When Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message”, he clearly defined the concept that the literary intent of a writer is inherently embedded in the way that the message is presented. Therefore, a scholar must study the form of the writing in order to completely understand the message, not just the conflicts and resolutions presented in a given story. It is clear that in Paradise Lost, John Milton’s literary objective was to create an English version of the classical Greek or Latin epic poem. However, through his use of “modern” poetic form, theological and philosophical arguments, and literary devices regarding both character and plot development, Milton intends to break with ancient tradition and surpass both the scope and the manner of the classical masters to glorify both God and himself as a writer.

Similar to the works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid, Milton uses poetic form to cradle his story, but allows himself free verse as opposed to one of the traditional forms, such as the rhyming dactylic hexameter of Virgil’s Aeneid or Ovid in Metamorphoses. This may be one of the devices Milton uses to make the work more “English” rather than classical in his sense of the word. There are many other devices Milton uses to distinguish his work from those ancient classics, which begins with his semi-traditional opening:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, / till one greater Man / Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat… (I: 1-5)

Milton is telling the reader exactly the subject of his work. However, other than the word “Eden”, he gives no specific description of who or what he will write about; rather, these are richer, more poetic allusions to Adam, the apple, the fall, and even Christ, the savior.

Milton then makes the traditional appeal to the muse: “Sing, Heavenly Muse, / that, on the secret top / Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire / That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed”. (I: 6-8) However, Milton is not calling on Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry, but rather the “Heavenly Muse”. In this context, he is referring to the Judeo tradition of God commanding Moses to write the “ten commandments” to inspire him in the same way. This language seems to be carefully chosen not only to clearly reference Yahweh, the all-powerful Judaic divinity, but to link Milton to Moses in the sense of writing some powerful words that are intended to instruct and guide Mankind. The use of this powerful link in a subtle manner gives the reader the impression that Milton is indeed in some way the voice of God in this work.

From the very beginning, Milton has used both modern poetic form and Judeo-Christian references, as opposed to Greek or Roman mythology, to frame his work. While it may be argued that those mythologies were the existing form of religion of the day, it soon becomes clear that Milton distinguishes both the “true” religious nature of his work and the heights to which he wishes to soar theologically and literarily: “That with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” (I: 14-16)

There is nothing “middling” in his intent. Milton’s work will soar above both the mythological stories of classical Greece and Rome (the reference to Mount Helicon where the Muses were thought to live) as well as the literary efforts of those classical writers. In a literary sense this might seem terribly presumptuous to put himself above such immortal writers, but in the ultra-pious atmosphere of Oliver Cromwell’s England, Milton seems to be reflecting the disdain for the pagan beliefs and writings of that era, while still embracing some semblance of the epic poem. This pious spirit is reflected in the lines:

And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure, Instruct me, “And chiefly... instruct me” / for Thou know’st … / what in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support… (I: 17-23)

In this good Christian tradition, it is not surprising that Milton immediately paints Satan in a negative light: “Who first seduced them to that foul revolt? / The infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile, / Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived / The mother of mankind….” (I: 33-36) The careful choice of such words as “seduced”, “foul”, “infernal”, “guile”, “envy”, “revenge” and “deceived” in one brief passage stirs up a strong, pathos-evoking picture of Satan. In this simple manner, Milton also introduces a strong element of suspense into the plot: we are given both the supposed antagonist and a foreshadowing of the motivation for the ensuing actions. Shortly after this, Milton explains why Satan tricked Eve to gain revenge, why he wanted revenge, and how this particular action would antagonize God.

There is one last observation to make on Milton’s introduction, concerning the way he ends it. “That, to the height of this great argument, / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” (I: 24-27) First, he is telling us that he is putting the final touch on this ancient story by answering this “great argument”. Second, Milton is actually claiming that he is able to clarify to Mankind how benevolent God is, and to “justify the ways of God to men”. This incredible assertion seems even more arrogant that his proclaimed superiority over Homer, Virgil and Ovid, as well as other ancient writers, in that he is clearly stating that his work will be the definitive answer to an old theological question (fate vs. free will) as well as a “justification” of the ways of God, as if He needed it. This seems a very bold challenge to Milton’s powers as a writer, as the reader is now waiting for such a monumental feat to be accomplished, as opposed to the previous subtle suggestion that Milton was acting as the voice of God.

Milton now switches to the story itself. In the “narrative technique”, great writers provide graphic scenes from the very beginning of a story in order to capture the reader’s attention immediately, and continue to imbue the plot with concrete, vivid descriptions that hold their audience both visually and emotionally. Milton is a master at creating these verbal images that “show” us what going on with his characters and the action rather than “telling” in a dispassionate, expository manner.

