Sin and Knowledge in Humankind

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2117

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Paradise Lost Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 Reason joined." (PL K.239f). Implicit in this, however, is also a warning. Reason is vulnerable to passion, and the disruption of the natural order is inherent in Adam's very nature if he fails to know and rule his own passion. The potential for disaster is evident in Adam's words to Raphael as he describes Eve: ''All higher knowledge in her presence falls / Degraded, Wisdom in discourse with her / Loses Discount'nanc't, and like folly shows: / Authority and Reason on her wait." (PL Vin.55 If). Adam blames the failure of his reason and authority in Eve's presence on his own nature and his love for Eve, foreshadowing his eventual fall. However, Raphael warns him, "Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; / Do thou but thine, and be not diffident/ Of Wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou / Dismiss not her, when most thou need's her nigh" (PL Vm.560f). Adam must heed his own advice to Eve: the danger lies within himself, yet within his power, depending upon his ability to rule passion with reason.

Humankind can overcome the danger inherent within his own nature through the reason implanted in him by God. Reason, however, is vulnerable to deception: "...Reason he made right, / But bid her well beware, and still erect, / Lest by some fair appearing good surpris'd / She dictates false, and misinform the Will / To do what God expressly hath forbid. / ... Firm we subsist, yet possible to swerve / Since Reason not impossible may meet / And fall into deception unaware." (PL K.350-354, 359-362). This aspect of reason's vulnerability is represented by Eve, who succumbs to Satan's "persuasive words, impregn'd / With Reason, to her seeming, and with Truth" (PL DC.735-736).

Reason properly exercised, however, gives humankind the ability to choose between good and evil. Because humankind is created in the image of God, the natural disposition of humanity is toward what is right, good, and holy. Even after the Fall, this innate ability is retained, for the divine image is impaired, not destroyed. But the moral choice which reason enables is, necessarily, a free choice. Freedom is a natural consequence of reason and is rooted in the very nature of humankind, as God himself makes clear: "I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthral themselves: I else must change / Their nature..." (PL III.124f). The Fall, however, is rooted in free choice, and humankind is created with the ability to choose correctly: ''Against his will he can receive no harm /But God left free the Will, for what obeys / Reason, is free, and Reason he made right" (PL IX.349f).

The choice which is faced by Adam and Eve in Eden is, quite simply, a question of obedience. Their obedience to God is proof of their love and service, and therefore, like the will, must be left free. The single commandment that God has given does not impair this freedom; rather it reflects it. Adam tells Eve that God "requires / From us no other service than to keep / This one, this easy charge'' (PL IV.419f), and asserts that"... the rest, we live / Law to ourselves, our Reason is our Law'' (PL IX.653-654). It is ironic that this "one easy prohibition" is both so easily kept and so easily broken.

The fact that the commandment is a pledge of obedience has enormous implications for the nature of the Fall. It is not the eating of the fruit perse that is wrong--it is the disobedience which that eating exhibits. As Milton states in On Christian Doctrine, "It was necessary that something should be forbidden or commanded as a test of fidelity, and that an act in its own nature indifferent, in order that man's obedience might thereby be manifested." The eating of the fruit is ''an act in its own nature indifferent": the tree, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil, it is simply there. The eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not forbidden because it is dangerous or wrong; it is wrong because it is forbidden. The Fall must therefore be understood as disobedience, not the acquisition of knowledge. It is not knowledge which is forbidden, but a particular action.

The Tree of Knowledge is thus a symbol of man's disobedience, the main subject of Paradise Lost. Milton states his theme as "Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste, / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe" (PL 1.1-3). The "woe" which is brought into the world is not the knowledge of good and evil, but death.

This has important implications for the understanding of the knowledge allegedly imparted by the tree. Since the Fall cannot be attributed to the acquisition of knowledge, either the tree did not impart any knowledge, or the knowledge which it did impart was not such as to lead to a "fall." In Paradise Lost Milton suggests that the knowledge of good and evil is not simply a new knowledge of evil where before was only knowledge of good. Adam clearly knew of evil prior to his Fall. Raphael has informed him of the fall of the angels and of the existence of his arch-enemy Satan. Adam shows himself to be well aware of the dangers of temptation in his exhortation to Eve as well as in his earlier reaction to Eve's dream, which he immediately identifies as having sprung from evil. Rather, what has occurred in the eating of the fruit is that the knowledge of good and of evil have become so intertwined as to become inseparable: humankind can now know good only by knowing evil.

This understanding of the Tree of Knowledge is dictated by Milton's convictions concerning knowledge and its value. Milton sees learning as itself the service of God and of truth. But, in order to attain true virtue, one must know not only good but also evil, for "good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil'' (Areopagitica). Milton thus argues that all opinions, even those which reflect error, will eventually lead to the attainment of truth if the mind is correctly governed. Liberty of thought and speech are thus essential in the formation of virtue.

