John Milton and Paradise Lost
John Milton is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the English language and best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Since his own lifetime his reputation has changed constantly, he has been seen as political opportunist, an advocate of ‘immorality’(he wrote in favour of divorce and married three times), an over serious classicist, and arrogant believer in his own greatness as a poet. He was all these things. But above all he was the last great liberal intelligence of the English renaissance. The values expressed in his works are the values of tolerance, freedom and self-determination expressed by Shakespeare, Hooker and Donne. The basis of his aesthetic studies was classical, but the modernity of his intellectual interests can be seen in the fact that he went to Italy (in the late 1630s) where he met the astronomer Galileo, who had been condemned as a heretic by the Catholic church for saying the Earth moved around the sun.
Milton’s early poems, from the 1620s and 1630s, include L’ Allegro and Il Penseroso two companion pieces that advocate contrasting styles of life, the carefree and the studious. In 1651 he became blind, but his blindness helped stimulate his verbal richness as can be seen in his sonnets, On his Blindness is perhaps the best known, with its last line:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
All Milton’s works are specifically Christian in their outlook, but his beliefs go beyond any single doctrine, as can be seen in the wide range of political and social pamphlets he wrote between 1640 and 1660 – a time when he wrote few poems. These twenty years saw the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland) go through the only real revolution in its history. It overthrew the monarchy. And after a few years, parliament decided to recall the executed King’s son to the throne. It was a time when a great many issues that had arisen since the Reformation came to a head: religion, politics, power and freedom were questioned as never before. Milton addressed all these issues as well as others such as divorce education and famously, the freedom of the press in Areopagitica (1644), in which he anticipates his great epic Paradise Lost by more than twenty Years.
It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without knowledge of evil?…
Milton continued to defend his ideals of freedom and republicanism. But at the time of the Restoration, by which time he was blind, he was arrested. He was eventually released by powerful contacts after paying a fine. During his remaining years he was devoted to the composition orally, in the form of dictation to his third wife – of his epic poem on the fall of humanity, Paradise Lost, which was published in 1667.
It is interesting to note that like Spenser and Malory before him, and like Tennyson two centuries later – Milton was attracted to the Arthurian legends as the subject for his great Epic. But the theme of the fall goes beyond a national epic, and gave the poet the scope to analyse the whole question of freedom, free will, and individual choice. He wished, he said, to ‘assert eternal providence, /and justify the ways of God to men’. This is seen by some as confirmation of Milton’s arrogance, but it also signals the last great attempt to rationalise the spirit of the Renaissance: mankind would not exist outside Paradise if Satan had not engineered the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.
Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, noble style. Moreover, its cosmic vision is not actually based on the Copernican system, but more in the traditional Christian cosmology of its day, where the Earth is the centre of the cosmos, not the sun. The poem tells a biblical story of Adam and Eve, with God, and Lucifer (Satan), who is thrown out of Heaven to reign supreme in Hell. Lucifer (Satan), the most beautiful of the angels, is at his most impressive: he wakes up, on a burning lake in Hell, to find himself surrounded by his stunned followers. He has been defeated in the War of Heaven. "All is not lost; the' unconquerable Will, / and study of revenge, immortal hate, / and courage never to submit or yield... /" Revenge is the ultimate goal for Satan and succseeds in bringing about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Milton created a powerful and sympathetic portrait of Lucifer. His character bears similarities with Shakespeare's hero-villains Iago (Othello) and Macbeth, whose intellectual nihilism is transformed into metaphysical drama.
The final image of Paradise Lost is profoundly forward-looking, an image of gain through loss. As Adam and Eve go hand in hand towards the future, the loss of Paradise is seen as humanity’s gain:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
through Eden took their solitary way.
Milton's view influenced the Romantic poets Blake and Shelly who saw Satan as the real hero of the poem and a rebel against the tyranny of Heaven. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake stated that Milton was "a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Many other works have been inspired by Paradise Lost, among them Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, John Keat's poem Endymion, Lord Byron's The Vision of Judgment, satanic Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's saga The Lord of the Rings. And to some extent, Nietzsche's Zarathustra who has a more superficial than real connection with Milton's Lucifer, although Nietzsche knew Milton's work.
Milton's Grand Style C. Ricks (1963), Divided Empire: Milton's political Imagery R. T. Fallon (1996), Private Lifeof John Milton Peter Levi (1997), History of Literature in English J Carter & John Mcrae,(1997) John Milton: A Comprehensive Research Study Guide Ed. by Harold Bloom (1999)