Milton’s Death: Beginnings and Endings in Lycidas and Paradise Lost
John Milton’s first encounter with death sent him reeling and kept him off balance for a long time. He found an escape in poetry, pouring out his confusion and frustration and sorrow in the now-famous poem Lycidas. The young Milton was struck with a realization of his own mortality, and spent a lot of time in the poem pondering on his tasks in life and how he could fulfill his calling. Lycidas records Milton’s turn to both Christian and pagan gods for answers and his journey with the ones he receives. Milton’s attitude towards death has changed dramatically by the time he writes Paradise Lost. Having been involved in a lengthy rebellion and watching many people die, Milton must have become adjusted to death and settled into a method of understanding. The characters of Paradise Lost face death for the first time when they eat the fruit, but leave the garden cheerfully, prepared for a long, fulfilling life of the kind they couldn’t live before. As one reads Lycidas and Paradise Lost, one can see Milton’s evolution as he came to believe that death is a tool of God because it shapes who people are and what they do with their lives.
Though Milton didn’t know Edward King well, his original grief and shock is readily visible in the early lines of Lycidas. He mourns, “Now thou art gone, and never must return!” (38). Milton’s struggle to deal with King’s death is fascinating considering they barely knew each other. This line suggests that Milton’s trouble was not with King specifically, but with the reality of death facing him for the first time. He created “tensions . . . in the tragic dynamics of the poem, as between calm and reconciliation on one side and lament and questionings on the other, until finally, all passions are spent” (Brown 7). Milton’s struggle with dealing with the tragic event made Lycidas a raw, multifaceted poem that covers many of young Milton’s ideas and questions. He makes specific mention of the fact that King died young: “Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime” (8). Milton himself was in his youth at the time of the event, and this line suggests a certain amount of self-reflection. Milton wanted to believe that he had a divine mission in this world, a purpose for being on earth. King’s death forced him to recognize that he might not get the chance to fulfil that destiny. It was this fear of failure that drove Milton to write this poem in the first place. He begins Lycidas by explaining his concerns about writing poetry so young. “Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, / I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, / And with forced fingers rude / Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year” (2-5). Worried that he’s writing too soon, Milton uses the imagery of plucking berries before they’re ripe to alert the reader to his fears. Being forced to write before he’s ready, however, is better than missing the opportunity completely because he’s dead. King’s death had a profound effect on Milton and was a major factor in spurring the poet into writing serious poetry. Milton began to recognize the importance of taking advantage of his time on earth to fulfil what he felt was his divine duty: writing an epic poem for God. King’s demise taught Milton that death shapes the lives of the living, both in the form of preparation for their own demise and as reactions to those who are gone.
Milton deals with death originally as a tragic ending to the lives of those who could have given much more to the world. Throughout the poem he romanticizes King as though they had spent a lot of time together. “For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill,” he writes, “Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill” (23-4). This is patently untrue, but is extremely revealing about the way Milton lauds the dead. He continues to do so throughout the poem, casting King as a shepherd. In both Christian and pagan traditions, shepherds are known for being righteous, often heroes or even gods in disguise. David, future king of Israel, was a shepherd when he had his legendary battle with Goliath. Orpheus, Pan, and Paris were all shepherds, and other heroes such as Romulus, Remus, and Oedipus were all saved and cared for by shepherds. Christ referred to himself as the good shepherd. By casting Lycidas as a shepherd, Milton put him in a position of apparent lowliness but really made him a hero in disguise. By lamenting his early death, Milton implies that Lycidas was a hero like David, Orpheus, or Paris who had not yet been given the opportunity to break out of his shepherd disguise and embrace his true nature and contribution to the world. By romanticizing and lauding this man he barely knew, Milton unwittingly reveals one portion of his difficulty in dealing with death. He creates an image of King as a potential hero who never got the chance to offer himself to the world or to enact the great changes he could have had he not been taken too soon. Though this was ostensibly about Edward King, really this is all a reflection of Milton’s opinion of himself. Realizing that he could die at any moment, Milton began to worry that he would never have the chance to break out of his life as a figurative shepherd and fulfil his destiny as a great poet on a divine mission for God. He began to see the importance of acting on his opportunities immediately despite his fears of lack of preparation, because he might not get the chance otherwise. This experience taught Milton how much death shapes the lives of all humans; Milton, like most people, started his real work because he was faced with death. In his desperate search for answers, Milton surprises himself by going to the pagan gods to know how this could possibly have been allowed to happen. He demands, “Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep / Closed over the head of your loved Lycidas?” (50-51). Though Milton is a Christian, he doesn’t demand why God didn’t save King, he asks the nymphs.
