What, if anything, should paradise mean to us right now? Paradise Lost, John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic of the Fall, which begins with “man’s first disobedience,” constitutes a heroic attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.”
A poem that shifts from rebel angels waging war in heaven to the pageantry of hell to Adam and Eve in the lush confines of the Garden of Eden, Paradise Lost wrestles with questions of human freedom, divine providence, political organization, religious tolerance, the relationship between church and state, the possibility of marriage between equals, and—crucially—the nature of good and evil.
This canonical epic in blank verse, far from reproducing a doctrinaire version of the story of Adam and Eve, invents an entire mythology and, along with it, a poetic moral calculus uniquely expressive of Milton’s contradictory position in an age of civil war and radically changing social formations.
In this course, students will read the whole of Paradise Lost in the context both of Milton’s poetic career and of the poem’s complex and curious reception, with particular attention to Milton’s meditations on the nature of paradise.
- Is the figure of Satan—“better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven”—best understood as the embodiment of pure malevolence or as a tragic hero?
- Was Milton, as the Romantic poet William Blake put it, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”?
- To what degree do Adam and Eve bear responsibility for their exile from Eden?
- Is the Fall of Man, in fact, a fortunate fall?
- How should we think about the operations of gender and desire over the course of the poem?
- What are the poem’s politics and to what degree do they map onto the frameworks of the English Civil War and the Restoration?
- How have readers ranging from Andrew Marvell to the Romantics to contemporary scholars understood the poetic, philosophical, and historical implications of this monumental work in verse?