John MiltonS Paradise Lost Essay Research Paper

John Milton`s Paradise Lost Essay, Research Paper

Paradise Lost is an epic – poem based on the Biblical story of Adam end Eve. It

attempts to justify and explain how we came to be what we are today. The central

question to Paradise Lost is " where does evil comes from?" Throughout

the poem we receive information about the origin of evil. At the beginning of

John Milton’s work we are given the Biblical explanation, of Adam and Eve eating

from the tree of knowledge and being expelled from the Garden of Eden. This was

man’s first disobedience, which brought him mortality, and at the same time this

first act gave source to all evil. This was the effect of ambition. Adam end Eve

both ate the apple from the tree in order to achieve a level of knowledge

compatible to God’s. The same way according to Paradise Lost, Satan is also

known to be the source of evil. Satan was sent to Hell as cause of ambition. For

the second time ambition and the desire to become more powerful or

knowledgeable, was the basis of evil. Satan challenged God, and was condemned to

evil. "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell,

a Hell of Heaven". Hell is clearly a state of mind. According to the

non-physical aspects of Hell described at the end of the poem, one can conclude

even from the quote mentioned above, that Hell is what we think of it to be. Can

the human exploration for answers, ambition for knowledge, and curiosity reach a

level that then threatens humans themselves? The answer to this question is YES!

If we examine subjects such as human cloning, nuclear weapons and medicine there

may be different responses. My personal feeling is that anything that alters, or

changes life itself, in exception to medicine, is not to be studied nor

developed. We humans are curious, and this is simply innate. We will continue to

ask questions and explore even outside of our world. I believe we humans, do not

have the power to create nor destroy life, by any other means than normal sexual

creation and accidental death. I feel medicines are a positive element and part

of our lives because medicine does not threaten the lives of others, unlike

nuclear weapons and cloning. Furthermore medicines ameliorate our lifestyles.

Does nuclear destruction and radiation do the same? aradise Lost is one of the

finest examples of the epic tradition in all of literature. In composing this

extraordinary work, John Milton was, for the most part, following in the manner

of epic poets of past centuries: Barbara Lewalski notes that Paradise Lost is an

"epic whose closest structural affinities are to Virgil’s Aeneid . . .

"; she continues, however, to state that we now recognize as well the

influence of epic traditions and the presence of epic features other than

Virgilian. Among the poem’s Homeric elements are its Iliadic subject, the death

and woe resulting from an act of disobedience; the portrayal of Satan as an

Archillean hero motivated by a sense of injured merit and also as an Odyssean

hero of wiles and craft; the description of Satan’s perilous Odyssey to find a

new homeland; and the battle scenes in heaven. . . . The poem also incorporates

a Hesiodic gigantomachy; numerous Ovidian metamorphoses; an Ariostan Paradise of

Fools; [and] Spenserian allegorical figures (Sin and Death) . . . . (3) There

were changes, however, as John M. Steadman makes clear: The regularity with

which Milton frequently conforms to principles of epic structure make his

occasional (but nevertheless fundamental) variations on the epic tradition all

the more striking by contrast. The most important departures from epic

decorum–the rejection of a martial theme, and the choice of an argument that

emphasizes the hero’s transgression and defeat instead of celebrating his

virtues and triumphs–are paradoxically conditioned by concern for the ethical

and religious decorum of the epic genre. On the whole, Milton has retained the

formal motifs and devices of the heroic poem but has invested them with

Christian matter and meaning. In this sense his epic is . . . something of a

"pseudomorph"–retaining the form of classical epic but replacing its

values and contents with Judeo-Christian correlatives. (Epic and Tragic

Structure . . . 20) Steadman goes on to defend Milton’s changes in the form of

the epic, saying that "such revaluations are not unusual in the epic

tradition; they were in fact inevitable" (20). It is important, before

continuing with an examination of Paradise Lost and its epic characteristics and

conventions (specifically, those in Book I), to review for a moment exactly what

an "epic" is. Again, according to Lewalski, "Renaissance critics

generally thought of epics as long poems treating heroic actions or other

weighty matters in a high style, thereby evoking awe or wonder" (12).

Today’s definition does not differ; the following summary of characteristics and

conventions of the epic is taken from Thrall and Hibbard’s A Handbook to

Literature, wherein they write that an epic is "a long narrative POEM in

elevated STYLE presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures

which form an organic whole through their relation to a central figure of heroic

proportions and through their development of EPISODES important to the history

of a nation or race." Common characteristics include The hero is a figure

of heroic stature, of national or international importance, and of great

historical or legendary significance; (2) The setting is vast in scope, covering

great nations, the world, or the universe; (3) The action consists of deeds of

great valor or requiring superhuman courage; (4) Supernatural forces–gods,

angels, demons–interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to

time; (5) a STYLE of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used; and (6)

the epic poet recounts the deeds of his heroes with objectivity. (174-76) There

are also a number of common devices or CONVENTIONS used by most epic poets:

". . . the poet opens by stating his theme, invokes a Muse to inspire and

instruct him, and opens his narrative ‘in medias res’–in the middle of

things–giving the necessary EXPOSITION in later portions of the epic; he

includes catalogues of warriors, ships, armies; he gives extended formal

speeches by the main characters; and he makes frequent use of the EPIC

SIMILE" (176). The epic simile is "an elaborated comparison. This type

differs from an ordinary SIMILE in that it is more involved, more ornate, and is

a conscious imitation of the Homeric manner. The secondary object or picture is

developed into an independent aesthetic object, an IMAGE which for the moment

excludes the primary object with which it is compared" (176). With this as

background, it is now possible to trace the epic elements present in Book I of

Paradise Lost rather easily. That all of those six characteristics noted above

are present and demonstrable is certain; it is equally certain that it is

through the manipulation of some of these epic characteristics and conventions

that Milton offers to the reader a number of the most controversial and

interesting questions and situations in the poem. One of the most formidable

problems that the reader must face is that of hero; exactly who is the epic hero

in the poem? Steadman notes that for many readers, Milton’s devil is a much

stronger character than his God, and his image of Hell far more forceful than

his picture of Heaven. From such subjective impressions as these they infer

(wrongly) that the Hell-scenes must be more ’sincere’ than the descriptions of

Heaven. They conclude, with Dryden, that Satan must be the real ‘hero’ of

Paradise Lost (Milton’s 27); it is not to Satan, clearly, notes Steadman, that

the mantle of hero falls; "in the language of Renaissance criticism,

Adam–the central figure in the poem–is clearly the ‘epic person’ or ‘primary

hero’" (viii). Going a step further, Steadman also remarks that, "in

supplying Satan with many of the conventional attributes of the epic hero,

Milton indirectly censures the epic tradition for celebrating vice as heroic

virtue. . . . Milton relies on a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ to discredit a spurious

conception of heroism" (39). Francis C. Blessington adds an interesting

note to the discussion when she calls Satan not a classical hero but a classical

villain: Satan is made the archetype of the sophistical rhetoric, the shallow

egotism, and the destructive pride, the vices of the classical epic as well as

of the classical world. In addition, he is the perversion of classical heroic

virtues. He often begins by resembling a victim, sometimes even a perversion of

that . . . . [He is] not a classical hero but a classical villain who

unheroically defeats creatures far below him in stature. (18) Steadman would

concur: In the course of Milton’s epic his fallen archangel conceives and

executes an enterprise of conquest and destruction closely resembling that of

the conventional epic hero. Nevertheless, for a seventeenth-century Protestant,

this apparently heroic exploit should have fitted into a familiar ethical

category, a pattern already delineated and condemned by theologians in their

discussions of pagan virtue. Besides preoccupying Luther and Calvin, this

subject had also engaged Paolo Sarpi and Richard Humfrey. These authors had

advanced the following charges against the ancient Gentiles: In their deeds of

valor and virtuous acts, they sought their own glory instead of God’s. However

heroic such works might appear, they were performed for a bad end and were

therefore sinful. The ancient Gentiles were only superficially virtuous, for

they lacked inward sanctity. They sought their reward on earth rather than in

Heaven, pursuing worldly renown rather than celestial glory. Their religion

tended to fill man with pride by persuading him that he was naturally virtuous.

Their teachings incited him to revenge rather than to patience. (Milton’s . . .

211-12) That Milton wanted his readers to be forced to face the problem of Satan

seeming heroic is certain. Satan is, after all, an angel. He was a mighty angel

in Heaven. In order for us to see the power of God, it is necessary that Satan

also be powerful. It is important that Satan, a parody of God, be viewed as an

eloquent, bold being, one possessing superhuman strength, extraordinary martial

prowess, fortitude, and other attributes–otherwise, what message is there to

us? But Milton would also expect his readers to perceive fact from fancy; he

would expect us to see through Satan’s seeming greatness to his core of evil and

pride and petty acts of revenge. That is, after all, part of the test. If we

perceive Satan’s real villainy, we indeed show ourselves sufficient. The next

three characteristics of the epic listed above are hardly items of debate. The

setting is indeed vast in scope, ranging from Heaven to Hell and to the Earth.

