50 Days of Paradise Lost

Blind John Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughters, by Munkácsy Mihály, 1878. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

Political instability, freedom of speech and conscience under threat, censorship, rampant ideological and religious persecution, violent overthrow of exiting government, civil war, foreign intervention, national collapse. If you think I am writing about our troubled times, you are mistaken. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) was written by a man who lived through and was at the forefront of the above-mentioned cataclysmic changes in the life of England in the 17th century.

Beheadings of kings did not originate in France during the revolution of 1789. 140 years prior, in 1649, a group of radical English revolutionaries beheaded King Charles I, abolished the monarchy, and established the Commonwealth, whose leader, Oliver Cromwell, was one of the most controversial figures in English history. Despite his many crimes, including the Irish genocide, his statue still stands in front of the Parliament building in London. Most critics agree that Milton’s main character in Paradise Lost, the charismatic, seductive and doomed Satan, was inspired by the tectonic figure of Cromwell.

Please join us for a 50-day Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Facebook facilitated reading of Milton’s immortal epic inspired by both the Old Testament and the New Testament, The Iliad and The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy and the political turmoil of 17th century England. We will follow the story of Satan’s fall from grace, his intellectual and philosophical dilemmas and transgressions, God’s creation of Eden and its inhabitants, Adam and Eve, their inevitable seduction and catastrophic banishment. A book of unparalleled wisdom, Paradise Lost offers a deeply introspective look at the fate of humanity and the complexity of free will.

Starting on Sept. 1, we will read 5-7 pages a day and finish the entire 10,000-line epic on Oct. 20. I will provide daily Facebook posts on the history, politics, art, literature and Milton’s personal life experiences that inspired the creation of Paradise Lost. The epic consists of 12 books, just like The Aeneid which served as one of the sources of inspiration for Milton. I will write longer introductions to each book that will appear on this page which will cover Milton’s biography, the history of English Reformation and the political complexities of Stuart England, multiple Paradise Lost illustrations, and other topics. I will use the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost which offers excellent notes and commentary in addition to criticism and bibliography.

The introduction to each of the 12 books will follow this introduction below in reverse order, with the newest introduction at the top. If you are joining us after we begin, just scroll to the bottom and get started.

Join the conversation at the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group.

-Anna Barker


Book One: Sept. 1-4
Book Two: Sept. 5-8
Book Three: Sept. 9-12
Book Four: Sept. 13-16
Book Five: Sept. 17-20
Book Six: Sept. 21-24
Book Seven: Sept. 25-28
Book Eight: Sept. 29-Oct. 2
Book Nine: Oct. 3-7
Book Ten: Oct. 8-12
Book Eleven: Oct. 13-16
Book Twelve: Oct. 17-20


Book Twelve


Michelangelo, Fall of Man, Sistine Chapel, 1508-12.

As we are getting close to the end of our epic journey through Paradise Lost, I would like to thank all the readers for their perseverance and support! I couldn’t have done it without you!

I’ve been guiding students through Paradise Lost as a part of a course entitled Pact with the Devil for the past five years in collaboration with my colleague Waltraud Maierhofer. This semester I am teaching it solo and, in addition to Paradise Lost, my students get to read the following books:

The Book of Job
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Goethe, Faust
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
Dostoevsky, excerpts from Brothers Karamazov
Bulgakov, Master and Margarita

Three cheers for University of Iowa undergraduates! At this point we are almost done with Part One of Goethe’s Faust! All the books we discuss have one thing in common – Satan, Devil, Lucifer or Mephistopheles are the main or prominent characters who contribute substantially to the development of the action. In addition to reading fabulous books, we look at fabulous art by Henry Fuseli, William Blake, Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Dore and many other artists and listen to fabulous Faust inspired music – Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Gounod’s Faust, Boito’s Mephistopheles, Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Mephisto Waltz and many other compositions.

Moby-Dick would be a great addition to this course, but that would be too much reading for one semester! It is fascinating and very instructive to note that the greatest literary works in several cultures (Paradise Lost in England, Faust in Germany, Brothers Karamazov in Russia, and Moby-Dick in the U.S.) all deal with the power of darkness and human curiosity and weakness while confronted with an offer of greater knowledge or understanding – invariably with devastating consequences…

When Faust asks Mephistopheles “who are you, then?” the Prince of Darkness replies:

“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works goods.”

I hope that our encounter with evil and darkness brought some light and introspection into your lives during this most unusual year! And now stay tuned for the final 20 pages of Paradise Lost!

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Twelve.

-Anna Barker

Book Eleven

Books inspired by Paradise Lost

Theodor von Holst illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Victor is rushing out the door to get away from the Creature he created out of cadaver parts.

Paradise Lost was an event in English literature that inspired a tremendous following. One of the greatest and most unusual books written under the influence of Milton’s epic was a novel by a nineteen-year-old English woman published in 1818 entitled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, known today as the first book of science fiction. Mary Shelley (1797–1851) was no ordinary nineteen-year-old. She was the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – both friends of the Milton illustrator William Blake. Mary Shelley became the wife of the English poet Percy Shelley with whom she visited Lord Byron in Switzerland, where Frankenstein was written. Frankenstein was the product of a decade of intense reading and studying and became the quintessential 19th century reinterpretation of the creation myth.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein fashions his Creature without love and does not provide for his livelihood. The Creature is thrust into an unwelcoming world where he is only accepted by a blind man (an homage to Milton who sees things “invisible to mortal sight”) and learns about what it means to be a human being – yes, you guessed it – from reading Paradise Lost! Mary Shelley juxtaposes Milton’s loving and benevolent story of creation with the harsh and impersonal reality of scientific progress. Victor Frankenstein may have contrived to animate a body made of cadaver parts, but this act of creation was doomed: “…by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created. … A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch… it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” A far cry from the glorious and loving creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost! The Creature quotes Paradise Lost when he finally confronts Victor and demands the creation of a mate that Victor failed to provide. Inspired by Milton, Mary Shelley raised philosophical, theological and ethical questions about a scientist trying to usurp the role of god.

The creation of Frankenstein is connected to Mary Shelly’s friendship with Lord Byron (1788-1824), who emulated the character of Milton’s Satan in his personal life and wrote several works inspired by Milton, including the drama Cain (1821). The protagonist of the play is the firstborn of Adam and Eve who is unhappy with his reduced lot:

“Life! – Toil! and wherefore should I toil? – because
My father could not keep his place in Eden.”

Cain is lured by Lucifer, “master of spirits,” who urges him to transgress the rules imposed on him by his parents. Cain is pleased with what he hears:

“Thou speakest to me of things which long have swum
In visions through my thought…”

The seducer who subverted Adam and Eve courts a new victim in Cain – and human tragedy unfolds yet again with devastating ferocity – Cain feels empowered by Lucifer, who leads him down the murderous path of fratricide… Byron’s Cain reads like a sequel to Paradise Lost.

And quite possibly the greatest and most fantastic novel inspired by Paradise Lost was written by an American author, Merman Melville (1819-1891). On the surface, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) may seem like a whaling tale, but this brooding novel burrows deeply into the darkness of the human soul and gives us the most iconic of characters, Captain Ahab, inspired by Milton’s Satan. In the novel, we hear tales of Ahab before we encounter him on the deck of the Pequod:

“He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab–so some think–but a good one. Oh, thou’lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen.”

Melville’s telling comparisons of Ahab to Satan (“ungodly, god-like man”) occur throughout the novel: “…moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal over-bearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Reading these lines makes me want to plunge into Melville’s wild tale yet again – and I might just do that as soon as we are done with Paradise Lost!

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Eleven.

-Anna Barker

Book Ten

Restoration and Milton After Paradise Lost

Charles II Coronation portrait, Westminster Abbey, April 23, 1661.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard was deposed, Stuart monarchy was restored, and King Charles II returned from exile in Europe in 1660. The period known as Interregnum (1649-1660) was over. Charles II was crowned in Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1661 – and Stuart rulers remained on the English throne till the arrival of the German speaking George I from Hanover in 1714. His descendant, Elizabeth II, rules England today.

With the death of Cromwell and the collapse of the Commonwealth, Milton remained a staunch defender of the parliamentary system. He wrote several pamphlets supporting non-monarchic government in England and attacking the establishment of a state religion (“A Treatise of Civil Power,” 1659; “A Letter to a Friend,” concerning the ruptures of the Commonwealth, written in October, 1659; “Proposals of certain expedients for the preventing of a civil war now feared,” written in November, 1659.)

With the return of the King, a warrant was issued for Milton’s arrest, his writings were burned, and Milton had to go into hiding. Intervention of powerful friends, such as the poet and MP Andrew Marvell, secured Milton’s freedom. He settled for a quiet life of intellectual endeavors in London, but had to abandon the city during the plague epidemic of 1665 and 1666 that killed 100,000 people, a quarter of London’s population, in 18 months. Yes, you guessed it – Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, was written during a pandemic that devastated England and London – stay tuned for plague references in the last two books of the epic poem.

The second edition of Paradise Lost, in 12 books, was published in 1674 and as Milton was revising his long poem, he was working on a sequel entitled Paradise Regained, published in 1671. The poem is composed in blank verse and contains just over 2,000 lines, which makes it 1/5 of the length of Paradise Lost. The shorter epic follows the story of the temptation of Christ from the Gospel of Luke and depicts and encounter of Christ and Satan in the wilderness. The plainer style of this poem suits Milton subject matter – the defeat of Satan occurs a second time and Christ emerges victorious, ready to offer himself for the salvation of humanity.

Milton final book, the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes (or Samson the Champion), was published in the same volume as Paradise Regained in 1671. It recounts the story of the Biblical hero Samson and his betrayal by Delila. Milton underscores Samson’s blindness and once again draws parallels between his hero’s and his own blindness. In his preface to the play, Milton offers his thoughts in Aristotle’s Poetics and Greek Tragedy.

