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The Arguments in Paradise Lost accustomed to poems of length, Dr.

Samuel Johnson famously

by Jon L Jensen said of Milton’s masterpiece: “None ever wished it longer than
it is." His complaint feels even more justified with more
THE GIST OF IT. context. He writes, “The want of human interest is always felt.
THIS ESSAY PROPOSES FIRST IN BRIEF THE WHOLE TOPIC, Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires
MILTON’S ARGUMENTS AS ADDED TO HIS EPIC JUSTIFICATION OF and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever
THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN; THEN TOUCHES ON THE HISTORY OF wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a
THESE ARGUMENTS, OR RATHER SUMMARIES CALLED BY THE pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and
BLIND POET ARGUMENTS, WHICH ADDED ONLY AFTER THE FIRST overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert
PRINTING OF THE POEM SEEK TO CLARIFY TO READERS WHAT our master, and seek for companions” (Johnson).
MIGHT OTHERWISE BE HARD TO GET AT, NAMELY WHAT THIS LONG This kind overburdening was clearly on Samuel
POEM IS ALL ABOUT, AND IF NOT ENCOURAGE ITS READING, Simmons’ mind when for the fourth issue of the first edition he
ENCOURAGE THE READER MERELY TO PERUSE SAID ARGUMENTS finally convinced Milton to explain himself. Two problems
AND THEN PRETEND TO HAVE READ THE THING. WHICH HISTORY apparently presented themselves to the earliest readers of the
AND JUSTIFICATIONS PASSED QUICKLY OVER, THE ESSAY WILL epic: the lack of rhyme and a need for a summary. Simmons
ATTEMPT IN ITS BRIEF PAGE LENGTH TO FULFILL THE ASSIGNMENT, added new opening pages including Milton’s inestimably
THAT IS, PRESENT AN ANALYSIS OF CONVENTION, LANGUAGE AND important explanation to the world of why English must not be
THEME. TO ASCERTAIN AS BEST A PROCRASTINATING WRITER OR forced to rhyme. Before the poem’s opening an argument was
RATHER WRITER IN SHAPE OF GRADUATE STUDENT, CAN WITHOUT added. In the issue Simmons attached a note explaining that
WAXING INTO RESEARCH PAPER, A FORM DESPISED BY STUDENT while “there was no argument at first intended to the book” he
AND TEACHER ALIKE. HOW THE ARGUMENTS STAND THEMSELVES had “procured it” for “the satisfaction of many that have
MOST OF THE MAJOR THEMES OF THE VERSE, BUT CONFOUNDING The arguments would appear as they do now only in
IN THEIR INABILITY TO ACHIEVE, WHAT MOST SUMMARIES MUST, IN the second edition, interspersed through the text before each
SHORT, ACHIEVE, NAMELY, CONCISION. HOW THIS SHALL BE book. I am certain it would not be too presumptuous of me to
ACCOMPLISHED WITHOUT DEFINITE PLAN OR THESIS IS YET TO BE say that anyone who has read Paradise Lost owes Simmons
KNOWN: SOME EXAMPLES SHALL BE GIVEN, MOST IGNORED. THE the printer, thanks. Although Milton may not have intended
SERPENT—THAT IS—THE POET/GRADUATE STUDENT PROCEEDS. them for the poem initially, it is hard to imagine wading through
the work without them. Yet most critics pass over the
The man who agreed to print the thing didn’t think it arguments as if they were not written by Milton at all and were
would sell. Even though 343 years later Paradise Lost is in no superfluous to the text. Distinct in their voice and character,
danger of being forgotten, it’s not hard to understand the organization and language, the arguments to Paradise Lost
printer’s concerns. A few decades after its publication, in the are not only integral to an understanding of the poem, they
18th Century when the reading public was far more subvert a reader intent on having things made plain.

