Arthur Henry Robertson, Ph.D.
Late Director of Human Rights for the Council of Europe
With “Paradise Lost” John Milton commands an unquestioned place as the principal epic poet in the English language. The poem, however, is not so much an expression of the English genius as a product of Latin culture. Shakespeare is unchallenged as England’s most famous poet and playwright; his works reflect the times in which he lived and embodies the spirit of the Elizabethan age. Milton, however, is no typical Englishman. His writings have more in common with Dante and Camoes than with Shakespeare or his own contemporaries; his background is not national, but European.
Paradise Lost is the best-known epic in the English language, and the great epic poets of the world are so few that they may be counted on one hand. This particular style of art, as we know it today, first appears on the literary stage in the works of Homer and is developed to its full stature by Virgil. Though other examples of the epic are found in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature, the classical tradition is continued by Dante in the Divina Comedia, still writing in the same country and in substantially the same language as Virgil. Indeed the guide whom Dante chose to lead him through the “Inferno” was none other than Virgil himself. The tradition of epic poetry was next exemplified by Camoes in “The Lusiads,” again an expression of the Latin genius. Milton from his early youth resolved to dedicate himself to the composition of a great epic which should be one of the classics of the English language; but in doing so he selected his medium from the classical tradition and infused it with a theme inspired by his own religious nature.
Milton was born in London in 1608, while Shakespeare was still alive, while Portugal was a part of the Spanish Empire, and when only the fringes of Brazil were even known. He was brought up in an era when Latin was the international language of men of culture, and when civilization was a European concept unfettered by narrow nationalism. Like other educated men of his time he read and wrote not only in Latin but also in Italian, and traveled in Italy to complete his education. By that time he had already established his fame as a poet with “Lycidas”, a lament on the death of a friend, two lyrical poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and a number of sonnets in English and Italian. But Milton was recalled to England in 1639 by civil war at home. The Parliament, which drew its religious inspiration largely from the Puritan Sect to which Milton belonged, was fighting against the royal prerogative exercised by King Charles the First. Milton, the student and the scholar, then devoted himself for twenty years to public life, becoming Secretary to the Council of the Commonwealth, which ruled the country after the Parliamentary Party had defeated and beheaded the King. It was only after the Royalists had triumphed again and King Charles the Second returned to the throne in 1660, that Milton returned to private life and resumed his project of composing the great epic of English literature.
The epic has a style and form that distinguish it from other types of poetry. It is only by understanding the vehicle which Milton uses that we can appreciate the beauty of his verse. The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer are without doubt the most famous epics in our literary heritage. Their themes were heroic, reciting the exploits and adventures of gods and famous men. The Iliad told the story of Achilles, his wrath, his suffering and his repentance, culminating in the slaying of Hector before the walls of Troy. The Odyssey recounts the travels of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan Wars; the poem is par excellence a great adventure story. These epics were not designed to be written or read, but were learned by heart and recited at the courts of the kings and chieftains of ancient Greece. In these poems the minstrels told of the deeds of heroes before great warriors on state occasions. Pomp and ceremony therefore strike the keynote of the epic; its style is solemn and its language grandiloquent.
Virgil widened the scope of the epic poem from the adventures of individual heroes to the history of his country. The Aeneid recounts the founding of Rome by Aeneas and his followers when they sought new lands to settle after the sack of Troy. Virgil takes a national legend, but projects it on to a wider plane, describing not only the origin but also the future greatness of Rome. He is sometimes believed to have foretold in the Fourth Eclogue the coming of Christ: in making his poem symbolical of the destiny of Rome, he has at the same time symbolized the destiny of man. Virgil’s special contribution to the development of the epic is therefore to broaden or elevate its theme from the individual to the national perspective. A “great theme” is now regarded as an essential ingredient in epic poetry, in addition to a solemn style and exalted language.
In the Divina Comedia Dante upholds this tradition. He tells the story of the spiritual pilgrimage of a soul through the Universe, including Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. In “Inferno” he surveys the lives and works of the great men of history; and, in “Paradise” he discusses the problems of philosophy and religion that beset the human soul. Camoes in the “Lusiads” also follows in the tradition of Virgil. Though his poem relates the voyage of Vasco de Gama around the Cape of Good Hope to India, it is really a celebration of the greatness of Portugal at the height of her fame and glory, when her empire not only included Brazil and what was known of Africa, but also extended into Asia from Aden to Singapore. Milton at one time considered building his epic around a patriotic theme, the legend of King Arthur, but finally broadened his subject to one which concerns all mankind, the story of the Temptation and the Fall of man.
The Theme of Paradise Lost
Milton announces the theme of his poem in the first three lines:
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…
The Fall of man, due to the disobedience to God of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, was the original sin from which mankind has suffered to this day. The essentials of the theme are taken from the Book of Genesis; the way in which Milton develops the theme affords the principal narrative interest of Paradise Lost.