Milton died of consumption in 1674 and was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London.

In my introduction to Book Eleven, I will comment on three books inspired by Paradise Lost – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lord Byron’s Cain, and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick!

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Ten.

-Anna Barker


Book Nine

Paradise Lost Illustrations by Gustave Dore

Gustave Dore, The Fall of Satan, “With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way, / And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies.” Paradise Lost, Book Two, (Lines 949-950),1866.

Gustave Dore (1832-1883) was France’s most prolific illustrator. In addition to illustrating dozens of volumes of literature and nonfiction, Dore was a painter, sculptor and printmaker whose chief method was wood engraving. In 1861, he received France’s highest order of merit, The Legion of Honor.

Dore’s prolific artistic output cannot be summed up in a short introduction. In addition to illustrating history books, travel guides and The Bible, he was commissioned to illustrate the following books (this list is incomplete):

1854 Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
1860 William Shakespeare, The Tempest
1862 Charles Perrault, Les Contes de Perrault
1863 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha
1865 Chateaubriand, Atala
1866 Dante Alighieri, The Vision of Hell
1867 Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio ed il Paradiso
1866 John Milton, Paradise Lost
1875 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
1877 Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
1884 Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

Over the course of 30 years, Dore illustrated the works of Balzac, Tennyson, Hugo, and many other writers. His illustrations of Don Quixote became so famous that readers, illustrators, translators, and theater and film directors are still influenced by his depiction of Quixote and Sancho, which became iconic. Dore’s output was prolific and his illustrations were extremely popular, resulting in multiple lucrative commissions both in France and in England. When Dore died unexpectedly at the age of 51 (he was working on Shakespeare illustrations at the time), he was buried at Pere Lachaise, France’s most famous cemetery, along with other notable compatriots such as Balzac, Bizet and Delacroix.

Dore’s illustrations for Paradise Lost, noted for richness of detail and imaginative style, are still in print today and can be purchased as a separate set of 50 images. The artist worked with an astonishing speed, often drawing his designs directly on the woodblocks. The newly developed electrotype process made it possible to duplicate the woodblock without loss of quality, resulting in consistent high-quality prints. All 50 illustrations are accompanied with lines from Paradise Lost, each caption presenting a full though or image. Dore’s meticulous attention to details and deep understanding of the illustrated text assured the lasting popularity of his work. Several of his illustrated books are in print today including The Bible, Don Quixote and Tales of Charles Perrault. Please check out the art of Dore online – the scope of his work, from large scale Biblical and mythological paintings to landscapes and sculptures, is truly impressive. I used Dore illustrations in my posts for days 1, 3, 11, 12, 13, 17 of the reading. Many more to come!

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Nine.

-Anna Barker


Book Eight

Paradise Lost Illustrations by William Blake

William Blake, Frontispiece to Milton, (1804-1810). Milton’s Paradise Lost statement of purposes, to “justify the ways of God to men,” appears at the bottom of the image.

William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, engraver, printer, philosopher, mystic and visionary best known for his books of poetry Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Milton. He spent most of his life in London at studied at the Royal Academy. A revolutionary to the core in his philosophical beliefs and metaphysical outlook, he rebelled against the rules of the Academy which he found stifling and was inspired by Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and iconoclastic contemporaries such as Henry Fuseli. Blake married an illiterate woman, Catherine Boucher, in 1782 and, reminiscent of Adam in Paradise Lost, taught her to read and write and trained her as an engraver and colorist. She helped with the publication of his books of poetry, which Blake both wrote and illustrated, then printed using a method he developed specifically for his artistic needs. This process involved writing the text of the poems and adding illustrations to copper plates, then etching the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper. The design of the poems and illuminations left a relief and the method became known as relief etching.

Blake lived at the time the American Revolution (1776) and French Revolution (1789) and his circle of friends was politically revolutionary and philosophically radical. He was a regular at the home of the publisher Joseph Johnson where he met and befriended Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense (1776) and Rights of Man (1791) both inspired and reflected the revolutionary sentiments on two continents. He was friends with the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book Original Storied from Real Life (1791) he illustrated, and the radical philosopher William Godwin, the future husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley became the author of the most famous 19th century interpretation of Paradise Lost, the first work of science fiction, Frankenstein (1818).

John Milton’s revolutionary sentiments were an inspiration for all the writers of Blake circle and Blake himself was so committed to his literary hero that he wrote and illustrated a two volume epic poem dedicated to the vision of an intellectual and metaphysical fusion of himself and John Milton, aptly entitled Milton (1804-1810). The hero of the poem is John Milton himself who descends from Heaven and helps guide Blake on his mystical journey of self-realization as a poet. Milton was printed as an illuminated etched text and decorated with watercolors. The preface to Milton includes the poem “And did those feet in ancient time” which was turned into a hymn in 1916. I linked the hymn to my Facebook post for Day 24 of the reading.

