John Milton's 1665 epic/religious poem, Paradise Lost, is often compared to the works of Homer, Vergil, and Ariosto. It certainly is the most ambitious epic poem extant in English, covering nearly 10,000 lines and twelve books (or parts) of poesy, but there is more than just mere length that makes Paradise Lost an enduring monument to English Renaissance literature. It also contains historical value, for its (limited) insight into mid-17th century religious attitudes, particularly during a time when the Puritan movement was fracturing into Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other Dissenters from the established Church of England. But even more than that, Paradise Lost is an oddity in which classical forms are followed slavishly, even when it might be odd to consider the role of the Muse in the world of the omnipotent and omnipresent triune God.That with no middle flight intends to soarAbove th'Anonian mount, while it pursuesThings unattempted yet in prose or rime.
Most readers of Paradise Lost focus their praise on the first two books and the depiction of the fallen Satan as a brooding, pre-Romantic anti-hero whose motivations we relate to and with which we perhaps may sympathize. Certainly there is something seductive about this bravado outburst in Book I:
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.
However, Milton's story is about more than just the insidiousness of evil and its desire to give full reign to ambition while forswearing any oaths of allegiance or servitude to God. Consider the opening remarks of God the Father to Christ the Son in Book III:
'Only-begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary? whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt, can hold; so bent he seems
On desperate revenge, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head.'
Here we begin to see the true conflict of the poem. It is not that of the rebel Satan fighting the good (evil?) fight against the heavenly despot, alluring as that chic image of a diabolic Che Guevara might be to many. Rather, the main conflict in Paradise Lost revolves around the frailty of those who desire to be free of the bonds they imagine enveloping themselves. Satan, in his desire to wreak havoc upon Creation during his descent from servant to covetous, rebellious outlaw, is to learn that all things, good and bad alike, only serve to reflect the greater glory. This is a troubling sentiment for many readers, both during Milton's day and today; God certainly appears at first glance to be callous toward humans and their suffering due to Adam's Sin.
However, when viewed as both a literal and metaphoric expression of Calvinist theology, Paradise Lost takes on a different shade of meaning. After the Fall, the poem does not content itself with alluding to the host of afflictions that torment humanity. Rather, as is the case in Book XI with the scenes involving Noah, the emphasis is on the Elect, those whom God has foreseen as being just and righteous and how it is through that mystery of grace that humanity comes eventually to the Redeemer. As a poetic presentation of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, Paradise Lost certainly captures the hopeful element of that theological school much more than the hell and brimstone sermons of a Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards could ever aspire to do.
This is not to say that Paradise Lost is free from deficiencies. Its structure certainly is unwieldy at times. Milton apes the mannerisms of the Classical poets to such a degree that his poetic metaphors clash with his religious theme. Often too much space transpires from the laudatory opening lines of several books to the actual thematic issues addressed later on in those Argument sections, resulting in muddled lines whose power is reduced by Milton's propensity to wax eloquent just a bit too long. This is especially evident in scenes such as the one late in Book III where he attempts to contrast humanity's failed attempts at reconciliation (such as the references to the Dominicans and Franciscans to underscore the faults of Catholicism) with the divine Will and Judgment. Milton frankly often takes too long to get to the point and several scenes meant to underscore the Divine plan for redemption suffer under the weight of the artificiality of poetic devices such as the raging of the muse, the in media res cutaway scenes, and the hearkening back to Classical poets, none of whom were Christians and whose works dealt with themes very different from those Milton essayed to cast into verse.
Yet despite these problems, Paradise Lost certainly packs a punch nearly 350 years after its initial publication. Next to the King James translation of the Bible, it perhaps was one of the most quoted English poems from the 17th century to influence English and American writers. Its synthesis of Classical poetic elements with Calvinist doctrine served to inspire generations of writers to seek out ways to weave elements of both into their own writings. Even today, in our much more secular age, Milton's poetry moves us because of how easily we can relate to several of the characters, from Satan to Adam and Eve. Paradise Lost may not be the easiest poem to read, especially when it comes to considering its thematic elements, but it certainly is a powerful work that serves as the epitome of 17th century English writing, particularly that of a religious bent.