Analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Regained

Written in four books, John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671) tells the story of Christ’s temptation by Satan and ultimate victory, using as a historical basis the version of the tale found in the Gospel of Luke. Milton preferred Luke’s version to that found in Matthew for the order of the three temptations, placing the temptation of the tower last and allowing for a dramatic conclusion. In the first book Satan asks Christ to transform a stone into bread after fasting for 40 days, and in the second Satan extends the invitation to Christ to receive “all the kingdoms of the world” as a gift. Milton intended the climax and the denouement, when the two characters of Christ and Satan realize the truth about one another, to conform to the recognition by hero and adversary that Aristotle considered essential to well-written tragedy.

As Satan tells Christ in The Fourth Book,

Good reason then, if I beforehand seek
To understand my Adversary, who
And what he is; his wisdom, power, intent,
By parle, or composition, truce, or league
To win him, or win from him what I can. (526–530)

By the conclusion of the heroic epic the speaker informs the audience, “The Son of God, with Godlike force endu’d” (602) and “regain’d lost Paradise” (608). Milton reflects on Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden by making clear, “for though that seat of earthly bliss be fail’d, / A fairer Paradise is founded now” (612–613). Although Satan may control man from hell for a time, he remains defeated and tormented by Christ’s victory and will “. . . hereafter learn with awe / To dread the Son of God” (625–626).


While not as well known as Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), to which it acts as sequel, this briefer epic has sparked much critical consideration. In The First Book readers learn that the speaker intends “to tell of deeds / Above Heroic” (14–15) that have remained untold too long. Discussion focuses on not only Christ as a heroic figure, but also the romantic view of Satan as a type of hero, as well as antihero. Most critics agree this Satan does not mimic the far more confi dent, blunt, and illinformed Satan of Paradise Lost. He refers to himself as “th’ Arch Fiend . . . / . . . that Spirit unfortunate” (356– 357) who through “rash revolt” sacrificed his “happy Station” in heaven to be driven “from bliss to the bottomless deep” (359–361). Seemingly not as intelligent as his former incarnation, this Satan needs to mumble Christ’s words to himself in a type of translation and at times engages in what some critics characterize as double talk, as in his explanation of his relationship to man:

. . . by them
I lost not what I lost, rather by them
I gain’d what I have gain’d, and with them dwell
Copartner in these Regions of the World,
If not disposer. (389–393)

Some see Satan as a parody of Christ, but others argue against that view, characterizing Satan as too diminished a fi gure to qualify. Most critics and readers fi nd the fi nal temptation, which concludes with Satan’s falling from the spire from which he tempts Christ to attempt flight, as the most interesting plot aspect. However, they also view the middle section and its argument over the value of human learning as crucial. Milton devoted most effort to this section. Some critics believe Milton reduces Christ to more of a human figure, something less than divine; some see nothing that might counter the idea of God’s dual nature, at once human and divine; others admit that Milton preserves Christ’s divinity but depicts Christ as dull and egotistical, an unattractive demigod.

Milton believed as other Protestant reformers of his age in Christ as an example for humans to imitate in order to regenerate their fallen nature. The very act of reading the holy word would stimulate better instincts and lead to obedience of God. The didactic nature of the poem is expected in light of Christ’s position as a teacher, or enlightener, of humans. Whether this Christ held any expectation that Satan would consider his teachings remains doubtful as he in The First Book “sternly” (406) replies to Satan’s logic. Christ calls up Job, the long-suffering biblical figure, as an example of a heroic figure that he will imitate. When he reveals Satan as a liar, the fi end counters, “Hard are the ways of truth, and rough to walk, / Smooth on the tongue discourst, pleasing to th’ ear” (478–479) as he admits, “Most men admire / Virtue, who follow not her lore” (482–483), arguing that admiration of the truth does not necessarily result in its pursuit.

Feminist critics find of interest that when Satan returns to hell to hold counsel with his demons prior to the second temptation, Belial suggests using women to tempt Christ. Milton adds humor to the scene when Satan rebuffs him by noting that he “weigh’st / All others by thyself” (173–174). When he returns to tempt Christ a second time, he leads with a description of food delights, in order to establish man’s hunger for not only material sustenance, but power over others. He reminds Christ of the wonders of wealth,to which Christ replies, with a foreshadowing of his future crucifixion, “Riches and Realms” are like a crown “Golden in show,” but in reality “a wreathe of thorns” (458– 459). The Third Book involves Satan’s attempt to seduce Christ with flattery and the offer of all knowledge, but not before he returns again to the subject of fame and the praise of the masses as a reason to reject God’s plan. Christ’s reply reflects Milton’s own leanings, for he blamed the people for the collapse of the republic and the Restoration of the monarchy. That belief rings clearly in Christ’s statement,

And what the people but a herd confus’d
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, and well weigh’d scarce worth the praise?
They praise and they admire they know not what. (49–52)

Christ then notes all of the virtues valued by Milton, wisdom, patience, and temperance, as preferable to “ambition, war, or violence” (90). Christ later tells Satan that suffering is requisite before any action may be taken: “who best / Can suffer, best can do” (194–195). Satan will be completely defeated in The Fourth Book, left “perplex’d and troubl’d at his bad success” (1). The speaker explains his failure, telling the audience that the “persuasive Rhetoric” had “sleek’t his tongue, and won so much on Eve.” However,

. . . Eve was Eve,
This far his over-match, who self-deceiv’d
And rash, beforehand had no better weigh’d
The strength he was to cope with, or his own. (6–9)

Stanley Fish explains Milton’s approach, clear in Paradise Regained, as not establishing a tension between a choice of God and a choice of the material. In Milton’s belief system these are not independent alternatives. Rather Milton theorizes that “the persons, things, and values that form one pole of this opposition are without coherence and shape if severed from that to which they are supposed alternatives.” To attempt to enjoy the world God created without belief in God offers a bitter result.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
———. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.
Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
Lewalski, Barbara K. The Life of Milton: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
———. Milton’s Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained. London: Methuen, 1966.
———. “Time and History in Paradise Regained.” In The Prison and the Pinnacle, edited by Galachandra Rajan, 49–81. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1972.
Steadman, John. Milton and the Renaissance Hero. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Webber, Joan. Milton and His Epic Tradition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979.
Wittreich, Joseph A., ed. Calm of Mind: Tercentenary Essays on Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Cleveland, Ohio.: Case Western University Press, 1971.

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