Virtue, like obedience, is rooted in freedom of choice. Yet, in order to choose, one must have alternative to choose from, for ''what wisdom can there be to choose, what contingence to forbear without the knowledge of evil?... I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue'' (Areopagitica). Choice becomes meaningless without the freedom to choose either good or evil, and that freedom to choose can only be established and maintained through the knowledge of both.

It follows, then, that the idea of forbidden knowledge is, for Milton, an absurdity. In fact, the quest for knowledge is closely tied to the quest for virtue, and thus with the highest achievements of humankind. Far from causing the Fall, the acquisition of knowledge is the only way of repairing the divine image which is impaired in the Fall, as reason is obscured. Milton asserts that "the end ... of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him..." (Of Education). The only limits to this quest are the limits of humanity's own capacity for knowledge.

Source: Catherine Innes-Parker, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Language and the Illusion of Innocence in Paradise Lost

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4695

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 of direct addresses to different aspects of the creation. After the opening seven lines of praise to God and before the final four lines on the need for God's protective bounty, the hymn displays forty-five lines on the celestial and terrestrial elements of creation (160-204). These forty-five lines are symmetrically balanced: the first twenty address the celestial universe, then comes a middle section of five lines on the physical elements of the creation, and finally twenty more lines on the praise that comes from the earth. At the exact midpoint of these forty-five lines is the phrase "Perpetual Circle," which describes how the elements intermix to form all things. Images and metaphors of circles dominate the hymn as well. The "Sons of Light" addressed at the beginning of the first twenty-line section "Circle" God's throne, the "Fairest of Stars" provides a "bright Circlet" to crown the morning, the fixed stars are whirled about in the moving ''Orb," and the entire passage is encircled by the word "Light" which serves as the end-word for lines one and twenty. The counterbalancing twenty-line section on the terrestrial scale of creation uses the word "praise" to end its major clauses, a praise that, according to other important words at the ends of lines, must "rise" and "ascend" as the passage touches on various aspects of earthly life associated with the springing forth of the morning light.

The symmetrical patterns of symbolic order just described would appear to counter the epic narrator's claim which immediately precedes the morning-hymn: namely, that such utterances from the innocent Adam and Eve are "Unmeditated" and spontaneous, occurring "in Prose or numerous Verse" (5.149,150). The "various style" (146) to which the narrator calls attention leads Joseph Summers to note the variety of strophic and syntactical lengths in the morning-hymn and to suggest that such variety is intrinsic to Milton's idea of perfection. Now, it is demonstrably the case that the internal structure of the hymn is irregular and, by avoiding predictable lengths in its sections, fosters a sense of freedom; at the same time, it is equally demonstrable that the hymn fulfills strict patterns of symbolic order through its images, the placement of key words, and its overall design. Milton's articulation of the artistic principle in question also characterizes, of course, the "Mystical dance" of the angels and planets, whose motions are "regular / Then most, when most irregular they seem" (5.620-24). The striking conjunction of freedom and strict form in the morning-hymn, then, is no coincidence, as if we had simply caught Adam and Eve on a good day, but is one of Milton's most telling demonstrations of what characterizes the state of innocence: spontaneous perfection.

At the conclusion of Adam and Eve's morning-hymn, the epic's narrator observes, "So pray'd they innocent, and to thir thoughts / Firm peace recover'd soon and wonted calm" (5.209-10). Looking back, we have no difficulty in seeing how the morning-hymn accomplishes such a firm support to the theme of innocence. Its patterns of circular imagery and symmetry recall Eve's love-lyric in book IV but on a larger scale and in a much more elaborate way, thereby reasserting the perfection of being assigned to Adam and Eve at the outset. The morning-hymn also recalls the scale of creation which here receives one of the most detailed and extensive treatments to be found in the epic. By this means, the theme of interdependence among all things is unequivocally restated and removes any traces of self-sufficiency as suggested by Satan to Eve in her dream. Looking ahead, we can anticipate Raphael's visit to Eden: in particular, his presentation of the scale of creation as a great tree of life (5.469-505). After listening to Raphael's speech, Adam provides a key to the symbolism with which we have been dealing: he is pleased with how the angel has:

the scale of Nature set From centre to circumference, whereon In contemplation of created things By steps we may ascend to God.
(5.509-12)

Of course, the orderliness of the spheres and circles of existence is a measure of the primal condition of perfection.

