Paradise Lost

By John Milton

Themes, Part 2


Milton presents prelapsarian sexual relations that are wholly within the divine Creation. We are reminded of the evening prayers that precede the love-making. The union of Adam and Eve is significant for humankind and conducive to the further absorption of the goodness of God. From God they are "promised from us two a race | To fill the earth, who shall with us extol | …goodness infinite" (IV.732-4). The abuses of sex can easily be interpreted as postlapsarian. However, Milton concludes that physical union between the sexes must be a God-given, and therefore justified, component of Paradise.

Angelic sex is a theme Milton introduces to the poem gratuitously. The idea that fallen angels have sex with humans was commonplace; there was an ancient belief that incubi and succubi (devils in the form of men and women) had sex with humans. Milton alludes to this in Paradise Regained. Even righteous angels, we are told, have sexual intercourse with each other. Raphael tells Adam of this in Book VIII. Though warned off his inquiry about the universe, Raphael explicitly answers Adam's question (VIII.615- 17) on the relations between angels.

"Let it suffice thee that thou know'st

Us happy, and without love no happiness.

Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st

(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy

In eminence, and obstacle find none

Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars;

Easier than air with air, if spirits embrace,

Total they mix, union of pure with pure

Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need

As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul.


This view of angels is unorthodox in the angelological tradition, but it serves Paradise Lost in a number of ways. Firstly, linking with Milton's earlier writing on the sanctity of sexual relations, Milton is asserting the heavenly status of sexuality that is part of love. With this, by implication, therefore human sexuality is not immoral, rather it is divine. The angels are not gendered, therefore their coition is for love rather than procreation - Milton argues that so do Adam and Eve, and by implication all of the godly.

All of this is in contrast to the Satanic party. On watching Adam and Eve embrace, Satan remarks

"I to hell am thrust,

Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire

with pain of longing pines."


The fallen angels are marked from those who remain loyal to God, by their inability to satisfy their rapacious sexual desires. This, like their transformation into serpents, is one of God's punishments for their rebellion and continued disobedience.

John Milton and Paradise Lost

One of the characteristics of the traditional epic above is the objectivity of the poet. In Milton's case, one would be hard pressed to argue that he was able to uphold poetical objectivity. However W.G. Riggs has attempted to do so:

"It should be clear that for Milton it is the poet's submission to the voice of his muse, to divine inspiration, which ultimately distinguishes the soaring creation of Paradise Lost from an act of blasphemous pride. Milton does not, however, present the invocation of a heavenly muse as his only defense against presuming too much. Through the narrative he remains sensitive to the relationship between himself as poet and his subject; he examines every implication of his creative act with a care which suggests a fear of self- delusion. While he insists on the pious intentions of what he undertakes, he never neglects to expose the satanic aspect of his poetic posture."

E.M.W. Tillyard has a much different reaction to the poet in Paradise Lost. In remarking on emotion in Milton's poetry, Tillyard comments, regarding Raphael's speeches,

"this is indeed angelic speech, and through it Milton conveys without strain or reservation his entire belief in the unity of creation and the informing power of God that both makes and preserves it. . . . Whatever we may think about Milton's direct descriptions of God, he does when writing of God's works make us feel, as no other English poet could, their glorious diversity, their order, their dependence on their creator who made and fosters them by the constant pressure of his inexhaustible power."

Surely this is not a description of an objective poet. A. Stein is perhaps even more forceful in his comments regarding the Milton in the poem:

"The poet we may see in the poem at this point is the figure of himself Milton could hardly have concealed had he wished to: that of the author whose representation includes his judgment. . . . The figure of the poet does not obtrude but still is present substantially, answerable to the literary and philosophical questions addressed first to the dramatized character who speaks, and through him to the 'living intellect' who creates and guides. . . . Throughout we know that behind the narrator there is a man with a personal history, which also enters the poem."

C. S. Lewis puts it another way:

"every poem has two parents - its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world… The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work."

Paradise Lost

: An English Epic?

Paradise Lost

is perhaps one the finest example of the epic tradition. In composing the poem John Milton was, for the most part, following in the manner of epic poets of past centuries.

