“Paradise Lost” Revisited -- By: Arthur Henry Robertson

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 01:2 (Feb 1999)
Article: “Paradise Lost” Revisited
Author: Arthur Henry Robertson

“Paradise Lost” Revisited

Arthur Henry Robertson, Ph.D.

Late Director of Human Rights for the Council of Europe

With “Paradise Lost” John Milton commands an unquestioned place as the principal epic poet in the English language. The poem, however, is not so much an expression of the English genius as a product of Latin culture. Shakespeare is unchallenged as England’s most famous poet and playwright; his works reflect the times in which he lived and embodies the spirit of the Elizabethan age. Milton, however, is no typical Englishman. His writings have more in common with Dante and Camoes than with Shakespeare or his own contemporaries; his background is not national, but European.

Paradise Lost is the best-known epic in the English language, and the great epic poets of the world are so few that they may be counted on one hand. This particular style of art, as we know it today, first appears on the literary stage in the works of Homer and is developed to its full stature by Virgil. Though other examples of the epic are found in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature, the classical tradition is continued by Dante in the Divina Comedia, still writing in the same country and in substantially the same language as Virgil. Indeed the guide whom Dante chose to lead him through the “Inferno” was none other than Virgil himself. The tradition of epic poetry was next exemplified by Camoes in “The Lusiads,” again an expression of the Latin genius. Milton from his early youth resolved to dedicate himself to the composition of a great epic which should be one of the classics of the English language; but in doing so he selected his medium from the classical tradition and infused it with a theme inspired by his own religious nature.

Milton was born in London in 1608, while Shakespeare was still alive, while Portugal was a part of the Spanish Empire, and when only the fringes of Brazil were even known. He was brought up in an era when Latin was the international language of men of culture, and when civilization was a European concept unfettered by narrow nationalism. Like other educated men of his time he read and wrote not only in Latin but also in Italian, and traveled in Italy to complete his education. By that time he had already established his fame as a poet with “Lycidas”, a lament on the death of a friend, two lyrical poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and a number of sonnets in English and Italian. But Milton was recalled to England in 1639 by civil war at home. The Parliament, which drew its religious inspiration largely from the Puritan Sect to which Milton belonged, was fighting against the royal prerogative exercised by King Charles the First. Milton, the student and the scholar, then devoted himself for twenty years to public life, becoming Secretary to the Counci...

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