"So pray'd they innocent," but to read innocently is another matter. Even in the morning-hymn, the magnificent purity and control of style and expression cannot eliminate opportunities for verbal dissonance. When Adam and Eve call upon the "Fairest of Stars" to praise God with the planet's "bright Circlet" and "Sphere," it is difficult not to think of Venus as Lucifer, the morning star. Were Adam and Eve to know of Satan as the false Lucifer, as they will after the departure from Eden brings a tragic depth to their experience, they could not pray so confidently and avoid wrestling with language. For the reader, the problem is similar to that raised by Eve's "wanton ringlets" in book IV. The morning-hymn's "Mists and Exhalations" that nourish "the thirsty Earth with falling showers'' and usher in the terrestrial praise of the creator present a related problem, given that in book IX Satan enters Eden "involv'd in rising Mist" and moves about like ''a black mist low creeping'' (9.75,180). In the overall context of the poem, Milton's imagery seems designed to complicate and compromise depictions of innocence, leading to further considerations of what has been lost along with the simplicity of language.

Within passages designed to express innocence, however, the function of circular patterns of enclosure is to temper linguistic complexity by supplying images of pure form that resist misinterpretation and by exemplifying those images through the symmetrical positioning of key words or other elements of poetic structure. The resulting language is purified, as it were, by the formal ritual of symbolic patterns, which are evident once more in our final example of dramatized innocence: Adam's account of his initial consciousness as a living being (8.249-91). The remarkable internal structure of the opening forty-three lines of Adam's long verse paragraph reveals a deft use of enclosure. The opening eight lines (249-56) and concluding nine lines (283-91) frame the central portion of twenty-six lines, which present Adam's first sensations and thoughts and which divide exactly in half. The key word in the framing lines around the central portion is "sleep," displayed prominently as the end-word of lines 253 and 287. Adam's account of his life's beginnings, which are thus literally and symbolically rounded with the word "sleep," then ensues (257-82), with each thirteen-line section being virtually the mirror-image of the other. In the first thirteen-line section, Adam's enchantment with the heavens prompts him to stand erect and then peruse the pastoral images around him before attending to his own physical abilities. What he has done is to go symbolically from the ethereal source of his being to an intuition of a scale of creation around him that ascends from "Hill, Dale, and shady Woods" to "Creatures that hv'd and mov'd" and, finally, to himself. In the second thirteen-line section, he is able to speak and name all that he perceives, repeat almost verbatim the images he has noted, and he concludes by inferring the existence of' 'some great Maker" to account for the existence and design of the world. The entire twenty-six lines thus end almost where they began. A sense of heavenly origins encircles Adam's creation, but the end has the additional creative glory of a self-reflexive and ordered language that enables him to express an exact sense of being happier than he knows. His first perceptions, first words, and first encircling sense of perfection all harmonize precisely to give the illusion of primordial innocence.

In the fallen world, however, great poets have repeatedly lamented the indeterminacy of language and have accordingly explored the greater precision which may be forged through symbolic form. Now, Milton is not unusual in employing symbolic form to control the waywardness of language when it relies on verbal meanings alone. Other instances pervade the history of poetry, and a few words should be added to distinguish between the tempering effect of symbolic form on language for general purposes in contrast to the depiction of innocence as a particular problem. Since we have been concerned with circles and spheres especially, let us use these figures to illustrate a few distinctions. Sometimes circles and spheres appear as basically uncomplicated descriptive images without having to perform larger tasks associated with symbolic form: such is their function, for example, in depicting elements of creation in book VII of Paradise Lost. More often, though, their symbolic possibilities prove irresistible. To Ben Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Dryden, and others in Milton's century, to name a few, circles and spheres have symbolic value that focuses the themes of major poems. To T. S. Eliot in our century, the Four Quartets employ circles and patterns of enclosure to break away from the linear tyranny of time and the instability of words, which in "Burnt Norton" are said to:

strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

As a result, the Four Quartets attempt to set their images on a higher plane of symbolism in which beginnings and ends circle towards one another because:

Only by the form, the pattern, Can words or music reach The stillness, as a Chinese jar still Moves perpetually in its stillness.
("Burnt Norton," 5.140-43)

Thus, the word "stillness" is carefully positioned to enclose the simile of the Chinese jar in a demonstration of theme through the clarity of a formal pattern. To Eliot, circles are important for containing still, central points in a turning world of words. As such, the formal pattern uses language to evoke a sense of something beyond language, a transcendent order or symbol of permanence. There is necessarily a gap between temporal and symbolic realities as form supplements language. That gap or sense of dislocation is inherent in the nature of fallen language, which perforce relates to a fallen world, and is therefore characteristic of most symbolic discourse. By contrast, innocent perfection requires that there be no sense of dislocation.

