Home Page Romantic Lit. & the ArtsMilton & the 17th Century

February 25, 2001

Prof. S. Gottlieb

Tips on Reading the Verse of Paradise Lost

  • The verse paragraph is the grammatical unit of Milton's poem. The first one extends as a single sentence for 26 lines. The main point can fall anywhere in this paragraph. In this first instance, line 1 announces the theme ("Of Man's First Disobedience"). Lines 1-6 expand the parts of the theme. The remaining lines discuss the poetic power and the poet, and express a prayer for illumination. Lines 25-26 re-express the theme in terms of Milton's motives. This verse unit is unified by several means; these means include a thematic relationship of verbs that express a pattern of instruction: "restore" (5), "rose" (10), "instruct" (19), "Illumine ... raise ... support" (23), and "justify" (26). These verbs are unified round the idea of instruction, learning, inspiration, and edification. Sound clusters also unify verse paragraphs: "woe" (3), 'flow'd" (11), "Invoke" (13). "Justify" (26) means prove, but also to put in order, as one might left or right justify text. My paragraphs on these pages are left justified. Word reference is equally complex. Additionally, sound clusters may carry musical or thematic or rhetorical significance. The phrase, "this great Argument" (25), can be said to refer Milton's poem as a whole, to Milton's rhetoric ("rhetoric" being the art and the details of persuasion), or to Milton's theme. But is Milton's theme "Man's First Disobedience" (I.1), or does Milton's theme include some of what is mentioned in the first 26 lines of the poem? This constant flux of Milton's language, a strictness based on language's malleability, is a feature of Baroque poetry. The size of Milton's verse paragraph is enormous, suggesting a containment of multitudes of meaning, and an ongoing large-scale story. But Milton's style is unique, and although his influence on later poets was huge and apparent in aspects of their styles, particularly in the Nineteenth Century, no one has ever successfully imitated him.

  • Milton published his ten book version of Paradise Lost in 1667, with two reissues in 1668 and 1669. In 1674, with the help of Quaker friends, he published a second edition in twelve books. This second edition, which forms the basis of what is read today, had many emendations. Milton could not read his text, except from memory, and since 1751 had written only to sign his name. Yet the care of small details in the text is very fine. For instance, Eden is italicized, but Paradise is not. Death (sometimes) and some allegorical characters (Sin, Death) are italicized, as are some quoted words of God. Such typography determines meaning or conditions the reader's expectation of shifts in tone (the feeling created by words in context).

  • In any verse paragraph, the position of enjambment - wherein the line of verse ends, but the sense continues, and so the flow continues into the next line - will vary enormously, often for emphasis, but sometimes for the sake of sheer variation. Note Book Two, line 642-648, where what we call sentences begin and end in different parts of verse lines.

  • Often the adjective follows the noun, as in the image, "darkness visible" (63) or "ever-burning Sulphur unconsumed" (69). This is a construction Milton learned from Latin and Italian poetry - he wrote in both those languages. The images often provide essential metaphors in PL.

  • There is a considerable amount of repetition of phrases and therefore of images, often with variation. Knowing this can prevent getting lost in the text. See, for example, Book Two, Lines 555-565. Can you identify the words and images and their variations there?

  • Forget capitalization of words. It's capricious, but mostly affects nouns within the verse paragraphs. Punctuation had varying uses in the late Seventeenth Century, and sometimes differed from our uses. Often, as one moves from a comma to a semicolon to a colon, the degree to which the sentence pauses increases.

  • Milton was a fine amateur musician, and wrote highly musical and expressive sounds in his verse. In Paradise Lost, he writes blank verse - "blank" meaning no rhyme - rhymeless, iambic pentameter lines. But there is considerable rhyme, metrical control, and repeated sounds, particularly alliteration, all of which provide echos of meaning, tone, and subliminal suggestion. Meter, the emphasis or de-emphasis on the stress of a word, is also controlled by Milton. Because he uses syllable count, usually 10 syllables per line, rather than stress count, stress becomes rhetorically important - that is, part of Milton's persuasive means. Feet, the units of stress (for instance, iambic [-'] - may be reversed, shortened, or elongated, avoiding any monotony and insinuating meaning and the onward motion of the shifting language. Milton varies his stress between 3 and 10 (using all monosyllables) per line, in a pattern of ceaseless change. The verse breathes.

  • The caesura, or complete pause within the poetic line, moves its position more often and more completely throughout the line than is the case with any poet of the English Renaissance or Seventeenth Century.

  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Milton invented over a thousand words: "bickering" and "brewed" are among these. Milton's language is living tissue, constantly reinvented as the story progresses; in this way, Milton appears to embody the poet as the inspired voice of the Holy Spirit.

  • Perhaps following the via negativa (the "negative way' of defining things) of Renaissance logicians, we find an abundance of negative compound words of Milton's invention: "Undelighted," "disespouse" (meaning disown an idea). When applied to Satan or to Adam, such negatives are ironic in their tone and in their application.

  • You will find a widespread use of doublets, ideas stated twice but in words or phrases with diverse flavors: "waste and wild" (60).

  • Spelling is still "unfixed" (not standardized) in the Seventeenth Century, and Milton varies the spelling of words. He uses frequent contractions ("What'er" means whatever; "T' whom" means To whom; "ras'd" is raised, "Fain" is Feign; "Debaush" is Debauch; "bin" is been) that have disappeared. Milton's often unique spelling is more phonetic than ours. In the Seventeenth Century, one could still select spelling for effect rather than for correctness, though within the limits of readability.

  • Some of spellings Milton selected for the sake of elision, the omission of parts of word formations: Ex: ("evning"). Elision aids the metrical and therefore the musical aspect of verse.

  • As in Donne's poems, Milton puns often, sometimes in English and Latin simultaneously. By sustaining two points of view, puns provide a frequent source of irony and criticism. "Dis" in "Disobedience" puns on the Greek word for Hell (Dis). "Sole" and "Soul" (Eve is Adam's soul and his sole partner) provide "plays on homonymic ambiguity" (Thomas Corns. Milton's Language 65). The puns, based as they are on homonyms, are both musical and rhetorical. Moreover, since Eve is Adam's "Partner" and "Part," she is a separate entity and yet part of (perhaps even subordinate to) Adam - the rib of Adam.

  • Milton's combinations of extreme brightness and darkness, often in alternation, and often combined with enormous background shadings and "wide screen effects," is reminiscent of the chiaroscuro used by Caravaggio and Rembrandt to illuminate the perversity and the depth of character. Milton, who traveled in Italy, and saw Ruben's paintings in England, may have learned other Baroque painterly effects from these artists, and others: undulating lines, avoiding straight lines, swirling motions, the disruption of linear time, the presentation of scenes in panels - as in Renaissance frescoes around the walls of a room. Milton also borrows the devices of illusion and shifting perspective, as when Satan suddenly rises from the burning lake in Book One. Rapid motion for the devils, sweeping motion for God and the angels, combined with an often thick assortment of visual effects, sounds, colors, scents, and shifting perspectives, makes Milton the most visual of poets - and, as mentioned above, he was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.

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