In addition to illustrating all of his own poems, Blake provided the most striking illustrations of the Book of Job and started illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1826, but this project remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1827, just as the third set of Paradise Lost illustrations known as the Linnell set (it contains only Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve, The Creation of Eve and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion).

Two sets of William Blake’s illustrations are complete, each containing twelve plates. Copies of Paradise Lost with Blake illustrations are still in print today. I used several of these illustrations in the course of our reading (Days 7, 10, 15, 18, 26, and a Book of Job illustration for Day 27).

Blake illustrated Milton more often than any other writer because of their shared political and philosophical convictions. Blake did not simply illustrate Paradise Lost, but engaged with the text and provided his interpretation of the epic poem. One of the two complete sets of illustrations, known as the Thomas set, is located in the Huntington Library in Man Marino, California and the second complete set, known as the Butts set, has been separated over the years and is located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Huntingtin Library and the Houghton Library, Harvard.

I will continue posting Blake illustrations as we read Books 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 of Paradise Lost.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Eight.

-Anna Barker


Book Seven

Paradise Lost Illustrations by Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli, The Shepherd’s Dream, from Paradise Lost, 1793.


One of the reasons I decided to launch the 50 Days of Paradise Lost project on Facebook was the rich history and splendor of the Paradise Lost illustrations. In my introductions to Books Seven, Eight, and Nine, I will offer brief commentaries on the illustrations of Henry Fuseli, William Blake and Gustave Dore.

I already used Henri Fuseli illustrations for days 8, 9, and 16 of the reading and introductions to Book One (Milton dictating to his daughters, 1793) and Book Five (Milton, when a youth, 1796-99). Please look for additional illustration online under “Henry Fuseli and Paradise Lost.”

Henri Fuseli (1741-1825) was an English painter and professor of painting at the Royal Academy in London. Born Johann Heinrich Füssli, he received a fabulous classical education in his native Zurich, travelled extensively and studied in Italy (where he changed his name to the more Italian sounding Fuseli), and became acquainted with the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who urged him to dedicate his life to art. Fuseli became an associate of the Royal Academy, eventually reaching the rank of a professor of painting and an academician.

Fuseli’s first large commission came from Alderman Boydell who was setting up a Shakespeare gallery. Shakespeare was an essential model for the English and European Romantics because he was a pre-Enlightenment poet who was not restricted by the rules of rationalism. His characters exist in the world of dreams, nightmares and supernatural prophecies, and the Romantics, who rejected the rigid restrictions of neoclassical clarity and balance, found Shakespeare inspirational. In Milton, they found a kindred spirit who valued the power of imagination above the confines of empirical reality. And with the dawn of new revolutions in America in 1776 and France in 1789, Milton’s radicalism and revolutionary zeal were in vogue yet again.

After the completion of the Shakespeare commission for which he provided striking and haunting illustrations to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” Fuseli embarked on a truly visionary project dedicated to Milton and Paradise Lost. A better illustrator could not be imagined since, just like Milton, Fuseli received a splendid classical education, traveled extensively through Europe and Italy, and was fluent in several languages (English, German, French, Italian). The entire project took 9 years and resulted in 47 large scale oil paintings.

Today, Fuseli is best known for his painting “The Nightmare” (1781), housed at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. If you are reading Paradise Lost from a Norton Critical Edition volume, the illustration on the cover is Fuseli’s painting “The Shepherd’s Dream,” (1793) which is located at the Tate Gallery in London. I saw the painting one year ago in Paris at an exhibition dedicated to Romantic art and the imposing size (painting: 1543 × 2153 mm, frame: 1784 × 2395 × 107 mm) and the haunting details of the painting left a lasting impression.

The painting illustrates the following lines from Book One of Paradise Lost:

“They but now who seemed
In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons
Now less than smallest dwarfs in narrow room
Throng numberless like…
…fairy elves,

Whose midnight revels by a forest side
Or fountain some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while overhead the moon
Sits arbitress and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course. They on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear.
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds!”

Lines 777-788

Milton is commenting on the spectacular fall of Satan’s followers who are now reduced in size to fairy elves who trouble the sleep of unsuspecting peasant wanderers.

In my next introduction I will comment on the illustrations of William Blake, who was inspired by Henry Fuseli.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Seven.

-Anna Barker


Book Six

Paradise Lost – history of composition and themes

John Milton, Paradise Lost, London: 1667, first edition, in 10 books.

Paradise Lost is no ordinary book and Milton’s artistic goals are downright staggering – he wants to “justify the ways of God to men.” A committed revolutionary who advocated and theorized about the execution of an English king, Milton wrote a 10,000-line epic about the rebellion against God by one of the most alluring and memorable characters in literature. Satan is the perfect tragic hero in the Ancient Greek and Roman sense – he is attractive, courageous, and doomed. The frequent comparisons to Odysseus, Jason and Achilles, as well as Aeneas, place Satan into a pantheon of heroes whose exploits, victories and failings are the stuff of legend. And Satan’s task is no ordinary one and surpasses in sheer audacity the twelve labors of Heracles – Satan wants to destroy the very entity that brings God joy, consequences be damned. Such seemingly futile struggle against authority is not new in literary tradition – Satan follows on the heels of characters such as Cain, Prometheus and Shakespeare’s Iago. Cynical, alienated from society, brilliant and iconoclastic, these characters revel in their own rebelliousness and bring destruction everywhere they go. Satan is willing to suspend all notions of virtue and morality to achieve his goals, he allows himself to succumb to severe doubt and falls into moments of introspection, but rallies both his own spirits and the resolve of his companions in Pandemonium because achieving his goal against all odds gratifies his ego and his pride.

