Tufts University undergraduate Miranda Phaal has discovered an acrostic device never before noticed by scholars in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.
The acrostic, a literary tool in which the initial letters of successive lines are used to spell out some word or phrase, was known to have been used by Milton on at least one previous occasion in his epic.
However, Phaal found another one in Book 9 of Milton’s epic that has never been noticed before, and which, she argues, may hint at the core message of ‘Paradise Lost’:
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
Did you spot it? The lines read FFAALL, or ‘FALL’ twice read forwards, with another L-L-A-F (another FALL) spelled out when reading the passage backwards from bottom to top.
Phaal, who published an essay about her new find in the Milton Quarterly, an academic journal dedicated to the poet’s works, boldly argued that the acrostic was of major importance, suggesting that it essentially distilled “the entire poem down to its essence: three contingent falls, two paradises lost.”
Specifically, the student explained that the FFAALL marked the double fall of humanity via Adam and Eve, with Satan’s fall from heaven indicated by the reverse L-L-A-F, with the two written one after another “perhaps commenting on their shared inciter – Satan – or their shared root – pride.”
Phaal’s discovery is not the first acrostic discovered in Milton’s work. In 1977, scholars discovered an acrostic for SATAN in a key passage of the poem dedicated to the snake which enticed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit which resulted in the couple being cast down from paradise.
The acrostic has been used since at least the time of classical antiquity to give hidden or subversive meanings to texts, with classical poets including Dante Alighieri and the Roman poet Virgil known for their use of the technique.