Paradise Lost

is an epic whose closest structural affinities are with Virgil's Aeneid. There are influences of epic traditions and the presence of epic features other than Virgilian however. Homeric elements are its Iliad-like subject, the death and woe resulting from an act of disobedience; the portrayal of Satan as an Archillean hero motivated by a sense of injured merit and also as an Odyssean hero of wiles and craft; the description of Satan's perilous Odyssey to find a new homeland; and the battle scenes in heaven. The poem also incorporates a Hesiodic gigantomachy. There are numerous Ovidian metamorphoses. Milton incorporates an Ariostan Paradise of Fools; and finally Spenserian allegorical figures (Sin and Death).

The debate in the parliament of hell resembles that in Book II of the Iliad. The debate is essentially about the means the fallen angels will take to exact revenge on God - force or guile. The proposals of Satan and those of Moloch parody the simple tactics of Achilles and the subtle approach of Odysseus. The parallel between the destruction of Eden and of Troy become more developed later in the text. Satan and his followers writhe on the Burning Lake "Nine times the space that measures Day and Night" (I.50), as they fell nine days from heaven (VI.871). Critics have been quick to make parallels with Hesiod's account of the fall of the Titans (Theogony, 664-735) and the plague of nine days and prospect of nine days at sea at the opening of the Iliad. Satan's first words (I.84-5) to Beelzebub are related to Virgil: "alas, how chang'd from that which you were" (II,274).

Milton made important changes, however: the rejection of a martial theme, and the choice of an argument that emphasizes the hero's transgression and defeat instead of celebrating his virtues and triumphs. Milton retained the formal motifs and devices of the traditional heroic poem but invested them with Christian matter and meaning. In this sense his epic is something of a 'pseudomorph' - that is it retains the form of classical epic but replaces its values and contents with Judeo-Christian concepts. Milton does not attempt to imitate the classical epic, rather he chooses to redefine classical heroism in Christian Humanist terms. The answer to the question why Milton drew on such a range of sources for his epic lies in great part with the eclectic tenets of Renaissance Humanist scholarship.

It is important, before continuing with an examination the epic characteristics and conventions of Paradise Lost, to review for a moment exactly what an 'epic' is. Renaissance critics generally thought of epics as long poems treating heroic actions or other weighty matters in a high style, thereby evoking awe or wonder. Essentially an 'epic' is a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures which form an organic whole through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.

The following are some common characteristics of the 'epic' genre:

· The hero is a figure of heroic stature, of national or international importance, and of great historical or legendary significance;

· The setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe;


The action consists of deeds of great valor or requiring superhuman courage;

· Supernatural forces - gods, angels, demons - interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to time;

· A style of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used;

· The epic poet recounts the deeds of his heroes with objectivity.

Some common devices or conventions used by most epic poets:

· the poet opens by stating his theme, invokes a Muse to inspire and instruct him, and opens his narrative in medias res giving the necessary exposition in later portions of the epic;

· he includes catalogues of warriors, ships, armies;

· he gives extended formal speeches by the main characters;

· he makes frequent use of the epic simile

That the characteristics noted above are present and identifiable in Milton's poem is certain. Furthermore through the manipulation of some of these epic characteristics and conventions Milton offers his reader some of the most controversial and interesting questions and situations in the poem. One of the most formidable problems that the reader must face is that of hero; exactly who is the epic hero of Paradise Lost?

Since the eighteenth century, for a number of readers, Milton's devil has been interpreted as a much stronger character than his God, and his image of Hell far more forceful than his picture of Heaven. This is misleading, inferring that the Hell scenes must be more 'sincere' than the descriptions of Heaven. They conclude, with Dryden, that Satan must be the real 'hero' of Paradise Lost. It is not to Satan that the mantle of hero falls; in the language of Renaissance criticism, Adam - the central figure in the poem - is clearly the 'epic person' or 'primary hero'. Going a step further, in supplying Satan with many of the conventional attributes of the epic hero, Milton indirectly censures the epic tradition for celebrating vice as heroic virtue. Milton relies on a reductio ad absurdum to discredit a spurious conception of heroism.