It is not Adam who commits the original sin of disobedience to God but Eve, and it is as a result of Eve’s transgression that Adam also breaks the divine command. Eve is tempted to eat the forbidden fruit by Satan, who works on her through flattery and specious promises. He extols her beauty, promises the adoration of all the angels and suggests that God is keeping the human race from Godhead; she is told by Satan that God’s prohibition to eat the fruit is an arbitrary veto designed to keep Adam and Eve in subjection to his will. Led on by curiosity, pride and ambition, she takes and tastes the forbidden fruit. It is hard to distinguish the predominant motive which is responsible for her Fall: like most human actions, it has a mixture of different motives; they may be summed up as her desires or passions winning a victory over her reason.
The results of her fall are admirably described. She feels a sense of guilt and immediately deludes herself with the hope that God may not have noticed. Then she thinks of Adam, and decides to exploit the superior powers which she believes the fruit has given her to establish her ascendancy over him. Next she is seized with fear. Perhaps she will die. But if she dies what will happen to Adam? Will he continue to live and be happy, perhaps with another woman? Jealousy enters her heart and she decides that if she has to die Adam shall die with her. She then goes to tell Adam of what she has done, and here comes the extreme of her unreason. As if she has not caused enough trouble with her own transgression, in which Adam is inevitably involved, she tries to make out that her sin is all his fault for letting her walk alone in the garden. It has been truly said that after the Fall, Adam and Eve become human! The Fall of Adam is of a very different nature. As soon as Eve has told him what she has done, he realizes at once that she has committed the great sin of breaking the only commandment given them by God, but decides without hesitation that if Eve was lost he would share her fate. In Adam’s Fall there is no suggestion of self-interest, ambition, pride, or similar sins, but merely the chivalrous motive inspired by his love for Eve. This love is beautifully described in Book Eight of the poem and Milton’s treatment of the Fall of Adam is both noble and generous. Adam is not led on by impulse or passion, but of his own free will decides to eat the forbidden fruit, when he knows that it is forbidden, because he prefers to suffer with Eve, rather than stay in Paradise alone. Milton expresses this in Book Nine, as follows:
She gave him of that fair enticing Fruit With liberal hand; he scrupl’d not to eat Against his better knowledge, not deceav’d, But fondly overcome with Female charm.
To the modern reader it seems hard that this chilvarous conduct on the part of Adam should be regarded as a great sin and be the reason for expulsion from Paradise. Indeed, in a modern romance, Adam’s conduct would be that of the gallant hero who remains faithful to his love, and suffers at the hands of a tyrant whose unreasonable commands he refuses to obey. There is indeed a fundamental conflict between the nobility of Adam’s conduct in sacrificing himself to his love for Eve, and his cardinal sin in disobeying the command of God. Some critics believe that this conflict Milton failed to resolve with the result that his poem at this point is a failure and unconvincing to the reader. Milton tells us in the first paragraph of Paradise Lost that he wishes to “assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to man”. He will fail in his object if the account he gives of the Fall makes us sympathize with Adam more than condemn his act.
To understand the poem, however, we must think of it not in terms of a modern romance, but in terms of the current beliefs at the time it was written, and above all in the light of Milton’s religious faith. Milton and the majority of his contemporaries had an unquestioning belief in the Bible. The central theme of his argument follows the teachings of St. Augustine and the doctrine of the Church that God created all things good, that evil is the perversion of good things to bad and that sin consists in disobedience to the will of God. The Fall of man consisted in disobedience and resulted from pride, which was also true of Satan’s fall from Heaven. The apple which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat was not good or bad in itself: intrinsically the apple was of no importance; its significance was only as a test of obedience to God’s command. The essence of the Fall is simply and solely disobedience, and was summed up by the critic Addison when he said, “The great moral which reigns in Milton is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined, that obedience to the will of God makes men happy and disobedience makes them miserable”.
This is the central theme of Paradise Lost and this is what Milton is seeking to justify to man. This does not mean that God’s prohibition to touch the apple can be regarded as the arbitrary prohibition of a tyrant, because obedience to God’s will is the first principle in the whole scheme of the Universe. When Milton composed Paradise Lost in the seventeenth century human society and the universe itself were believed to have been created by God with an intrinsic hierarchical order of which God himself was of course the Almighty. The teaching of the Church had been accepted for many centuries that the first duty of men is obedience to the will of God. It was equally accepted that in mundane matters every man owes obedience to his natural human superior. It was still more than a century before Rousseau would produce the heretical doctrine that all men are born free and equal. The current belief was still that expressed by Aristotle, that justice means equality for equals and inequality for unequals. Plato had defined justice as giving to each man what is his due. What is due to God above all things is respect and obedience to his will. The background to Milton’s conception of mankind’s original sin is therefore two thousand years of belief in the principle of obedience to one’s superiors. As between man and man this was the first principle of society. In relation to God it was the keystone in the arch of faith.
