Paradise Lost Essay - Essays and Criticism

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.

Milton's treatment of the Fall is, in fact, remarkably consistent with his understanding of the nature of humankind as created in the image of God and with his treatments of the nature and value of knowledge. The first question which must be asked, then, is what is the true nature of humankind? Or, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? In the first view of humankind (seen through Satan's eyes, but not described from his point of view) the omniscient narrator describes: "Two of far nobler shape erect and tall, / Godlike erect, with native Honor clad / In naked majesty seem'd Lords of all, / And worthy seem'd, for in their looks Divine / The image of their glorious maker shone, / Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure, / Severe, but in true filial freedom plac't; / Whence true authority in men..." (PL IV.287-294). Adam and Eve's outward appearance is characterized by nobility, and rectitude, reflecting the inward attributes of the image of God: truth, wisdom, sanctitude, purity and freedom. These attributes, or more accurately, the image of God which they represent, are the source of both human dignity and authority, leading to the conclusion that they are rightly "Lords of all."

Similar motifs emerge in Raphael's description of the creation of humankind as "... a Creature who not prone / And Brute as other Creatures, but endu'd / With Sanctity of Reason, might erect / His Stature, and upright with front serene / Govern the rest, self-knowing..." (PL VII.506-510). Again, what distinguishes humans from the creatures which they will rule is their erect stature. This is specifically associated with that faculty which, above all others, Milton associates with the divine image: reason. But reason is associated with self-knowledge, and it is in Adam's ability to know himself (or failure to do so) that the success or failure of reason will ultimately lie.

Adam gives evidence of self-knowledge throughout Paradise Lost. He is aware of both his strengths and his weaknesses, as well as of his duties and obligations. This self-knowledge must be acquired by Adam through a process of growth, prompted by the reason which is innate to him. Adam describes the learning process to Raphael in Book VIII as he describes his memories of his first awakening after his creation.

In addition to self-knowledge, Adam must acquire knowledge of the God whose image he bears. Adam intuitively deduces the existence of a creator from the fact of his own existence and seeks knowledge of the creator from the created world. In Of Christian Doctrine, Milton associates this intuitive knowledge of the existence of God with the possession of "right reason" or conscience, the moral sense which enables humankind to distinguish between right and wrong. In Of Education, therefore, Milton asserts that the purpose of education is to regain that knowledge possessed by Adam and lost in the Fall, ''to know God aright,'' and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.

Humankind's knowledge of self, of creation, and of God is associated with rule or authority, not only over creation, but over the self. Self-rule, like self-knowledge, is based on reason, the chief faculty of the soul. Reason must rule over the lesser faculties, and, particularly, over the passions. As long as the natural order is maintained, the passions are kept under control and happiness prevails. For example, properly ruled, the attraction between Adam and Eve is expressed in love and mutual affection, governed by reason: "...for smiles from Reason flow /...and are of Love the food, Love not the lowest end of human life. / For not to irksome toil, but to delight / He made us, and delight to...

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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 symbolic formal patterns. In exploring the nature of those patterns, we find that they are restricted to books IV, V, and VIII of Paradise Lost: precisely those portions of the epic in which Adam and Eve are described or act in their unfallen condition. We shall not come upon anything similar to Milton's art of innocence elsewhere in Paradise Lost or throughout Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes: all such passages and works chiefly concern fallen experience and conditions and thus have their own appropriate modes of presentation.

The symbolic patterns associated with the style and language of innocence lend a sense of authenticity to the early speeches of the innocent Adam and Eve. Among those early speeches, the one which displays the most concentrated example of the patterns we shall now consider is Eve's love-lyric "Sweet is the breath of morn":

Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, With charm of earliest Birds; pleasant the Sun When first on this delightful Land he spreads His orient Beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow'r, Ghst'ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth After soft showers; and sweet the coming on Of grateful Ev'ning mild, then silent Night With this her solemn Bird and this fair Moon, And these the Gems of Heav'n, her starry train: But neither breath of Morn when she ascends With charm of earliest Birds, nor rising Sun On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flow'r, Ghst'ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers, Nor grateful Ev'ning mild, nor silent Night With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon, Or glittering Star-light without thee is sweet (4.641-56).

The principal effect of the passage is one of enclosure and depends on the careful placement of key words. The lyric's opening line, "Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet," illustrates the effect in miniature by using the same word in its first and tenth syllables. The effect continues throughout the series of clauses that completes the initial part of the passage: "pleasant the Sun," "fragrant the fertile earth," and, finally, "sweet the coming on / Of grateful Ev'ning mild." What is being enclosed, of course, is the scale of creation from "morn" to "Ev'ning mild," settings for the sun and moon whose importance and interdependence are emphasized by their use as end-words in their respective lines.

The same phrases and images reappear in the second part of the lyric: the sun and moon again serve as end-words for their lines, but Eve's sense of the harmonious interrelationships among things would not be "sweet" without Adam as her companion. Eve's lyric on the mutual support and pairing of all things ends as it begins: the word ''sweet'' encloses the cycles and images of day and night in a circle, which, as a symbol of fullness and perfection; is appropriate to Eve's innocent state of being. The sixteen lines of Eve's lyric, which has been described mistakenly as a sonnet, are actually much more interesting and strictly unified in their use of key words to establish patterns of enclosure and circularity of evident symbolic value.

By touching on the fullness of the scale of creation, such patterns of enclosure are notable, not for their exclusion or limitation of possibilities, but for their participation in a graceful range of complexity. In the verse paragraphs which immediately precede and follow Eve's love-lyric, Adam anticipates and echoes the imagery and form of Eve's speech. The phrase "Night bids us rest" concludes Adam's speech before Eve's lyric begins, and the words "night" and "rest" appear in the opening lines of Adam's verse paragraph as well, thereby encircling his thoughts on the mutually supportive cycles of their days and nights (4.610-33). As in Eve's lyric, so here the cyclical imagery and diction are at one with the formal design of the speech. After her lyric has ended and in response to her question about the role of starlight during their sleep, Adam considers the physical and spiritual natures of light and sound in relation to earth and earth's inhabitants. The speech is thirty lines long (4.659-88) and divides neatly into two fifteen-line halves (659-73; 674-88). In the first half, Adam notes the relationship of the stars to the sun: both sources of light, in a downward movement, irradiate the "earth," the word which appears prominently near the beginning (661) and end (672) of this portion of his speech. In the second half, he calls attention to the relationship of ''Millions of spiritual Creatures," including perhaps angels, to their creator as the music of their praise rises from earth to "heaven," the word which surrounds this portion of the speech (676,688). Thus, "Earth" and "Heaven" delimit their respective halves of the verse paragraph and, serving as end-words at the beginning (661) and conclusion (688) of the entire speech, circumscribe the mirror-effect of downward and upward motions of first physical and then spiritual forms of energy that ultimately ' 'lift our thoughts to Heaven." Eve's love-lyric and the two surrounding speeches by Adam indicate that, to Milton, the presentation of the state of innocence is no mere study in reductive simplicity. Instead, the interaction of linguistic and formal symbols in these passages is sufficiently complex to create a coherent sense of an innocent reality that is complete in itself and that gives the impression of not needing to be encumbered with help from an additional and fallen level of discourse.

Opposed to the circles of perfection that befit the innocence of Adam and Eve is the surrounding presence of Satan, whose speeches and activities initiate and conclude book IV. Enclosing the perfection of Eden and its inhabitants is not enough, however: he needs to break through, as his attempt at the ear of Eve demonstrates. The measure of his success is suggested at the beginning of book V when Eve recounts her troubled dream, which begins with images similar to those of her love-lyric in book IV. The morning sun and evening moon with their attendant birds have been replaced by "the night-warbling Bird, that now awake / Tunes sweetest his love-labor'd song'' and by a moon that shines "with more pleasing light" (5.40-42). In her dream, Eve says, ''I rose as at thy call, but found thee not" (5.48). The theme of loving interdependence among all things has been replaced by Satan's theme of self-sufficiency.

Adam's explanation of the dream as a product of wayward faculties seems to satisfy Eve, but then restoration to untroubled innocence is completed by their morning-hymn which ensues shortly thereafter (5.153-208). Standing as the summation of Milton's art of innocence, the hymn, given its importance and complexity, is best seen whole with line-numbers and divisions noted in the margin:

These are thy glorious works, Parent of good,
Almighty, thine this universal Frame,
Thus wondrous fair; thyself how wondrous then!
Unspeakable, who sit'st above these Heavens
To us invisible or dimly seen
In these thy lowest works, yet these declare
Thy goodness beyond thought, and Power Divine.
Speak yee who best can tell, ye Sons of Light,
Angels, for yee behold him, and with songs
And choral symphonies, Day without Night,
Circle his Throne rejoicing, yee in Heav'n;
On Earth join all ye Creatures to extol
Him first, him last, him midst, and without end.
Fairest of Stars, last in the train of Night,
If better thou belong not to the dawn,
Sure pledge of day, that crown'st the smiling Mom
With thy bright Circlet, praise him in thy Sphere
While day arises, that sweet hour of Prime
Thou Sun, of this great World both Eye and Soul,
Acknowledge him thy Greater, sound his praise
In thy eternal course, both when thou climb'st
And when high Noon hast gain'd, and when
thou fall'st
Moon, that now meet'st the orient Sun, now fli'st
With the fixt Stars, flxt in thir Orb that flies,
And yee five other wand'nng Fires that move
In mystic Dance not without Song, resound
His praise, who out of Darkness call'd up Light
Air, and ye Elements the eldest birth
Of Nature's Womb, that in quaternion run
Perpetual Circle, multiform, and mix
And nourish all things, let your ceaseless change
Vary to our great Maker still new praise.
Ye Mists and Exhalations that now rise
From Hill or steaming Lake, dusky or grey,
Till the Sun paint your fleecy skirts with Gold,
In honor to the World's great Author rise,
Whether to deck with Clouds th' uncolor'd sky,
Or wet the thirsty Earth with falling showers,
Rising or falling still advance his praise
His praise ye Winds, that from four Quarters blow,
Breathe soft or loud; and wave your tops, ye Pines,
With every Plant, in sign of Worship wave
Fountains and yee, that warble, as ye flow,
Melodious murmurs, warbling tune his praise.
Join voices all ye living Souls; ye Birds,
That singing up to Heaven Gate ascend,
Bear on your wings and in your notes his praise;
Yee that m Waters glide, and yee that walk
The Earth, and stately tread, or lowly creep;
Witness if I be silent, Morn or Even,
To Hill, or Valley, Fountain, or fresh shade
Made vocal by my Song, and taught his praise
Hail universal Lord, be bounteous still
To give us only good; and if the night
Have gather'd aught of evil or conceal'd,
Disperse it, as now light dispels the dark.
(5.153-208)

Here patterns of enclosure and circles which symbolize innocent perfection receive their most highly developed expression in the entire epic. Direct addresses to the creator frame the hymn which in its body consists...

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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...

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