Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Revision tips for Paradise Lost and Genesis from London English tutor Toby.
Paradise Lost Overview
Anyone sitting their English A Level with the OCR exam board this summer might have the daunting task before them of writing a timed essay on John Milton’s masterwork, Paradise Lost. Or, more precisely, an essay comparing Books IX and X of the poem to a dramatic work written before 1900.
Milton’s poem presents many difficulties to students, ranging from his love of inverted word order ("Of man’s first disobedience [...] Sing Hev’nly Muse"), to his dense use of biblical and classical allusions (casually mentioning, for instance, various Canaanite gods, forgotten Israelite prophets, obscure demons, and odd bits of the Iliad and the Aeneid, such as “Juno’s ire[...]that so long/ Perplexed the Greek and Cytherea’s Son”. Perplexed who now?!)
There is also, of course, his archaic language, his borrowings from Latin, and the poem’s great length. It is quite understandable that amid all these assaults on their basic comprehension, students trying to revise this poem find themselves gnashing their teeth in horrified despair.
A great way into Books IX and X of the poem, whether you are reading them for the first time, or swatting up for imminent exams, is to begin by reading Milton’s source material: the story of the Fall as it is told in Genesis.
Below I have outlined a few of the key differences between the two texts. Each of these is telling; wherever Milton inserted something into the story that wasn’t there before, he must have had a reason to do so, and so there is much to be made of these changes.
The most obvious discrepancy between PL and Genesis is the time devoted to the story in each version. What Milton spends two whole books on, covering well over 2,000 lines of poetry, is just 2 chapters in The Bible (which by very rough approximation, makes Milton’s Fall 40 times longer!)
For revision purposes, this is great, as it means you can whizz through the source material in next to no time. But it also tells us a lot about Milton’s purposes in the poem, as it suggests implicitly that he found there are gaps in the original story that need filling out. In Book I, Milton announces his intention to “justify the ways of God to men.” This is worth bearing in mind when we look at the changes and additions he makes to the myth.
The Devil in Paradise Lost
In the original story, the woman (who is only given the name Eve after the Fall) is tempted to eat the fruit by the serpent, “more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God hath made.” There is no suggestion that the serpent is in fact possessed by the Devil who has chosen to “imbrute” himself, as Milton puts it.
Milton is drawing for this idea on a Christian tradition that evolved after the writing of the Old Testament. There is possibly a Theological reason for this, that relates to the Problem of Evil. If God is all good and all powerful, why is there suffering in the world? And in the case of the Garden of Eden, why does the serpent, one of God’s creatures, seek to destroy man?
The answer provided by certain Christians is that evil comes not from God, but from the Devil. Were it not for the malice in Lucifer, God’s fallen angel, the serpent would have no evil designs on Adam and Eve.
Eve's Corruption of Adam
It is a commonplace feature of feminist criticism that the myth of the Fall is fundamentally sexist, as it blames woman for eating the fruit before man. However, if you read the original text, it is apparent that much of this sexism is actually imposed by later commentators, including Milton.
Observe how Milton has Eve deliver a soliloquy expressing sexual jealousy towards her imagined successor, during which she talks herself into making sure Adam follows her into her fallen state:
But what if God have seen,
And Death ensue? then I shall be no more,
And Adam wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
A death to think. Confirm'd then I resolve;
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe
Milton then goes on to give Eve a great long speech convincing Adam that eating the fruit will not cause his death, but will in fact give him god like powers. No equivalent motivation or speech is given to Eve in The Bible. All we get is this:
She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Note the matter of fact tone of this narrative, which imputes no particular blame or cunning to the woman. Again Milton seems to be interested not just in what happened, but also in explaining why it happened like that. For him, it’s not enough simply to say that Eve ate the fruit and then Adam ate it. He gives them reasons for theirs sins that relate to their individual characters.
There are of course many other changes, both large and small, that Milton makes to his Biblical source. I have only given a very brief overview here, and hope that you will sit down with both texts and tease out just what Milton changed and why. Oh, and good luck in your exams!
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.