The sin of Adam therefore is that he failed to recognize his first duty of obedience to God, and allowed mere human motives, even though commendable ones of love and chivalry to distract him from this allegiance. Adam and Eve have transgressed the bounds of their duty according to the law of the universe, and, having done so, have committed mankind’s original sin.
In contrast with this view, some critics have believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve is not so much based on the story of the Old Testament as on the moral code of the Greek philosophers. Aristotle gave the clearest statement to the Greek theory of moderation in his “theory of the mean”, that virtues are the mean or medium course half way between two extremes. Another expression of this same idea was epitomized in the inscription on the Temple at Delphi “Nothing in excess.” Milton, however, is not an Aristotelian and it is reading too much into his words to suppose that this was his thought in his account of the Fall. There is however much more similarity between Milton’s thought and that of Plato. Plato’s definition of justice as rendering to each that which is his due is echoed in the teaching of the New Testament “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and render unto God the things which God’s.” The first thing owing to God is the obedience of his creatures, and in failing to obey Adam and Eve have transgressed against the Platonic as well as the Christian morality.
Satan and Other Characters in the Poem
The character described most graphically by Milton is that of Satan. Satan is not portrayed as one might suppose entirely as an object of hatred and contempt. Milton spurs the idea of making the devil appear despicable. Indeed dramatic consistency would prevent this course. It would be absurd to portray a mean antagonist to raise rebellion against the Almighty, and it would be too much to the discredit of Adam and Eve to succumb to the temptation of such a creature.
Satan is portrayed as one of the angels, though a fallen angel. The poem opens immediately after the defeat of his rebellion against the authority of God. Satan, while still an angel in heaven, suffered from an absorbing pride and could not endure what he imagined to be an insult to his prestige when God appointed his own Son to rule over the angels. Satan then raised a rebel army to dispute the authority of God, and was vanquished by the Archangel Michael. When the poem begins, Satan and his followers are lying vanquished in hell, but after a while they recover and conspire to renew their war against heaven and the authority of God. Milton ascribes to Satan the power and majesty of an Archangel and in some ways we cannot but admire him. But when he begins to address his followers the speech is such a distortion of the truth, his arguments such a travesty of logic and his main interest so self-centered that the meanness of his character appears through the nobility of his other attributes. Satan himself gives his own account of his supposed grievances against God, which all spring from pride and what he calls a “sense of injured merit”. His character is summed up in his thought that it his “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”.
Though Satan starts the poem with some attributes of nobility but with a perverted outlook, his true character develops with the progress of the poem. Every speech he makes panders to his conceit and intensifies his selfishness. He progresses (in the words of Mr. [C.S.] Lewis) “from a hero to a general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad and finally to a snake.” Some critics think that at the beginning of the poem Milton describes Satan too nobly and then tries to rectify this mistake by subsequently debasing him. It would be a truer appraisal to say that Milton ascribes to Satan at the beginning the qualities of pride and conceit which are themselves responsible for his progressive degradation and abasement.
Milton’s treatment of Satan has been described in some details, because this character is the most striking in the poem and also the most divergent from our own preconceptions. The other characters call for briefer notice. Adam and Eve in Paradise are a little colorless. They have to be portrayed as living in a state of unblemished innocence which it is always difficult to make interesting. The characterization of Eve at the moment of the temptation and the fall, however, is masterly, as is also the treatment of Adam expressing his love for Eve when he confesses his sin to the Son. Milton’s portrayal of God the Father is not very satisfactory. But what mortal man can adequately describe God? The presentation of the Messiah is much more successful, though we must remember that it is of the Second Person of the Trinity and not of the Christ of the Gospels.
An English proverb says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The best advice one can give about Paradise Lost as of all great literature is to read the poem itself and reread it, rather than the writings of others about it. There are parts as in all long works where the high level of the finest passages is not maintained. This is particularly true of the middle and the last two books. It is also necessary to remember that one is reading an epic poem the style of which sends its roots back to Homer and Virgil. Its language is grandiloquent, its treatment monumental, its subject matter universal. In the words of Milton’s greatest modern critic, Paradise Lost records “a real, irreversible, unrepeatable process in the history of the Universe: and even for those who do not believe this, it embodies (in what for them is mythical form) the great change in every individual soul from happy dependence to miserable self-assertion and thence either, as in Satan, to final isolation, or, as in Adam, to reconcilement and a different happiness.” *
* C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942 ed.), p. 129. The present author, in company with all students of Milton, is immeasurably indebted to Lewis’ scholarly work. He has also made much use of Professor A.J.A. Waldock’s Paradise Lost and Its Critics (1947).