John Milton’s Interpretation Of The Story Of Genesis In Paradise Lost
In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the story of Genesis and adds heaps of his own interpretation; he gives voice to God, Satan, Adam, Eve, and other characters outside of what is present in the scripture, and ultimately creates a story that starts and ends in the same place as Genesis, but explores the nature of humanity, sin, and innocence in much greater detail. This deeper insight left Milton with a lot of room to insert his own political and religious commentary, and comment he did, especially because of the controversial political climate of England in the 17th century. Milton was an outspoken parliamentarian, advocating strongly for the merciless decapitation of Charles I and an end to the English monarchy, which nearly got him beheaded after the restoration, until he was pardoned in a great show of mercy. Close analysis of many parallel displays of mercy and mercilessness in Paradise Lost show that in many ways, this is more of a story of Milton’s own life than that of Genesis.
The initial conflict between Satan and God is largely glossed over with 10-20 lines vaguely summarizing its events, so it is difficult to say for sure whether it was a power grab, a righteous revolt against a tyrant, or something in between. The part that is detailed is the description of God’s punishment of the rebel angels, which is incredibly severe. Milton goes great lengths to show the extremity of God’s wrath in response to Satan’s insurrection, devoting several lines to expressing God’s mercilessness in great detail: “Him the almighty power . Hurld headlong flaming from th’ ethereal skie . With hideous ruine and combustion down .To bottomless perdition, there to dwell In Adamantine Chains and penal fire, Who durst defie the Omnipotent to Arms,” . First of all, there is so much powerful, wrathful diction in this passage. Milton’s use of “Hurld headlong flaming” basically creates the most vivid picture possible of Satan getting absolutely, positively owned. Each word would, on its own, create an image of a very one-sided defeat of Satan, whether it be “hurld down,” “thrown headlong down,” or “thrown down flaming,” but the combination of all three words just pounds in the meaning: Satan never stood a chance, and God is pulling no punches. The same emphasis on excessive force is present through the rest of the passage as well, “hideous ruine and combustion down to bottomless perdition” is just a reiteration of the same idea over and over again, Satan is in for a world of hurt.
The audience would have understood that just from “hideous ruine” or “perdition” but the pounding in of this repeated painful diction tells the audience, this is excessive. This is not the merciful and graceful God that wants to forgive sins and love his creations, this is an angry God that will not allow his power to be challenged by anybody, period. Second, just the length of this passage is excessive; Milton could have expressed this five line passage simply as “God sent Satan to hell” in a singular line. His decision to dig into this specific action sequence and insert additional material is parallel, but smaller in scale, to his decision to dig into Genesis and insert ten times as much of his own interpretation. In this passage, Milton inserts an opinion and stakes a claim that is not explicit in Genesis: God does not play nice, He does not love all of his creations, and He definitely does not deal an abundance of mercy. In a Christian society that preaches the grace and mercy of God, at a time when the reformation spurred the idea that God could more easily forgive faithful sinners without Catholic pomp and ritual, Milton’s presentation of a wrathful, merciless God is unexpected at the very least. Some of the most important tenets of Christianity are mercy and grace. The key differentiator between Christianity and other monotheistic religions is the idea that God sacrificed his own son to absolve humanity of its sins, entirely because of his love, not because we deserved it or earned it for any sort of merit. Even in Genesis, though God does banish Satan and the rebel angels to hell, it is never described so harshly and violently as it is in Paradise Lost in any Christian scriptures.
Why then does Milton decide to portray such an angry monarch? God’s actions in book I are very similar to events in Milton’s own life before he wrote Paradise Lost. God’s lack of mercy for Satan is very similar to Milton’s own sentiment toward Charles I. He advocated for the public execution of the monarch, and in another work The Ready and Easy Way, basically claims that anyone who willingly supports a monarch is insane. He wrote an abundance of stinging anti-monarch propaganda during and after Cromwell’s reign, continuing to smash the crown without pause even after Charles I was decapitated. In this way, Milton’s expression of God’s merciless wrath on Satan could have been heavily inspired by his own wrath against the monarchy.
