Unpacking the Allusions in John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

Are you ready to embark on a journey through the complex and layered world of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'?

This epic poem, published in 1667, tells the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the fall of humankind, and Satan's rebellion against God. It is a literary masterpiece that has been studied and analyzed for centuries. However, one of the most challenging aspects of 'Paradise Lost' is the numerous allusions scattered throughout the text.

What are allusions, you might ask?

An allusion is a reference to something outside of the text that the author expects the reader to understand. These references can come from mythology, historical events, biblical stories, literary works, and even common idioms. In the case of 'Paradise Lost,' Milton incorporates biblical and classical allusions to add depth and complexity to his narrative.

So, why are allusions important in 'Paradise Lost'?

Allusions serve several purposes in Milton's poem. Firstly, they contribute to the creation of a grand and majestic atmosphere. The references to Greek and Roman gods and mythological creatures, for example, elevate the poem's scope beyond the mundane world of humanity and into the realm of the divine.

Secondly, allusions help convey Milton's themes and messages. By referencing well-known stories and events, Milton allows his readers to draw comparisons between the biblical narratives he presents and other familiar tales. This creates a layered and nuanced approach to the poem's messages, inviting the reader to engage with the text and its ideas on a deeper level.

Finally, allusions serve as a demonstration of Milton's vast knowledge and intellectual prowess. As a devout Christian and a man of his time, Milton was expected to be knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects, from the Bible and classical texts to science and theology. His use of allusions showcases his erudition and adds another level of meaning to his work.

Now that we know what allusions are and why they are essential in 'Paradise Lost,' let's dive into some of the most striking ones in the poem.

The Fall of Lucifer

One of the central characters in 'Paradise Lost' is Lucifer, the fallen angel who rebelled against God and led a third of the heavenly host in rebellion. Milton's depiction of Lucifer is complex, to say the least. The allusions he uses to describe the fallen angel add layers of meaning to the character and his role in the poem.

The most striking allusion in this regard is Milton's reference to the story of Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who gave humanity the gift of fire, an act that angered the gods and resulted in his punishment. Prometheus was chained to a rock, where an eagle would peck out his liver every day. In 'Paradise Lost,' Milton draws a comparison between Prometheus's punishment and Lucifer's eternal torment:

From that opprobrious rock
His liberty he lost, constrained to live
Under the hayward of those Heav'nly gates
That opened wide to let in the cumbered crowd
Of starry θυμοι [the gods] that passed, and Martyrs pure,
Apostles, and the expounded Sons of God,
From Sin and Death set free, and as thou seest
In me a wretched one, among the rest
For fellowship in misery!
(Book I, lines 43-50)

Lucifer's punishment is not physical but rather a psychological torment that results from his separation from God. The comparison to Prometheus's fate adds an additional layer of meaning to Lucifer's suffering, emphasizing the idea that the fallen angel's rebellion was motivated by a desire to help humanity, much like Prometheus.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve are the other central characters in 'Paradise Lost.' Their story, as presented by Milton, is one of the most well-known biblical narratives, but it is also replete with allusions.

One of the most significant allusions in this regard is the reference to the tale of Narcissus. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He was so enamored with his appearance that he wasted away and died. In 'Paradise Lost,' Milton compares Adam and Eve's pre-lapsarian state to Narcissus's obsession with his reflection:

For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him.
His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule, and hyacinthine locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust'ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad;
She, as a veil, down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Disheveled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.
(Book IV, lines 297-309)

Adam, with his "fair large front and eye sublime," represents the ideal of masculinity in the prelapsarian state, while Eve's "softness" and "sweet attractive grace" embody the ideal of femininity. The comparison to Narcissus emphasizes the danger of these archetypes, suggesting that Adam and Eve's obsession with fulfilling these roles led them to their downfall.

Another allusion that adds depth to Adam and Eve's tale is the reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this story, Orpheus, a skilled musician, travels to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to life. He succeeds in convincing Hades and Persephone to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living, but there is a catch: Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and not look back until they have left the underworld. However, overcome with doubt, Orpheus turns back to look at Eurydice, and she is lost to him forever.

Milton references this myth to underscore the tragic nature of Adam and Eve's fall. Like Orpheus, they were given a chance to return to their prelapsarian state but ultimately failed:

So spake our mother Eve, and Adam heard
Well pleas'd but answered not, for now too nigh
Th' Archangel stood, and from the other hill
To their fix'd station, all in bright array,
The cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as evening mist
Risen from a river o'er the marshy glade,
And gathered ground fast at the laborers' heel,
Homeward returning. High in front advanced,
The brandished sword of God before them blazed
Fierce as a comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapor as the Libyan air adust,
Began to parch that temperate clime; whereat
In either hand the hast'ning angel caught
Our ling'ring parents, and to th' eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain, then disappear'd.
They, looking back, all th' eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces throng'd, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
(Book XII, lines 639-659)

The use of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth emphasizes the tragic nature of humanity's fall, suggesting that Adam and Eve's failure was the result of their own doubts and uncertainties.

Other Allusions in 'Paradise Lost'

While the allusions to Lucifer and Adam and Eve are perhaps the most of significant in 'Paradise Lost,' they are by no means the only ones. Milton references numerous other events and figures throughout the poem to add depth and nuance to his narrative.

For example, Milton draws a comparison between the war in heaven and the Titanomachy, the Greek mythological battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans. The reference to this myth adds to the grandeur of the scene and emphasizes the epic nature of the celestial conflict.

Another interesting allusion in the poem is the reference to the story of Noah and the flood. In 'Paradise Lost,' Milton refers to the flood as a metaphor for the coming of Christ:

Wherefore did Nature pour her bounties forth
With such a full and unwithdrawing hand,
Covering the earth with odors and the skies
With fruitful moisture, when before these stars
Thou wert not, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
(Book I, lines 21-30)

The flood becomes a symbol of the cleansing power of Christ, emphasizing the idea of death and rebirth as integral themes in the poem.


Unpacking the allusions in 'Paradise Lost' is a daunting task, but one that offers rewarding insights into the poem's themes and messages. By referencing stories and events from mythology and history, Milton creates a layered and nuanced narrative, inviting readers to engage with his ideas at a deeper level.

The allusions in 'Paradise Lost' also served as a demonstration of Milton's intellectual prowess, showcasing his vast knowledge of classical texts, history, and theology. In this way, Milton's allusions were not merely stylistic flourishes but rather an integral part of his poetic vision.

Overall, 'Paradise Lost' remains a masterpiece of literature, a work that continues to challenge and inspire readers centuries after its initial publication. Its allusions are an important part of its enduring appeal and make it a text well worth unpacking for generations to come.

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