The Creator and the Created: The Figure of the Doubtful Ploughman in John Milton’s Paradise Lost

June 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

John Milton uses epic similes in Paradise Lost to accomplish many objectives. The most basic of these is to connect the past and the present, as the epic similes are often in present tense and involve a human figure that will not exist until after the time of Adam and Eve. There are several significant images in an epic simile found at the end of Book IV. A group of angels find Satan in the Garden of Eden, after he has escaped from Hell and located Adam and Eve, whom he is intent on destroying. As the angels surround Satan and create a crescent-shaped military formation, they are described as being ìas thick as when a field of Ceres ripe for harvest waving bends,î (IV.981). This would conclude an ordinary simile, but Milton goes on to describe the movement of the grain, and inserts the image of a ìcareful ploughman doubting stands lest on the threshing-floor his hopeful sheaves prove chaff.î This figure does not have a direct correlate in the tenor of the simile, but does serve several purposes. As an image of God, the simile explores the relationship between a creator and what is created, and the responsibility that each owes to the other. As a figure for human labor, the ploughman represents the potential for human production. Both interpretations highlight the role of choice in determining future events, outside of any original creative force. By examining the relationship between God and mankind, the potential for human creation, and the way that choice plays a role independent of the creator, the simile that includes the figure of the ploughman introduces the tenuous relationship between the creator and the creation. The connection between the creator and the created is central to Paradise Lost. From early on God has stated that he made man ìsufficient to have stood, though free to fall,î (III.99). This introduces the matter of human choice because although humans were created by God, they are also distinct from him and responsible for their own actions. God recognizes this break between his role as the maker of mankind, and their role as humans with free will. Adam, on the other hand, believes that Eve was created from one of his ribs, and therefore feels that her creation resulted from a depletion of himself. He needs to have her near to complete him, and does not seem to recognize her own free will as a separate human. Rather than seeing Eve as separate from himself, Adam exerts his possession of her, as when he says he ìlentî a rib to her, and that he can ìclaim my other half,î (IV.4486-487). Adam does not recognize Eve as a separate creation but as an extension of himself, which leads him to feel a loss when they are apart. There are also examples of mistaking the creation for the creator, as when Eve begins worshipping the Tree of Knowledge, rather than God who has produced it. After eating the fruit she says, ìO sovran, virtuous, precious of all trees in Paradise,î (IX. 795-796). Rather than worshipping the creator through his works, Adam and Eve are both guilty of seeing the maker entirely separated from the creation. This becomes a crucial distinction when they are removed from the Garden of Eden and must learn to honor God through his works alone.The ploughman in the simile represents different images of creators, including God as the ìdoubtingî creator of mankind. The ploughman has produced grain from the ground, just as God made man from clay, and both are now in the position of doubting the success of their creations. God and the ploughman are both separate from their creations, and neither can will that what they created fulfills its potential or grows to completion. While establishing a freedom of the created to partake in the fashioning of their own futures, this simile does not altogether disregard the dependency of the created on the creators. Just as Adam and Eve could not have made themselves, the field of grain is somewhat connected to the labor of the ploughman, creating a rather complicated attachment between the two. The ploughman worries that the grain will ìprove chaff.î The chaff refers to the outside of the grain, which must be discarded to release the fruitful core. God could also be said to doubt the harvest of the fruit of humanity. While he was able to create humans in his image and shape their physical selves, by endowing them with free will he has made it impossible to determine that their reason and morality come to fruition from within. There seems to come a point where the created must determine for themselves the future of their own development, and it is here that choice plays such a critical role. The figure of the ploughman can also be seen as a human figure of creation, which has been placed in the middle of a supernatural battle. He is a figure of labor, an act that man is made to do after his fall. Again, this image of the future does not mean the fall was inevitable, but offers an image of what man might be like should they survive their transgression. This human figure is still at risk during this book because the fall has not yet occurred and God has not yet proven he will be merciful in his punishment; therefore, not only is the ploughman’s harvest in doubt, but his existence is as well. The figure of human labor does serve as a suggestion that humans will be able to recuperate some of their grace even after they have sinned. God sentences mankind to labor as punishment for eating the fruit he had forbidden, but labor is also an opportunity to be a creative force. Unlike Satan, who seems focused only on destruction, the human ploughman remains a creator. Creation and creativity are important to Milton in the writing of this poem, and the human capacity to create is highlighted in this image. The statement that the ìploughman doubting standsî relates back to the idea that humans are ìsufficient to have stood, though free to fall.î Despite having fallen, the ploughman seems to represent the human capacity to find a new way of standing, gained perhaps through their new role as laborers and creators. The placement of this simile is also essential to its understanding. In terms of the physical text, the image of the human ploughman is placed between the images of the angels and Satan. This serves as a reminder that the future of humans is what the battle really concerns. This also refers to the idea of choice and how free will automatically calls future events into doubt. Because the future is not pre-ordained by God, this battle, as well as the rest, are significant. The future of humans is as much in doubt as is the harvest of the grain, and it is the image of the doubting ploughman placed between the warring figures that connect the tenuous fates of these two harvests.Finally, the ploughman as representative of Milton himself completes the image of both a creator and a postlapsarian human figure. Milton has created Paradise Lost, just as the ploughman planted and tended to his field of grain. Like other creators, Milton cannot ensure that the poem will be properly harvested. Milton uses epic similes like this one in part because he does not believe in being able to ìperfectlyî represent the acts of God, but must rely on comparisons and other images. By doing so, Milton cannot offer the readers the essence of what he is trying to convey, but only a comparative image of it. Therefore, Milton cannot ensure that the reader will be able to grasp the intended meaning behind his epic similes and Biblical expansions. This is not to say that the poem in itself is not incredible meaningful; only that the poem was not meant to stand alone, but to serve as some sort of creative elaboration on the Bible.God, who may be the ultimate Creator, is described both as ìAuthor of all beingî (III.374) and as a ìSovran planterî (IV.691). These descriptions combine the images of creation, writing, and planting, as they pertain much to the same ideas of fertility, maturation, and the relationship between the source of creation and the end product of the creative force. Milton uses the simile of the doubting ploughman to address these questions of the relationship between the creator and the created. Satan has chosen to turn away from his creator and seeks to provide all things for himself. In Hell he says the fallen angels should ìseek our own good from ourselves, and from our own live to ourselves Ö free, and to none accountable,î (II.252-255). The image of the ploughman is placed in the middle of a battle between Satan, who has abandoned his creator, and the angels, who continue to follow and defend him. The battle is between two of God’s creations, and the harvest in doubt is the existence of another. This image represents the role of free will, as the choices made by any of the parties involved, including the ploughman as a figure for man, can change future events. This suggests that as long as a creation has been endowed with free will, its continued survival is independent of its maker, and becomes the product of its own creative or destructive efforts.

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