Milton was completely blind and in poor health at the time of the composition of Paradise Lost and dictated the epic to several assistants and relatives. The first version, published in 1667, contained 10 books and was expanded through extensive editing into a 12 book second edition which was published in 1674. The inspiration for the 12-book format was Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic Milton read in the original and consciously emulated. Milton worked on his magnum opus for 15 years and incorporated decades of learning and contemplation, as well as his personal experiences related to the English Reformation and the English Civil war. Satan shares many characteristics with Oliver Cromwell, the charismatic and reprehensible hero of the parliamentary faction of the Commonwealth period of English history. Paradise Lost is both a metaphysical book and a very human story about faith, temptation and the pitfalls of free will.

Milton’s ideas were formed at a time of tremendous cataclysmic changes, both metaphysical and empirical. The English Reformation deposed theological truths and reshaped the definition of authority and subordination. The English Civil War put into question centuries-old ideas about governance and legitimized the execution of a king while promoting parliamentary republican rule. The scientific revolution was about to alter the place of human beings in the universe and was planting the seeds of doubt about theories, such as geocentrism, that have been indisputable since the time of Ptolemy. Galileo, whom Milton met during his travels through Italy, as well as Copernicus and Kepler, were advocating a heliocentric organization of the universe that left humanity on the outskirts of a world that can’t be understood and comprehended through theological explanations. Milton placed Adam and Eve into the center of the Universe, loved and cherished by God, in a last chance attempt to reclaim a centrality for humanity that was put into question by new scientific developments.

Revolutionary rebellion against authority, reshaping of theological and metaphysical truths are at the core of Paradise Lost, and Milton was ahead of his time in creating a narrative addressing all these shifting paradigms. A book inspired by both the Old Testament and the New Testament, The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost became an inspiration for 18th and 19th century Romantics who found an affinity with a writer who understood revolutionary sentiments. 140 years after the English Civil War resulted in the beheading of Charles I, the French Revolution of 1789 energized and destabilized Europe and the writers of this time found Milton relatable and inspirational. William Blake’s poem “Milton,” numerous sonnets by William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Percy Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and Lord Byron’s drama Cain and poem “Manfred,” owe their creation to Milton. As a matter of fact, Lord Byron’s Cain reads like a sequel to Paradise Lost and Byron himself cultivated a Satan like persona that became known in literature as Byronic.

In my next three introductions I will discuss several Paradise Lost illustrators, including Blake, Fuseli, and Dore.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Six.

-Anna Barker


Book Five

John Milton (Dec. 9, 1608-Nov. 8, 1674)

Henry Fuseli, “Milton, when a youth,” c. 1796-1799. In this painting, Milton is visited by the Muse of Poetry in his sleep.

And now we finally come to the biography of John Milton. Please read my earlier introductions (to Books One-Four) for information about the historical events that shaped Milton’s views and compositions. Since Milton’s creative powers evolved during the various stages of Stuart rule in England, I will divide this introduction into historical sections.

Tudor period

Elizabeth I (1558 -1603)

John Milton’s grandfather, Richard Milton, a devout Catholic, disinherited Milton’s father, also named John Milton (1562–1647), for converting to Protestantism. Milton’s father moved to London and married Milton’s mother Sarah Jeffrey (1572–1637).

Stuart period

James I (1603 – 1625)

John Milton was born in 1608 into a now prosperous Protestant family who employed a private tutor, Thomas Young, who received an MA from the University of St. Andrews. Milton later attended St Paul’s School, where he continued studying Greek and Latin.

Charles I (1625 – 1649)

In 1625, Milton started attending Christ’s College, Cambridge, and went on to receive a BA (1629) and MA (1632) while preparing to become an Anglican priest. In 1625, Milton’s education was briefly interrupted when Cambridge students were sent home because of a plague epidemic.

After graduation, Milton retired to his family estate and undertook a course of self-guided studies in science, politics, history, theology, philosophy and literature. He was fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, as well as Old English. Milton is considered to be the best educated writer in the English language. His poems Comus and Lycidas come from this period. In 1638-39 Milton undertook a Grand Tour of Europe and visited France, Italy and Greece where he furthered his education. His Latin poetry was met with great acclaim in the intellectual circles of Florence. During his stay in Rome, he conducted research in the Vatican library. Two visits had a particularly significant influence on Milton, to Venice and Geneva, since both were republics opposed to monarchic rule.

