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NA300212 - MILTON, J.: Paradise Lost (Abridged)
Paradise Lost, the epic meditated and planned by Milton over many years (years which included the turbulence of the Civil War and the strictures of the Commonwealth), was completed in 1663 and published in 1667. In 1668 he added the prose arguments, which provide plot summaries for each of the twelve Books into which the poem is divided.
John Milton, born in 1608, was educated at St. Paul’s School and Christ’s College, Cambridge. He achieved early fame as a scholar, poet and pamphleteer, arguing vehemently for the Puritan cause against King and Church. Political activity then occupied him for many years and he only truly returned to his first love, poetry, after the Restoration in 1660. Meanwhile, his private life had proved almost as controversial as his public life: he married Mary Powell in 1642, but her swift return to her Royalist parents spurred Milton to some provocative pamphlets arguing for divorce. Reconciliation with his wife was followed by the birth of three children. Mary died in 1652 and Milton remarried in 1656: Katherine Woodcock, however, lived only until 1658. His third marriage, to Elizabeth Minshull, took place in 1663; she outlived him.
Paradise Lost is Milton’s greatest work: Dryden described it in 1767 as “one of the greatest, most noble and sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.” Milton set himself the task of ‘justifying the ways of God to men’: in other words, to tell the story of Man’s creation, fall and redemption so that his readers might be moved to appreciate God’s wisdom and purpose.
The poem paints unforgettably vivid and powerful pictures, both of characters and places, in a magnificently subtle and sonorous blank verse. One of the most interesting aspects of his epic is the characterization of Satan, who (in spite of Milton’s efforts to disparage him) emerges as a tragic and in some ways heroic figure, evil though his intentions are.
Satan, the fallen rebel angel, defies God and seeks revenge by seducing Adam and Eve into disobedience to their creator. The human pair are poignantly evoked: paradoxically frail yet perfect, their sense of their own humanity (after the fall) is Everyman’s plight – we find ourselves, our capacity for wonder, love, shame, hope and despair, in them.
This abbreviated version of the poem focuses especially on Books I, II, IV, IX, X and XII. Prose summaries, based on Milton’s own, are provided for those
sections of the poem not included.
Books I and II: Satan, and his comrades arise from their place of punishment, Hell, build the infernal city of Pandaemonium, and resolve to seek the destruction of mankind. Satan undertakes the journey alone, passing through Chaos towards Earth.
Book IV: Describes Satan’s penetration of Eden and introduces “our first
parents” Adam and Eve, in the perfection of Paradise.
Book IX: The dramatic climax of the poem: Satan successfully persuades
Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, she in turn draws Adam into sin, and their lustful union (followed by shame) represents the new truth of their situation.
Book X: The story of God’s judgment, and Satan’s triumphant return to Hell, swiftly followed by shameful and monstrous transformation.
Book XII: Adam and Eve are consoled by an account of the future redemption of Man by Christ and, gently grieving, the pair departs from Eden to begin human history.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Anton Lesser is one of Britain’s leading classical actors. He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His career has also encompassed contemporary drama, notably The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. Appearances in major television drama productions include The Oresteia, The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida and The Mill on the Floss.
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