The presentation of innocence presupposes acts of perception in which reality and appearance are indistinguishable in the union of language and symbolic form. In this respect, perhaps no poet since Milton has pondered the relationship of language to pure form so carefully as has Wordsworth, who, in his treatment of the theme of innocence, is even capable of expressing the process of perception by which innocence may be attained. An example of his ability to create a sense of innocence is in "Home at Grasmere" as the poet describes the sensation of living in that place:

Tis, but I cannot name it, 'Us the sense Of majesty, and beauty, and repose, A blended holiness of earth and sky, Something that makes this individual Spot, This small Abiding-place of many Men, A termination, and a last retreat, A Centre, come from whereso'er you will, A Whole without dependence or defect, Made for itself; and happy in itself, Perfect Contentment, Unity entire.

The sensation Wordsworth cannot name is, of course, innocent perfection, which he is attempting to apply to his home ground. Language can only approximate that sensation, and so the passage, as it progresses, carefully refines its terms, using circles and patterns of enclosure to control the description, which becomes increasingly abstract and aligned with the purity of geometrical form, until it concludes in the line "Perfect Contentment, Unity entire" in which words of two syllables enclose those of three. Here, as in the examples from Paradise Lost, all elements of language are coordinated to serve the symbolism of pure form and even express the process by which that coordination or union of perceptions is achieved. Wordsworth's memories of a more perfect state of being are, of course, at the heart of his endeavor to give them a life in the present throughout his major poetry, just as they are the source of the symbolic forms he employs in that endeavor. In Paradise Lost, Milton attempts a fiction which may seem even more daring: a sense that his innocent Eden is no mere memory but a perception of perfection on which memories will be based. For both Milton and Wordsworth, the results show, at the very least, how an illusion of perfection may be suggested beyond the capabilities of verbal meaning alone. At the most, a poignant sense of something ranging from the archetypal to the Platonic may be awakened as the particularities of language fade into insignificance.

1. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), 285 (4.306,312). Subsequent citations of Paradise Lost are from this edition and are indicated in the text by book and line numbers.

2. W. B. Yeats, "The Song of the Happy Shepherd," The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 7.

3. The difficulty of finding the right words and thoughts for paradise is admirably summarized by Ira Clark, "A Problem of Knowing Paradise in Paradise Lost," MS 27 (1991): 183-207. Finding words and thoughts for fallen conditions leads A. Bartlett Giamatti to go so far as to posit a "Satanic style'' of ambiguities and dissonance; see The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), 303ff. Without pausing to qualify such views, we must respect the impulse that leads to them. Perhaps Peter Berek's guidelines for a distinction between innocent and fallen language are as fair as anyone's:

Milton, I suggest, has used a certain kind of 'poetical' manipulation of facts by means of language as a powerful metaphor for corruption, and, conversely, uses patterns of words that give the effect of imitating rather than manipulating reality as a way of presenting figures of innocence and perfection ("'Plain' and 'Ornate' Styles and the Structure of Paradise Lost," PMLA 85 [March, 1970]: 246)

Moving from questions of diction to the larger arena of forms, we might wish to consider the function of unrhymed sonnets and the divine proportion as ways of expressing and redeeming fallen language: see Lee Johnson, "Milton's Blank Verse Sonnets," MS 5 (1973): 129-53; for the divine proportion, see Lee Johnson, "Milton's Epic Style: The Invocations in Paradise Lost,'' The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 65-78.

4. For a discussion and notes on Eve's love-lyric as a Petrarchan-style sonnet, see Barbara K. Lewalski, "Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), 188, 344 n. 42; also, Barbara K. Lewalski, "The Genres of Paradise Lost," The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 88.

5. Joseph H. Summers, "The Muse's Method: An Introduction to Paradise Lost" (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), 77-78. For another way of dividing the morning-hymn, see John Hollander,"The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After" (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 39.

6. The expressive ambiguities and dissonances of Milton's style have long elicited first-rate comments; in addition to the items by Clark, Berek, and Giamatti cited in n. 3, Ricks, Swaim, and Leonard have provided astute and provocative observations on the complexity of Milton's words. When Christopher Ricks says, "with the Fall of Man, language falls too," he shows how corruptions infect words such as "wanton," "error," and numerous others: see Milton's Grand Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 109-11. In "Before and After the Fall: Contrasting Modes in Paradise Lost" (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1986), Kathleen Swaim discusses the morning-hymn and its troublesome "Fairest of Stars" as well as adding to our sense of puns and ambiguities in Milton's diction (70,185-86). Most thoroughly and admirably, John Leonard's Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) corroborates and extends Ricks's work: Leonard's final chapter, "Prelapsarian Language and the Poet," is especially relevant throughout to our consideration of subtleties in the morning-hymn and in Edenic language generally (233-92).