With the political situation deteriorating in England, Milton returned from the continent and became known for his political pamphlets that advocated anti-monarchist republican views. One of his most famous pamphlets of this period was Areopagitica (1644), an attack on censorship and a reasoned defense of free speech. Milton became an eloquent advocate for the creation of a republic in England, modelled on the Roman Republic and the governing principles of Venice and Geneva.

In 1642, Milton married the 16-year-old Mary Powell who resented her life with a 35-year-old husband to the point that she left him and returned to her family after one month of marriage. The couple reunited only three years later, when Mary returned at the start of the English Civil War. Mary Powell died in 1652 from complications caused by her fourth child delivery. The three daughters depicted in the Munkácsy Mihály painting were born during this marriage.

Milton wrote the earliest tracts advocating for legalized divorce based on the incompatibility of spouses. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion were written between 1643 and 1645 and many of the ideas Milton developed in these works will inform the relationship between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.

English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard (1649-1659)

Milton’s eloquent and brilliant political pamphlets made his reputation among the supporters of parliamentary republican rule. He was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in 1649 becoming Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State. His political treatises from this period, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and Eikonoklastes (1649) advocated for the right of the citizens to demand accountability from their rulers and sanctioned regicide. As England’s Secretary of State, he was responsible for conducting the republic’s foreign policy and corresponded in Latin and in several European languages with his counterparts on the continent. Additionally, Milton, who advocated against censorship in his earlier pamphlets, was tasked with setting censorship standards for the government of Oliver Cromwell and the production of official Commonwealth propaganda.

Milton’s clear and well-reasoned defense of the English republic, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, written in Latin and published in 1652, cemented his reputation as the theorist of the English Commonwealth. His second defense, Defensio Secunda, was published in 1654. In it, Milton sang the praises of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and defended the revolutionary ideology against domestic and continental attacks.

Milton became totally blind in 1652, possibly as a consequence of glaucoma. In subsequent years Milton dictated all of his works, including Paradise Lost, to a number of assistants, including the poet Andrew Marvell. The sonnet I posted on Day 1 of our reading, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” was written during this period.

Milton married a second time in 1656, to Katherine Woodcock, who died two years later, in 1658, after giving birth to a daughter who also died. Milton started working on Paradise Lost during this period.

Stuart Restoration

Charles II (1660–1685)

As the chief theorist of the English Republic and an associate of Oliver Cromwell, Milton had to go into hiding for his life after the return of Charles II. A warrant was issued for his arrest, his books were burned, and he was briefly imprisoned before a pardon was issued thanks to the intervention of powerful friends such as Andrew Marvell, who was now a member of Parliament.

In 1663, Milton married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull (1638–1728), a young woman 31 years his junior. The marriage lasted till his death.

The first edition of Milton’s magnum opus, the blank-verse epic poem Paradise Lost, was finished in 1667. A revised and expanded twelve book edition was published in 1674.

Milton followed up the publication of the 10,000-line  Paradise Lost with a 2,000-line blank verse epic poem Paradise Regained, based on the temptation and triumph of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, and the drama Samson Agonistes, recounting the heroic death of the Biblical Samson, both published in 1671.

Milton died in 1674 and was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate on Fore Street in London.

In my introduction to Book Six, I will examine Milton’s political and theological views and the history of the composition and publication of Paradise Lost.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Five.

-Anna Barker


Book Four

The English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell

Paul Delaroche, Cromwell at the Coffin Charles I, 1831.

The English Civil War (1642–1651) of the Stuart period can be divided into three distinct wars:

The First Civil War (1642–1646) – between Charles I and the supporters of the Long Parliament.

The Second Civil War (1648–1649) – between Charles I and the supporters of the Long Parliament. This war ended with the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649 – the first time an English king has been executed.

The Third Civil War (1649–1651) – between the supporters of King Charles II, the son of the beheaded Charles I, and the supporters of the Rump Parliament who won at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Charles II was exiled to France and the English monarchy ceased to exist. Parliamentary republican rule was established under Oliver Cromwell as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England (1649-1658) – this was the only time England was a Republic.

Unlike other English civil wars, such as the War of the Roses (1455-1487), the Stuart civil war was not fought between two factions attempting to establish themselves on the throne, but between two ideas of governance. The supporters of Charles I and Charles II were called Royalists, or “Cavaliers,” and represented the aristocracy and ruling classes who fought for the preservation of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. The term “Cavalier” also referred to the elegance of their clothes which were distinguished by bright colors and expensive fabrics decorated with lace and accompanied by long curly hairstyles for men. This particular detail is essential since their Parliamentarian adversaries were nicknamed “Roundheads” because of the shape of their short hair cuts. (Check out Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I in my introduction to Book Three of Paradise Lost for a great example of “Cavalier” high fashion.) If “Cavalier” was accepted by the Royalists as a complimentary term, the “Roundheads” felt this address was pejorative and preferred to be called Parliamentarians since they wanted the Parliament to have executive control over the administration of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Many of the Parliamentarians were Puritans and Presbyterians who opposed not only the extravagance of the aristocracy, but of the Church of England as well. Their greatest grievance Against Charles I was that he disbanded Parliament and ruled as an absolute monarch for 11 years. But look on the bright side – without Parliament he could not raise any money and was forced to make peace with France and Spain and withdraw from the Thirty Years’ War which was raging in Europe.

