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Paradise Lost | Context

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Religion and Politics

John Milton considered himself a radical Protestant Christian. He was deeply opposed to England's ruling Anglican church. Disdainful of the monarchy in general, he supported Oliver Cromwell, the English soldier who led parliamentary forces in the English Civil Wars and who overthrew Charles I to become England's Lord Protector. After the monarchy became restored, Milton fled and went into hiding to avoid being jailed or executed.

Milton wrote many political pamphlets during his life, and he believed strongly in an individual's right to freedom. He distrusted the institution of marriage and thought that power led to corruption—for Milton, God was the only true king, and any human monarch was automatically a tyrant. He found many of England's leaders unworthy, and his political pamphlets reflected these arguments.

Readers have long been interested in Milton's views on religion, given the religious subject of Paradise Lost. Milton considered himself a Presbyterian, an offshoot of the Anglican Church. He rejected Catholicism and the use of bishops and priests, whom he found to be corrupt. He believed that the separation of the Anglican Church into other Protestant groups was a good thing, and he encouraged his fellow Presbyterians to "be their own church." These views were too radical to be accepted by his contemporary churchgoers, so Milton abandoned Presbyterianism and did not belong to any church. His ideas continued to evolve until he felt all organized religions blocked people's access to spirituality.

Women

Contemporary readers tend to find Milton's view of women and their role problematic. His interpretation of the Bible on this subject is quite literal: women are inferior to men and must submit to them. However, this was the dominant view during Milton's time, and his stance would not have been considered unusual or insulting. However, Milton's Eve is not simply a temptress whose sexuality causes the downfall of humankind, which was the common interpretation of the biblical fall of man during this time. Instead, she is a complex being with the strong desire to acquire knowledge and be taken seriously.

Milton was somewhat progressive on this issue in an unlikely way: he was an advocate for divorce in an era in which it was uncommon. Milton believed that if either party in a marriage found it unsatisfactory, they should be able to ask for a divorce. He also didn't believe the prevailing notion at the time that marriage was solely for the purpose of procreation. Rather, he believed that companionship should be the goal of marriage.

Epic Poetry

Milton was introduced to classical Greek epics at a young age, and he made it his goal to write a great English epic. Though initially he wanted to write his epic on an English subject, the legend of King Arthur, he landed on something as large in scope as he could possibly get: the story of the fall of man.

There are many parallels in Paradise Lost to the ancient Greek epics, such as Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid. Elements of Greek epics, such as tales of warfare, heroes, villains, and love, are echoed in Milton's story but on a much grander scale. Other epic elements in Paradise Lost include invoking a muse to aid the writer in telling the story, beginning the story in medias res (in the middle) rather than in chronological order, and using similes and metaphors to show epic comparisons, such as comparing Satan's spear to the long mast of a ship. Milton spent over 10 years dictating the poem to his daughters after he became blind, and he eventually wrote its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), in which Satan tries and fails to tempt Jesus Christ.

Milton writes Paradise Lost in unrhymed blank verse of iambic pentameter. Iambic means the use of lines with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When this combination is used five times in a line, then the scheme is called iambic pentameter. Milton uses run-on lines without punctuation to avoid limits set by rhymed verse. He piles on epic similes one after the other in imitation of classical epic poems. In Milton's time readers expected poems to rhyme and were shocked by his use of iambic pentameter, which was previously used only in dramas. Although many critics argue that Satan may be the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, Milton probably intends the Son to be the hero of the poem because the Son voluntarily humbles himself to become human and sacrifices himself for the sins of humankind to "justify the ways of God to man."

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