7. T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 19 (5.149-53). The subsequent citation of ''Burnt Norton'' is indicated in the text by section and line numbers.

8. Wordsworth's Poetical Works, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1949), 5:318.

9. In this passage "Home at Grasmere," the symbolism of geometrical form goes beyond the local qualities of diction to the design of the entire verse paragraph in which our passage serves as the conclusion. Echoing Milton's Edenic language, Wordsworth places his careful evocation of Grasmere in the overall pattern of a divine proportion, a geometrical way of interrelating smaller and larger sections of a verse paragraph into a symbol of interaction between temporal and timeless realities. The circles of innocent perfection which occupy us here thus reside in an overall context of geometrical symbolism which is suited to the fallen world and which, as indicated in n. 1, is also a key ingredient in Milton's art. Wordsworth's example, which blends a local pattern of innocence (the circle) with a larger design of experience (the divine proportion), is a superb triumph of his rational imagination that introduces rich complexities which deserve a separate discussion: see Lee Johnson, Wordsworth's Metaphysical Verse: Geometry, Nature, and Form (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1982), 194-97.

Source: Lee M. Johnson, "Language and the Illusion of Innocence in Paradise Lost,'' in Of Poetry and Politics in New Essays on Milton and His World, edited by P. G. Stanwood, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, Vol. 126,1995, pp 47-58.

Milton's Imperial Epic

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3530

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 "Western Design" and the conflict with Spain it precipitated served as a vivid reminder that England, too, was a major colonial power. Indeed, the crucial first phase of English empire-building in the New World coincided more or less exactly with Milton's lifetime. The year before he was born the first English settlers dispatched by the Virginia Company of London arrived in Chesapeake Bay. The establishment of the Plymouth colony took place when he was eleven, the widely publicized Virginia massacre when he was thirteen, and the great Puritan migration to Massachusetts Bay while he was in his twenties. He was thirty-five when the second Virginia massacre occurred, forty-six when Cromwell acquired Jamaica. By the time he had reached his fifties, England was the dominant colonial power in North America with between twenty-five and thirty thousand settlers in New England and thirty-six thousand or so in Virginia.

What is more, by the time he began to work on Paradise Lost Milton had come into contact with numerous men who had promoted or emigrated to the colonies. Ralph Hamor, the author of A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia, grew up in the house next to the Milton family home on Bread Street. Several of his Cambridge contemporaries emigrated to New England, and his longtime friend Samuel Hartlib produced a treatise on the Virginian silk-worm. Sir Henry Vane, to whom Milton addressed an admiring sonnet in 1652, was a former governor of Massachusetts. And Roger Williams, the notorious champion of religious liberty and Indian property rights, gave him conversation lessons in Dutch in the early 1650s. It is hardly surprising, then, that Milton's writings are liberally sprinkled with references to the colonization of the New World.

Not that Milton needed large numbers of close friends and acquaintances actively involved in the settlement of America in order to be vividly aware of its progress. For "this glorious business," as William Crashaw called it, was deeply imprinted in the national consciuosness of seventeenth-century England, inscribed there by dozens of promotional pamphlets, controversial tracts, personal histories, and economic analyses. From 1609 to 1624 the London bookstalls were inundated with sermons and treatises either prophesying or proclaiming the success of the English plantation in Virginia. Beginning with the publication of Mourt's Relation in 1622, there followed a steady stream of works recording the early history of New England, detailing the political and religious controversies going on there, and asserting the progress of the gospel among the Indians. Then in the mid-1650s came a spate of tracts reporting on the power struggle between the Catholic proprietor Lord Baltimore and his Puritan adversaries in Maryland. Whether or not he had a personal stake in the success of the American colonies, Milton could hardly avoid being aware of events taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.

With the exception of a handful of works by New England dissidents like Samuel Gorton and John Child, most of the literature I have just mentioned took a wholeheartedly positive view of England's transatlantic activities. Yet just beneath the surface of even the most optimistic evaluations of England's settlements in the New World there runs a powerful undercurrent of barely repressed anxiety concerning the entire colonial enterprise. For over and over again the promoters complain that Virginia and New England have been unjustly slandered by various unnamed detractors.

Few, if any, of these reported slanders were ever printed—like the heresies of the early Christian church they owe their preservation to the writers who endeavored to refute them—but they clearly constituted a powerful critique of England's activities across the Atlantic. As a result, whether they are excusing the failure of the New World to live up to expectations in some regard, or defending Virginia and New England against some allegedly unjustified criticism from their detractors, seventeenth-century English descriptions of America are relentlessly defensive. From Daniel Price's Saul's Prohibition Staide... with a reproofe of those that traduce the Honourable Plantation of Virginia( (London, 1609) to John Hammond's Leah and Rachel... With a Removall of such Imputations as are scandalously cast on those Countries (London, 1656) justification is the keynote.