Oliver Cromwell remains the most controversial figure in English history because he supported regicide and, after leading the Parliamentarians to victory in the Civil Wars, assumed the role of the head of government with near dictatorial powers. He was a deeply devout Puritan who felt that God was guiding him to victory. His brutal suppression of the Irish uprising, which is considered a genocide, resulted in massive confiscation of Catholic property and the suppression of Catholic rights of property and representation for generations to come. Jonathan Swift later savaged the English brutality against the Irish in his political satire “A Modest Proposal” (1729) where he suggested that the Irish were so impoverished that they might as well sell their children to the wealthy English as food.

Oliver Cromwell may have started as a fighter against absolutism and supporter of Parliament, but he imposed censorship during his tenure and dismissed the Rump Parliament when he felt it politically expedient – committing the very same crime for which he executed Charles I. After ruling England for 10 years, he died of natural causes and was buried with great pomp and splendor in Westminster Abbey – not bad for a Puritan who resented the grandeur of the Church of England. In addition, a man who fought against hereditary rule, passed the Commonwealth to his son Richard who lacked his father’s leadership qualities. In 1661, two years after his death, the corpse of the man who once looked at the beheaded body of Charles I was dug up and beheaded, with his head exhibited on a pole in front of Westminster Hall for 25 years as a deterrent against future revolutionaries. The legacy of Oliver Cromwell is mixed – some consider him a genocidal dictator and hypocrite who usurped power for personal gain. Others praise his leadership role in steering England through the horrors of the civil wars and fratricidal bloodshed. John Milton called Cromwell “our chief of men” in one of his sonnets. More on Milton and Restoration in my introduction to Book Five.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Four.

-Anna Barker


Book Three

Stuart England

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I, 1633.

My Book Two introduction gave a quick summary of the major events of the House of Tudor rule in England. The first Stuart king of England, James I, was the great-great-grandson of the Tudor king Henry VII on his mother’s side, and the son of James IV of Scotland. When Elizabeth I died in 1603 without leaving any legitimate heirs, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (who was beheaded by Elizabeth as a political rival and threat), unified Scotland and England in what became known as the Union of the Crowns and became James I of England and James VI of Scotland. Stuart reign extended until 1714, when Queen Anne died childless and England invited a Protestant German prince, the Elector of Hanover, to assume the throne as George I. His descendant, Elizabeth II rules England today.

John Milton (1608-1674) lived his entire life under the House of Stuart rule, which, both under James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649), was marked by the continuation of the prosperity and stability ushered in by Queen Elizabeth’s I Golden Age and the blossoming of Protestant culture. One of the greatest masterpieces of this period was the King James Bible, an English translation of the Bible for the Anglican Church commissioned in 1604 and published in 1611 under the sponsorship of James I. Shakespeare’s great late plays, such as Macbeth (1606), known as The Scottish Play, were written and performed during the rule of James I, who was born in Scotland. Both the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare were a source of inspiration for Milton.

England avoided the catastrophic continental destruction that took place during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and resulted in the death of 1/3 of the German speaking population of Europe and the disappearance of Germany as a unified country till after the Franco-Prussian War and the Peace of Versailles of 1871. The devastation of the Protestant Reformation of the Tutor period was still fresh in the memory of the nation that preferred compromise and prosperity to civil strife. So how did this country descend into a Civil War and authorize the public beheading of the second Stuart monarch, King Charles I? We FINALLY get to meet Oliver Cromwell in my introduction to Book Four!

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Three.

-Anna Barker


Book Two

The English Reformation

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII, copy of the original destroyed by fire in 1698.

Even though Milton (1608-1674) was born during the reign of the first Stuart king of England, James I (James VI of Scotland), we must examine the sources of the English Civil War (1642–1651) that Milton witnessed in order to more fully understand the historical background of Paradise Lost. The root causes of the circumstances that led to the beheading Charles I, the son of James I, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell, lie in the history of the English Reformation which took place during the reign of the previous ruling house of England, the Tudors. The first Tudor king was Henry VII whose son, Henry VIII, famously married six wives – and beheaded two of them – in a futile attempt to provide a male heir for his throne. That’s the super-simplified version of a cataclysmic process that resulted in the first Brexit – England’s divorce from the Catholic Church and Rome. The first wife of Henry VIII was Catherine of Aragon, the most eligible princess in Europe, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile (yes, the ones who helped Columbus sail the ocean blue!). She failed to provide Henry VIII with a son, and due to a number of additional circumstances, Henry petitioned for an annulment of marriage. The Pope would not grant Henry’s request, and the English king, who just a few years earlier was given the tile of Defender of the Faith for his devout Catholicism by the Pope himself, decided to divorce the Catholic Church!