Milton also could have been writing from the opposite angle, drawing from the lack of mercy that he himself received following the restoration. When Charles II was restored to power, Milton went from a respected thinker and public figure to a fugitive, an outcast and a prisoner in line for execution in rapid succession, in addition to losing his sight. His books which had gained wide acclaim were burned publicly, and many of his parliamentarian friends were executed. He was shown no mercy and plunged into a world of pain and literally eternal darkness, all because he questioned the authority of his monarch. Just as God purported to love all of his creations, Charles II promised not to punish the parliamentarians who supported his father’s execution, but both monarchs went back on their word. It doesn’t seem far-fetched that Milton sought to express his indignation through the most indignant character in the bible, Satan. Obviously, all we can do is guess at Milton’s motivations because he has been dead for centuries, however realizing the parallels between his personal life and Paradise Lost makes the story all the more meaningful.
Continuing with the idea of indignant devils, Milton shows the different reactions that the devils have to their defeat in book II. Moloch, Mammon, Belial and Beelzebub each present different plans of action and reaction, Moloch responding with vengeful war, Mammon easing the pain of hellfire with material excess, and Beelzebub retaliating against God by strategically corrupting mankind, however the only devil who proposes a path of mercy and peace is Belial. After Moloch’s counsel for aggressive retaliation, Belial’s proposal is a juxtaposition: “peaceful sloth”. He claims that God might slacken their punishment if they stop actively opposing him, that the best thing for them to do at this point is to do nothing. His proposition is, basically, to show God mercy and request it in return. His description of his goal as basically “sloth” already shows, Belial is a really lazy devil. Notable in Belial’s speech is the lack of disdain for God which dominates much of the other devils’ speeches, as well as his careful speechcraft. In his proposal, he states, “Our Supream Foe in time may much remit . His anger, and perhaps thus farr remov’d . Not mind us not offending, satisfi’d . With what is punish’t; whence these raging fires . Will slack’n, if his breath stir not thir flames”. Belial uses none of the “tyrant” diction that the other devils use, instead calling Him “Supream,” retaining the idea that God is an all-powerful monarch, but removing the negative connotation of the word “tyrant.” After being “hurld headlong flaming” into “bottomless perdition” so harshly by God, where is Belial’s indignation? Milton’s decision for Belial to abstain from the angry, vengeful diction of the other devils creates a clear separation between Belial and his compatriots. Where the others are eager to harm or hinder God in any way they can, Belial is more content, he doesn’t mind being in hell and he’s not very motivated to get out. The effect on the audience is that Belial comes off as a bit more refined than the other devils, but also has less of a backbone. This is apparent when he analyzes the benefits of their current position, saying, “What when we fled amain, pursued and strook . With Heav’n’s afflicting thunder, and besought / The deep to shelter us? This Hell then seemed . A refuge from those wounds: or when we lay. Chained on the burning lake? That sure was worse”. Belial’s tone is spineless in itself, the first line “What when we fled amain, pursued and strook” is full of unabashedly craven imagery. Milton could have passed the same meaning by saying, “hellfire hurts less than battle with God,” however by have Belial complain that they were “pursued and strook” Milton emphasizes Belial’s aversity to action. This line is almost satire, Milton is showing that Belial is so deluded that he can make the pit of Hell seem attractive.
Also notable is his frequent use of qualifying language, “may much remit,” “perhaps thus farr,” and the double negative “Not mind us not offending.” These phrases soften Belial’s tone, and give him an air of indecisiveness and inaction. This simple rhetorical decision establishes Belial as a much more peaceful and conflict-averse character than the rest of the devils, and shows that he feels much less indignation toward God for their current state. He is content in hell, and that is precisely what Milton is criticizing. It also shows that Belial is not making any sort of promise; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. All that Belial says is deceptive and misleading, he has no idea if God will slacken their punishment, but he also doesn’t know that he won’t!
