Milton's Paradise Lost: a survival guide for a fractured world

When we first meet Adam and Eve in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, they live in a perfect world. But by the end, they're expelled into one that is marked by exile, war, illness and death. IDEAS explores what the poem says to us about how to grapple with an uncertain future — and if we can find our collective way back home.

'Earth is not going to be the welcoming place it once was, unless we reimagine our relationship to the planet'

Detail from "Adam and Eva" by Lucas Cranach the Elder , 1526. One of the many interpretations of Adam and Eve. (Wikipedia/Courtauld Institute of Art)
Listen to the full episode53:58

* Originally published on April 20, 2020.

When we first meet Adam and Eve in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, they live in a perfect world. But by the end, they're expelled into one that looks a lot more familiar to us — one marked by environmental degradation, exile, war, illness, decay and death.

Hannah Korell, a PhD student at McGill University, said Adam and Eve offer a hopeful vision for how to survive in a fractured world — by nurturing our relationships with others and taking responsibility for the consequences of our choices. 

"Paradise Lost ends very powerfully with Adam and Eve, hand in hand, going out to face the unknown," she said. "I think they are, despite their fallen state, a model."

In January 2020, Korell and her fellow graduate students Manuel Cárdenas and Michael D'Itri led a workshop for CEGEP students at Marianopolis College in Montreal about reading Paradise Lost as a survival narrative. Their students then created their own survival narratives, including one that considered the morality of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They also discussed the options Adam and Eve consider before deciding to face their future together — including killing themselves to escape their punishment, or not having children so their suffering won't be passed onto future generations. 

Korell said that moment felt particularly resonant to her, as she and many of her peers wonder about the ethics of having children on a warming planet. 

"This is a conversation that is going on, within a young millennial culture, of what are the ethics of having children and bearing children in a world where we don't necessarily know what the future might hold for them," she said. 

"I think being wide-eyed about the possibility of suffering is almost the moral response — which is to say, life is its own good. We will not go gently into that good night," said Cárdenas. 

"And if the basis of survival is community, then the kind of community that family entails is itself a way to fight back."

Our relationship with the natural world 

At the beginning of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve live in a garden with perfect weather. But their transgression has dire consequences for the natural world — and for their relationship to it. 

"The elements of the world, which previously were almost in a kind of symbiotic relationship — the human, the natural, the animals, the cosmic — are now hostile," said Maggie Kilgour, a literature professor at McGill University. 

"Milton, by presenting it in Paradise Lost as [originally] something very different — a kind of reciprocal caring — could send us a signal to say, that's not the way we're meant to live," she said.

This is a poem about the creation of beauty and hope out of devastation.- Maggie Kilgour

Ken Hiltner, an environmental humanities professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and the author of Milton and Ecology, says the poem is an early example of the Christian stewardship approach to thinking about the environment. 

"The notion that human beings have dominion over the planet ... Milton and others who buy this stewardship model are saying, what that meant was we were supposed to take care of the planet," he said.

"God had given us keys to it, almost as a test to see that we could act morally and virtuously — not just to each other, but to the planet."

A print from 1660 depicting 'Eve' and a serpent taken from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eve, in particular, is deeply connected to the earth. But Satan, in the guise of a serpent, convinces her that if she bites the forbidden fruit, she'll become like a god. 

"Eve is trying to pull away from the earth, to be as a god, to not nurture her relationship to the planet," said Hiltner. 

"The change after the fall is that the earth is not going to be the welcoming place it once was, unless we reimagine our relationship to the planet, which I think the poem is encouraging us to do."

The first refugee story

Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam considers Paradise Lost "the first refugee story."

"When I learned about it, as someone who had lost his homeland, it resonated, naturally, because Vietnam was everything to my family and I, and then it was gone," he said.

Lam left Vietnam as a refugee at age 11, two days before the fall of Saigon. He is now the author of three books, including a short story collection called Birds of Paradise Lost

The human condition is that you have to let go ...  You can no longer go home, but you can build a new home.- Andrew Lam

Paradise Lost ends with Adam and Eve leaving the only home they've ever known. They must now try to create a new home in the wilderness. 

Andrew Lam left Vietnam with his family during the fall of Saigon in April 1975. (Submitted by Andrew Lam)

That challenge is one that has resonated with Lam his entire adult life. It's taken on new weight for him since he moved back to Vietnam, and found a very different world than the one he left. 

"The city that I left was a sleepy town. The megacity that I live in now is very much a cosmopolitan society," he said. 

He said if Adam and Eve had the chance to return to the garden, it would not be the place they remembered.

"If it's still standing, it itself is changing, but they themselves have changed. What they long for may no longer be that place," he said. 

"The human condition is that you have to let go. We are cursed with longing, but there is a spiritual maturity where you come to accept that you have moved away from that juncture. You can no longer go home, but you can build a new home."

Creating beauty out of devastation

Maggie Kilgour believes Paradise Lost's greatest message comes from the very existence of the poem.

"[Milton] was writing this poem at the end of his life when he had lost a revolution in which he believed passionately, two wives, members of his family and his sight," she said. 

"It would have been so easy for someone like that to retreat into bitterness and self-pity, and instead … he created this. This is a poem about the creation of beauty and hope out of devastation."

An illustration of Eve from an edition of John Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. Original Artwork: Engraved by Richard Westall in 1794. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For her, the poem has only become more resonant during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"One of the positive things that is coming out of this disaster is the amount of ingenuity, imagination and creativity people are discovering," Kilgour said. 

"So Milton's belief that one can rebuild and be creative even in the face of loss and disaster is still alive, and may indeed help us make something better for the future than the mess of a world we lived in."

Guests in this episode: 

  • Maggie Kilgour is Molson Professor of English Language and Literature at McGill University, and an expert on Milton and the gothic novel. 
  • Ken Hiltner is a professor in environmental humanities and director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He is the author of Milton and Ecology.
  • Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese-American writer. He is the author of the short story collection Birds of Paradise Lost and two nonfiction books called Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.
  • Manuel Cárdenas is a PhD candidate at McGill University who recently led a workshop on Paradise Lost and survival narratives. 
  • Hannah Korell is a PhD candidate at McGill University who recently led a workshop on Paradise Lost and survival narratives. 
  • Stephen Greenblatt is a literary historian and he spoke to IDEAS about his book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve in 2017. 
  • Lucy Peacock is a Canadian actress who plays Satan in Erin Shields's theatre adaptation of Paradise Lost
  • Paul Yachnin is Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University. He moderated a panel discussion about Paradise Lost with Lucy Peacock, Erin Shields and Maggie Kilgour in January 2020. 

* This episode is part two of a two-part series. It was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. Here is Part One.


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