Catherine gave him one surviving daughter, Mary, and Anne Boleyn, for whose sake Henry moved England away from Rome, also gave him a daughter, Elizabeth. A third marriage finally gave Henry a male heir, the future Edward VI, who continued his father’s Protestant reforms. But he died at the age of 15 and his sister, Mary, the daughter of a Spanish Catholic princess, reversed the Anglican Reformation and once again restored papal jurisdiction over the Church of England. After her death, England entered a period known as the Golden Age under the rule of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, who finally put an end to the fratricidal bloodshed that accompanied the continuous theological and political disputes. The 1558 Act of Supremacy re-established England’s independence from Rome, doctrinal authority now rested in the hands of the English monarch who became known as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

In the course of 30 years, England went from being a Catholic country to a Protestant Anglican country with the king or the queen as the head of the church. This process was accompanied by a tremendous transfer of wealth from the Catholic church, who owned one-third of the land in England, to the landowners and aristocracy who supported the Protestant cause and the king himself. Land and monastery confiscations took place all over England, often accompanied by uprisings and revolts. Monks, nuns, and Catholic clergy were dispossessed and became homeless. Monasteries and abbeys transferred into the hands of the supporters of the king. Families were torn apart and divided because of theological and doctrinal disputes. This unprecedented polarization touched Milton’s family as well. John Milton’s grandfather, Richard Milton, a devout and pious Catholic, disinherited Milton’s father for embracing Protestantism. While searching for a job, he was forced to move to London where he married the poet’s mother Sarah Jeffrey (1572–1637) and became a successful scrivener.

Since Elizabeth I died without leaving a legitimate heir, the Tudor dynasty ended with her reign and the crown of England was passed to a Scottish king, James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who became known as James I of England. Milton’s life coincided with the rise and fall of the Stuart monarchs, a period I will address in my introduction to Book Three.

Please join us in the 50 Days of Paradise Lost Facebook group for daily discussion as we make our way through Book Two.

Anna Barker


Book One

Henry Fuseli, Milton Dictating to His Daughter, 1793, Art Institute of Chicago

Dear readers,

Welcome to 50 Days of Paradise Lost! After the tremendous success of 100 Days of Decameron, we fast forward 314 years and begin a new literary adventure in 17th century England. If The Decameron, completed in 1353, was a wild and irreverent sex romp written with the intent to escape the horrors of the Black Death pandemic that was devastating Florence and Europe at the time of Boccaccio’s composition, Paradise Lost is a wise and measured contemplation of the flaws and redeeming qualities of humanity in the aftermath of the Second English Civil War, the trial and execution of Charles I, and the restoration of Charles II. Many of us have a sinking sensation at present about the loss of something vital and essential for our well being and happiness, something that perhaps will never be restored. In a sense, we lost the paradise of our former lives which we treasured very little a mere six months ago.

John Milton (1608-1674) lived through a catastrophic period of English history when England became a republic governed by Oliver Cromwell. It is quite miraculous that Milton outlived Cromwell and managed to find enough peace and tranquility in his later years to complete Paradise Lost (1667). Many of you are familiar with the 1878 Munkácsy Mihály painting “John Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughters” which I used for the 50 Days of Paradise Lost announcement. And many of you asked the question – why was Milton dictating this epic to his daughters? The answer is quite remarkable – John Milton was completely blind at the time of the composition of his most famous work.

Milton lost his sight in 1652 and dictated the entirety of Paradise Lost to friends and relatives in the course of 15 years. Additionally, he was often sick during the composition years and suffered the loss of his second wife and their daughter. One of Milton’s most famous sonnets, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” is a mournful contemplation of his blindness:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton was not defeated by the total loss of sight. The last line of the sonnet – They also serve who only stand and wait – is a powerful statement of Milton’s undeterred spirit. Just like the prophetic seers of Greek Antiquity, such as Tiresias and Homer himself, Milton interprets his blindness as an opportunity to see deeper into the souls of human beings, without being sidelined by external distractions. Let us embark on this epic adventure and attempt to delve deeply into Milton’s vision of our flawed humanity.

The Mihály painting of blind Milton I used for the reading announcement can be found in Budapest, at the Hungarian National Gallery. The Henry Fuseli painting I am posting today is closer to Iowa City, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Please stay tuned for daily Facebook comments and longer introductions to the twelve books of Paradise Lost:

Book One: Milton’s blindness
Book Two: The English Reformation
Book Three: Stuart England
Book Four: English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell
Book Five: John Milton, poet, politician, visionary
Book Six: History of composition of Paradise Lost
Book Seven: Paradise Lost illustrations – Henry Fuseli
Book Eight: Paradise Lost illustrations – William Blake
Book Nine: Paradise Lost illustrations – Gustave Doré
Book Ten: Stuart Restoration and Milton after Paradise Lost
Book Eleven: Milton’s literary descendants
Book Twelve: Conclusion

Anna Barker