Comparing John Milton’s Lycidas and Sonnet 7
In the journey of life Man will often question his or her position in the universe. Questioning ones worth and purpose in the universe will harbor the attention of Man until the end of time. The antidote for the majority of the world comes in maintaining a religion. In Sonnet 7 and Lycidas, John Milton takes the reader on the journey Man takes in fulfilling Gods will. In the poems Milton examines the importance of being readily prepared for Gods will, the willingness to truly fulfill Gods will, and the resolution he comes to with his own life as well as Edward Kings in terms of Gods will.
Miltons personal journey in fulfilling Gods will is essential to Milton. He believes his daily activities are in preparation for a greater purpose. In believing in such discipline it becomes apparent to Milton that he must be readily prepared for Gods plan for his life. Milton expresses the need for spiritual maturity repeatedly in Sonnet 7 and in Lycidas. In Sonnet 7 Milton expresses anxiety in his own life. In line 6 and 7 Milton wrote:
That I to manhood am arrivd so near,
And inward ripenes doth much less appear.
It is relevant to notice that Milton is having a time of reflection in writing such words. He is questioning his own being and asking himself if he is making the necessary decisions in life to lead to spiritual maturity.
Milton examines the same idea in the pastoral elegy that he writes for Edward King. In contrast to the Sonnet, which is about Milton, Lycidas explores what happens when ones life ends abruptly. In line 3 of Lycidas Milton wrote:
Shatter your leaves before your mellowing year.
Miltons concern with Kings death displays a concern of dieing before possibly reaching spiritual maturity. Because both Milton and King went to school to be a priest, and King was also a poet, the questioning of Kings death mirrors a concern for his own life. The quote mirrors Sonnet 7 in that it raises the same question: what would happen if death came to Milton at the time in which he wrote Lycidas? Milton questions his own life in questioning what Gods judgment would be on his own life if his death came in his youth.
Milton displays concerns not only with the idea of being spiritually mature, but also a willingness to do Gods will in Gods timing. Knowing Gods direction for his life is important, but he also wants to be sure hes living on Gods clock, and not his own. Milton has completed years of education, and feels the pressure to succeed in life. This idea is also a time of reflection for Milton in that he must ask himself what success really means. He asks the question: does success mean becoming a priest, or does God have other plans for me? Milton wrote in lines 1 and 2:
How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth,
Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth yeer!
The underlying question is merely about time. No one truly knows when their life will end, and the question that remains is if one knew when he or she were to die, would he or she still make the same decisions? The idea of time is apparent in Lycidas as well when Milton wrote:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer. Lines 9 and 10
And Comes the blind Fury with th abhoored shears
And slits the thin- spun life. Lines 75 and 76
Milton questions whether or not King had fulfilled his purpose for God even though his life ended in youth. Milton offers the answer to this question later in his resolution of the poem, however it remains imperative to examine the question not just in terms of King, but also universally.
Although it seems Milton expresses anxieties in his tribulations of youthful doubt, he does offer resolutions in both poems. In Sonnet 7 Milton comes to the conclusion that as long as hes doing his part in finding spiritual maturity, and staying open to Gods will, then he will be ready to do Gods will. In the last lines he wrote:
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heavn;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task Masters eye.
Milton realizes that God has a plan, and part of fulfilling it is being patient for Gods timing.
Milton also comes to a resolution with King. Although Kings life ended unexpectedly and before he could become a priest, Milton wrote about Kings rewards in heaven.
Now Lycidas the Shepards weep no more,
Hence forth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wanderin that perilous flood. Lines 182-185
Although King didnt become a priest, he lived a life in search of Gods will, and thus will be rewarded in heaven.
Although Milton, like many, questions his own life, the ultimate conclusion he comes to is that the answer lies in eternity. Milton understands there is a purpose for his life and that he has been given spiritual gifts from God that he must use for Gods will. Although he may doubt himself from time to time, or he may question his success in fulfilling Gods will, he also recognizes the gift God has given him in salvation. In the end Milton believes that Gods plan will reveal itself, and truth will win, in his own life and in the world around him.
A Close Study Of John Milton’s Literary Device
A Closer Look into the Literary Devices in “Lycidas” by John Milton
Literary devices are the different structures in which writers use to give a distinctive interpretation of their work. In lines 1-24 of the poem, “Lycidas” (1637), John Milton continuously utilizes literary devices in order to emphasize pathos – which in rhetoric, is an appeal to emotion. The literary devices Milton uses includes: imagery, allusion, metaphors, and diction. By adding these literary devices, the audience is able to sense the sentiments behind the words of the speaker.
