Essays and Criticism
Sin and Knowledge in Humankind
Paradise Lost has been hailed as one of the greatest poems in the English language. While this acclaim is due in a large part to Milton's command of language and poetic style, much of the attraction of the poem lies in its content. The discussion of temptation and fall is rooted in universal questions concerning the nature of good and evil, the apparent injustice of a world where the wicked prosper and the good suffer, the nature and value of knowledge, and the nature of humankind.
Milton's struggle to reconcile the Genesis account of the Fall with his own deepest convictions and concerns is often attributed to a failure to come to terms with the particular demands of the epic form. However, in light of his prose treatments of similar themes, it becomes clear that the conflicts in Paradise Lost reflect a conflict between his understanding of the authority of scripture and his conviction that reason is the surest guide to truth. If reason represents the image of God in humankind, how can the Fall be attributed to knowledge, and, more important, how can knowledge be forbidden? Milton's struggle to reconcile his intellectual convictions with the text of Genesis reflects a conflict which remains to this day. The Genesis account of the creation and Fall remains one of the foundational myths of Western culture; yet, in our modern secular world, the intrinsic power of myth often collides with the demands of reason.
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Language and the Illusion of Innocence in Paradise Lost
We cannot enter the Garden of Eden in Book IV of Paradise Lost and look upon the "mysterious parts" of the innocent Adam and Eve or upon Eve's ''wanton ringlets" in a spirit of complete simplicity and purity: not only do we observe with the fallen Satan as our companion, but our perceptions, including those of the poet himself, are subject to the complex connotations and associations which characterize our use of language. To some, "words alone are certain good," but not to the epic's narrator, who, as if acknowledging the hopelessness of painting a credible verbal picture of innocent life, continually calls attention to the "guilty shame" and "dishonest shame" that evoke innocence only by contrast and by a sense of absence (4.313). As the unhappy turns in the careers of Satan, Adam, and Eve demonstrate, linguistic self-subversion, irony, and ambiguity, including, at its lowest, downright bad puns, inhere in the expression of fallen natures. Such a language drifts ineluctably into waywardness and perverse complexity and is, by definition, inadequate to the task of depicting innocent perfection on its own terms. But a poet need not be limited to the depiction of innocence solely by its absence: the illusion of its presence is within the domain of artistic symbolism.
It would appear that, for the purpose of dramatizing the state of innocence, Milton's poetic style displays a remarkable bond between his language and the use of uncomplicated...
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Milton's Imperial Epic
In his comprehensive study of the North Atlantic world, K. G. Davies remarks that "no major English literary work of the seventeenth century comes to mind that breathes an Atlantic air or takes the American empire for its theme." The purpose of this essay is to suggest that Paradise Lost constitutes at least a partial exception to Davies's generalization. Milton's epic, I believe, interacts continuously with the deeply ambivalent feelings which the conquest of the New World generated in seventeenth-century English culture. Like its closest classical model, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost seems to me to be, among other things, a poem about empire.
Certainly, there were many reasons for pondering the colonization of America as Milton turned his attention back to his long-delayed plans for an epic poem in the mid-1650s. The Commonwealth's war with Spain had rekindled anti-Spanish sentiment, and writers in tune with the mood of the times were busy turning out works based on the so-called ''black legend'' of Spanish brutality in South America—Milton's nephew John Phillips, for instance, translated Las Casas' Brevissima relation de la destruycion de laslndias into English in 1656, and in 1658 Sir William Davenant, the erstwhile governor-designate of Maryland, catered to prevailing English taste with his sensational play on the same subject, The Cruelty of the Spaniards. Still more to the point, Cromwell's...
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