Nor is it difficult to understand why a seventeenth-century English protestant might have harbored deeply ambivalent feelings about his country's American colonies. To begin with, their history had hardly been a happy one. After a disastrous beginning, which cost many of the adventurers their investments and hundreds of planters their lives, Virginia had sided with the king during the civil war and only with the very greatest reluctance had accepted the authority of the Commonwealth commissioners dispatched by Cromwell. As John Hammond put it, England's first plantation was "whol for monarchy, and the last Country belonging to England that submitted to obedience of the Commonwealth of England." Maryland, despite several attempts to reverse Lord Baltimore's policy of religious toleration, was still a haven for English Catholics, "a receptacle for Papists, and Priests, and Jesuites'' as one writer called it. New England, riven by internal disputes in the 1630s and 1640s, was regarded in many quarters as "a Nursery of Schismatickes," and had in any case lost a great deal of its ideological raison d'etre now that the reform of the church had been accomplished in England. And finally, as the century wore on, English protestants were becoming increasingly concerned about the question of native American property rights and the failure of the English missionaries to convert the Indians to the reformed religion.

For all these reasons, then, the colonization of America stirred deeply ambivalent feelings in the collective consciousness of seventeenth-century England. Paradise Lost, I now want to suggest, not only registers many of these ambivalences, but plays them out in mythic form by reenactmg on the cosmic stage many of the central events in the conquest of the New World. The argument is a complex one to which I am in the course of devoting an entire book, but in this brief ''prospectus" I may be able to illustrate my general thesis by discussing the way in which Milton treats the central figure in the colonial drama, the colonist himself. He appears in Paradise Lost in various guises: most obviously as Satan, the diabolic deceiver who enslaves the inhabitants of the New World by cheating them out of their territory and replacing them with his own destructive plenipotentiaries; but also as Raphael, the divine missionary who brings to Adam and Eve the authentic word of God and instructs them in the history of the ancient rivalry of which their world is the focal point; then as Adam, the indentured servant placed in the paradisal garden by "the sovran Planter" (4.691) and destined for release from his labors after a fixed period of obedient toil; and finally as Michael, the representative of imperial authority who drives the rebellious natives out of their original home into the alien wilderness.

To begin with Satan, during the course of his triumphant speech in book X announcing the conquest of Eden, the devil sounds at times very much like Amerigo Vespucci reporting back to Lorenzo Pietro di Medici on his latest voyage to the New World. The echoes are probably accidental, but the general resemblance is not, for of the various roles that Satan plays in Paradise Lost none is more richly elaborated than his impersonation of a Renaissance explorer. It has often been noticed, for example, that Milton arranges the early part of the story so that we experience it as a diabolic voyage of discovery. Just as Columbus and his contemporaries heard rumors of the New World long before its existence had been confirmed, so we learn from Satan in book I that ''a fame in Heav'n'' has spread stories of ''new Worlds'' (650-51) elsewhere in the universe. In books II and III we then accompany him on the perilous "voyage" (2. 426, 919) across the "gulf" (2.441) of chaos to "the coast of Earth" (3. 739). And at the beginning of book IV we finally see the terrestrial paradise at least partially through the Devil's consciousness.

The motives which impel Satan on his voyage replicate, in turn, virtually all the social and political arguments advanced in favor of England's colonial expansion in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The first of them emerges in Beelzebub's speech at the end of the infernal debate in book II. After mentioning the rumors circulating in Heaven about the creation of the world, he proposes that even though:

Heav'n be shut,
this place may lie expos'd
The utmost border of his Kingdom, left
To then: defense who hold it: here perhaps
Some advantageous act may be achiev'd
By sudden onset (2. 358-64, Hughes edition)

This bears a startling resemblance to the political rationale for Elizabethan attacks on Spanish possessions in the New World a century before. Indeed, Beelzebub's proposal momentarily transforms Satan into a demonic Sir Francis Drake setting off to singe God's beard. On one level, at least, the assault on Eden will be a daring naval raid by an infernal buccaneer.

