Paradise Lost, an epic in twelve books, is in several ways one of the most wonderful of the works of men. It is one of those rare works of human genius whose power and beauty are inexhaustible. It was composed by the poet after restoration, in blindness, poverty and obscurity. Yet he produced a poem which alone is enough to give him a place among the poets who are not of one age, but of all ages, not of one country, but of the whole world giving it the genre of an immortal classic.
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Writing of the influences which shaped Milton’s epic, Verity says, “We must indeed recognize in Paradise Lost, the meeting point of Renaissance and Reformation, the impress of four great influences; the Bible, the classics, the Italian poets and English literature. ”(Verity, 103). In allusion lies one of the chief delights of literature, and we get this delight from Paradise Lost.
But the greatness of Milton’s epic lies not in allusions, not in the story, nobly though that illustrates the eternal antagonism of righteousness and wrong, and the overthrow of evil; nor in the construction, though this is sufficiently architectonic; nor in the learning, though that is vast; nor in the characterization, for which there is little scope; not in these things, though all are factors in the greatness of the poem, and in all Milton rises to the height of his argument- but in the incomparable elevation of the style, ‘the shaping spirit of Imagination’ and ‘the sheer majesty of music’.
This is well explicated in the description of the flora and fauna of Eden: “……. gentle gales Fanning their odoriferous wings dispense Native perfumes and whisper whence they stole Those balmie spoiles. ” (IV, 156-159) It is undoubtedly Renaissance that fired his ambition of writing an epic and his choice of its subject fell on the Biblical subject of the fall of man. He preferred the Biblical subject because, says John Bailey, “it was his belief that every statement in the Bible was literally true” (Bailey, 67). As this was also the belief of his contemporaries, his epic got recognition at once.
But the use of Biblical theme hampered his freedom of invention. That is why Books I-IV, where the poet enjoyed comparatively greater freedom of invention, are better written than the other books where his imagination was hampered by his Biblical theme. Paradise Lost is a classical epic, having all the common features of the epics of Homer and Virgil. It is a long narrative poem in XII books, its subject is solemn and grand, and it finds equally grand and solemn treatment. Indeed grandeur and majesty are the key-notes of Milton’s epic. Like the classical epics, it has unity of theme and treatment.
There is nothing in it that is superfluous, every episode and incident leads to the central theme – the fall of man and the loss of paradise. Wars and heroic exploits are also not lacking. There is supernatural intervention in plenty. Its characters are mostly superhuman – God and His angels, and Satan and his followers. There are only two human characters, Adam and eve. Indeed, this paucity of human actors, and consequent lack of human interest, is the basic weakness of Milton’s epic. In keeping with the epic tradition, its style and versification is lofty and sublime.
Frequent and effective use has been made of Homeric or epic similes. Though Paradise Lost is a classical epic, it also has a number of unique features of its own. A classical epic deals with a subject of national importance, with the war-like exploits of some hero of national stature. The theme of Milton’s epic is vaster and of a more universal human interest than any handled by the poet’s predecessors. It concerns itself with the fortunes, not of a city or an empire, but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history of the race which has moulded all its destinies.
Around this event, the plucking of an apple, are ranged, according to the strictest rules of the ancient epic, the histories of Heaven, Earth and Hell. The scene of action is Universal Space. The time represented is Eternity. The characters are God and all his creatures. And all these are exhibited in the clearest and most inevitable relation with the main event, so that there is not an incident, hardly a line of the poem, but lead backwards or forwards to that central theme. Like other epic poets, Milton too plunges at once into the middle of his story instead of beginning from the beginning.
Thus Book I opens with an account of the Fallen Angels-Satan and his followers- in Hell, and the account of the war in heaven which resulted in that fall is given later on, in the Books V-VIII, along with the account of the Creation of the world. Satan, though defeated and fallen, does not despair. He encourages his followers, a vast hall, Pandemonium, is built, where they hold a conference to decide upon their future course of action. After much discussion it is decided that they would have their revenge upon God by corrupting the newly created man.
