The opening of “Paradise Lost” features the author stating his intent, his reason for creating. John Milton seeks to “justify the ways of God to men. ” The very notion is a huge undertaking, but is that Milton’s only reason for his grand retelling of Satan’s exile from heaven, it is possible that Paradise Lost is in some passages, autobiographical in nature? Paradise Lost may also serve in allegorical form as Milton’s confession of hubris, via his portrayal of Satan as an epic anti-hero and possible avatar of Milton himself.
John Milton had planned Paradise Lost for a long time, even before the advent of Cromwell’s Commonweath, but how much is autobiographical and who does Satan, the epic anti-hero represent over the 12 volumes? Milton’s characterization of God, poses other questions, Milton may be drawing parallels with himself and Oliver Cromwell in his depiction of God as aloof and detached. Perhaps it is as simple as the allegory for losing the possible paradise that Cromwell’s commonwealth could have delivered, but ultimately failed, coupled with the loss of his vision.Order now
Chapter One Commonwealth Lost Milton, a formidable critic of the state, launched many impassioned speeches against King Charles I prior and during the English Civil war. A fortnight after Charles’s beheading, Milton produced a pamphlet, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which Milton advocated the taking of the Kings Head and deconstructed the notion of ‘The Divine Right of Kings’. He asks that the populace trust their government, but not be afraid to question its decisions.
He asserts that Tyrants should be overthrown for the good of the people, rather than advocating Charles’s execution itself. He defended the right for the government to carry out the act, rather than the act itself. Milton’s case was not that Charles I was guilty as charged, but that Parliament had the right to prosecute him. 1 Milton laid out in the pamphlet a vision, his vision, for this new era for England; he defends the act of beheading and lays out groundwork for the future. In some interpretations, he describes his own interpretation of a ‘paradise’ state.
And surely they that shall boast, as we doe, to be a free Nation, and not have in themselves the power to remove, or to abolish any governour supreme, or subordinat, with the government it self upon urgent causes, may please thir fancy with a ridiculous and painted freedom, fit to coz’n babies; but are indeed under tyranny and servitude; as wanting that power, which is the root and source of all liberty, to dispose and œconomize in the Land which God hath giv’n them, as Maisters of Family in thir own house and free inheritance.
Without which natural and essential power of a free Nation, though bearing high thir heads, they can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves and vassals born, in the tenure and occupation of another inheriting Lord. Whose government, though not illegal, or intolerable, hangs over them as a Lordly scourge, not as a free government; and therfore to be abrogated. How much more justly then may they fling off tyranny, or tyrants; who being once depos’d can be no more the privat men, as subject to the reach of Justice and arraignment as any other transgressors.
It is then something of an irony that Milton became one of the foremost critics of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The new regime could be just as intolerant of free speech or any form of dissent as the previous. In November 1644, prior to the Kings execution in 1649, Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. It is a powerful defence of free speech, while also demonstrating that Milton may have perceived that his ‘Paradise’ is already on its way to being ‘Lost’.
For books are not absolutely dead things, but … do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men…. Yet on the other hand unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.
Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. Milton believed that writing, the construction of a book was as an extension of the author himself, and as Man was created by God, a book is a manifestation of the divine. By censoring a book, you are, by proxy, censoring God. Cromwell’s government had set up a board of censorship, requiring all printed works to be approved before publication, The Licensing Order of 1643.
Milton was not a complete libertarian, but was appalled by the very notion of censorship, resulting in a 24-line poem entitled on the new forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament that ends with the damming line “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large. ” In 1660, the Restoration bought the return of the Monarchy, Charles II, at the invitation of Government, resumed the throne. The Commonwealth, Milton’s somewhat tarnished ‘Paradise’ of state had ended, a grand experiment lost.
One of the restored King’s first acts was to execute or imprison those who had contributed to his father’s beheading. Milton, blind and without government position was imprisoned. His incarceration and blindness caused his contemporises to debate as to whether his misfortunes were a punishment from God due to his criticism of the state, both before and after the war, or as the consequence of his undying devotion to the divine. In both instances, his peers concluded that God, either through wrath or benignity had caused his eyesight to fade.
Milton’s fellow poet and contemporary, Andrew Marvell was also a politician, serving with Milton under Cromwell, who did succeed in his efforts to free Milton from prison, but even that boon was indicative of what could be considered Milton’s fall from grace. He was part of those who “reigned” in a heaven that eventually devolved into a personal hell, not just for Milton but those who felt that Cromwell was simply another variation on tyranny, King in all but name. He has arrogated to himself despotic authority and the actual sovereignty of these realms under the mask of humility and the public service….
Obedience and submission were never so manifest in England as at present,… their spirits are so crushed.. yet… they dare not rebel and only murmur under their breath, though all live in hope of the fulfilment one day of the prophecies foretelling a change of rule ere long. 4 The portrayal of God in Paradise Lost, is something of a kingly figure, a moral monarch, yet a detached one, removed from the basic needs of the populace, a deity who focuses on the big picture, rather than minutia.
In the wake of Cromwell’s death, Milton wrote nothing of the man he supported and served in Government. An oddity, as Milton considered Cromwell a friend and the best hope for England despite his criticism. The possibility exits that, rather than write about Cromwell in name; Milton transposed Cromwell’s facets into Paradise Lost and amalgamated them into the portrayal of God. In this way, Milton not only consolidates his faith in the divine even with its flaws of detachment and rigidity to its creations, but also his faith, in his friend, Cromwell.
God’s absence from the main thrust of the action in Paradise Lost, serves as allegory for Cromwell, who fought for the people, created a metaphoric Eden on the streets, before ascending to power, isolated from the needs of a people who no longer had direct access as Cromwell symbolically picks up the keys to Heaven. Milton sets out to “justify the ways of God to men,” but it is plausible he is also justifying the ways of Government, Tyrant Kings and would be Kings to the people, every flaw, and virtue embodied in the biblical pantheon. Chapter two:
Sound and visions. Milton wrote the majority of Paradise Lost while blind, he dictated daily until he was satisfied with his work. Milton had suffered from a gradual macular degeneration, possibly glaucoma, for most of his life and in the winter of either 1651 or 1652, while serving as Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Language, he lost his vision completely. Milton’s torture was not that he would lose his sight, but rather he would lose his ability to create, his personal link to the divine, was that both Milton and God were creators, artists.
Milton feared he would never be able to complete Paradise Lost and was failing the creator, the God who gave him his poetic talents in order to serve him. Milton now lived in a world of sound and touch, at night he composed, storing his verses in his memory before dictating twenty to thirty verses in the morning. The sound of his words, creating images that were then put to paper, visions through sightlessness.
Paradise Lost is an exceptionally aural piece of epic poetry, the author’s voice, unencumbered by standard written English, is allowed a sense of freedom, breaking standard rules, constructing an intimacy that may have been lacking otherwise. Milton, quite deliberately invokes the nature of the original dictation of the Bible via secondary sources, most of which were part of an oral history passed on from disciple to disciple, as such Milton also adopted the role of preacher. The intimacy is pronounced most clearly, when Milton addresses ‘The Light’ in Book Three, sometimes referred to as “The Prologue of Light”.
Milton addressed his lack of vision not as a burden or a cry for pity, but rather as a symbol, a metaphor for the gifts that God has bestowed upon him once again, introspection, and the jettisoning of vanity. In Milton’s terms, God is light, not in the physical sense, but the metaphysical, the path to spiritual enlightenment via a light that only he can perceive, due to being blind in the physical world. In God’s light, he can see beyond earthly limitations without the distraction of physical sight. So much the rather thou celestial light Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell Of things invisible to mortal sight. 5 Milton was both poet and scholar, well versed in the classical texts of the Greek and Roman canon, and it is not difficult to surmise that he saw himself as a modern poetic hero in a similar tradition. He would certainly be aware of the mythical Greek poet Thamyris, who in a similar vein to Paradise Lost fashioned an epic poem detailing the war between The Titans and The Ancient Gods. It is in Milton’s evocation of Thamyris, that we gain a better understanding of Milton.
His own personal fears, along with the beliefs that helped overcome them. In Myth, Thamyris boasted of “outsinging” the muses. In contest, he wagered not just his talent, but also his eyesight, a contest he lost. Milton sees himself in the same mould as Thamyris in allusion, which serves to remind the reader of the consequences of arrogance, but also to emphasis the difference between a divine punishment and a blessing. Milton in verse, details his belief that his lack of sight allows the muse, the divine light of the Holy Spirit to visit him every night, shaping his words for dictation at the dawn.
The act of writing itself, the act of poetic creation has become a spiritual experience for Milton, one that verges on hallucinogenic fervour. If answerable style I can obtain Of my celestial Patroness who deigns Her nightly visitation unimplor’d And dictates to me slumb’ring. 6 Despite all that he has lost, his position, his physical sight, Milton, in the narrator’s voice of Paradise Lost has gained a better understanding of both his craft, and faith. The loss of vision, although grieved for, is not the ‘Paradise lost’ in his life, but a bridge found to continue his spiritual odyssey, shorn of the mundane sights of the earthly world.
It can be considered a form of arrogance, similar to Thramyris, but inverted. Milton does not seek to ‘outsing’ the muses, but to join them and surpass not just his own mortality, but also that of other poets. It is entirely possible, that Milton as narrator is not just an inverted Thamyris, but that his physical embodiment in Paradise Lost is the rebellious Satan? Chapter 3: Satan’s advocate. The most well rounded, relatable character in Paradise Lost is Satan, who also stands as the most sympathetic.
Satan took on the impossible task, he thought to overthrow God and was imprisoned for it, waking up, chained to a lake aflame, it is difficult not to draw parallels with Milton’s own incarceration. The Royal line he had thought to overthrow, and only temporally succeeded, had returned in the guise of Charles the Second. The Son had returned to carry out his father’s vengeance. The character of the ‘Son’ in Paradise lost, an incarnation of Christ before he descends to be born on earth, is the one who finally defeats Satan during the War in Heaven.
The entirely of the War in Heaven does bare a striking resemblance to the events of the English Civil War(s) and The Restoration. The ‘Son’ is not just a character, but also the embodiment of the theological idea of the word of God, an extension of the divine line. And thou my Word, begotten Son, by thee This I perform, speak thou, and be it done So spake the almighty, and to what he spake His Word, the filial Godhead, gave effect. 7 Milton suggests that the bloodline is essentially one being, one institution with different facets, such as a government or any ruling body.
Both Charles the First and Second represent the same body of state, one that Milton actively opposed in the past, but now sees as being too powerful to defeat indefinitely. The War in Heaven was a destabilisation of the status quo, which was, after an interim, re-established or restored. This supports the notion that Cromwell, despite being amalgamated into the character of God as a boring, aloof figure of authority with contradictory artistic tendencies, is also amalgamated into the ‘Son’ as a noble sacrificial Hero who seeks to restore balance.
There is also a duality, as the same can be said of Charles the Second. Could Milton be suggesting that Cromwell and the line of Kings He temporary deposed were not dissimilar after all? Ultimately, was Cromwell, as the old saying suggests ‘corrupted absolutely’? This also adds credence to the notion of Satan as Milton’s avatar. The War in Heaven is barely touched upon in The Bible, allowing Milton freedom to draw parallels with events he lived through, without directly alluding to them.
Another argument could be that, the amalgamation of characters, the shared traits is a call for reconciliation, his own personal restoration, and recognition that wounds have to be healed despite his own fall from a metaphoric heaven. The strongest argument lies in the presentation of Satan himself, the reader has to ask themselves if they are being seduced by the villain, or is Milton suggesting that he had been seduced by not only his own faith, his arrogance, but also his desire to reshape the world alongside those who shared his beliefs.
Milton’s use of language specifically that ascribed to Satan carries a duality. This likable anti-hero seduces with his grandiose speeches and ambitions, but these words of intense manipulation are from Milton, the author sets a series of linguistic traps for the reader, addressing their own morality. The reader is tempted to sympathise early on as Satan, having just been defeated delivers a speech designed to manipulate his fellow fallen angels to continue serving him. Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,’ Said then the lost Archangel, ‘this the seat hat we must change for Heaven? –this mournful gloom for that celestial light?
Be it so, since he Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid What shall be right: farthest from him is best Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields, Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! Hail, Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell, Receive thy new possessor–one who brings A mind not to be changed by place or time. 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; th’ 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 . 8 Milton’s Satan is an accomplished liar, who manipulates and abuses language itself to further his own needs, The Tempter as Milton refers to him is a gifted orator who advocates in the famous line, that being free in Hell, is superior to being chained in Heaven.
This is despite the fact that, the angels have lost their home, their positions and in being denied God, their light. Satan actively advocates that his fallen flock should ‘hail horrors’ as virtue as they are now seen as ‘fiends’. Despite his words of manipulative comfort, Satan can never forget the Paradise he lost, which to Satan is a reality that endures, for Milton the Paradise of the Commonwealth did not endure, yet its possibilities linger in Milton’s memory.
Once the realities of living in Hell are fully realised to Satan he feels no comfort, and confronts his own impossible desires to return to Heaven. Satan’s desire for vengeance, even an impossible one, reveals some of Milton’s own thought process towards The Royal Bloodline. At first, Satan believed that God sat upon his throne via ‘old repute and custom’ (639-640). After his failed rebellion, he discovers that God Merely hid his strength and Satan has deceived himself. Milton is reluctantly confessing to pride through Satan’s realisation, his own and Cromwell’s.
Satan at this point represents an amalgamation of Milton and Cromwell in a similar fashion to God and the Son. Milton uses Satan, not just as a physical shape shifter, but also as a twisted reflection of the ideologies of the Angelic characters, combined with their real world counterparts. Satan, ironically is literally Devil’s advocate. The fourth book of Paradise Lost reveals the heart of Satan, encapsulating both he and Milton’s view on free will, harking back to Areopagitica. The lines, sixty-six through to eighty, argue against predestination.
Milton, via Satan’s voice, great orator, and wordsmith combined, accepts the consequences of his own actions. Author and character share a moment of clarity, while giving meaning to each other. The duality of Milton, speaking through his character, not only to himself, his character and to his audience is evident here. Through the imagery evoked during the soliloquy, the argument for free will is debated and given life by Milton’s use of enjambment and end-stopped lines. The cadence gives the reader a sense of frantic energy, but also a sense of intense melancholy.
Enjambment suggests that the individual aspects of the debate are designed as a form of seclusion, while stimulatingly elevating Satan’s grudges against God. Satan begins with a question; “Hadst thou the free will and power to stand? ” The question, once again contains a duality, perhaps a trinity. The question is not just from Milton, but also to Milton, and to Satan doubting himself; thirdly, the question is aimed at the reader. The design of using end-stops in the formation of the question renders it absolute, even if the answer is not.
The question is a solid object, the answer, individual to the reader, who focuses solely on the question itself. This allows the topic of free will, and Satan’s doubt over having it, a major component of Book four. Naturally, the eloquent Satan answers his own question in the following line, where “Thou Hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse, But Heav’n’s free love dealt equally to all? ” (67-68) It is interesting to note, that Milton begins this answer, with a spondee, stretching the syllables just as Satan stretches for his answer, ironically in the form of another question.
Satan, for all his cunning, is bewildered, and the use of enjambment, spondees and end-stops emphasis this within a powerful character moment. Eventually, Milton allows Satan to answer the question in full. Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate, To me alike, it deals eternal woe. 9 The end of the enjambment signals not just the answer, but also Satan’s realisation that while he reigns in Hell, it is still a hell. Milton’s use of enjambment here is another example of duality; it emphasizes the notion that God’s love and the love of God can be regarded as a curse. Conclusion:
Paradise Lost is an inordinately complex feat of work, incorporating classical myths, overt biblical allusions, epic yet flawed heroes and for all its density, remains hugely accessible. Milton hid his own personal history and that of his country in a time of upheaval. It stands as a remarkable piece of epic poetry that rivals the Greco-Roman canon, social history as well as a confessional satire. Milton in the pages of Paradise Lost has split himself into three, a poet’s trinity. Milton creates; he is the God of his writing and all the character he deems to inhabit, he is also the ‘word’, for in the naming of things, he creates.
Finally, he is ‘The Son’ as in the writing of Paradise Lost, in all its multiple interpretations and hidden confessions, he seeks to unify and heal. The choice of Satan as his main device to confess is an intriguing one. It suggests that, while Milton is the God of his world, he may well be Satan in the physical world and seeks redemption, vengeance, and acceptance. This suggests that Milton and the entirely of humankind are infinitely complex, much like God, but in tandem, unable to understand themselves completely, nor the actions of God.
In Book Seven of Paradise Lost, he admits to only having a mortals ability to comprehend the world and the actions of God. Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole, More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang’d To hoarce or mute, though fall’n on evil dayes, On evil dayes though fall’n, and evil tongues;10 It is not an admission of failure, but rather a declaration of misunderstanding and of not being able to fully understand, not just God but the evil of the worlds and to paraphrase, of good men who do nothing, mute, silent on evil days.
Yet, he is safe with his mortal voice. Milton’s exists in elements of all the characters spotlighted, but Satan stands as his prominent avatar, his main mode of confession. The similarities in deed and character are too numerous to discount. Milton, through the avatar of Satan is warning the reader of several issues that, arguably he faced himself. Despite the religious fervour, he appears to show in his nightly dictation from the holy muse, he warns against fanatical devotion to a cause and asks the reader to engage in critical thinking, without losing sight of their faith.
He advocates free will, alongside the acceptance and the malleability of your actions. Satan may have fallen, but in similar fashion to Milton, he exploited his new situation, moulding it to his needs. Milton also emphasises, that free will, still exists, even after you have dealt with the consequences of your actions. In Satan’s case, he chooses vengeance, alongside acceptance. Milton chooses acceptance, but also a form of vengeance in the construction of Paradise Lost. Despite the fall, Satan is still Satan, and Milton is still Milton, flaws and all, defiant to the last verse.
Entire text of Paradise Lost online at:
Entire text of Areopagitica Online at:
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Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
Rosenfeld, Nancy. The Human Satan in Seventeenth-Century English Literature: From Milton to Rochester. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
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