The second motive for undertaking the journey across chaos is disclosed by Satan himself in his parting speech to his followers in Pandemonium, Oppressed by God's vengeance, he tells them, "I abroad / Through all the Coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all" (2.464-65). In a diabolic parody of the pilgrims on the Mayflower he presents himself as the ultimate separatist, a victim of religious persecution in search of a new home where he and his fellow dissidents can practice their infernal rites in peace—in heaven, we have already been told by Mammon, the angels were constrained by "Strict Laws lmpos'd" to celebrate God's throne with Laudian ceremoniousness, worshipping their "envied Sovran" with "warbl'd Hymns" and "Forc'd Halleluiahs" (2.242-44). Like the faithful and freeborn Englishmen who, in Milton's words in Of Reformation "have bin constrained to forsake their dearest home, their friends and kindred, whom nothing but the wide Ocean, and the savage deserts of America could hide and shelter from the fury of the Bishops," the Devil claims to be seeking refuge from the oppression of a tyrannical power.

As Satan approaches the garden of Eden, however, a third motive makes its appearance. His underlying purpose, he now confesses, is territorial expansion. By raiding this vulnerable outpost of the heavenly kingdom he hopes to share at least ''Divided Empire with Heav'ns King" (4.111). Hence the extraordinary scene in book X when Sin greets her triumphant parent at the foot of the ''wondrous Pontifice" (348) which she and her son have constructed across chaos ''by wonddrous Art / Pontifical" (312-13). Henceforth, she declares, let the Creator ''Monarchy with thee divide / Of all things, parted by th'Empyreal bounds" (379-80). Cued by Milton's anti-papal puns, we seem to be witnessing a grotesque reenactment of Alexander VI's division of the western world between the Spanish and the Portuguese, a cosmic inter caetera.

During the course of the poem, then, Satan rehearses virtually all the major roles in the repertoire of English colonial discourse. By turns buccaneer, pilgrim, and empire-builder, he embodies not only the destructive potential of imperial conquest but its glamour and energy as well. It may well be no accident that the critical glorification of Milton's devil took place during the heyday of England's imperial power while his descent from hero to fool coincided with its decline.

Satan is not the only figure in the poem who embodies the colonial quest, however. God's emissaries, too, function as agents of imperial authority. Indeed, Raphael has in some ways even more in common with the explorers than his diabolical antagonist. For the extraordinary scene in which the archangel is greeted by two naked human beings as a "Native of Heaven" (5.361) reenacts an encounter which had been described in countless Renaissance descriptions of the discoverers' arrival in the New World. Like the ideally submissive and subservient Indians of those early narratives, Adam welcomes his "god-like" (351) visitor "with submiss approach and reverence meek" (359). Unquestioningly he agrees that he possesses the garden of Eden "by sovran gift" (366) from Raphael's divine master. Then he and Eve proceed to entertain the "Heav'nly stranger" (316, 397) in their "Silvan Lodge" (377) with all the bounty their world has to offer.

Unlike Columbus and his successors, of course, Adam's visitor really has come from heaven. As the ''Empyreal Minister'' (5.460) of the Almighty, his function is to instruct Adam and Eve in the indispensable colonial virtues of loyalty and obedience, to give them a brief lesson in the recent political history of the cosmos, and most important of all to alert them to the existence of an unfriendly rival power at large in the universe (5.233^1). In place of the Indians' tragic misconception of their future oppressors, the poem thus offers us an authentic encounter between man and angel, an encounter in which the problematic territorial and political claims of Spain and England have given way to the Creator's legitimate authority over his creation. In Paradise Lost the anxiety attaching to the discoveries has been relieved by the simple device of re-writing the scene as if the Indians and the Spanish had both been right. This visitor really does come from heaven, as the Indians believed, and the sovereign he represents really does own the land, as the Spanish, and later the English, insisted.

Thanks to Milton's revision of the primal imperial encounter, Adam and Eve are consequently spared the violent aftermath of Columbus's arrival in the New World. Unlike the Indians, they do not experience the horrors of Renaissance warfare at first hand; they learn about such murderous inventions as gunpowder only at second hand from then-heavenly instructor. The appalling butchery and violence which characterized the Spanish conquest of America is thus projected onto Satan's campaign against his Maker.

When the natives do eventually rebel against their master, they receive a second visitor from heaven, with orders to drive them forth "without remorse" (11.105) from their terrestrial paradise into the wilderness beyond it. Michael's mission in books XI-XII thus recapitulates in mythic form not only Spain's campaigns in Mexico and Peru—Adam is shown the seats of Montezuma and Atabalipa (11.407-9)—but England's more recent dispossession of the Indians in New England and Virginia. The image of the colonist as a ruthless invader is too powerful to exclude entirely, and although Milton insists that the garden will remain empty once Adam and Eve have vacated it (11.101-3;123-25), their expulsion by a force of "flaming Warriors" (11.101) could hardly have failed to summon up in the minds of Milton's readers disquieting memories of the final act of the colonial drama.

