Paradise. Lots of connotations. For some it is the place of perfection (Hawaii, for many), and for others it is the Garden of Eden, which is how Milton deemed the meaning in his epic poem Paradise Lost.
What makes this an epic poem?
For one thing it is like the other poems: BIG. Milton transcribed a twelve book poem to his amanuensis, (he was blind at the time he “wrote” it), which came to over 10,000 lines. He takes on the big topic of God’s way of doing things. And there are the other big characters of Adam, Eve, and Satan,. The theme of good and evil is a pretty big concept as well.
To understand the poem, let’s look at the poet.
During the 1600s in England, the government was undergoing change, which is definitely an understatement. John Milton got himself in trouble, and eventually into prison, due to his political beliefs. As a writer, he considered himself among the upper echelon, but thought he could improve his game and be considered one of the truly big league guys (like Homer and Virgil) if he, too, wrote an epic poem. Although he’d been planning to write Paradise Lost for some time, it’s thought his disenchantment with England’s government might have also been a catalyst for writing about a paradise (his country’s government) being lost.
(thanks, Shmoop, you always say it so much better)
The other thing about epic poetry that you should know is that it always begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. This means that the poem begins, and then usually gives you a back-story before returning you to where you began, and then moving forward. For example,Paradise Lost begins with Satan already in Hell, but all the events leading up to it are narrated in Books 5 and 6. Similarly, the creation of the world, of Adam, and of Eve takes place sometime between Satan’s fall and the solidification of his plans for revenge (Books 1-2), but the creation is described in Books 7 and 8. In other words, the poem begins somewhere in the middle of the story, but then goes back and fills in the details. In medias res, baby.
Now, Milton’s poem doesn’t deal with war or the foundation of one of history’s greatest empires, and in this respect his epic poem is different from most of his major generic forebears (Homer, Virgil, and Spenser chief among them). While we do have a huge battle sequence in Book 6, something about it just seems funny. For example, it’s hard to take the battle seriously because we already know the outcome (Satan loses, which we learn in the very first book of the poem); if we’ve somehow forgotten the outcome, however, we always get the sense that God is going to win. The weirdness of Book 6 is explained at the beginning of Book 9, where Milton says flat out that he’s not interested in the type of martial heroism typical of epic poetry. He’s more interested in a type of internal, spiritual, Christian heroism, what he calls the “better fortitude/ Of patience and heroic martyrdom/ Unsung [i.e., not sung about in previous epics]” (9.31-33).
And he sticks to his guns: one could very well characterize Paradise Lost as an epic poem about “patience,” if only because it is Adam and Eve’s impatience that is the cause of their downfall. Now you might be asking yourself, what’s epic about patience, Adam, Eve, etc.? Well, for the Christian world, Adam and Eve’s story is of comparable significance as the founding of Rome or the Trojan War. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, by eating the Forbidden Fruit, Adam and Eve introduced sin and death into the world, two very serious consequences. Seriously, who likes death?
Paradise Lost is not light reading. Furthermore, it can be overwhelming to read, plus it addresses (for some) an uncomfortable topic. Nonetheless, Milton tackles the subject of choice (free will) in an eloquent manner, and his epic poem set a standard for tone and diction for English poets (probably all poets). I have to admire a writer who dedicated so much time to one particular work. The results prove that tenacity and perseverance are part of a writer’s toolbox.