In John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton aims to explain the fall of man while incorporating many themes that influenced English society then, and that still pertain to culture today. Paradise Lost is considered Milton’s greatest work as the themes that are presented are both an accurate reflection of the environment during the time it was written, and stood the test of time. These themes include but are not limited to: monarchy as a symbol of power, Reformation that lead to disobedience, and the status of men and women at the time.
Parliamentary monarchy became popular in 17th century England and set the conditions for the culture. The monarchy was a symbol of power that clearly deemed class and social status of the people, ultimately creating a divide. This type of rule is also displayed in Paradise Lost, as Milton illustrates the hierarchy of the universe: God ruling above all, then Earth, and Hell. This system of power in 17th century England is what triggered the movement of Reformation. Reformation was a revolt that the people of England sparked during the suppression of the king’s religious laws. This same kind of disobedience took place in Milton’s classic poem whose main subjects Adam and Eve, revolt against God, who is their superior figure. Neither Adam and Eve nor the king’s people were content with submitting to authority, especially regarding their religious beliefs. This disobedience in both cases caused them to face the consequences. Milton expresses his views on the religious suppression of the time in more than one of his works. In Milton’s speech to the commonwealth of England in 1659, he states that “it will concern you while you are in power, so to regard other men’s consciousness, as you would your own should you be regarded in the power of others; and to consider that any law against conscious is alike in force against any conscious and so may one way or another justly rebound upon yourselves” (Milton). Clearly the right to choose religious and political affiliation was of paramount importance, as it clearly resonates in Paradise Lost.
The political hierarchy was not the only hierarchy that existed in the 1700s. “In Early Modern England, both gender hierarchy, with the man at the top, and the husband's patriarchal role as governor of his family and household were assumed to have been instituted by God and nature” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature 1). In the same way, Paradise Lost emphasizes the Biblical standard that Eve should submit to Adam. An example of this is shown in the garden when Eve removes herself from the conversation between Adam and Raphael. “Yet went she not, as not with such discourse / Delighted, or not capable of her ear / Of what was high: such pleasures she reserv'd, / Adam relating, she sole Auditress” (Milton 48-51). In this situation, Eve is proven to be able to understand the conversation, but she accepts her place in the hierarchy and leaves the discussion to Adam.
One of the main themes that is presented in the poem is disobedience. In this work, Milton tells the story of man’s transgression and in turn, his fall from grace. However, if man had never disobeyed God, death would have never entered the world and man would have never been afforded the chance to be saved. Because Adam and Eve gave into temptation and disobeyed God, they provided an opportunity for the manifestation of God’s love, mercy and grace. The sin ultimately produced good rather than the destruction that man deserved. This theme is paralleled by the English subjects during Milton’s time who refused to obey the political hierarchy of the monarchy, and papal power of the Pope, in both the Reformation and the subsequent protestant conversion.
Another prominent theme in the poem is both literal, and metaphorical hierarchy. Just as Heaven is literally located higher than Earth, God is deemed higher than man. Likewise, the king in England was seen as higher than his subjects. In either scenario, the order is not to be broken, as it can cause chaos if the natural flow is disrupted. An example of this order being broken is when Eve eats the forbidden fruit and thinks by eating it and disobeying God, that it “may render me more equal” (Milton 823). She then asks, “for inferior who is free?” (Milton 826). Her desire to break the order backfired on not just her, but all of mankind for all of eternity. The battle between sin and innocence play a crucial role in preventing the aging of this poem, as the two create a struggle that has no end. The original sin of Adam and Eve introduced evil to the once perfect and pure world that God made. Since then, sin has been ever present in our world and there is now no such thing as a perfect human.