Milton’s faith at this point was less absolute than it is in Paradise Lost, when his references to pagan gods and figures are always brief and demeaning compared to the position of Christian figures. At this point, however, Milton goes to pagan gods before he goes to Christian ones, and receives no satisfactory answers. He questions “the meaning of that loss in the unfolding providential plan” (Brown 6). Believing that there is a plan and purpose for life, Milton questions how this could possibly have been the plan for King, and why it was necessary. He does not question that Lycidas was loved, so his crisis of faith did not go so far as to wonder whether there was a kind of divine power who loves humanity. He firmly believes that it true, but that to Milton does not answer why people like Edward King are allowed to die young. This question is not answered until Paradise Lost when death is allowed to enter the world and God reveals his view of death. Inevitable questions later arise about what the point of life is if everyone is going to die no matter what. In commenting on King’s early demise, Milton complains, “Alas! What boots it with uncessant care / To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade, / And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (64-6). King spent his whole life as a shepherd not yet ready to break free of his disguise and become the hero he was meant to be. If Milton is to spend his life as a shepherd, then his life has no purpose, because he makes no real difference in the world. He will not be remembered for looking after sheep, and the world will be no different without his existence. It is Phoebus, a pagan god, who helps him at this stage of his journey and teaches him how to achieve immortality: “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil . . . Of so much fame in heav’n expect thy meed” (78, 84). The point of life, and the way to avoid death, is to do something worth doing so that he’ll be remembered for it, in earth or in heaven. It is no coincidence that the plants he references at the beginning of the poem are symbolic of immortality (Adams 184). The writing of Lycidas, and others to follow, became Milton’s way of achieving immortality. This something to be remembered for became the writing of Paradise Lost, the sum total of Milton’s life experiences and beliefs.
With this background of death early on in Milton’s life, his characterization of death becomes even more fascinating in Paradise Lost. Though he could have chosen otherwise, Milton made death a character with lines, actions, and an agenda of his own throughout the poem. However, Death has no body in Paradise Lost; he can smell and taste, and is identified as a he, but he “has no body and feeds on life” (Goldsmith 69). His overriding characteristic is hunger; no matter how much death there is in the world, Death will never be satisfied. So Death is a character, but not a character; he has no regular form, but he has senses and urges. Furthermore, his shape changes; when he grows angry, he “grew tenfold / More dreadful and deform,” adding to his eerie, unearthly persona (II 706-7). At no point is Death made a sympathetic character; his insatiable hunger is repulsive and frightening. He is described as “black . . . as night, / Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell” (II 670-1). He is a “non-character who operates as [a] virus, spreading disease and destruction throughout the cosmos” (Goldsmith 54). To Milton, death is a force that cannot be stopped, except by the other powerful figure to whom he gives a form and a name: God. By making Death a character, Milton also gives him an identity, which means that he too can be overcome by God. God does not and cannot overcome abstract ideas such as justice, mercy, and emotion in Paradise Lost, but he does have the power to overcome every embodied figure, even if he chooses not to. Though Death’s characterization is abstract and frightening, it also makes him a person instead of an idea or inevitability, and just as we know that God can overcome Satan if he chooses, we also know that he can overcome Death. Milton also chose to make Death a part of a corrupt family by making him the son of Sin. Significantly, Death and Sin do not simply appear on the world after the Fall: Death actually comes from Sin. Milton takes the view that dying is part of living in a fallen world, but he also makes the point that we die because we sin.