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drama, tale,” only in the secondary definition do the closer
When Milton added the arguments to Paradise Lost, it connections we have with the word occur (Handford, 44). In
wasn’t the first time that he had seen fit to explain his work to fact, looking at “Epitaphium Damonis” without knowledge of
his readers by way of summary preface. A short description of Milton’s later use of the English word “argument,” one would
Lydidas was, like PL, added to the text after an initial printing. easily translate the word as summary, plot or contents. Even
So important was the summary, that the table of contents for within the realm of rhetoric, argumentum is translated as
“The English Poems” listed it as a part of the title. “Lycidas. In “appeal” as in argumentum ad hominem. Milton’s word choice
this Monody the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately and the associations it implies in an English speaker’s mind
drown'd in his Passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. cannot be accidental. Stanley Fish claims that “Milton’s
And by occasion foretels the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then programme of reader harassment begins in the opening lines”
in their height.” (Milton 422) One year later with the publication (Fish 4) but I would argue that it begins with the arguments, in
of the Latin Epitaphium Damonis, a poem that calls on the life his very selection of the word.
of Virgil in memory of Milton’s friend Charles Diodati, Milton Which leads us to the convention that Milton invents for
includes an “Argumentum.” Though in Latin, (the language these summaries. They are distinct enough that one could
which arguably taught Milton his convoluted syntax), the prose easily identify them from one sentence or phrase. (I’d bet the
here is straightforward; its sentences remarkably simple: GRE English Subject Exam has done exactly that). Book I’s
Argumentum. argument is the most distinctive. It begins with a statement of
THYRSIS et DAMON, ejusdem viciniae pastores, the whole poem’s purpose, as well with a miniature description
eadem studia sequuti, a pueritia amici erant, ut qui of the plot of the entire epic. It also establishes the poem as
plurimum. THYRSIS, auimi causa profectus, peregre Epic, within the Homeric tradition by claiming that the action
de obitu DAMONIS nuncium accepit. Doraum postea “hasts into the midst of things,” a pretty direct translation of in
reversus, et rem ita esse comperto, se suamque media res (Milton 1). By establishing the epic nature of the
solitudinem hoc carmine deplorat… (Milton 522). work, Milton’s mind game with the reader continues by the
argument establishing (well prior to Satan’s first speech on line
In it, Milton explains that Thyrsis and Damon, shepherd 84) the Prince of Darkness as the poem’s Achilles/Aeneas.
neighbors, had studied together and were friends from “Man” is mentioned first, but only in the general, not specific
childhood. While traveling to improve himself, Thyrsis learns of terms that might refer to Adam. Man is not the chief player,
the the death of Damon. When he returns and finds that it was Satan is the “prime cause.”
true, he deplores himself and his solitude with this poem. After Book I, the arguments follow a very similar
Seeing this simple summary, one is reminded that the format. A chief player or speaker is identified in connection
Latin argumentum has a range of meanings far greater than its with a primary action. “…Satan Debates” (II), “God sitting on
English equivalent implies, especially to contemporary his Throne sees Satan Flying…” (III), “Satan now in
speakers. Argumentum’s primary definition is “subject, story, prospect…” (IV), “Morning approach’t, Eve relates…” (V),
representation, statement; theme, matter, contents; plot, “Raphael continues…” (VI), “Raphael at the request of Adam

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relates…” (VII), “Adam inquires…”(VIII), “Satan having minor details, such as who guards Hell’s gates. While full
compast…”(IX), “Man’s transgression known, the Guardian speeches are eliminated, the main features of certain
Angels forsake…”(X), “The Son of God presents…”(XI), “The utterances remain, as in Book IX: “Eve wondring to hear the
Angel Michael continues…(XII). Satan’s predominance over Serpent speak, asks how he attain’d to human speech and
the epic is apparent even at first glance through the opening such understanding not till now; the Serpent answers, that by
words of each argument. Satan’s Achillean presence, even as tasting of a certain Tree in the Garden he attain’d both to
a victor, continues until late in the argument to Book 10. When Speech and Reason...” This amount of detail, though
upon his return to his palace his full transformation to snake, important to the logic of Satan’s temptation of Eve in the poem
undone like Achilles, by a heel, in this case the heel of man. proper seems excessive for a summarizing passage.
Even in the argument beginning with God, Satan is the Although Raphael reprimands Adam when he “inquires
lead. A sitting God observes Satan’s flight, predicts the concerning celestial Motions,” and told to “search rather things
success that Satan will have and then begins to answer more worthy of knowledge” (A8), the arguments take a great
arguments against His character by “clear[ing] his own justice deal of time describing Milton’s distinctive cosmology. Most of
and Wisdom from all imputation.” No one but the Son of God is the arguments end with comments on these specifics of place.
present to impute God’s justice, but even in the summary the Shorter statements of action that a reader might expect
reader is reminded that God needs defending. through each summary occur most often only at the end of
Probably the most distinctive feature of the arguments each as with Book IV, “by whom question’d, he scornfully
is the length of their sentences, relying on extremely long answers, prepares resistance, but hinder’d by a Sign from
“cola” and “semicola” especially in the opening sentences. Heaven, flies out of Paradise.”
Where we might expect succinctness, we have complication, Milton chose complicated language over the possibility
often seemingly for complication’s sake alone. Instead of of the direct. When he could have written simply about the
simply stating Satan or the Serpent, Milton employs “the main events of each book, he fashioned instead an elaboration
Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent.” God’s plan for the in miniature of his subjects. One need only compare the
world’s creation is “an ancient Prophesie or report in Heaven,” arguments to the précis added to the 1611 King James
“for Heaven and Earth may be supposed as yet not made, Version of the Bible to realize just how complicated they are.
certainly not yet accurst” (I). If we didn’t get this the first time, In KJV Genesis 3, the chapter concerning the Fall, we read: “1
later he reminds us of the “Prophesie or Tradition in Heaven The serpent deceiveth Eve. 6 Man's shameful fall, 9 God
Concerning another world…”(II). arraigneth them. 14 The serpent is cursed. 15 The promised
Concision in the arguments is illusory. Longer seed. 16 The punishment of mankind. 21 Their first
sentences will rely on one stated subject and the compounded clothing. 22 Their casting out of paradise.” That’s it. They
phrases relying on one subject give us the illusion that the couldn’t be more unlike Milton’s. Then again short arguments
writer is being brief. Milton uses question words “how,” “what” would not be true to the poem itself. (It’s as though Milton in a
and “who” especially to refer to information that the reader will spirit of “Prophesie” thought, if they’re just going to read the
have to find within the book. But much of these are extremely