These themes that are demonstrated throughout also show great relevance to the environment in England in the 1700s. During the late 1600s and early 1700s, a great chasm developed between the King and his subjects which resulted in a scathing conflict that is now referred to as the Reformation. The people of England were outraged and revolted against the king’s authority. Similarly, Adam and Eve revolted against God in the Garden of Eden by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Both of these instances stemmed from man’s desire to rule themselves. At the end of the Reformation was the dawning of a new age of thinking. People began to not only question the authority of the king and the Pope, they also began to question their own religious beliefs. “The invincibility of ‘the mind and spirit’ is something which even the foes of God understand. Though the fallen angels corrupt their ‘heavenly Essences’ with disobedience and revolt, they still have a keen understanding of the powers of perception, of personal reaction to one's environment ‘for neither do the Spirits damned/ Lose all their virtue’ ” (qtd. in Shah 5). This period in England’s history was a breakthrough time of personal independence and spiritual awakening which also included the Renaissance age. In the caste hierarchical structure, subjects have no authority to choose their position in society, or choose their religious beliefs. Milton’s Paradise Lost exhibits the struggle for superiority of mankind. Ultimately, Adam and Eve’s disobedience is a corruption of the hierarchy of God. Sin and innocence are the crux of the universal truth of humanity, which is why Milton spends much of the poem highlighting the fall of man, essentially attempting to convict the people of that time. Milton retells the story of the fall and in essence, also mirrors the people’s separation from the king during the time it was written.
Milton’s intent is revealed clearly in the first few lines of the poem as it says to “justify the ways of God to men” (25-6). Milton aims to explain why God allows Adam and Eve to commit the original sin. This Biblical parallel delves deeply into the psyche of man, his fall from grace, and ultimately his salvation and redemption. In retrospect, Milton only partially demonstrates this purpose in that ultimately he fails to fully justify God’s ways to man. At its essence, Paradise Lost is a tale of man’s failure to understand the depth and breadth of God and thereby falls from His grace. This is mentioned in the Bible as God says “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine” (New Living Translation Isa. 55.8). The Bible clearly states that God will never be able to be fully understood by man leaving holes in this major work of Christian theology.
Paradise Lost maintains its prevalence today because the themes represented are lessons that can still be taught and learned. In fact, it is a story formed at the beginning of time and continues for all time. The struggle between sin and innocence, disobeying God, and subjecting oneself to a higher authority are universal and timeless constructs. Children are taught the principles in early childhood and the precepts continue through adolescence and into adulthood. Since the topic is relevant to all ages, it adds to the timelessness and sustainability of not only Milton’s work, but the many works that have followed suit. The Smithsonian accounts for more than three hundred translations into fifty-seven different languages. In this article, Ben Panko writes that the poem illustrates the consequences of rebellion. “These explorations of revolt, Issa tells Flood, are part of what makes “Paradise Lost” maintain its relevance to so many people around the world today” (Panko 1).
Paradise Lost has greatly influenced pop culture today. The age old struggle of good versus evil abounds in every aspect of today’s culture from music, to literature, to mainstream movies. The main characters God, Satan, Adam, and Eve permeate most of American culture to varying degrees. “Feared by Puritans, fêted by Romantics, and reinvented by everybody else, Milton’s fallen archangel has worn many different masks over the centuries, from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab to television’s Tony Soprano and Walter White” (Simon 1). The work is recognized for not only accurately dissecting a Biblical story, but also being relatable to every time period since it was written.
This first true English epic has earned its place as one of the finest works of literature ever written. Milton successfully uses the combination of metaphors and allusions to relate a biblical story to the environment in which he lived. The way Milton personalized the characters, especially Satan, served as a tool to keep the readers engaged. Milton effectively placed himself in the time which the fall occurred in order to generate a work that made his thoughts relevant thousands of years later.
- “Archive of Classic Poems.” Milton; Poetry of John Milton, Full Text; Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, at Everypoet.com, www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/john_milton/milton_paradise_lost_book_4.htm.
- Isaiah 55 NLT, biblehub.com/nlt/isaiah/55.htm.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Credits, wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/credits.htm.
- Panko, Ben. “Why 'Paradise Lost' Is Translated So Much.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 July 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-paradise-lost-translated-so-much-180964137/.
- Shah, Umama. Impact of Renaissance on Paradise Lost.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/8953808/Impact_of_Renaissance_on_Paradise_Lost.
- Simon, Edward. “What's So 'American' About John Milton's Lucifer?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 Mar. 2017,
- “Online Library of Liberty.” The Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. 2 - Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1210.