350 Year Old Code Found In Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’
Has an undergraduate student discovered a secret message in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost?
Miranda Phaal, an undergraduate from Tufts University in Massachusetts, discovered what is being celebrated as a distinctive literary pattern, a hidden message, spelled out by the first letters in each line of a poem in Book 6 of Paradise Lost. Phaal’s research essay was published in the Milton Quarterly, in which the encoded message is said to read “FFAALL” and “FALL”.
These letters are thought by the student to represent a triple-application of the word "fall," which in turn reflects Milton's poem's description of the Biblical fall of Satan and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Do Adam And Eve Hold The Key?
According to a Science Alert article, what Phaal has found is known as an “acrostic”; a poetic device in which the first letters of successive lines spell out a word or common phrase. But what is really superb in all this is that for 350 years some of the brightest literary scholars that have ever lived have overlooked this secret message, and that an undergrad nailed it.
The technique is used to convey themes relating to the text in which it appears, sometimes expanding an idea, giving it wider esoteric importance, to emphasize a sub-plot or to contrast a notion or theme. The one that Phaal spotted appears in Book 9 of the poem, when Eve is arguing with Adam, and the first letter of each lines reads from top to bottom “FFAALL”. According to the student this is the word “fall” written twice, and another reading of FALL is spelled from the bottom of the passage upwards, as follows:
From his surmise prov'd false, find peace within,
Favor from Heav'n, our witness from th’event.
And what is Faith, Love, Virtue unassay’d
Alone, without exterior help sustain’d?
Let us not then suspect our happy State
Left so imperfect by the Maker wise
As not secure to single or combin’d.
Frail is our happiness, if this be so
The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808 illustration from Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain)
All Is Maybe Not What It Seems
By this time tomorrow the internet will be populated with thousands of interpretations, comments, and developments on this newly discovered acrostic, but according to the finder, it represents “the double fall of humankind”. By this, he means that the fall of Adam and Eve is described reading from top to bottom and the third fall of Satan is suggested when reading upwards, which according to a report in Live Science perhaps represents Satan tempting Adam and Eve, or maybe it says something about pride tempting all three Biblical figures.
The Fall of Lucifer, by Gustave Dore, an engraving he made for ‘Paradise Lost’. (Holger Thölking / Public Domain)
John Fyler is a professor of English Literature at Tuft’s University and one of Phaal's tutors, and in a report on his student’s apparently brilliant discovery he said this acrostic resembled other significant examples in that it “exerts its force” offering a visual marker of “the imminent Fall, in all its physical and moral dimensions”. He added that it was similar to other acrostics in that it operates in counterpoint to the explicit text that couches it, and that it is “foreshadowing”, indicating that all is not as it seems.
Did Milton Really Put It There?
In 1977, Paul Klemp wrote an article titled Now Hid, Now Seen that was published in Milton Quarterly, and since, scholars have been very well aware that nothing is ever as it seems when it comes to Milton. Klemp discovered the now well-known SATAN acrostic, which was also, apparently, hidden in book 9.
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In this vintage engraving, Gustave Dore illustrates Satan flying to Earth from Milton's epic ‘Paradise Lost’. (Holger Thölking / Public Domain)
However, you should know that this entire field of research is not without its skeptics, including Dr. Richard Strier, who in a Richmond University article debunks the SATAN acrostic and says those people who ”multiply the number of acrostics” often fail to see that the more the merrier approach can weaken their case as easily as it can seem to strengthen it. And extreme skeptics point out that the words “cow”, “boat”, and “shit” can also be derived from Book 9.
The hard fact is that nobody will ever know for sure if Milton deliberately built in this newly discovered acrostic, or if we are seeing something that isn’t there. But one thing is for sure, without sharp eyed students like Phaal we would never discover anything. And, supporting his idea that this was indeed a deliberation by Milton, the message seamlessly warns readers what is about to happen next in the narrative, indicating that evil intentions lie within the friendly serpent.
Top image: Satan – the lead character in the poem ‘Paradise Lost’. Source: Jesse-lee Lang / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie