Paradise Regain’d can profitably be read as another installment in Milton’s effort to reform the genre of epic poetry and to redefine what constitutes heroism. Precise evidence of Milton’s musings about genre, epic in particular, appears as early as 1642 in the opening paragraphs of the second book of The Reason of Church Government, his third anti-prelatical tract. There he poses these sorts of questions:
whether that Epick form whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model: or whether the rules of Aristotle herein are strictly to be kept, or nature to be follow'd, which in them that know art, and use judgement is no transgression, but an inriching of art. And lastly what K. or Knight before the conquest might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian Heroe. (The Reason of Church Government book 2)
Whether or not “diffuse” aptly describes Paradise Lost, Paradise Regain’d quite clearly follows the “brief model” Milton found in the biblical book of Job. Indeed that is the burden of Barbara Lewalski’s magisterial treatment of the poem in Milton’s Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained (1966). The poem includes four books, compared to Paradise Lost’s twelve (or ten in the first edition of 1667), and each of the four books in Paradise Regain’d is about half as long as one in the earlier epic. The verse, however is still “English Heroic Verse without Rime” (“The Verse” in the Front Matter to Paradise Lost).
How best to understand Milton’s redefinition of heroism is a larger question. Because Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes were published together in 1671 (see the Title Page), and because Paradise Regain’d so clearly evokes Paradise Lost in its title and opening lines, it makes sense to consider all three poems as an extended meditation on heroism—Christian, classical and ancient Hebrew. The opening lines of PL book 9 ask us to consider a kind of heroism that is “more Heroic” than that sung by Homer in the Iliad or the Odyssey or by Virgil in his Aeneid:
Sad task, yet argument
Not less but more Heroic then the wrauth
Of stern Achilles on his Foe pursu'd
Thrice Fugitive about Troy Wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespous'd,
Or Neptun's ire or Juno's, that so long
Perplex'd the Greek and Cytherea's Son;
The book 9 narrator goes on to heap scorn on Renaissance epic and romance versions of Christian heroism as far too concerned with martial virtue:
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem'd, chief maistrie to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl'd Knights
In Battels feign'd …
…or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon'd Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal'd Feast
Serv'd up in Hall with Sewers, and Seneshals;
The skill of Artifice or Office mean,
Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To Person or to Poem.
(PL 9.28-31, 33-41)
Milton here stakes a claim for “the better fortitude/ of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom,” which he further asserts has been so far left “Unsung” (9.31-33). If we use this claim as a yardstick against which to measure the various candidates for heroic status in all three of these magisterial poems, as well as the classical and biblical heroes they evoke and recall, we will find ourselves caught up in exactly the conversation about heroism I believe Milton intended to provoke. The Son in Paradise Lost appears as a heroic creator in book 7 but also as a warrior “full of wrauth” in book 6 (826). The loyal angels Abdiel, Michael and Gabriel—are they “less” heroic for appearing as warriors? Adam, Eve and Satan, of course all invite a range of observations on what counts as heroic, unheroic, and failed heroic action.
The Son in Paradise Regain’d prevails over Satan’s temptations by a kind of heroism we are tempted to see as doing nothing—nothing but standing and repudiating, even rendering ridiculous, Satan’s attempts to provoke him into one or another form of classical or biblical or romance heroic action.
Readers both contemporary and modern are likely to find the subject of Paradise Regain’d odd. Orthodoxy suggests that the Son of God recovers Paradise and innocence for human beings by his substitutive and propitiatory sacrifice and resurrection. That is the gospel Michael tells to Adam in book 12 of Paradise Lost, recruiting him as the world’s first convert to Christianity:
to the Cross he nailes thy Enemies,
The Law that is against thee, and the sins
Of all mankinde, with him there crucifi'd,
Never to hurt them more who rightly trust
In this his satisfaction; so he dies,
But soon revives, Death over him no power
Shall long usurp;…
…this God-like act
Annuls thy doom, the death thou shouldst have dy'd,
In sin for ever lost from life
But Michael also tells Adam that the Son qualifies as a perfect substitution for humankind “Both by obedience and by love” (12.403), and Paradise Regain’d tells the story of the Son’s obedience:
I who e're while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover'd Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri'd
This announcement relies heavily on Paul’s articulation of redemptive obedience in Romans 5: 18-19. The Father himself boasts to Gabriel that Satan will not prevail this time:
He now shall know I can produce a man,
Of female Seed, far abler to resist
All his sollicitations, and at length
All his vast force, and drive him back to Hell,
Winning by Conquest what the first man lost
By fallacy surpriz'd.
In this brief epic, therefore, Milton sings the story of deeds, not less or more heroic, but “Above heroic” (PR 1.15)—Jesus of Nazereth’s obedience and patience, leaving the story of his martyrdom mostly alone, though not unsung, for we hear of it in Paradise Lost and in many a Renaissance poem and song. The story incorporates and significantly expands on the temptation narratives found in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4.
The Milton Reading Room text of both these poems, Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes, was prepared from the 1671 edition as found in the Rauner Special Collections of the Dartmouth College Library (Val. 824/M64/U612). This copy appears to be made up of the following signature states identified by Harris Fletcher (4.30-34): Signature B-state 1; C-1; F-2; H-1; K-2; M-2; N-1; P-2. There are no signatures A or J; all other signatures display no printing variations according to Fletcher. All of the errors listed as "Errata" at the end of the volume have been corrected in ink or erasures by a careful hand, except that where the "Errata" calls for removing a full stop after "frail life" in SA 656, the period has been changed to a comma.