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Paradise Lost was written by poet, politician, polemicist, and former student at Christ’s College, John Milton
The book is an octavo – the technical term used to describe the most common book size since the early 17th century. It is called an ‘octavo’ as each page is an eighth of the size of the original sheets of paper, which were folded to form the book – in size, it is about 19cm high. Its binding is made of leather and has been decorated with beautiful gold tooling on the front and spine. The book is a first edition.
The second page has an inscription in ink, in the hand of Thomas Hollis, who donated the book to Christ’s College in the 18th century. Thomas Hollis, (1720-77), was a strong supporter of liberty and greatly admired Milton for his republican views. He donated many of Milton’s works to Christ’s College’s Library, and indeed to libraries around the world. It has rather a plain title page and the rest of the contents are very simple in style as well. Many later editions of the poem were very lavish in comparison, with detailed illustrations.
Milton wanted the poem to stand alongside those written by the great authors of ancient Greece and Rome, such as Homer and Virgil.
However, unlike Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, which were epics featuring the many gods and goddesses of ancient Greek and Roman religion, Paradise Lost was a Christian epic poem, written, as Milton himself put it, “To justify the ways of God to man”.
Paradise lost was written by poet, politician, polemicist, and former student at Christ’s College, John Milton, (1608-1674), in 1667. Milton wanted the poem to stand alongside those written by the great authors of ancient Greece and Rome, such as Homer and Virgil.
However, unlike Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, which were epics featuring the many gods and goddesses of ancient Greek and Roman religions, Paradise Lost was a Christian epic poem, written, as Milton himself put it, “To justify the ways of God to man”.
Its central theme is the so-called ‘fall’ of man, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, having been tempted by Satan in the form of a snake.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Milton’s Paradise Lost takes nearly all of its central themes, characters and stories from the Bible, and remains one of the most significant and enduring literary works in the Christian tradition. Since its publication in 1667, the poem has inspired a wealth of writings dealing with religious themes. From the Romantic, [a movement during the late 18th and 19th centuries in Europe marked by an emphasis on feelings and passion], poets William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and William Blake, to modern authors such as C.S Lewis and the atheist Philip Pullman, many have been inspired by Paradise Lost. Milton’s own religious beliefs were Puritan, the uncomplimentary nickname given to those Protestants who felt the English Reformation, [the name given to the series of events that took place in 16th century England when the English Church broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church], had not been radical enough. Amongst other things, Puritans were dissatisfied with many of rituals practised within the Church of England and wished to abolish its system of bishops. To this day, many features of Puritan tradition live on in the various Christian churches, especially the Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregationalist denominations.
From an early age, Milton’s parents intended for him to become a clergyman in the Church of England: by his own account he was “destin’d of a child” for a religious career.
However, Milton’s developing Puritanism caused him to call into question what he came to see as the “tyranny” that had “invaded the Church,” something he explicitly stated in a polemical essay entitled ‘The Reason of Church Government’ (1641).
During Milton’s student years, Christ’s College itself had a reputation for being strongly of Puritan and this influence is evident in some of the poet’s early writings, which have a distinctly anti-Catholic edge. Later on, Milton served as an official propagandist for the Parliamentarian cause, speaking out strongly in favour of regicide, (in this case of Charles I).
By the time Paradise Lost was published, however, the Civil War, (1642-49), was over, the monarchy had been restored and Milton’s views were deemed treasonous. The poem itself, considered by many the finest poem in the English language and one of the most imaginative literary interpretations of the Bible ever written, clearly shows how religion, politics and literature were very closely linked during this period.
This is a site compiled by members of Christ’s College as part of celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth in 2008. It is aimed at sixth form level study and offers a comprehensive guide to Paradise lost and John Milton as well as discussing key themes and contexts. Many sections explicitly discuss religious aspects of the poem.
A collaboration between the Professor of English at Dartmouth College and his students, this resource offers an annotated collection of all of Milton’s poetry and selections of his prose.
The BBC radio dramatisation of Paradise Lost featuring Denis Quilley, Ian McDiarmid and Matthew Morgan is available to listen to on YouTube.
(2003), edited by T.N. Corns, contains many useful chapters discussing Milton’s work in a religious context, including ‘Milton on the Bible’, ‘Milton and Puritanism’ and ‘The Radical Religious Politics of Paradise lost’.
(2014), edited by Louis Schwartz, also offers a good introduction to the poem. Useful chapters include ‘The Problem of God’ and ‘Milton’s Bible’.