly the most learned English poet. He was fluent in ancient languages (Hebrew, Latin, and Greek) and 9 modern. At age 15 he wrote English versions of Psalms 114 and 136 in rhymed couplets and used rhyme in all of his English poetry until Paradise Lost in 1667.

He wrote almost as much in Latin as in English and was appointed to the council of state for foreign languages (he was fluent in 11). He lost his sight in 1652 and this job in 1660 when Charles II restored the monarchy.
Now in disfavor and totally blind, he dictated his later works to his daughters before he died in 1674.

Paradise Lost: What is its source?

Milton used Genesis 1-3 as a basis for his poem. These opening chapters of the Bible tell how God created heaven and earth, Adam and Eve, and their earthly Paradise, and how they were deceived by the serpent and fell from grace.

It is a simple story told in 80 verses in the Bible, expressed simply in the New England Primer as

In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned All (1690)

Paradise Lost: How did Milton amplify the Bible?

He was a firm believer in the Bible’s truth and would in no way contradict its content, but the Biblical text is straightforward and direct. It does not address every issue nor give any more information than is needed to accomplish its purpose.

Milton had read widely; he may have been the last person to read everything extant. He used that reading and his own imagination to provide credible detail that the succinct Biblical account did not.

Paradise Lost: Amplified by rhetoric and poetry

The Bible is simple prose and speaks directly to its purpose. An epic poem has more in mind. It seeks beautiful language and artful presentation to develop simple dialogue into powerful verse. For example, the opening states his theme of the Fall like this:

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,

This is a far cry from: In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned All. And Milton prepares us for the lofty heights he will climb with this poetic expression of his aim:

That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. That, to the height of this great argument, I may assert Eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men.

This is poetry and language for educated people who know not only the Bible but the Greek and Latin classics, especially Home and Virgil


Paradise Lost: Amplified by settings

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. – Genesis 1:1-2

There is no setting, indeed no land or place for narrative to take place until the 6 days of Creation are done. Then, after Genesis 2:8, the entire narrative takes place in the garden of Eden the LORD planted.

Paradise Lost opens in Hell. From there Milton introduces the concept of Chaos, the vast emptiness that surrounds God’s heaven and the new world He has created. The scope of the action has considerably widened.

Paradise Lost: Amplified by narrative

Genesis gives no indication of Satan’s existence before the serpent is introduced in the third chapter:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? Genesis 3:1

How did the serpent get there? Why could it talk? What was its purpose?

Answers to these Milton provides and makes the narrative interesting and dramatic. And what wonderful and imaginative answers he gives!

Paradise Lost: Amplified by characters

God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent are the only characters the Bible provides, and they say very little. Adam speaks in 4 verses, Eve and the serpent 3 each. God has the most verses, all spoken to the other 3.

But the Bible gives us little more than their names, while Milton develops their characters more fully and has them engage in conversations with each other. The Bible identifies God as the LORD God, but Milton goes further, distinguishing between the Father and the Son.

He develops the characters of Adam, Eve, and Satan through their conversations with one another and the actions they take.

Milton also populates the poem with other characters, a host of fallen angels who we know as the “gods” of false religion. He also gives us 5 angels, 2 from the Bible and 3 more from other sources. He adds to these a personified Sin and Death.

The dynamics of the conversations and interactions of these characters present a poetic symphony whose richness and depth are worthy of our appreciation.

Paradise Lost: Amplified by plot/conflict

Two main conflicts run through the poem, Good vs. Evil and Love vs. Hate. These are explored in Satan’s rebellion vs. the Son of God’s submission, and God’s creation of all that is “very good” and Satan’s aim to kill and destroy. Jesus had put it like this:

The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. John 10:10

These conflicts are played out through the plots on both the Cosmic and human levels, the angels of good vs the angels of good, and Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Most dramatic of all is his contrast between Satan, the rebel, huge, powerful and fierce, and hateful, and the Son of God, loving, submissive to His Father, willing to carry our sins to the cross.

Paradise Lost: Amplified by form

Milton mastered every form he used, from rhymed couplets or heroic verse, sonnets, pastorals, masques, and here epic poetry. He had been planning an epic poem for years and knew his models well, the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid.

He struggled to find the right subject for an epic about England and an appropriate hero to lead it. His first choice was king Arthur, and he studied English history deeply to prepare. His trouble was that he could not confirm the truth of the Arthurian tales. Instead, he found his truth in the Bible, and his HERO IN THE SON OF GOD.

Finding his hero and content, he now worked to put them in to the traditional epic form. This meant:

Beginning “in medias res,” in the midst of the action, not at the beginning of the story. Setting the scene in times long past, peopled with famous people. Using epithets and epic similes. The first, a descriptive adjective repeated often to describe a character, like “fairest of creation” for Eve. The second a long, extended comparison of a figure or even to something reflective of its character, like this description of Satan’s size:

in bulk as huge

As whom the fables name of monstrous size,

Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,

Briareos or Typhon, whom the den

By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast

Leviathan, which God of all his works

Created hugest that swim th’ ocean-stream.

Milton had studied Homer and Virgil well and memorized much of their works. So much had he absorbed and mastered them that the poet laureate of his day saw in Milton their complement and successor:

Three poets, in three distant ages born, Greece, Italy and England did adorn. The first in loftiness of thought surpass’d; The next in majesty; in both the last: The force of Nature could no further go; To make a third she join’d the former two.”

John Dryden (1631 – 1700)

Paradise Lost: Takeaways

Milton stands at the top of the poetic world, as Bach does in the world of music. Both are masterful and majestic in the use of their art and in the creation of beauty.

Like a Bach symphony, Milton’s Paradise Lost is a complex orchestration of power, beauty, and truth.

And both master artists valued most of all the Truth, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and loved with all their hearts our Savior, the Son of God.

All the evil and hatred we see in the Evil One is overcome by the love and humility of the Sinless One, the Faithful One, the Living One who washes our sins away and frees us from death, and gives Eternal Life.

Long and difficult for the modern reader, its beauty and power are overwhelming and unforgettable. You will come away knowing more about the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ than you ever thought was possible. You will want to worship at His feet and desire Him to reign in your heart.






About the artwork: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, PUBLIC DOMAIN work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason:

The author died in 1827, so this work is in the PUBLIC DOMAIN in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the COPYRIGHT TERM is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

This work is in the PUBLIC DOMAIN in the UNITED STATES because it was PUBLISHED (or registered with the U.S. COPYRIGHT OFFICE) before January 1, 1926.

The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain“.

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