This is it…this is the last “monster” that was left on my list. I had avoided it all this time but I finally had to face it. I much preferred attacking John Milton’s Paradise Lost at the beginning of summer instead of scrambling to finish it before school starts at the end. And I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. It is still not one of my favorite books and it won’t be one that I’ll read over and over again, but it wasn’t as difficult and tedious as I was expecting, even with my natural aversion to epic poems. The storyline was interesting enough to hold my attention through 400 pages, and not often did I feel like the language was weighing me down. Overall, I am glad I read it, but of course, still sad I couldn’t just enjoy it but now have to pick it apart and be able to discuss it.
Paradise Lost is for sure an epic poem in blank verse. It is a lengthy narrative poem that deals with the rather serious issue of the fall of man. A work such as Beowulf would be classified as a primary epic (although pinning that work down to any specific genre would be difficult, but it is most commonly seen as an epic), while Paradise Lost, which was written much later, would be known as a literary or secondary epic. And while many of the early epic poems were part of the early oral tradition, epics have been written down at least since the works of Virgil and Dante Alighieri.
Paradise Lost can also be viewed as Milton’s attempt at a Theodicy – a theological study that attempts to justify God’s intrinsic nature of benevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence despite the existence of evil. In Book I Milton states hi wish to “justify the ways of God to men.”
I suppose the most obvious theme would be that of rebellion against God and its consequences, as not only do Adam and Eve experience this firsthand, but the book starts off with the rebellion of Satan and his followers and what resulted from that. In both instances, the guilty were forced out of their respective paradises never to return.
Throughout the poem Milton incorporates Paganism, classical mythology, and of course, Christianity into the story. He also manages to tackle several difficult theological issues (predestination, the introduction of sin and death into the world, etc.) and even takes on the forever troubling relationship between God’s foresight and free will. Not exactly the most easily conveyed ideas, but somehow Milton makes it work while still telling a story.
Another theme, or at least a good point of discussion, is the relationship between Adam and Eve. In the beginning, before the fall, Milton presents their relationship as one of mutual dependence where neither person is dominant. Adam may be above Eve in intellect and in his relation to God, but Eve also gains knowledge through experience. And neither sees the roles as forced on them, but a requirement for the strength of their relationship. Of course, critics and readers will always end up going with either an Adam-centric or Eve-centric viewpoint, but Milton seems to portray them as pretty equal. They depend upon each other and use their differences to make the relationship work…until they sin against God…then they have a whole other mess to deal with.
Although this doesn’t really qualify as a theme, it is interesting the note the character of Satan as more of an anti-hero than just the “bad guy.” The story really isn’t about him, but he is a main driving force in the plot. Some critics see him as more of a sympathetic character, which is confusing sine Milton is attempting to justify God’s actions. Because of the sympathetic portrayal, critics have argued that Satan’s presence maybe serves as a criticism on the church of Milton’s time.
The poem was originally published in 1667 in ten books. A second edition was published in 1674 in 12 books (much like Virgil’s Aeneid) with minor revisions. Milton was blind when the poem was written so it was transcribed by his daughters.
In the 20th century a common interpretation of the work was that Milton was actually more sympathetic towards the devil than he was Adam and Eve. But other critics, such as C.S. Lewis, rejected this interpretation and argue that Paradise Lost simply represents the Biblical scripture on which it was based. Later, Satan starts to be seen less as a hero, and more as a character that starts out as a hero before eventually being reduced to a being that can’t even control his own body. At some point Satan becomes an anti-hero who doesn’t submit to authority and acts out of his own arrogance and delusion. Bottom line: the character of Satan has influenced many different arguments and viewpoints over time, and I am sure more will come up as long as this work remains part of the cannon.
Also, the amount of literary works which are critical of the church during Milton’s time adds to the belief that the sympathy the reader tends to feel towards Satan is Milton’s way of criticizing the church of Renaissance England.
Now, because I finished working on Paradise Lost a full two weeks ahead of schedule (yea!), I will go ahead and deal with the plays of Christopher Marlowe. After that, I hope to discuss the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs.