Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

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 conceptual range. Milton must describe both natural and supernatural environments and the characters who inhabit them or who are shaped by them. Marvell has good reason to question Milton’s intent; too many factors must combine to make the poem successful. Milton could easily lose artistic control of his material.

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Nevertheless, after considering the imaginative challenges Milton faced and his response to them, Marvell fully approves of Milton’s artistry: “Thou hast not miss’d one thought that could be fit,/ And all that was improper dost omit.” The “Majesty” that reigns through Milton’s poem indicates that Milton had maintained the decorum required by his subject matter and the epic genre. Marvell wonders how Milton could have stretched his mind sufficiently to express truths and situations beyond direct human experience. He uses the word “sublime” to describe the elevated nature of Milton’s poem and its grand subject matter, a term critics have associated with it ever since. Marvell’s poem is one of the first responses to Paradise Lost and one of the first critical recognitions of an individual English literary work.

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