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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

There is a built-in problem in talking about the setting of Paradise Lost: words we normally use, like "world," "universe," and "earth," have different meanings in the poem. Let's take a tour of the cosmos so that you can see the differences.

The largest frame of action is what we would call the universe-everything imaginable. Looking at it schematically, as in the diagram (see illustration), Heaven is at the top and Hell at the bottom. Both extend infinitely, Heaven upwards and Hell downwards. Between the two, filling all available space, is Chaos, which, like its name, is shapeless and confused. Chaos must have been the original stuff from which the other places were formed because Chaos (the name for the ruler as well as the place) complains that he has lost territory when God made Hell, and then lost more when God made a home for man.



Hanging in the center of the cosmos is what Milton calls "the World." We loosely understand by that word the earth on which we live, but Milton means what we call the universe. Milton's World is a sphere made up of ten concentric circles. The earth is at the center. Some of the circles revolving round it contain the planets (including the sun), the heavens, and a watery firmament.

The World (our universe) hangs from Heaven by a golden chain. At the top there is an opening, where three directions converge: standing at the opening (as Satan does in Book III), you can look up the golden stairway to Heaven, down through the concentric circles to earth, and out into Chaos. When Sin and Death build their bridge across Chaos, they begin it at the Gate of Hell and end it at the opening to the World.

The earth for most of the poem does not look like anything we see now. The features that characterize it-seasons, weather, mountains, and valleys-are all brought into the world after the Fall. Angels are sent by God to turn the axis of the earth off dead center, thus introducing changes in climate and length of day. In Paradise, all kinds of animals and plants live together, without distinction of habitat. Flowers bloom constantly, and roses have no thorns.

Paradise is the name for the garden where Adam and Eve live. In the Bible, their home is called the Garden of Eden. Milton has interpreted this strictly. Paradise is the garden part of Eden. Eden is a land usually identified with Mesopotamia, the region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. But there is a tradition that Paradise was an island in the South seas, so Milton has it moved there during the flood.

The garden, Paradise, is watered by rivers that run under the boundaries (guarded by the angels) and come up as fountains. It is a real garden to the extent that it needs pruning and its fruits must be harvested, but there doesn't seem to be any weeding to be done and there is no mention of snails.

The important point to remember is that the entire setting is imaginary. The familiar terms should not mislead you. You are looking not at a landscape, but into Milton's mind.

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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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