‘Paradise Lost’ is a poetic retelling of Genesis. It narrates the account of Satan’s and his accomplices’ fall, man’s creation, and, most importantly, man’s act of disobedience and its repercussions: we lost paradise. It is a poetic piece that goes beyond the typical boundaries of literary storytelling, because it included the original story, the investigation of everything that man would go on to be and accomplish in the future, for the Christian readers and for the prevailing ethos of Western thought and society.
In ‘Paradise Lost’, John Milton exhibits a Puritan concern in God’s interactions with the man as well as a scholarly engagement in Biblical, Classical, historical, and scientific study, expressing a Renaissance passion for the beauty of language, the melody of poetry, and even music itself. ‘Paradise Lost’ becomes a “summational epic” in which allusions are tightly controlled as these connections are balanced by others, owing to its juxtaposition of traditions—biblical/classical and Renaissance/Platonism. The biblical reference to Satan, for example, is entrenched in the classical method as it opens in medias res in Book I. Despite this, the lack of rhyme in the classical epic form causes it to be rejected. Satan’s opening remarks in lines 84-85 reflect Aeneas’ glimpse of the spirit of Hector on the night of Troy’s downfall:
“If thou beest hee; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realm of Light.”
Furthermore, Satan is compared to the giants, the Titans, in an epic simile:
“Thus Satan talking to his nearest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes….
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove…”
Milton employed numerous such epic similes in his attempt to convert the old epic into a Christian epic. Milton’s employment of the Muse, an age-old epic technique, is also translated into Christian as the poet summons the Muse who has taught man of the creation tale. Milton invokes Urania, the traditional Muse of Astronomy, in Book VII, although he clarifies his intention in doing so. The phrase “the meaning, not the name” is being employed. Heaven and Earth emerge from the chaos in Milton’s world.
Chaos dominates the realm between Heaven and Hell in Book II. Satan descends through the confines of Hell and into the Abyss after his confrontation with Sin, who was birthed from Satan’s head as he plotted his rebellion against God. There, he meets the throne of Chaos, who is accompanied by his consort, Night, and when Satan informs Chaos of his intention to attack Earth, Chaos supports him. There are Latinisms in this text, such as “Battle dangerous,” in which the adjective comes before the noun; there is also an example of Ciceronian style:
“Yet he ples’d the ear,
And with persuasive accent thus began.”
Hell exists under the Earth, and Paradise Lost points out the question, “How does humanity endure in a fallen world?” Furthermore, Milton’s cosmology is founded on the theological message he seeks to transmit, the fall of man, rather than on the scientific discoveries of his contemporaries. While a result, as Milton paints an exalted account of the Garden of Eden, the focus is on two human beings. However, there has been a controversy about who is the “hero” in the account of Adam and Eve and Satan. According to Daiches, Milton exposes a mistaken view of heroism as “egotistical magnificence,” as well as the fallacious assumption that heroic energy is laudatory, even if it is used for a bad cause, through the character of Satan. Humankind’s representatives, Adam and Eve, are both noble and weak.
Many of the tropes of previous epics, such as those by Homer and Virgil, are present in Milton’s epic. Unlike the earlier epics, Milton’s Paradise Lost begins in the middle of the action and is concerned with the interplay between gods and mankind. Furthermore, the poem follows literary norms established by prior epics, such as cataloging regions and names and using epic similes, as well as issues established by earlier epics, such as nationalism and offering explanations of origins.
Since humans, in the form of Adam and Eve, are at the core of the action, it makes Paradise Lost a Renaissance epic. Humanism and the capacity of humanity for greatness and innovation were at the heart of the Renaissance. Though Adam and Eve have lost their condition of grace and must leave Paradise after succumbing to Satan’s temptations, it is apparent that their descendent, Jesus, will eventually bring glory. Many people regard them as the story’s heroes, rather than Satan, and Milton stresses their ability for magnificence on their own terms rather than just as God’s creatures.
Milton’s purposeful rejection of chivalric epic in pursuit of Puritan and domestic values is reflected in the concentration on Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Unlike the royalist apologetic of his day, Milton put civic institutions under religious ones. The beautiful domesticity of Adam and Eve is shown in the brilliant dialogues of Book IV, where Milton crafts a new love language and blends pastoral and heroic elements. The Fall endows a chastened Adam and Eve with redemptive moral standards, as well as Christ, who completes the heroic paradigm. This notion of the heroic is not new, but it is reformative, and it has biblical precedents. Nonetheless, it is influenced by the times, and Milton invents a new way of dealing with biblical themes.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Teskey, Gordon. New York: Norton, 2005
Milton, J. (1749). Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books. Oxford: OUP
Hazlitt, W., “On Shakespeare and Milton”. Milton Criticism. Selections from Four Centuries (London: Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd, 1965)
Hamilton, R. G., Hero or Fool: A study of Milton’s Satan (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1944)
Abrams, M. H., The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. I, Fifth Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 1986