“Lycidas” commences with the use of imagery in order to appeal to the speaker’s sentimentalities. In lines 1-5, Milton writes:
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pluck” as “a sudden, sharp pull… a tug, jerk, or snatch.” In these lines, Milton uses the image of the speaker picking berries from flowers in a harshly manner. Although the speaker does not yet express the reason for his emotions, the act of “plucking” the berries implies some aggression which suggests that he is angry or upset about something. Another element that adds on to this imagery is apostrophe. Within these same lines, the speaker uses the word “your”: “I com to pluck your berries” (3), “shatter your leaves before the mellowing year” (5). By personalizing the inanimate objects, it gives a sense that the speaker is so affected by a particular event that he feels the need to hurt another being. The use of imagery in these lines successfully allows the readers to understand how the speaker feels without even having to explain why it is he is feeling that way.
In the subsequent lines, Milton writes, “Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew/Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme” (10-11). The verb “to sing” in these lines is a metaphor for writing poetry, which is hinted when Milton mentions “lofty rhyme”. In this portion of the passage, the speaker decides that he want to write a poem for King in reminiscent of his previous works. Singing is a very powerful way of expression, especially in religion. During mass in a Catholic church, the choir sings their praises to the Lord. The act of singing is also known to come from angels; when Jesus was born, angels were present and they were singing a hymn to express their happiness. When Milton uses this metaphor, it appeals to emotion by emphasizing that he wants to give back to his friend by acknowledging how great he was. In addition to singing being a powerful action, the speaker also mentions that King’s rhymes were “lofty”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “lofty” means “extending to a great height….” By describing King’s poems as lofty, the speaker underlines the grandness of his works.
To further accentuate the greatness of Edward King, the speaker of the poem also adds: “He must not flote upon his watry bear/Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,/Without the meed of som melodious tear” (12-14). In these lines, the speaker proposes that King deserves to be mourned and that he deserves to be sung about – or in other words, written about. Knowing that the speaker looks up to King insinuates that he was a good person, which then adds on to pathos because it gives the audience more of a reason to sympathize for the speaker’s loss. Milton uses the phrase “melodious tear” in line 14 to describe the poem that should be made for King. The diction he uses in this line gives the term more beauty, recommending that the poem written for King should consist of beauty rather than being plain.
In the succeeding line, the speaker says, “Begin then, Sisters” (15). When the speaker addresses the “Sisters”, he is referring to the muses who are able to help him find inspiration (OED) for the poem he is in the midst of writing. Wanting the help of the muses contributes to the pathos of the speaker because it shows that he wants his poem for his friend to be very good. He wants the help of the muses so that he can make the best poem he can for his friend who is now deceased. This also adds on to the speaker wanting the poem for King to be more than ordinary.
Finally, the passage closes with the lines 23 and 24 which state, “For we were nurst upon the self-same hill/Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill.” In these lines, the speaker expresses that him and King had grown up together and have known each other for a very long time. Adding this fragment enhances the emotional aspects of this poem because we realize that the two characters had a very close bond, thus contributing to the pain that the speaker is going through now that his friend is gone. We know, from these lines, that the speaker and King were close especially because of the use of the word “same”: “…upon the self-same hill” (23), “fed the same flock…” (24). The reason why knowing that the speaker and King were close adds on to the pathos of this poem is because it is confirmed that the reader had some sort of emotional attachment to the deceased. Had we known that the reader had no connection to King whatsoever, his death would probably not have been as sad.
In conclusion, John Milton carefully chooses the words within his poem “Lycidas” to really highlight the emotion that is felt after Edward King dies. He also carefully chooses the diction in order to explain to the audience why Lycidas (Edward King)’s death affected the speaker. Milton successfully achieves pathos by employing literary devices such as imagery, allusion, metaphors, and diction.
Analyzing The King’s Eulogy As Depicted In John Milton’s Poem Lycidas
Does Milton’s Lycidas Justly Honor his Deceased Friend?
Milton was half-hearted about writing a poem in the wake of Edward King’s death, but the poet had no other choice. Edward King, Milton’s friend at Cambridge University and fellow poet, died prematurely, drowning at sea before he was able to be ordained as an Anglican priest. In Lycidas, Milton reminisces about why God has caused such a tragedy to occur and is forced to question his own poetic endeavors. This poem was written in 1967, three years after Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle and about six years after he wrote Sonnet 7 (“How Soon Hath Time”) on the occasion of his twenty-third birthday. Even though Milton had matured as a poet during his mid-twenties, he still felt that he wasn’t ready to eulogize King. In the lines “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear/ Compels me to disturb your season due” (Lycidas 6-7), Milton is speaking to the laurel tree from which he is plucking berries from before they are ripe. This is a metaphor both for how Lycidas— Milton’s name for King in the poem— has died too young and Milton must address a serious subject before his poetic potential has not fully blossomed, a sentiment he expressed in Sonnet 7:“That I to manhood am arrived so near,/ And inward ripeness doth much less appear” (Sonnet 7 6-7).
Lycidas also tackles subjects of virtue and God’s ways that the Lady’s brothers argued about in Comus. Whereas the Elder Brother states that virtue is always rewarded, and “if this fail,/The pillared firmament is rottenness,/And earth’s base built on stubble” (Comus 597-599), Milton questions the validity of unwavering justice. He invokes mythological characters and wonders why they did not intervene to save King. “Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep/Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas?” (Lycidas 50-51), Milton asks, but he then admits that is it silly to expect the nymphs to have been able to have helped, since not even “the Muse herself that Orpheus bore” (58) was able to rescue her son. Milton tries to blame “the herald of the sea” (89) for letting King drown, but Triton is actually just as desperate to understand the tragedy as Milton: “He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds/ ‘What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?’” (91-92). In the end, Milton cannot know why God let his friend die so early, but that does not stop him from challenging himself and the Church with theodicies throughout his career in order to rationalize a life of virtue.
Lycidas has been heralded as one of the greatest poems in the English language. Yet, Samuel Johnson, a literary critic of the eighteenth century, accused Lycidas for what he considered a lack of passion, “for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions” (Johnson). Though Johnson’s criticism has merit, denouncing Milton’s pastoral elegy as being unfit for the occasion seems extremely harsh and limiting. Milton knew King very well, and he felt feel sorrow when he died, without a doubt. If Milton had composed an ostensibly more personal, emotional poem devoid of mythological references and digressive criticism of the corrupt English clergy through metaphors, — a poem that Johnson would approve of— someone still could have criticized his work being just as unfit, since poetry can only express emotions to a certain extent, and the time spent writing poetry is time that one is not purely mourning. To approach Lycidas from Johnson’s perspective is to miss out on the beauty of the poem. For example, John Ruskin celebrates the careful use of the verbs “creep”, “intrude”, and “climb” to describe the how the self-interested men of the Roman Catholic church gain ecclesiastical power, claiming “no other words would or could serve the turn, and no more could be added” (Ruskin, 239). The pastoral elements of the poem further capture the tenderness of death. Though King was drowned, Milton calls upon the Sicilian muse to decorate the body with flowers and whisks the reader into a sensual reverie of “the musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,/ With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head” (Lycidas 146-147) before exclaiming “Ay me!” (154) upon realizing that the body remains in the sea.
Milton’s poem is humbling and confessional, and lines such as “fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/ (That last infirmity of noble mind)/ to scorn delights, and live laborious days” (Lycidas 70) prove that Lycidas was an exercise in grappling with death that forced him to rethink his pursuit of poetic fame; Milton did not publish Lycidas as a way of profiting off his friend’s death. By incorporating extensive metaphor and learned references, Milton expands the obvious feeling of sorrow to open up discussion of larger themes of justice, religious virtue, ambition, and the afterlife all within less than two hundred lines. Lycidas is the kind of poem one can go back to over and over again and find something new. Over the hundreds of years that Lycidas has been a popular object of academic scrutiny, readers have never forgotten the legacy of Edward King.
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.
Adams, Richard P. “The Archetypal Pattern of Death in Milton’s Lycidas.” PMLA, vol. 64, no. 1, 1949, pp. 183-188. Brown, Cedric C. “The Death of Righteous Men: Prophetic Gesture in Vaughan’s ‘Daphnis’ and Milton’s ‘Lycidas.’” George Herbert Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1983, pp. 1-24. Erskine, John. “The Theme of Death in Paradise Lost.” PMLA, vol. 32, no. 4, 1917, pp. 573-582. Goldsmith, Ann Hamlen. To Be or Not to Be: “Sin” and “Death” and Questions of Allegory in “Paradise Lost.” Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1999. McElroy, Jennifer C. “Interpreting Death in Paradise Lost.” (2010). English Master’s Theses. Paper 17. Rovang, Paul R. “A Malorian Source for Satan’s Encounter with Death in Paradise Lost, Book 2.” ANQ, vol. 16, no. 3, 2003, pp. 3-6. Waddington, Raymond B. “The Death of Adam: Vision and Voice in Books XI and XII of ‘Paradise Lost.’” Modern Philology, vol. 70, no. 1, 1972, pp. 9-21.