The names of Moloch, Mammon, and Beelzebub are derived from the gods of various pagan religions, not respected or liked by any Christian, but still a considerable entity; Belial is literally just the word “worthless!” This name choice is significant because it implies that even among such company as pagan devil-gods, Belial is nothing. Before Belial speaks, Milton introduces him with these lines: ‘he seemed For dignity composed and high exploit: But all was false and hollow’. Milton makes Belial sound nice and dignified, but Belial is ultimately one of the most harshly criticized characters in the poem. When read together with its line “For dignity composed and high exploit,” the phrase “high exploit” seems to have its positive definition of a great or respectable deed, however when paired with the following line “But all was false and hollow” it takes a double meaning. Belial is committing “high exploit;” he is utilizing his sharp faculties of speech to abuse the fallen angels, to trick them into following his path of sloth and complacency. This double meaning of exploit is one of the first thing we hear about Belial, and it helps show the audience the two-faced nature of Belial before he even starts talking. The “falseness” and “hollowness” that Milton mentions refer to the fact that his honeyed words actually bear no merit, he really provides no plan of action other than “do nothing”.
Belial seeks to grant mercy to the monarch that refused mercy on him. He has no backbone, is lazy and complacent, and would rather support a tyrannical ruler than actively resist and fight to maintain independence. Milton is drawing a clear parallel between Belial and supporters of the restoration. They were his primary political opponents during the Commonwealth whom he considered lazy and insane in The Easy Way, so it’s only natural that he represents them as an evil and deceitful and slothful archdevil named “worthless” in Paradise Lost. The interesting point raised by this interpretation is that among his compatriots, Moloch the champion of war, Mammon the champion of greed, and beelzebub the champion of corruption, Milton considers Belial, the champion of forgiveness and mercy to be worthless. Does this mean that Milton somehow thought mercy to be worse, or at least more worthless than war, greed, and corruption?
Milton’s criticism of Belial is not a criticism of mercy in general, but a criticism of mercy as a means to achieve sloth. Belial wants to take the easy way out, just as in The Easy Way. He doesn’t want to think, act or resist and feels no indignation toward God for his tyranny, even after being cast out of heaven and into bottomless perdition and eternal torture, and that’s what makes him worthless. In giving Belial the name “worthless,” Milton is attacking complacent royalists who still support a monarchy even after being abused by monarchs for centuries, simply because they are too slothful to govern themselves.
Keeping with the patterns of parallels that we’ve already drawn, what insight can be drawn from Satan in Paradise Lost? Satan has a complex relationship with mercy through the poem; he never receives it, and almost never gives it. In book IV when he is about to tempt Eve, he states, “yet public reason just, Honor and empire with revenge enlarged / By conquering / this new world compels me now . To do what else, though damned, I should abhor”. This is one of the rare moments in the poem where we witness Satan wanting to do good. He draws a difference between “public reason” and “private reason,” and states that “honor and empire” compel him to do what he “should abhor.” Satan says that he abhors the idea of corrupting humanity, but his social situation obligates him to. Especially the use of “public reason” and “honor and empire” portray Satan with a strict code of loyalty and honor, and a strong sense of social responsibility. It seems like Milton is describing Cromwell when he describes Satan, in everything from his statesmanlike conduct and charisma to his rebellious spirit and detestation of monarchy. The implication of this connection tied in with the above quotation is that Milton pictured Cromwell as abhorring the more evil responsibilities that his position entailed, but still carried them out because he felt socially obligated. Milton was a staunch supporter of Cromwell despite his controversial reputation in history; the parallel between a socially-obligated-to-be-evil Satan and a Cromwell bound by “honor and empire” helps paint a picture for how Milton might have viewed Cromwell.
When reading a good story like Paradise Lost, it’s very easy for the audience to get so wrapped up in the characters and plot of the text that the author becomes irrelevant; real life stories have no author, so when we enter the universe of a captivating book, the author can become an afterthought. Especially when the author of a text is long dead like Milton, it can be difficult to frame a text from the author’s perspective and ask, “Why did they write this?” but that question is truly the most important question in literature. Every piece ever written was written for a reason, and knowing that reason is key to understanding the text. On the surface, Paradise Lost claims to be the story of Genesis, but it is so much more. Paradise Lost is the culmination of the thoughts and opinions of one of the greatest English writers of all time, projected onto the canvas of Genesis. Each book is chock-full of Milton’s ideas about the world, hidden in his unexpected interpretations of a story we thought we knew. Analysis of mercy gave some insight onto Milton’s political influences, but truly all of Milton’s heart and soul is contained in these 10 books.
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