Friday, August 21, 2015

An Epic that Challenges Humanity

Notes on Paradise Lost, II

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.    
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:         
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." 
(Paradise Lost, Book I, ll 254-263)

This week saw the anniversary of the day in 1667, when John Milton's Paradise Lost was entered in the Stationers' Register. The fifty-eight-year-old Milton was totally blind (probably from glaucoma) throughout the decade it took to write his epic; his habit was to compose at night and then present himself to a scribe each morning to be, as he put it, "milked." 

The epic was based on the earliest Hebrew creation myth, which opens the first book of the Torah.   That is the story of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the King James version which had been published only fifty-five years earlier in 1612.   This story of creation and Adam and Eve does not mention the fall, nor does it explain where the serpent came from when, in chapter three, he suddenly appears and whispers in Eve's ear.  One wonders what moved John Milton,  in the middle of the seventeenth century, to take this story and with it create an epic poem that rivals those of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Reading the poem one senses an attempt to educate the reader, to provide an awareness of the distance that separates man from God and from the innocence that once, however briefly, was his.  It uses the grandest terms to account for the key events:  the original rebellion of Satan and his followers against God, the creation of the human race to replace the fallen angels, the temptation of Eve by Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve and their resulting expulsion from Paradise, and the promise of eventual redemption for the now fallen human race by means of the Incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God.  This in outline form is the story that the epic poem tells. 

Milton's poetic telling has been controversial in its depiction of Satan as a compelling character.  He is intelligent, active and charming.  He is a true leader in the rebellion against God and when that fails he devises a brilliant plan to attack God's favorite's, Adam and Eve. And in this he succeeds; he shares his disobedience and deceit with man.   In all of this he is active with energy struggling to be free.  His opponent, the representative of goodness is passive.  Satan in his grandeur is sublime, yet we should not forget that he is also part of God's creation.  In a way this is a cosmic paradox, and that is another of the many themes that are found in Milton's epic poem.  Throughout the reader is presented with questions about the nature of God's creation and his knowledge, about the possibility of free will, about the nature of time and its relation to God and his creation.  In all of this paradoxes abound.   The Son was created by God, but he is present from the beginning.  Man is given a warning that he must not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil but he does so anyway.  And it is only after doing so that he gains knowledge of the meaning of what he had done, even as he is driven from Paradise.  Must we trade innocence for knowledge?  Is our life determined and our free will a chimera?  

Like all great works of literature Paradise Lost raises these questions and many more.  But it does not provide answers.  The reader must provide them for himself, or rather must consider the these issues in light of his own life.  If he is willing it will be part of his search for wisdom, his own attempt to examine what it means to be human.  I believe this last thought, what it means to be human, is the most important idea that Paradise Lost brings forth in its own epic way.


Brian Joseph said...

This epic does indeed raise so many issue relevant to being human. I think one could devout a lifetime of study to this work. I am sure that a few academics have.

James said...

It is certainly a challenging and wonderful poem to read and savor. The breadth of Milton's knowledge is impressive.

M. said...

Insightful commentary, as usual. An astonishing work, I agree. What, if anything, can you do with the elaborate metaphors that begin each book?

James said...

Thanks for your kind remark. As for the "elaborate metaphors" do you mean the arguments that introduce each book?
If so, the traditional explanation is that these arguments, which were added for the revised second edition of 1674 when Milton divided the original ten books into twelve, were added at the request of confused early readers. They give some indication of what Milton considered essential in each of the books, but I did not find them especially helpful.
Do you have any ideas about their purpose beyond this explanation?