F.C. Blessington adds an interesting note to the discussion when she calls Satan not a classical hero but a classical villain:

"Satan is made the archetype of the sophistical rhetoric, the shallow egotism, and the destructive pride, the vices of the classical epic as well as of the classical world. In addition, he is the perversion of classical heroic virtues. He often begins by resembling a victim, sometimes even a perversion of that . . . . [He is] not a classical hero but a classical villain who unheroically defeats creatures far below him in stature."

Steadman concurs,

"In the course of Milton's epic his fallen archangel conceives and executes an enterprise of conquest and destruction closely resembling that of the conventional epic hero. Nevertheless, for a seventeenth- century Protestant, this apparently heroic exploit should have fitted into a familiar ethical category, a pattern already delineated and condemned by theologians in their discussions of pagan virtue."

This subject preoccupied both Luther and Calvin. That Milton wanted his readers to be forced to face the problem of Satan seeming heroic is certain. Satan is, after all, an angel. He was a mighty angel in Heaven. In order for us to see the power of God, it is necessary that Satan also be powerful; it is important that Satan, a parody of God, be viewed as an eloquent, bold being, one possessing superhuman strength, extraordinary martial prowess, fortitude, and other attributes. But Milton would also expect his readers to perceive fact from fancy; he would expect us to see through Satan's seeming greatness to his core of evil and pride and petty acts of revenge. That is, after all, part of the test. If we perceive Satan's real villainy, we indeed show ourselves sufficient to avoid it ourselves.

Perhaps it is worth noting that evil is necessarily charismatic and superficially displays all the qualities of strength and 'wisdom' that good does. Milton chooses to portray precisely such an evil to begin with, only to have it undermined progressively by the wisdom of angels. His implication is that we should be faced with an evil that is tangibly appealing and a good that is hard to define and therefore to appreciate in its benign and mystical greatness. The poet establishes that good is not the easy option and does so with such success that critics have latched upon the issue of Satan's appeal without recourse to the fact that Milton would have assumed a greater degree of Christian understanding in his reader than is now generally the case. It is hard to believe that Milton was, as has been suggested by some, "of the Devil's party", intentionally or no. Yet the dispute continues apace.

The next three characteristics of the epic listed above are hardly items of debate. The setting is indeed vast in scope, ranging from Heaven to Hell and to the Earth. The action surely consists of deeds of great valour requiring superhuman courage. And there are supernatural forces (gods, angels, and demons) at work throughout the poem. One question may occur in regard to the second of these: is it valour and courage that Satan and his followers showed in fighting the War in Heaven with God?

The reader may have a difficulty conceiving Satan as courageous and valourous. But it may be the words themselves and modern connotations connected with them that cause the difficulty. When examined more closely, there seems to be little difficulty: a definition of courage from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries meant "anger, wrath; haughtiness, pride".

Another of characteristic of the epic, the use of an elevated style, may also surely be acknowledged in Paradise Lost:

"Milton… needed a style that could at once invoke and revamp the classical tradition. I shall not discuss the controversies over Milton's 'Latinate' style but only point out some things that have not been said but which help to give the impression of a classical style in Paradise Lost. Milton's method of elevating the language is the common one suggested by Aristotle: vary, within reason, the mode of normal speech by using unfamiliar words, figures, unusual forms and spellings, and, most of all, metaphors."

Critics such as William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, T.S. Eliot, and others, have attacked Milton's style. Milton justified the way in which he wrote Paradise Lost in the preface added to the later 1668 editions:

"The measure is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin, rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter…

Not without cause, therefore, some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note have rejected rhyme both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies…

This neglect then of rhyme so little is to be taken for a defect… rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the modern bondage of rhyming."

(Preface to Paradise Lost)

Milton was 'modern' in his diction and accidence. The poem revolves around a labyrinth of powerful parallels and contrasts: God and Satan, good and evil, love and hate, humility and pride, reason and passion, liberty and servitude, order and anarchy, natural simplicity and artificial luxury. The language and style of the poem are unique in the history of English poetry in its combined simplicity and sublimity. The epic genre required the poet's style raise the attention of the reader above the everyday to the contemplative. For obvious reasons, it is the language and imagery of the Bible that echoes most through the poem. Milton took suggestions for the way of raising his text from Hebrew, Greek and Latin poetry, and the modern Italians. In Milton's oeuvre, progressively from Lycidas and a number of the sonnets to the prose tracts, we can see the emergence of Milton's methods - compressed and elliptical syntax, playing with normal word order, the periodic sentence, long and complex sentences, new and ambiguous use of words.

