Milton's Angels: The Early Modern Imagination

  • Raymond, Joad (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


Paradise Lost is the most eloquent, most intellectually daring, most learned, and most sublime poem in the English language. Its chronological, geographical and emotional ambition is almost without bounds. It begins before creation, describes the history of the universe, and concludes with the end of time. It extends from Heaven through created space and the earth to Hell and the void beyond. It is the grandest poem in the Renaissance epic tradition, and puts an end to that tradition. Yet its focus is domestic, turning on a single human relationship: it tells a story of love, intimacy, betrayal, heartbreak and wounded reconciliation.

Adam and Eve's actions and feelings seem heroic because they are situated and given significance within the cosmos in a way that no other poem, pagan or Christian, has achieved. Milton accomplished this by introducing a machinery both expansive and theologically daring. This machinery is angelic. Angels are fundamental to the execution of Milton's design in Paradise Lost. They are necessary because without them the story does not work. He uses angels to narrate swathes of history, to interact with, protect, and converse with humans, to fight with rebel angels. He uses them to make mistakes, to sin, to argue, to bind together the celestial narratives with the terrestrial. The story of Paradise Lost is told by and of angels; it relies upon their conflicts, communications, and miscommunications. They are the creatures of God but also the creatures of Milton's narrative. Milton makes the Fall morally ponderous, tragic, and part of the fabric of the universe by surrounding it with the actions and interactions of angels. Take away the angels from Paradise Lost, and you would be left with a linear, expository narrative. The poem is concerned with and focussed upon humankind, but angels are central to its design. In terms of its imaginative drive and aesthetic architecture, Paradise Lost is a poem about angels.

Milton's Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination will do three things. It will offer a new account of Paradise Lost, one that will radically challenge our understanding of the poem. Angels are central to Milton's poem, and recognising this changes the way we read it. Secondly, it will provide an original account of beliefs in and writings about angels in early-modern England. There is at present no such survey: mine will be based on extensive research into an array of sources: scholastic theology, sixteenth and seventeenth century systematic theology, treatises on the occult, demons and the natural world, natural philosophical writings, sermons, spiritual autobiographies, pamphlets, manuscripts of ritual magic, and private diaries that record conversations with angels. In this survey I will look at the content of these works, but also how they reflect widespread belief in angels, and the pervasiveness in various modes of writing of the debates surrounding angels and angelic agency. Thirdly, it will show how beliefs and knowledge are closely entwined with the imaginative in early-modern writing. In reading early-modern texts we need to recover the interchange and play between belief and imagination, the literary and the doctrinal, between reason and the sublime.

During the extended period of research leave I will research and write two of the central chapters for this book: the two chapters that involve most the most extensive and diverse sources. I will also write the introduction and conclusion; the book will then be submitted for publication.
Effective start/end date17/03/0813/07/08


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £31,248.00