Historical Context of Paradise Lost
Milton’s life and career coincide with one of the most revolutionary periods of English history. King Charles I, who had ascended to the throne in 1625, believed in the divine right of kings to rule by personal fiat and had effectively dissolved Parliament in 1629. Meanwhile, continental Europe was awash in blood from the religious and political conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and tensions between Catholics and Protestants were felt keenly across the channel in England. While as the head of the Church of England Charles was nominally Protestant, he was accused of being insufficiently supportive of the Protestant cause and even of having Catholic sympathies himself (his wife Henrietta Maria was a Roman Catholic). All this made him the target of suspicion and outrage among Puritan dissenters who felt that the Anglican Church was insufficiently reformed and was now backsliding into Catholic ritualism.
Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed by Charles’s appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. The Anglican Church, like the Catholic Church, was an episcopal polity, i.e., a vertical hierarchy led by bishops and archbishops who ultimately answer to the sovereign. Charles and Archbishop Laud began a series of reforms designed to consolidate ecclesiastical—and therefore royal—power, ruthlessly persecuting dissenting bishops, non-conforming ministers and Puritan dissenters (some of whom fled England for the Massachusetts colonies).
Laud’s reforms met a stubborn obstacle in the Church of Scotland, which in 1638 openly rejected episcopal authority and adopted a horizontal, non-hierarchal structure. Ecclesiastical power was vested in assemblies of "presbyters," or church elders, who were elected by their congregations rather than nominated by authorities from above. Charles attempted to impose Episcopalian hierarchy on the Scottish Presbyterians by force, but had insufficient resources to do so. In order to raise funds, Charles convened Parliament for the first time in over ten years, but quickly found that the assembled gentlemen were more interested in discussing ten years’ worth of grievances against the absolutist monarch than in writing him checks to fund a war to solidify his own power. The so-called Short Parliament was quickly dissolved, but another Parliament convened in 1640 and soon acquired enough power to materially oppose Charles’s absolute rule. When Charles refused to accept constitutional limits to his power, the country fell into open civil war.
The English Civil War resulted in the execution of Charles and the installation of a new republican government, or Commonwealth, in 1649. But by 1653 the government, while nominally a parliamentary republic, had named the former general Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, making it a de facto military autocracy. The Protectorate fell apart upon Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the succession of his politically incompetent son Richard provided Charles II, the heir apparent to the throne who had been living in exile in the Netherlands, an opportunity to return. The monarchy was restored in 1660.
The years of the Restoration, in which Milton mainly composed Paradise Lost, however, were hardly an era of peace and reconciliation. The Great Plague of 1665 killed approximately a quarter of London’s population, while the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed much of the original City—cataclysms whose portentousness could not have been lost on Milton.
While Milton had begun planning a great epic as early as 1640, his original topic was not the Book of Genesis but, apparently, the legend of King Arthur. In planning an epic poem on an English subject, Milton was perhaps inspired by the example of Edmund Spenser—a poet whom Milton referred to as his “original”—whose poem The Faerie Queene (1590) was evidence that a deliberately archaizing epic by a modern English writer could be an artistic and popular success. Other modern epics such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1531) and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata(1581) served both as inspirations and as cautionary tales of the tedium that can result from recounting the deeds of “fabled knights / In battles feigned.”
The earliest drafts and sketches for what would become Paradise Lost, however, are in the form of a play—a tragedy, tentatively titled Adam Unparadised–begun as early as 1642. While Milton shifted the form from drama to epic, remnants of the earlier form remain, especially in Satan’s dramatic monologues. Over the next decades, Milton looked to older, classical epics as models: Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid and, importantly, Lucan’s On the Civil War(sometimes called thePharsalia). This Latin epic whose subject matter—the contest between the imperial forces of Julius Caesar and the republican forces of Pompey—would doubtless have had immediate personal relevance for him.
Milton’s unique challenge was to compose a Christian epic—an epic that represented the Christian values of faith, patience and service, which were patently at odds with the classical values of individual glory and physical action embodied in such heroes as Achilles, Odysseus or Aeneas. Milton claims that his own subject will be “the better fortitude / Of patience and heroic martyrdom / Unsung” and that the “deeds” of his own biblical heroes will be “not less but more heroic” than those of his classical predecessors. In Book Six, for example, the angel Raphael tells Adam the story of the Battle of Heaven, filling his account with allusions to the siege of Troy in the Iliad or the battle for Latium in the Aeneid. But on the third day of the battle God reveals to his assembled armies that their efforts were not materially important to the battle’s outcome, commanding them to “stand only and behold / God’s indignation on these godless poured / By me.” The angels’ heroism is shown by their obedience and faith, not by their outward acts.
Also significant was Milton’s choice to write his epic in blank verse—that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter. While widely used in drama, blank verse was not held to be suitable for epic, which was more often written in rhyming “heroic” couplets. Milton’s rejection of rhyme was deliberate. In an explanatory preface, Milton writes that rhyme—“the jingling sound of like endings”—is “the invention of a barbarous age” and claims blank verse on the model of Homer and Virgil as the restoration “of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.” While Milton’s choice would become influential, especially among the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, rhyming couplets remained fashionable for epics written throughout the Restoration and Augustan periods—perhaps confirming the substance of Milton’s critique.
Written by Zachary Roberts, Core Lecturer, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, introduction to Paradise Lost, ed. Orgel and Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
William Riley Parker, Milton: A Biography, 2ndedition, ed. Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)