Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Marvell’s poem concerns fundamental questions of whether or not Milton can artistically combine the “sacred Truths” of Christianity with the devices of a pagan epic. Marvell recognizes Milton’s imaginative, intellectual, and moral challenges, which stagger the mind. For example, as with all his major poems, Milton’s epic is a form of biblical explanation. It involves “Messiah Crown’d, God’s Reconcil’d Decree,/ Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree.” Milton cannot redefine biblical meanings, put strains upon the text of scripture, or inject personal, unwarranted, or offensive elements. He must impress Christian beliefs into the mind and memory of his readers without violating the letter or spirit of scripture. Faith, however, guides the apprehension of religious truths. Marvell fears that a presentation of Christian mysteries in poetic terms may confuse matters of thought and faith or that the attempt to do so may be vain. In addition, the restrictions of the ancient epic form might lower “sacred Truths” to the level of a “Fable and an old Song,” an amusement or curiosity in which the moral content is not well integrated into the work itself. Furthermore, Milton outdoes all previous epic poets in the cosmic setting of his poem. The poem develops against a background of “Heav’n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All”—all the regions and all the time known to human imagination and experience as well as regions and time beyond human...

(The entire section is 419 words.)