The action proceeds with a council of the fallen angels to devise means for alleviating their condition and annoying the Almighty. They decide to strike him through his child, and they plot the fall of man. In short, Paradise Lost is an intensely dramatic story of the loss of Eden. The greatest actors that ever sprang from a poet’s brain appear before us on the stage, which is at one time the sulphurous pit of hell, at another the bright plains of heaven, and at another the Elysium of our first parents.
In form the poem is an epic in twelve books, containing a total of 10,565 lines. It is written in blank verse of wonderful melody and variety.
Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.—After finishing Paradise Lost, Milton wrote two more poems, which he published in 1671. Paradise Regained is in great part a paraphrase of the first eleven verses of the fourth chapters of St. Matthew. The poem is in four books of blank verse and contains 2070 lines. Although it is written with great art and finish, Paradise Regained shows a falling off in Milton’s genius. There is less ornament and less to arouse human interest.
Samson Agonistes (Samson the Struggler) is a tragedy containing 1758 lines, based on the sixteenth chapter of Judges. This poem, modeled after the Greek drama, is hampered by a strict observance of the dramatic unities. It is vastly inferior to the Paradise Lost. Samson Agonistes contains scarcely any of the glorious imagery of Milton’s earlier poems. It has been called “the most unadorned poem that can be found.”
Variety in his Early Work.—A line in Lycidas says:—
“He touched the tender stops of various quills,”
and this may be said of Milton. His early poems show great variety. There are the dirge notes in Lycidas; the sights, sounds, and odors of the country, in L’Allegro; the delights of “the studious cloister’s pale,” in Il Penseroso; the impelling presence of his “great Task-Master,” in the sonnets.
Although Milton is noted for his seriousness and sublimity, we must not be blind to the fact that his minor poems show great delicacy of touch. The epilogue of the Spirit at the end of Comus is an instance of exquisite airy fancy passing into noble imagination at the close. In 1638 Sir Henry Wotton wrote to Milton this intelligent criticism of Comus: “I should much commend the tragical part, if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Doric delicacy in your Songs and Odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language Ipsa mollities.”