Critics from Addison and Johnson, unjustly, complained the English of Paradise Lost is almost foreign; a reading of the text will establish that the charge Milton was dominated by a distinctively un-English and Latinate diction is unfounded. Where necessary for theological discussion, for example in the invocation to light (III.1-55), Milton is Latinate. However the main part of the passage is English.

Milton was bold in his rhythm as much as his style. As the poet declared in his introduction, the use of blank verse in a long poem was unprecedented in English poetry. Milton exploited the possibilities of expressive rhythm that arose either from the material or his own creativity. Ricks responded to critics of Milton's style:

"That his [Milton's] style astonishes is itself some cause of surprise. The epic is of all literary kind the most dignified, the most concerned to fulfil expectation rather than to baffle or ignore it. . . . [He] must combine two fervours: a heroic dedication to tradition; and a heroic dedication to himself, a confidence in his own greatness which will prevent his suffocating under the weight of a great tradition. "

Surely it was necessary for Milton to approach his work with a great sense of decorum, both out of respect for its epic tradition and our of respect for its grand subject.

In addition to the epic characteristics of Paradise Lost, epic conventions are also discernible. Milton begins by stating his theme: the entire story of salvation is summarized in the opening twenty-six lines, and the purpose of the epic, to "justify the ways of God to men," is stated in line twenty-six. Milton also opens his narrative in medias res, beginning by asking how Adam and Eve could have fallen. Who could have caused it? We then meet an already fallen Satan; it is only in Book VI that the War in Heaven is actually described.

Milton also invokes a Muse (ll. 1-26) to inspire and instruct him, as was traditional; so too the use of Clio as muse and the pairing of Clio and Urania. Other of the conventions are likewise present. Milton carefully includes a catalogue of the fallen angels (ll.376-505). He also provides extended formal speeches by the main characters (ll. 84-124,157-91,242-70, and 622-62 for major speeches by Satan in Book I). It is on the basis of the eloquence and power of those speeches that much of the claim for Satan's position as 'hero' is based.

Finally, Milton makes frequent use of the epic simile. Four major examples are of interest in Book I; they include the simile of the sea monster (ll.192-), the autumnal leaves (ll.300-), the son/sun (ll.594-), and the swarming bees (ll.768-). One critic identifies that "the Miltonic similes portray knowledge as problematic; they do not suggest we throw away the tools we have and wait for grace as for rain" continues, saying that the similes fulfill a number of tasks: they "convey real information about the tenor, or locate it in an experiential realm" by "stimulating the sensual memory," inducing "in the reader an experience which characterizes the subject". They often prefigure subsequent events in the story. Thus Satan is compared to Leviathan. The similes focus attention upon the act of perception itself and make us aware that we are not looking alone, that we read in the company of those who have read before.

From Homer, certain images have been part of the epic poet's inheritance and equipment. Not only has he felt obliged to introduce them somewhere into his work but to distribute them in the very proportion observed by his predecessors. Beasts, plants, any phenomena used in previous epic simile belonged to him, too, if he could deploy them in a new context. Milton was free to originate novel images from contemporary events or his own personal experience; but Homer's, or Virgil's, high precedent prescribed the old images as well. Milton's choice of imagery, however, is distinguished from that of other important epic poets of Western Europe by an iron control over, aand a virtual renunciation of, animal similes.

Milton selects an animal image only at the 'perfect' opportunity. Milton's imagery of bees direct our mind's eye to winged creatures of the very size that the spirits are to become; they force the reader to contemplate in advance diminutive creatures which, despite their size, we have always liked to imagine do expatiate and confer their state-affairs, exactly what the infernal assembly is going to do. The simile prefigures and is a reflection of other events that are to come later in the story.

Clearly, then, and in spite of some alterations and modifications, Milton did indeed use classical epic conventions. One critic has observed "Milton built his epic out of those of Homer and Virgil, like a cathedral erected out of the ruins of pagan temples whose remains can still be seen".