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Cliffs Notes, I’ll at least make those come with some “sweat of and revolt against a Heavenly King—is nearly invisible in the
the brow.”) Arguments. Not so for the poem, where the fact of Milton
Wittreich in his Why Milton Matters, claims that the writing under a Restored Monarch is evident in almost every
arguments are “among the earliest critical commentaries” on book. But simplification and passing over are not the
the poem. He details ways they do not match the books to impression left a reader by Milton’s summaries.
which they act as “headpieces.” They “often exist in tension Wittreich calls PL a “compendium of contradictory
with the poetry they would elucidate even as they shy away interpretations” (xviii), that seems to mirror the contradictions
from the controversies lurking within it. Never a polemic, the of life. If then the Arguments are compendia to the
Arguments are crafted by a wily poet as headpieces to books, compendium, the complications of their language, convention
which are an active complication of their claims and, on and theme are aptly fit. When PL first appeared Milton’s name
occasion, a subtle subversion of them” (73). was not on them. Only the initials JM were attached. As
One of the complications is a multiplication. Reading subsequent issues made Milton’s name known, the
Paradise Lost is to experience the Fall not just once but importance of the printer, Simmons, was also diminished. By
multiple times. These Falls, plural, in the poem are doubled by the time the second edition was released, Milton had cut the
the Arguments. We experience Satan’s fall, the Fall as note from Simmons claiming that the arguments were his idea.
predicted by God, the Fall as planned by Satan, as warned of Far from being afterthoughts, by the second edition, they are a
by Raphael, as finally experienced by Eve, then Adam, then part of the main text. Milton has become a “crucial player in
the fall from the Paradise and finally Satan’s ultimate fall to the the drama of its reception” (Wittreich 30). The Arguments,
status of serpent. But where the Arguments multiply this Milton’s odd literary creatures originally foisted on him by his
curious feature of the narrative, at the same time they seem to printer and readers had become vital parts of an epic
diminish the role that Adam and Eve play in the poem proper. responsive and critically aware of its readers.
Read separately, Satan and the angels are the primary actors
with two guest appearances by God or his Son, (whom Milton
sometimes confuses). Yet in the poem, our “First Parents” are
second only to Satan as leading “actors.”
The Arguments, according to Wittreich, “simplify what
the poetry presents complexly and, in their tendency to
simplify, especially concerning matters of religion, lead us into
theological traps and metaphysical bramble bushes” (79). But
these theological traps are not entirely missing from them.
Wittreich points out that the possible heresy presented in
depicting God and Son as separate is clearly apparent in the
arguments. But other controversies are not. The political
subtext of PL—so apparent in its language around rebellion

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Works Cited

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press. 1967.
Fowler, Alastair. “Introduction to Paradise Lost”. Paradise Lost.
London: Longman. 1968.
Handford, S.A. Langenscheidt’s Pocket Latin Dictionary.
Berlin: Langescheidt. 1955.

Johnson, Dr. Samuel. "Johnson, "Life of Milton"". Palomar.


Milton, John. Poems. New York: The Co-operative Publication

Society. 1902.
Milton, John. The Manuscript of Milton’s Paradise Lost Book 1,
Ed. Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1931
Wittreich, Joseph. Why Milton Matters: a New Preface to his
Writings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006

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