Student Discovers Secret Acrostic in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’

A Tufts University undergraduate spotted three interlocking instances of the word “FALL” in Book 9 of the epic poem

A William Blake illustration depicting the fall of Adam and Eve Public domain

An undergraduate at Tufts University discovered a previously unnoticed acrostic in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Per a new paper published in the journal Milton Quarterly, 2018 graduate Miranda Phaal spotted three interlocking instances of the word “FALL”—as spelled out by the first letters of consecutive lines—in Book 9 of the epic poem.

As Live Science’s Stephanie Pappas reports, the hidden message appears in the midst of an argument between Adam and Eve, who are debating whether to face Satan’s temptations individually or together. Eve suggests the pair will gain “double honor” by resisting Satan separately, but as the acrostic hints, her strategy is fated to fail:

Milton writes:

… his foul esteem
Sticks no dishonor on our Front, but turns
Foul on himself; then wherefore shunn'd or fear'd
By us? who rather double honor gain
*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,
And Eden were no Eden thus expos'd. (9.329-41)

As Phaal explains in Milton Quarterly, “This acrostic entwines the double fall of man (FFAALL) with the fall of Satan (a single FALL, read from bottom to top), perhaps commenting on their shared inciter—Satan—or their shared root—pride.”

The new acrostic is one of many scattered throughout Milton’s text. (The poet published Paradise Lost in two editions: The first, dating to 1667, featured 10 books, while the second, released in 1674, included 12.) Perhaps most famous is an example also found in Book 9: Described by scholar P.J. Klemp in the October 1977 issue of Milton Quarterly, the verbal pun spells out “SATAN.”

Per John M. Fyler, an English professor at Tufts, the acrostic appears when Satan, disguised as a serpent, first presents himself to Eve. It simultaneously references the fallen angel’s transition from Lucifer to an entirely new being and challenges readers, forcing them to acknowledge that much like Eve failed to recognize Satan’s true intent, they have “apparently missed for three centuries his very name, right there in plain sight.”

Writing in Milton Quarterly in March 1982, Mark Vaughn outlined an array of Paradise Lost acrostics both intentional and seemingly random. In Book 9, for example, Milton spells out “WOE” as Adam eats the forbidden fruit, providing a fitting moment of foreshadowing for the soon-to-be fallen man. Other examples, from “TOAD” to “DOG,” “RATS” and “GOOF,” are likely more coincidental than not.

As Fyler points out, Milton’s use of acrostics builds on precedents set by prior literary luminaries: Vergil hid a reference to “MARS,” the Roman god of war, in The Aeneid, while Dante included nine instances of “LVE,” or lue, a Latin word that translates to plague, in his exploration of the nine circles of Hell.

The newly discovered message functions in a similar vein.

“Ultimately,” Phaal explains, “the acrostic distills the entire poem down to its essence: three contingent falls, two paradises lost.”

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