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Research Assignment–Paradise Lost

Taught by Professor Huston Diehl at the University of Iowa

This assignment requires students to look at aspects of Paradise Lost by using other primary sources found in EEBO to illuminate specific aspects of seventeenth century culture addressed by Milton.

Research Assignment 8:73 Milton

Paradise Lost Assignment


This series of exercises is designed to familiarize you with some of the research skills you will need to write your final paper and to give you practice finding and using both primary and secondary texts. It also gives you the opportunity to explore some aspect of Milton’s culture that interests you and encourages you to draw some preliminary conclusions about how the subject of your research might illuminate Paradise Lost. In doing these exercises, you will be also be laying the groundwork for your final, research paper. In order to complete these exercises, you will need to know how to use the MLA Bibliography (MLAB) and InfoHawk; you may also need to consult the EEBO (Early English Books On-Line) and find your way to Special Collections, the microfilm room, the map room, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask the Reference librarians for help–that’s why they’re there!

Step 1. Choose one aspect of seventeenth-century English culture that Milton addresses or explores in Paradise Lost and that interests you. You may, for example, want to focus on some aspect of Chrisitian theology, English politics or political theory, or early modern science. Or you might want to investigate Protestant theories of marriage, Baroque aesthetics, early modern subjectivity, 17th-century epistemology, Renaissance humanism, or English responses to the New World. Or you might want to explore 17th-century narratives of loss, theories of nature, conceptions of space, interpretations of classical myths, or assumptions about sin. You might want to investigate a seventeenth-century genre (e.g., epic, tragedy, pastoral, or prophetic poetry).

Step 2. Find one primary text that addresses the subject you have chosen and that you believe may illuminate Paradise Lost. For the purposes of this assignment, a primary text is any text written or created between 1580 and 1680. You may choose a literary, historical, philosophical, theological, political, scientific, visual, or musical text (among many others); you may use popular as well as elite texts. I have listed some suggestions below.

After you have located and read or studied your primary text, do the following four exercises:

  1. First, identify whatever strikes you (an American undergraduate in the year 2001) as puzzling, strange, illogical, perhaps even incomprehensible. What are you not getting? What aspects of your chosen text seem most alien to your contemporary way of seeing the world?
  2. Then, identify three or four distinguishing characteristics of the text you have chosen. You may, for instance, take note of a particularly powerful, unusual, or memorable metaphor or other figure of speech; a startling or intriguing description; a line of argument that seems particularly striking to you; a rhetorical strategy that is particularly effective or unusual; a cultural belief that engages or puzzles you.
  3. Next, identify some of the ways your text might illuminate Paradise Lost. These may focus on content (common themes, controversies, ideas, beliefs); on rhetoric (strategies of persuasion, ways of engaging the reader, rhetorical devices like the catalogue or allusion); on aesthetics or poetics; on structure; on cultural attitudes.
  4. Finally, generate a series of questions about the relation between the primary text you have chosen and Paradise Lost. These questions should be exploratory. They should open up interesting areas of exploration for you. Ideally, they will be provocative, engaging, exciting, intriguing–questions that might lead you to real discoveries.

Step 3. Find one substantial critical or scholarly article on your topic, read it, and then write a brief summ ary of its argument and evaluate it. In your summary, focus on the central argument and the assumptions underlying it. In your evaluation consider whether the argument is persuasive and examine the evidence used to support it. Do you agree with the author? Is the evidence persuasive? Are there logical inconsistencies or holes in the argument? How might you build on or refute the argument?

Note: please choose a recent article (written within the last ten years or so) and one that is published in a major journal in the field (see attached list).

Step 4. Compile a working bibliography. In addition to giving the full citation of your primary text and critical essay, include between five and ten additional works that you have consulted or plan to consult. Please follow the style on the attached sheet for your bibliography.

Some suggested primary texts:

  • a work of 17th-century literature that explores the fallen condition, man’s relation to God, death, sin, free will, loss, or knowledge
  • a political pamphlet that deals with the beheading of Charles I, the English civil war, the Restoration, authority, hierarchy, or rebellion
  • a work that records the discovery or exploration of the New World
  • one of Milton’s own prose tracts (e.g., On Christian Doctrine or The Divorce Tracts) — a sermon or religious tract that deals with a theological issue pertinent to Paradise Lost
  • a Protestant marriage manual
  • a 17th-century medical, theological, political, or philosophical text on the nature of women
  • a 17th-century work of visual art that depicts Eden, the fall, Satan, the War in Heaven, an allegory of sin or death, a blind prophet, etc.
  • a 17th-century opera based on a classical myth
  • a 17th-century biography of Milton
  • a 17th-century map of the world or of the cosmos
  • a 17th-century scientific work on astronomy, the universe, or the telescope