Paradise Lost and Classic Epic Verse Tradition
Being a devout Christian, reasonable freethinker and a popular writer with a political consciousness, John Milton took upon himself the ambitious task of writing a modern Christian epic in English, inspired by the classical pagan tradition of epic verse. Undeterred by his visual handicap, Milton came out with the first edition of Paradise Lost in 1667, in the Restoration era. Given his skill, commitment, and the sheer quality and diverse connotations of the poem, Milton was accordingly granted his due as one of the most important literary figures to have emerged out of the seventeenth century, such that, for the purpose of academic classification, a considerable portion of the age is named after him.
Paradise Lost emulates the epic tradition by starting the poem with an invocation, which also serves as an introduction to the twelve-book poem with a succinct overview of its premise, themes and objectives. Herein, and through the entire poem, Milton is seen to constantly emphasize the novelty and superior nature of his subject, intent and character; asserting the sentiment that set apart Paradise Lost from its predecessors in the epic style. This could be taken as due conceit on the part of the poet, for after all, unlike the ancient classical epics, which at the surface were merely glorious indications of historical themes and legends, Paradise Lost, as Samuel Barrow points out, is the “story of all things”. For Milton, armed with the power of faith, attempts to encompass just about everything from God, Heaven, Hell, creation, the origin of man, to the future of our world, in his verse while working upon the basic Biblical premise. In the process, he includes subtle opinions on pertinent ideas such as predestination, free will, existentialism, polarity in mythology and various metaphysical concepts, to create a grand tableau of fantastical imagery and insight. For this purpose, he also employs numerous popular references and since his subject was Biblical, he aptly works on the reader’s foreknowledge regarding the same, which is of course, at par with epic tradition.
Right from the very first line, Milton makes the lapsarian theme of Paradise Lost clear – “Of man’s first disobedience”, and it is seen throughout the poem, that Milton continues to underline the concept of ‘obedience’ and the repercussions of not adhering to it, be it through the fallen angels or the first mortals. He then proceeds to talk about the infamous ‘fruit of the forbidden tree’, which effectively ‘brought death into the world’, even though God already knew how these events shall transpire. However, over the course of the poem, Milton stresses a certain logic that despite this, man indeed had a free will, and thus, states his view on Calvinistic doctrines. Milton further traces back all human suffering to the fruit, as the source of ‘all our woe’ and the reason behind Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Paradise of Eden. Then comes the first reference to the Son of God as the ‘one greater man’, who shall restore humanity to its rightful place, thereby hinting at the regaining of Paradise.
Thus, squeezing in the entire Biblical plot in these few lines, Milton then proceeds to summon his muse, Urania, ‘the heavenly one’; although, he doesn’t explicitly mention her name until halfway through the poem in Book VII, where he seeks her guidance to continue his tale from Earth after describing the great battle of the immortals in Heaven. Urania as a muse, was known to inspire prophets of Israel such as Moses himself, the man who delivered the Israelites from Egypt and conveyed to them the commandments from God. Herein, through the references to Moses and other Biblical places of significance such as Zion or Siloa, Milton could be seen to draw an analogy between the prophet and himself, as he too was expounding God’s words unto his brethren.
Thereafter, Milton moves on to highlight the epic nature of his “adventurous song, that with no middle flight intends to soar above the Aonian mount, while it pursues things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”. This particular line is loaded with meaning and sentiment, in trying to establish the supremacy of the poem over classical ones. Aonian mount or Mt. Helicon was deemed sacred to the pagan muses, and hence, Milton brings it up as a reference, albeit, in an unflattering context. Here, it might be argued that Milton, in a way was being utterly dogmatic in terms of religion, but this view does not vouch a strong case for itself. Moreover, it might be even dismissed as immaterial, since faith and passion are essential for the creation of a poem such as Paradise Lost.
Next, Milton prays to the omniscient Holy Spirit to guide his ambitious endeavour, such that it might be corroborated through ‘Eternal Providence’. In contrast to his attitude towards ancient epics, Milton expresses characteristic Christian humility while putting forth his plea unto the Holy Spirit, with a possible allusion to his own blindness: “What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support”. However, in the final lines of the invocation, it is clear that Milton’s conviction regarding his subject and purpose remain unwavering, and as David Daiches points out in his essay, The Opening of Paradise Lost, “There is a steady progression here, a steady rising in the status of the role played by the poet…The whole twenty-six lines constitute a remarkable piece of verbal orchestration, ending with the massive chords”, i.e. the last line stating the ultimate purpose of Milton’s prophetic verse: “And justify the ways of God to men”
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