However, when Death is born, he nearly kills Sin, ripping his way out of her body. Death is so powerful that he can destroy everything in his wake, including Sin. Indeed, Death wears “the likeness of a kingly crown,” again suggesting his sovereignty (II 673). Death is unstoppable, and it is useless for mortals to fight it, bemoan it, or avoid it. While being born, Death does what no human can do: overcome sin. The message here is clear: death is more powerful than any human, and can only be overcome by those very few who are not subject to it: God, the Son, and the angels, because everyone else will die. These beings are also the only ones who do not sin, and Milton’s view is that one is beneath the other. If one is not subject to death, one is not subject to sin. Though he does not appear often in the poem, Death is nonetheless a powerful and frightening presence, as he is in the lives of all mortals. His power over mortals and ability to overcome Sin establish him as a nearly unstoppable force who can be overcome only by the highest of celestial beings. When Death becomes a reality, God treats him like an opponent, but not an enemy; in God’s eyes, Death is an unpleasant but necessary part of the plan for his children. God states that Death must be paid, adding to the impression of the curious formlessness of Death throughout Paradise Lost. Death isn’t treated as much of a character by the celestial beings of the poem; God never interacts with him directly and speaks only of him as a debt to be paid by humanity.
Death is a stand-in for justice to God. He refers to death as “the final remedy” for mankind (IV 197). Adam’s vision at the end of the poem shows him the unending mercy of God the people who repeatedly fall away and do wicked things. Adam weeps to see the horrors his posterity will do to each other, but Michael reminds him that God will send a Messiah to pay the debt and save God’s children. The one debt, in Milton’s view, that humans must pay is death. As Christ himself must die, so must all people, because death has to be paid. It is a necessary part of the plan for all people, including God’s own son, who died to fulfill the redemption of all mankind. There is clearly a power in death beyond what people are inclined to see; Christ saved everyone through death, but came back to overcome it, defeating humans’ one undefeatable foe. As one of God’s messengers, Michael comforts Adam on the subject of death and teaches him how to live. Upon hearing Eve’s suggestion that she and Adam commit suicide, Michael advises, “Nor love they life nor hate but what thou liv’st / Live well, how long or short permit to Heav’n” (VI 553-554). Michael has a very different perspective on death than any mortal. His advice to neither love nor hate life is intriguing because most mortals would recommend loving life, because it’s the only one we get. Michael, however, lives in heaven, and understands that there is more that comes afterwards and heaven is infinitely better than fallen Earth. Despite this knowledge, he does not tell Adam and Eve to simply wait out life until they can return to heaven, but tells them to live their lives well. Death to Michael is merely a change of scenery; when Adam and Eve die, they will return to heaven and all will be well (McElroy 17). The importance is to live well, which can be interpreted as “virtue is obedience, sin disobedience,” or living in obedience to God’s commandments and teaching their children to do the same (Erskine 580). From this trusted celestial being Milton gives one of his life philosophies: life is to be neither hated nor adored. Loving life too much can become a form of idolatry, for in being too caught up in the glories of this life it is possible to forget the importance of the next.
Milton believed that everything is inherently good because it comes from God, but he also believed that everything is good because it reminds us of who God is and what he is given us, and so to focus too much on the things God has given us instead of God himself is wicked. This is why Michael tells Adam and Eve simply to live well, and by keeping God’s commandments and teaching others to do the same, they will have their reward in heaven. By the devilish characters, Death is treated with disdain, both as a person and as a concept, and Milton uses these characters to disagree with popular heroic conceptions of death. When Satan first meets Death, despite their familial relationship, the two aren’t at all allied; they feel mutual enmity and fight like “two black clouds / With heav’n’s artill’ry fraught” (II 714-5). The confrontation between the two follows the pattern of a chivalric duel between knights that would have taken place during King Arthur’s reign (Rovang 4). Milton follows this same mockery of traditional heroic epics (a change from his faith in the pagan gods earlier on in his life) in the garden when the serpent protests Eve’s assertion that she would die if she ate the fruit. He frames the temptation as a heroic test like those of the classic Greek epics: Eve’s willingness to risk death by eating to fruit, to him, is a sign of courage and commitment. By risking death, Eve would be proving herself a classic hero. The serpent argues that God will be impressed by her “dauntless virtue” and would never actually carry out his threat (XI 694). He also makes the cyclic argument that God would never allow anything fearful to exist, and since Eve fears death, death must therefore not exist. Because both these arguments come from the devil himself, Milton automatically invalidates them without even having to argue against them. Obviously death exists, and death is the consequence of eating the fruit, or in other words, succumbing to temptation. As aforementioned, death comes from sin, and so by partaking of the fruit and sinning, Eve opens herself up to death, and all of her posterity so far have followed her example. Milton also makes special note of the argument that death is heroic, cool, and admirable, but dismisses it, again by having Satan present it. Death to Milton is not something to be defiantly and virtuously disregarded, but something to be accepted and respected, and Satan’s blasé attitude towards death is both hypocritical and inappropriate.
After partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve experience the same thing that Milton does in Lycidas—an understanding of death that takes away their innocence. They have no understanding of what death is while still in the Garden of Eden, and with their enlightenment comes additional fear and loss of innocence. Lycidas is essentially about Milton experiencing death for the first time and losing his childishness because of this event. He is forced to grow up and face his role in the world, and to begin writing to fulfil his destiny even though he doesn’t feel that he is ready. Adam and Eve, though still very childish in many ways, now have to grow up and accept their lot in life. The garden will no longer provide for their every need, and they will no longer live in a paradise without sin or hardship. Milton ties an understanding of death with the acceptance of the need to grow up and to see the world as it really is. By the end of the poem, Adam and Eve see death not as “a curse but a comforter, not the gift of Satan but the gift of God” (Erskine 573). Though Adam and Eve lose their innocence by partaking of the fruit, Eve wakes from a dream from God and tells Adam that she has received “propitious, some great good presaging,” a hopeful view neither of them has possessed until that moment (XII 612-3). Despite Eve’s earlier brief flirtation with the idea of suicide as a means of avoiding their punishment, Adam and Eve conclude that it is better to live and be obedient to God to improve their standing with him (Waddington 15). In this passage, Milton reveals his changed thoughts about death: he no longer begrudges death, or seeks a way to immortalize himself. Instead, he, like Adam and Eve, wishes to live fully and do what God asks of him. Though they now can die, all is not lost, and it is better to follow Michael’s advice to “live well.” Adam and Eve eventually leave the garden cheerfully, prepared to live long, full lives together.
To complete his transformation of understanding of death, Milton’s own beliefs about death evolved to become more complex than the average Christian of his time, and they are reflected within his work. “In the Christian Doctrine Milton divides death into the following four degrees: the punishments which are preludes to death, spiritual death, temporal death, and eternal death” (Woelfel 33). Everyone is subject to the first three kinds of death, and these are the kind that Milton reassures his audience are okay because they can be overcome. The first two kinds of death are a result of human blindness and failure, and in order to overcome these, we need to live and work. The third is what shapes the rest of human life and drives people to either obey God or disobey him, which determines life or death of the fourth kind. “In Paradise Lost the first degree of death establishes that fallen man’s happiness is transformed into misery; the second degree conveys man’s helplessness as a consequence of obscured reason; the third degree is presented as a remedy to what seems an endless punishment; the fourth degree establishes the penalty for continued disobedience–eternal punishment” (Woelfel 34). Through Adam and Eve, we experience the first three kinds of death, and through Satan we experience the fourth. By understanding and accepting that all will die in three ways, Milton makes death more commonplace and thus acceptable. He portrays all four methods of death in Paradise Lost, but it is only Satan who experiences the fourth kind. Milton’s insistence that death is a necessary and godly tool is compelling only when one chooses not to partake in the fourth kind of death and accept the existence of the others. Coming to understand all four kinds of death is a way of coming to better understand and accept death as a reality, and not necessarily a negative one. Adam and Eve left the Garden able to die, but they also left prepared to follow Michael’s advice to live well and with the increased ability to understand and reason through life instead of their open, innocent optimism at the beginning.
Milton’s journey of acceptance of death is reflected throughout Paradise Lost. As a young man, he was traumatized when a classmate was killed, and spent most of the poem Lycidas wrestling with why people have to die, and what the point of life is when we are all going to die anyway. He fears and seeks ways to avoid death, or at least immortalize himself through other means. He explains his final conclusions to his audience through Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. After they lose their innocence as Milton did, Adam and Eve fear death and try to think of ways to overcome it. Eve suggests committing suicide to keep death from affecting their children, but some timely advice by the archangel Michael convinces them that life is to be lived fully before they can return to heaven. Adam and Eve conclude that living is more important than dying, and that while death is important, the way they live (and are obedient to God’s commandments) is the far more important and worth their time. They choose to be “heroes of faith [who] serve to keep before us the paradox of good emerging from evil and to hold forth the possibility of redemption” (Waddington 11). Adam and Eve’s behavior is a reflection of Milton’s final statement: that death shapes our ability to live our lives, but it is important to focus on life, not death.
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