A Tufts University student might have discovered a secret message hidden in a 352-year-old English poetry classic, “Paradise Lost” by John Milton.
A year ago, Miranda Phaal, 23, a senior at the time, was combing through the text of the epic poem when she came across what she believes is an acrostic. An acrostic is typically a literary technique in which the first letters of the lines of a poem spell out a message.
The first letters of the eight lines Phaal found in the poem spell out “FFAALLAF.”
Phaal said the letters essentially spell out “fall” three times. The “FFAALL,” she suggests, refers to the double fall from grace of Adam and Eve, which is what the poem is about.
The other “fall” is backwards, written “LLAF.” That, she suggests, is Satan’s fall from being an angel, which is the other narrative arc in the poem.
Why spell it backward?
“He’s really kind of the opposing force in the poem,” she said. “He’s coming up from Hell.”
Phaal, who majored in history and minored in English and media studies, said she had read “Paradise Lost” before in a Milton-focused class but was assigned to read it again in her senior year in a class that focused on “underworlds.”
“My second pass through it in this Underworlds class, it really did look peculiar to me,” she said.
Phaal may have been uniquely suited to make the find in the poem, which was first published in 1667.
She had seen the double A used before, after all — in her own name. “It helps that my name is ‘Phaal’ so it jumped out to me,” she said.
At the same time, she said, “I love this poem and I was inclined to read it very closely.”
She pointed the find out to her professors, who took it seriously.
“They were the ones that really convinced me that I had actually found something there,” she said.
Phaal published a brief essay on her discovery in August in Milton Quarterly, an academic journal dedicated to the poet.
“There appears to be an acrostic that has been hitherto unremarked upon and that is so resonant with its location in the text as to be very likely deliberate. Like many well-known acrostics, it operates in counterpoint to the explicit text that couches it, foreshadowing that all is not as it seems,” the article said.
“It is unconventional in another sense, however, as it cannot be read linearly. Rather, the same word, FALL, interlocks with itself three times,” the article said.
“The verticality of the FALL acrostic is evocative of falling,” the article said.
In the passage, Adam and Eve disagree over whether they should work together in the Garden of Eden so they can better resist Satan’s attempts at temptation.
Adam wants to stick together, but Eve is more confident and argues that by resisting Satan’s attempt to tempt them, the pair will “double honour gaine.”
Here’s the passage with the acrostic in bold type.
. . . Then wherefore shund or feared
By us? who rather double honour gaine
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.
And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d.
(Spoiler alert: Adam and Eve do separate. Satan, as a serpent, finds Eve alone and convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit. She tells Adam and he eats it, too. And at that moment, according to the biblical story, they — and the rest of humanity — fall from grace.)
Phaal acknowledged that “it’s certainly possible” that the letters beginning the lines simply spelled out a message by chance.
Milton “was very into secret messages as well as being unconventional,” Phaal said. “There’s a big theme throughout the poem that things aren’t as they seem. The acrostics, as well as the metaphors that he uses and particular word choices, are meant to tip off the reader to read more closely.”
She said the acrostic was particularly resonant because Book 9 of the 10-book poem, where it is found, focuses on the fall of Adam and Eve.
You might think with such a discovery under her belt that Phaal would be inspired to continue with her studies. But Phaal said she’s not — ahem — tempted.
“It’s never really been my dream to work in academia. I don’t know if I have what it takes to be a professor,” said Phaal, who now works in content curation and audience management at a media company in San Francisco.