The colonial figures we have considered so far were all, for one reason or another, eager to cross the Atlantic. A significant portion of the early emigrants to England's colonies, however, had to be actively recruited as indentured servants. Essentially indentured service was a mechanism which permitted potential emigrants to be shipped to America at the expense of a colonial landowner to whom they were subsequently bound as servants for a fixed term of years, usually four or five. In return for their transportation across the Atlantic and their food, lodging, and clothing in the colony, they worked on their master's property without wages until their term of service expired, at which time they received enough cash, provisions, and land to set up as independent smallholders themselves.

Seen in this general context, Adam's situation in Paradise Lost resembles nothing so much as an idealized form of indentured servitude. Placed in an earthly paradise by the "sovran Planter" (4.691), he is destined to serve out a fixed term of ''pleasant labor" (4.625) at the end of which, "by long obedience tri'd'' (7.159), he may be given the status of an angel and allowed to dwell permanently in the terrestrial or the celestial paradise (5.500). His biblical counterpart, of course, had long been regarded as a paradigm of the colonial settler. In 1612 Robert Johnson, for example, commended "that most wholesome, profitable and pleasant work of planting in which it pleased God himself to set the first man and most excellent creature Adam in his innocencie." But in Paradise Lost the current of correspondence between the two figures is reversed: the colonist doesn't resemble Adam so much as Adam resembles the colonist. The result is a vision of prelapsarian man unlike any other in the history of the Genesis myth. To take just one example, the concept of indentured labor may well be responsible for the quite unprecedented significance which Milton gives to Adam's daily toil in Paradise Lost. As I have shown elsewhere, in no other version of the biblical story is the necessity of cultivating the garden so emphatically asserted.

When Adam and Eve eventually break the terms of their contract, moreover, they behave at first like run-away servants—they hide from their master and blame him for their disobedience. Adam, in particular, makes it sound as if he had been kidnapped by a ''spirit," as the agents of the colonial landowners were called, and forced to work against his will on God's plantation:

... did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden?
(10.744-46)

In spite of the care with which the system of indentured labor has been purged of its most flagrant abuses—in Milton's definition of the human situation the master is benevolent and just, the servants are well-fed and well-lodged, the labor is strenuous but not backbreaking—a residue of uneasiness is still detectable in Adam's protest. He may admit that "then should have been refus'd / Those terms whatever, when they were propos'd'' (10.756-57), but the lawyerly debating point cannot entirely dispose of the underlying objection. For when Adam was presented with the conditions of his contract, his existence was already a fait accompli. Like the convicted criminals who were beginning to be shipped to the New World in ever greater numbers as the seventeenth century wore on, Eden's original colonist had only two choices: indenture or death.

As these examples may suggest, Milton not only divides the role of colonist among the various characters in his poem. He associates the characters in his poem with different colonial roles at different points of the narrative. In some episodes, we have seen, Adam resembles the English settlers laboring in indentured servitude on a royal plantation; in others, he has more in common with the Indians welcoming Columbus to their American paradise. Clearly these contradictions and disjunctions do not permit a naive, uniplanar interpretation of the poem—we cannot simply equate God with James I, Eden with Virginia, and then read the poem as a straightforward political allegory about the conquest of America. My point is both simpler and more complicated. Milton's epic, I believe, not only breathes an Atlantic air but expresses in all their bewildering complexity the radically divided attitudes towards the American empire which existed in seventeenth-century English protestant culture.

1. K. G. Davies, The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1974), 325.

2. The word echoes and re-echoes throughout the text of Paradise Lost. See: 1.114; 2.296, 310, 315, 327, 378, 446; 4.145, 390; 5.724, 801; 7.96, 555, 585,609; 10.389, 592; 12.32, 581.

3. Davies, 63.

4. See W. R. Parker, John Milton: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 1.53,410; 2.698,1008.

5. William Crashaw, Preface to Alexander Whitaker's Good Newes from Virginia (London, 1613), A2r.

6. Leah and Rachel (London, 1656), 22.

7. Anon., Virginia and Maryland (London, 1655), 199-200.

8. John White, The Planter's Plea (London, 1630), 37.

9. See, for example, Hakluyt's Discourse concerning Western Planting (1584), chap. 5.

10. CPW 3:49-50.

11. For this account I have relied principally on: Abbott E. Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1965), chap.l; Carl.Bridenbaugh, Vexed andTroubled Englishmen 1590-1642 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), chap. 11.

12. Robert Johnson, The New Life of Virginia (London, 1612), 17.

13. "Native Innocence" in Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968).

Source: J. Martin Evans, "Milton's Imperial Epic," in Of Poetry and Politics, New Essays on Milton and His World, edited by P. G. Stanwood, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, Vol. 126,1995, pp 229-38.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Next

Paradise Lost, John Milton (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))