Rather than take the biblical events in a chronological order, Milton will: “say first what cause / Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state, / Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off / From their Creator, and transgress his will….” (I: 27-31) This technique of jumping directly into the action, or “medias res”, is extremely popular today, as it presents action, conflict and character motivation immediately. This creates tension in the story, which further draws the reader in.

However, the greatest part of the suspense of a story derives from the conflict of the protagonist and the antagonist: the reader decides fairly early on whom to root for, and we follow the plot in order to see what great travails the “hero” must overcome in order to defeat the “villain”. Although the story may be well known, in some ways Milton actually keeps the reader guessing as to who is the real hero of this version, in a somewhat surprising contradiction to his early portrayal of Satan. Some scholars claim that Satan is actually the hero because of the background Milton gives us and his conflicting emotions during the “seduction”, while some say it is God due to Milton’s “justification” statement, and yet others insist it is Adam, who represents the common Man.

After learning of Satan’s disgrace and the pit into which he and his followers have been flung, Milton divulges some knowledge of Satan’s character through his address to Beëlzebub:

All is not lost-- the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield: / And what is else not to be overcome. / That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace / With suppliant knee, and deify his power / Who, from the terror of this arm, so late / Doubted his empire-- that were low indeed; / That were an ignominy and shame beneath / This downfall…. (I: 106-115)

This is a very mixed version of Satan, one who recognizes the folly of his action—primarily through underestimating God’s power—and deeply regrets his current circumstances. Yet he describes what might be considered admirable qualities in someone defeated: an unconquerable will, courage, and such pride as would never allow him to “bow and sue for grace”. Satan does not attempt to justify his actions, merely regrets that he failed to usurp the throne. This is the portrait of any strong-willed, ambitious general, not necessarily a purely evil, malicious devil.

In addition, the biblical version of the fall is strictly one of a generous God whose creation, being fallible and impetuous, brings the consequences of their poor use of free will upon their own head. In Milton’s version, there is a great argument as to whether or not God’s awareness of the inevitable means that He has pre-doomed Mankind, or whether He truly granted free will, but in His omnipotence foresees that mere mortals must inevitably succumb to their carnal desires. As part of a long speech to Jesus—essentially a soliloquy—God seems to go to great lengths to justify his “blamelessness” in the matter:

[Satan goes] Directly towards the new-created World, / And Man there placed, with purpose to assay / If him by force he can destroy, or, worse, / By some false guile pervert: and shall pervert; / For Man will hearken to his glozing lies, / And easily transgress the sole command, / Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall

He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault? / Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have; I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. / Such I created all the Ethereal Powers / And Spirits, both them who stood and them who failed; / Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. / Not free, what proof could they have given sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love, / Where only what they needs must do appeared, / Not what they would? 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 despoiled, / Made passive both, had served Necessity, / Not Me? They, therefore, as to right belonged / So were created, nor can justly accuse

Their Maker, or their making, or their fate, / As if Predestination overruled / Their will, disposed by absolute decree / Or high foreknowledge. They themselves decreed / Their own revolt, not I. If I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had no less proved certain unforeknown. / So without least impulse or shadow of fate, / Or aught by me immutably foreseen, / They trespass, authors to themselves in all, / Both what they judge and what they choose; for so / I formed them free, and free they must remain / Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change / Their nature, and revoke the high decree / Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained / Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall. (III: 89-119)

It is difficult to imagine a truly omnipotent Supreme Being needing to explain to anyone why it’s not His fault that Mankind slipped in spite of everything that He had done for them. Yet the repetitive and certainly defensive tone of this speech begs the question of whether or not God “doth protest too much”. Therefore, Milton is obviously taking pains to create rather complex characters, rather than the purely “good” or “evil” versions many Christians may envision.

In Book V, the angel Raphael comes to explain to Adam and Eve all about knowledge, and the difference between what they are allowed to know and what they are not allowed to know or experience. In Book VIII, lines 50-65, however, Eve chooses to wander away before the long speech about the greatness of the creator and the differences between Heaven and the earth. Milton tells us that “Her husband the relater she preferred / Before the Angel”, which might lead one to believe that she found an angel quite boring compared with her husband’s “discourse”. This very interesting glimpse of Eve leads one to wonder if that is the actual case, or if Milton did not consider women to be bright enough to follow theological conversations, or if the knowledge about knowledge should be limited to men, or exactly what the author meant to achieve by this incident. Whatever the reason, Milton certainly piques the curiosity through this mystifying ploy, and gives some insight into his own opinion about the intelligence of women.

At any rate, he certainly bounces around in the story rather than following a logical plot progression. In mixing up the narrative, Milton not only gets readers into that argument about knowledge that he promised, but deliberately muddles cause and effect, as well as character motivation, in relation to the battle for the rule of humans fought between Heaven and Hell. In this manner, Milton constantly twists the argument one way and then the other, causing one to wonder who is the protagonist and who the antagonist, and how things might have been had the main characters taken a course other than what they did.

One prime example of this is in Book 9. After a long search across the earth, Satan sees his opportunity to gain his revenge against God through this new this new “favourite / Of Heaven, this Man of Clay”. (IX: 144-145) Patiently waiting, Satan comes upon Eve alone, and contemplates his revenge. However, her perfections hold him spell-bound for a moment:

Her heavenly form / Angelic, but more soft and feminine, / Her graceful innocence, her every air / Of gesture or least action, overawed / His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved / His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought. / That space the Evil One abstracted stood / From his own evil, and for the time remained / Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed, / Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge. / But the hot hell that always in him burns, / Though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight… (IX: 457-468)

Again, through his word choice, his elegant, poetic description, and his complex character development, Milton creates a tension that is not shown in the traditional Biblical depiction of the story. Milton showed that Satan had doubts and second thoughts about his evil intent when he first saw Eve in Eden: all of the previously good in his nature momentarily overwhelms the current evil of his existence. This adds another dimension to the traditional plot because we can see that Satan’s conflicted thought processes are crucial to adding that element of suspense in that, just for an instant, we are not sure if he actually is going follow through with his plan to tempt Eve ... even though we know that is the inevitable outcome.

At this point, Milton goes very much back to the tradition of the classical epic tale. In his attempt to tempt Eve, Satan exhibits the same trick as the Greek and Roman gods used when they desired a mortal female, and Milton uses those same allusions to describe the process:

… not those that in Illyria changed / Hermione and Cadmus, or the God / In Epidaurus; nor to which transformed / Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline, was seen, / He with Olympias, this with her who bore / Scipio, the highth of Rome. With tract oblique / At first, as one who sought access but feared / To interrupt, sidelong he works his way. / As when a ship, by skilful steersman wrought / Nigh river's mouth or foreland, where the wind / Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail, / So varied he, and of his tortuous train / Curled many a wanton wreath in sight of Eve, / To lure her eye. (IX: 505-518)

Milton brings in numerous references to Greek and Roman mythology, invoking the beauty and charm of these mythical characters to describe Satan’s transformation, and uses an involved metaphor to explain how he approached Eve and captured her awed attention. Milton is relying on the classical knowledge of his audience to create powerful images, and set the mood that will make the seduction seem highly plausible. Both physically and in his character, Satan presents a dichotomy through these literary devices.

In somewhat of the same manner, Milton confounds the reader as to the nature of God when He tells his remaining host:

I told ye then he should prevail, and speed / On his bad errand-- Man should be seduced, / And flattered out of all, believing lies / Against his Maker; no decree of mine, / Concurring to necessitate his fall… (X: 38-44)

This seemingly contradictory statement begs many questions. Satan already described how all-powerful God was in defeating the rebellious angels, and Raphael described God’s powers of creation. God predicted that Satan would tempt Adam and Eve, and that they would succumb to his lies about God. In His omnipotence, what was to prevent God from keeping Satan securely down in Hell, or at least warning the humans of what Satan would try? If their fall was indeed inevitable, then must that not have been part of God’s plan for Mankind, meaning that by not taking action He was indeed responsible for the consequences? Why would God allow Satan to get his revenge at the cost of the innocence of His children?

Then, when God confronts Adam, Milton presents us with a much more human conflict: where to cast the blame. Or perhaps the same conflict, although God has several times denied that he is in the least to blame. Adam recognizes that he has three options: he has to take the fall, the punishment has to be shared, or he will have to try to shift it all onto poor Eve, although he knows that is not fair. Nevertheless, he finally tells God:

This Woman, whom thou mad'st to be my help, / And gav'st me as thy perfect gift, so good, / So fit, so acceptáble, so divine, / That from her hand I could suspect no ill, / And what she did, whatever in itself, / Her doing seemed to justify the deed-- / She gave me of the Tree, and I did eat." (X: 137-143)

What is interesting about this is that Adam actually understands his culpability in the matter, and feels guilty about blaming Eve. However, not once does Milton describe God in this conflicted manner. Every time God considers the blame, He thunderously puts it all on human frailty, barely even condemning Satan, as it is in Satan’s evil nature to have sought his revenge in such a slimy manner. Once He hears from Eve that Satan was the tempter (even though He predicted this all along!), God condemns Satan to be an eternal snake in the grass, to be hated by all women and their seed.

Whether or not John Milton succeeded in exceeding the work of his epic predecessors, and especially in “justifying God” to Mankind, can be argued by great scholars. However, it is evident that in emulating many of the techniques and devices of epic poetry, yet transposing the style, the syntax, and many of the literary devices, Milton indeed succeeded in creating the first great English epic. His clever use of narrative structure, complex character development, and convoluted theological and philosophical arguments, all served to carry the suspense in a story that is well known to virtually everyone in the Western world. In Milton’s case, perhaps the medium became much more than the message.


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