Paradise Lost By John Milton Paradise Lost is a monumental epic poem in twelve books of blank verse. Paradise Lost is based on the Bible and other writings available in the Renaissance Era.
The Epic begins with Milton’s Intentions for “Paradise Lost.” As stated in the beginning of the first book of Paradise Lost, Milton’s intentions for writing his religious epic are to “assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men” (Book I, ll. 25-26). Milton’s audience, of course, is a fallen audience, like the narrator of the epic. Therefore, because the audience is essentially flawed there is a danger that we may not read the text as it was supposed to be read. Some may think Satan is the hero of the epic.
Others may tend to blame God for allowing the falls to occur. However, both of these readings are thoughtless and are not what Milton has explicitly intended. Therefore, to prevent these prodigious readings, Milton has cleverly interwoven a theme of personal responsibility for one’s actions throughout the epic. In this manner, Milton neutralizes God from any unfair blame, exposes Satan for the ill-Deceiver he is, and justifies the falls of both Angel and Man.
A careful reading by the post-lapsarian audience reveals the author’s intentions. First and foremost, Milton clears God’s supreme being from any suspicion of blame by post-lapsarian readers for “letting” the Angels rebel or Man eat of the forbidden fruit. Milton skillfully defends God’s knowledge in Book III, when God says to His Son, . . .
they [rebel angels] themselves decreed Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew, Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknow. [my bold] Book III, ll. 116-119 The concept of free-will is of utmost importance to God, and it is the key to justifying the falls and properly placing blame. Free-willing behavior is the wellspring of joy from which God drinks, but it is also the justification for His punishment against those who disobey His order.
As Milton continually notes, God takes His greatest pleasure in honoring and loving His faithful creations. Nowhere in the epic does Milton have God saying He thoroughly enjoys punishing the disobedient. Love, honor, and integrity are the main reasons that angels and men are manifested with the ability to freely choose their actions in the first place. As God rhetorically speaks of all of His creations in Book III, I made him [Man] just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail’d; Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love, Where only what they needs must do, appear’d, Not what they would do? what praise could they receive? What pleasure I from such obedience paid, When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice) Useless and vain, of freedom both despoil’d, Made passive both, had serv’d necessity, Not mee.
[my bold] Book III, ll. 98-111 God does not desire empty servitude. Forced praise, faithfulness, or adoration are empty and bordering with forced predestination: it obliterates free-will and any pleasure derived from it. Rather, God enjoys genuine love and honest faithfulness from His creations. The most obvious and deceitful sinner of God’s will is Satan. Milton portrays Satan as a seemingly powerful and noble character who claims to have been wrongfully mistreated by the Almighty.
His speech is loaded with appearance to reason and his arguments appear to be sound to the unobservant reader. One of many examples of his twisted speech occurs in the first book, in which Satan says, “Nor. . .do I repent or change, Though chang’d in outward luster; that fixt mind And high disdain, from sense of injur’d merit, That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend, And to the fierce contention brought along Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d That durst dislike his reign, and mee preferring, His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d In the dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav’n, And shook his throne. [my bold] Book I, ll.
95-105 Contrary to his speech, Satan’s was not mistreated by God, nor was his force numerous, nor was the outcome of the battle perplexed, and neither did they shake God’s mighty throne. Perhaps Milton purposely creates the persona of Satan as an attractive smooth conversationalist in order to show how easily one may be duped by seeming reason. However, an attentive and moral post-lapsarian reader, one of Milton’s “fit audience. ., though few” (Book VII, l. 31), will understand that Satan and his host fell from grace through their own folly. Even Satan himself momentarily admits this.
In a hesitant moment in Book IV, Satan finally admits that his fall is not God’s fault, but his own, and that the punishment he and his crew are suffering is just. This occurs at a pivotal point in the epic: Satan reaches the boundary of Eden and notices the splendor of the Sun, and he is self-debating about going through with his initial plan of deceiving man. He soliloquizes, O Sun,. .
.how I hate thy beams That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy Sphere; Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down Warring in Heav’n against Heav’n’s matchless Ah, wherefore! he deserv’d no such return From me, whom he created what I was In that bright eminence, and with his good Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. What could be less than to afford him praise, The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks, How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me. . . . [my bold] Book IV, ll.
38-49 In this vital passage, Satan, the ill-Deceiver and father of Sin, admits that he has fallen through his own pride and ambition. Just as important, Satan also sounds remorseful for rebelling against God, whose service is privately admitted as not difficult and justly due to God. Further in the same soliloquy he says, . . .but other Powers as great Fell not, but stand unshak’n, from within Or from without, to all temptations arm’d. Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand? Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse By Heav’n’s free Love dealt equally to all? Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will Chose freely what it now so justly rues. [my bold] Book IV, ll. 63-72 In this passage, Satan not only admits personal responsibility for his fall, but also validates the faithful angels’ reward for choosing to remain true to God. And finally, the Fiend admits that his punishment is just, thus approving God’s decision to cast them down from Heaven’s high walls. But Satan’s admittance of his fault should not be confused for repentance, the next step for achieving Divine Forgiveness.
Satan says there is no pardon . . .left but by submission; and that word Disdainforbids me, and my dread of shame Among the Spirits beneath. . .
. [my bold] Book IV, ll. 81-83 In conclusion, from the start Milton makes his intentions for Paradise Lost crystal clear. Milton intends to explain God’s Providence and His ways, not glorify Satan or shift the blame for the falls away from the individual and onto God.
Of course, there will always be the danger of a reader getting wrapped-up in the drama of the epic or misreading the author’s intentions, but through skillful descriptions, beneficial narrative tags, and striking comparison of scenes, Milton makes sure he aims the reader in the right direction. Bibliography Milton, John. Paradise Lost. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose.
Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957. pp.