My essay analysis focuses on Paradise Lost by John Milton. I aim to investigate three key ideas that emerged in the 17th century and are prominently depicted in Milton’s work: man, nature, and experience. This century witnessed an intensified examination of numerous matters such as religion, politics, power, and freedom, which had been raised since the Reformation. Born in London in 1608 during England’s peak Protestant Reformation period, Milton encapsulates these themes within Paradise Lost.
Having converted from Roman Catholicism, Milton’s father raised him as a Protestant with a strong affinity towards Puritanism. He displayed exceptional proficiency in languages such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, along with classical studies. In his dedication to Puritanism, Milton set aside poetry for more than 20 years to write political and religious pamphlets. He even served as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Cromwell at one point. As a result of the mixed influences he encountered during his time, Milton embodied the spirit of his era. On one hand, he embraced humanism by advocating for religious tolerance and emphasizing the inherent worth of humanity.
As a puritan, Milton believed that the Bible was the ultimate answer and guidance in all matters. When the Bible did not provide an answer, he would resort to reason. After the war, he was briefly imprisoned for his beliefs. By 1660, he emerged blind and disillusioned with the state of England. In 1674, Milton passed away due to kidney failure and was laid to rest in the church of SST. Giles in London. His masterpiece is considered to be Paradise Lost, an epic biblical poem. It is significant as it combines the epic, traditionally associated with humans, with religion, which is linked to God.
All the texts written before Milton focused on politics (king) or religion (God), but now there is something new emerging: the individual and their personal experience. Paradise Lost is composed in blank verse, as this was the only way for the author to authentically convey his experience (realism) in his writing. The option for rhyme is abandoned because it hinders the process of perception. The poet no longer seeks to find a word that rhymes with the previous one, as that may not be the word that truly expresses what he feels.
The poet has more freedom in expressing his feelings through the use of blank verse, which may symbolize the freedom that Milton defended during his time. Milton adopted a Latin syntax that allowed him to create his own syntax. This usage demonstrates his influence from classical poets and suggests that the English language was not yet prioritized. In this epic poem, the hero (God) represents righteousness while the antihero (Satan) embodies evil. Both main characters, Dan and Satan, are disobedient and revolutionary, resulting in their punishment.
The evil characters are more credible than those who represent the right side. Satan’s character can depict two different types of people. Firstly, Satan can be likened to the monarchs who ruled during the 17th century. According to Million, they were tyrants who were destroying England and only concerned about their own interests: Honor and Empire with revenge enlarged, conquering this new world. Thus, the Fiend is fake, and with insufficient evidence, the tyrants excuse his devilish actions. Secondly, Satan can be associated with Milton himself, as both were disobedient and revolutionary.
Milton was considered a heretic, rejecting the Trinity, bishops, and advocating for divorce, freedom of the press, and regicide. Similarly to Satan seeking revenge on God through cunning rather than force, Milton wrote political and religious pamphlets promoting Puritanism and denouncing societal corruption. William Blake’s portrayal of Milton in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell suggests that being aligned with Satan is a desirable quality for a true poet. In the poem’s conclusion, Satan returns to Hell in triumph, symbolizing both the perpetual existence of tyranny and the potential success of pursuing one’s desires without succumbing to persuasion. Dan and Eve’s characters embody societal expectations of men and women.
Both Dan and Eve possess distinct qualities. Dan is praised for his strength and intellect, while Eve is celebrated for her perfect femininity as an ideal companion. Unfortunately, Eve is often blamed for the downfall of man due to her weakness and susceptibility to temptation. While these beliefs may be viewed as sexist, they align with the prevailing attitudes of Puritan England and much of the world during that era. It perpetuates the notion of inequality between genders, akin to the concept of the Third Estate not being equal to women. However, both Dan and Eve were created with specific purposes. Dan was created for contemplation and valor, while Eve was created for beauty and graceful feet. Dan exists solely for God, whereas Eve exists for God within him. The theme of nature also holds significance in Paradise Lost.
In book IV, Milton provides a detailed depiction of Eden, a flawless and beautiful place that stands in stark contrast to the turbulent periods of the English Civil War, Cromwell Republic, and the Restoration in 1660, which Milton personally experienced. By introducing Satan into the Garden, Milton suggests that even nature can be corrupted by evil: “So clomp this first grand Thief into Gods Foul: So fence into his Church lewd Hirelings climbed. Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life, Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life Thereby regained, but fat devising Death To them who lie’/d.”
Heaven has built walls to keep out Satan, but he has now entered. The closing scene of Paradise Lost is hopeful, showing that something good can come from loss. As Adam and Eve walk together towards the future, the loss of Paradise is seen as a gain for humanity. Now, man has the ability to choose his own path and improve his future. They journey through Eden hand in hand, with faith and Providence to guide them.
This is the first time we can empathize with the characters in an epic poem. In Paradise Lost, there are characters who oppose authority, just like in Milton’s time when he was against King Charles l. Therefore, we can see Paradise Lost as not only reflecting a biblical story, but also the author’s personal experiences. The theme of the fall goes beyond being a national epic and allows the poet to explore the concepts of freedom, free will, and individual choice.