Accordingly, Satan undertakes a journey to the new world through Chaos, reaches the Earth and the Garden of Eden. In the form of a serpent, he tempts eve to taste the fruit of the forbidden tree. He succeeds in seducing eve, and Adam, despite the warning of God’s angel Raphael, tastes the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He thus commits the Sin of Disobedience. The result is divine punishment. Consequently, there is the loss of paradise and the fall of man. Suffering becomes the lot of man as a result of this original sin.
Satan, too, is punished, as he and his followers are transformed into hissing serpents. The central theme of the epic is stated in the very opening lines itself: “Of man’s first disobedience Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse,” (I, 1-6) This fall of man would be used by him to ‘assert Eternal Providence’ and ‘justify the ways of god to man’.
Thus Dr. Johnson said that Milton’s purpose is “to show the reasonableness of religion and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law” (Brown, 82). The theme of freedom and independence is also inherent in the epic. Satan is the very embodiment of heroic energy, energy which is constantly expressed in action in his opposition to the will of god despite heavy odds. His words like: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven” (I, 263) and “What though the field be lost? / All is not lost! ” (I, 105-106) drives home the point very clearly. Characters in Paradise Lost may be divided into four different groups.
First of all there are God, His son and His angels; secondly there are the fallen angels, Satan and his followers; thirdly there are allegorical personages, Sin and Death; and lastly humans, Adam and eve. Mark Pattison has rightly said that an enjoyment of Milton’s poetry is the ultimate reward of consummate scholarship. Milton was a very learned poet, and his learning is strewn wide over Paradise Lost. Allusions to classical literature and mythology, to Biblical mythology, and to contemporary literatures of Europe, especially Italian, are abundant and plentiful stumbling blocks in the ways of the readers.
The first lines of the first book of the epic has references to “Oreb” (7), “That Shepherd (8), “Siloa’s Brook”, “Aonian Mount”, etc. proves the fact. Latin constructions, use of words in their original Latin sense, and epigrammatic terseness are other sources of difficulty. That is why the beauty and grandeur of the epic can be enjoyed only after a number of readings. But such readings are fruitful and rewarding. At times the Latin usages give an elusive meaning as in the following passage: “Soft oppression seis’d My droused sense, untroubl’d though I thought
I then was passing to my former state Insensible and forthwith to dissolve. ” (VIII, 291-296) More specially the epic similes, more frequent in this epic than in Homer or Virgil, uplift and dilate the imagination, thrill the senses with their range and variety and are a source of great aesthetic pleasure. One of the most noteworthy epic similes from Milton in Paradise Lost is that which deals with the will-o-the-wisp in book IX, Lines 633-42: “Hope elevates, and joy Bright’ns his Crest, as when a wandring Fire Compact of unctuous vapor, which the Night Condenses, and the cold environs round, Kindl’d through agitation to a Flame, Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends Hovering and blazing with delusive Light, Misleads th’ amaz’d Night-wanderer from his way To Boggs and Mires, and oft through Pond or Poole, There swallow’d up and lost, from succour farr. ” (IX, 633-42) Coupled with the sublimity and grandeur of diction, there is sonorous verbal music of Milton. Paradise Lost is written in blank verse, and its handling is superb throughout. Each line consists of five feet and ten syllables, the accent being on the second syllable.
Here Milton introduced endless variations in metre, to give music, flexibility and variety to the verse. The use of trochees and spondees and clever manipulation of pauses add to the effect. But the chief peculiarity of Milton’s blank verse is his use of the verse paragraph where the meaning of the line does not end with it but overflows to the next lines. We might have lost faith in Milton’s theology and the story of the fall of man may have been exploded by science, but Paradise Lost will never decay and die. It is an immortal work of art and it will live on by virtue of its manifold poetic beauties.