The action surely consists of deeds of great valour requiring superhuman

courage. And there are supernatural forces (gods, angels, and demons) at work

throughout the poem. One question may occur in regard to the second of these: is

it valour and courage that Satan and his followers showed in fighting the War in

Heaven with God? Of course, we may have a bit of trouble thinking of Satan as

showing courage and valour. But it may be the words themselves and modern

connotations connected with them that cause the difficulty. When examined more

closely, there seems to be little difficulty. According to the Oxford English

Dictionary, valour means "the quality of mind which enables a person to

face danger with boldness or firmness; courage or bravery, especially as shown

in warfare or conflict"; courage is defined as "that quality of mind

which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking." Satan most

certainly may be said to fit these descriptions. The OED provides an even more

appropriate and interesting definition of courage dating from the 14th to the

17th centuries, one in which courage meant "anger, wrath; haughtiness,

pride . . . ." Another of the characteristics of the epic, the use of an

elevated style, may also surely be acknowledged in Paradise Lost: . . . Milton .

. . needed a style that could at once invoke and revamp the classical tradition.

I shall not discuss the controversies over Milton’s ‘Latinate’ style but only

point out some things that have not been said but which help to give the

impression of a classical style in Paradise Lost. Milton’s method of elevating

the language is the common one suggested by Aristotle: vary, within reason, the

mode of normal speech by using unfamiliar words, figures, unusual forms and

spellings, and, most of all, metaphors. (Blessington 78) There were (and are)

those, of course, such as William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and

others, who censured Milton’s style. To them, Christopher Ricks responded with

the following: That his [Milton's] style astonishes is itself some cause of

surprise. The epic is of all literary kind the most dignified, the most

concerned to fulfil expectation rather than to baffle or ignore it. . . . [H]e

must combine two fervours: a heroic dedication to tradition; and a heroic

dedication to himself, a confidence in his own greatness which will prevent his

suffocating under the weight of a great tradition. (22-23) Surely it was

necessary for Milton to approach his work with a great sense of decorum, both

out of respect for its epic tradition and our of respect for its grand subject.

The final characteristic of the traditional epic noted above is the objectivity

of the poet. In Milton’s case, one would be hard pressed to argue that he was

able to maintain that stance, though William G. Riggs tries: It should be clear

that for Milton it is the poet’s submission to the voice of his muse, to divine

inspiration, which ultimately distinguishes the soaring creation of Paradise

Lost from an act of blasphemous pride. Milton does not, however, present the

invocation of a heavenly muse as his only defense against presuming too much.

Through the narrative he remains sensitive to the relationship between himself

as poet and his subject; he examines every implication of his creative act with

a care which suggests a fear of self-delusion. While he insists on the pious

intentions of what he undertakes, he never neglects to expose the satanic aspect

of his poetic posture. (63-64) E. M. W. Tillyard has a much different reaction

to the poet in Paradise Lost. In remarking on emotion in Milton’s poetry,

Tillyard comments, regarding Raphael’s speeches, this is indeed angelic speech,

and through it Milton conveys without strain or reservation his entire belief in

the unity of creation and the informing power of God that both makes and

preserves it. . . . Whatever we may think about Milton’s direct descriptions of

God, he does when writing of God’s works make us feel, as no other English poet

could, their glorious diversity, their order, their dependence on their creator

who made and fosters them by the constant pressure of his inexhaustible power.

(142-44) Surely this is not a description of a detached, objective poet. Arnold

Stein is perhaps even more forceful in his comments regarding the poet in the

poem: The poet we may see in the poem at this point is the figure of himself

Milton could hardly have concealed had he wished to: that of the author whose

representation includes his judgment. . . . The figure of the poet does not

obtrude but still is present substantially, answerable to the literary and

philosophical questions addressed first to the dramatized character who speaks,

and through him to the ‘living intellect’ who creates and guides. . . .

Throughout we know that behind the narrator there is a man with a personal

history, which also enters the poem. (138-39) C. S. Lewis puts it another way: .

. . every poem has two parents–its mother being the mass of experience,

thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form

(epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. . .

. The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it

becomes really original, really the origin of great work. (3) In addition to the

epic characteristics of Paradise Lost, the so-called epic conventions outlined

earlier are also present. Certainly Milton begins by stating his theme: the

entire story of salvation is summarized in the opening twenty-six lines, and the

purpose of the epic, to "justify the ways of God to men," is stated in

line twenty-six. (All references to the poem itself are from Merritt Y. Hughes’

edition of the complete works.) Milton also opens his narrative "in medias

res"; he begins by asking how Adam and Eve could have fallen. Who could

have caused it? And then we meet an already fallen Satan; it is only in Book VI

that the War in Heaven is actually described. Milton also invokes a Muse (lines

1-26) to inspire and instruct him, as was traditional. E. R. Gregory, in his

article on the use of the muses in Paradise Lost, discusses the use of Clio as

muse and the pairing of Clio and Urania. He includes an examination of

associated iconography of the muses in the history of epic poetry. Other of the

conventions are likewise present. Milton carefully includes a catalogue of the

fallen angels (lines 376-505). He also provides extended formal speeches by the

main characters: see, for example, lines 84-124, 157-91, 242-70, and 622-62 for

major speeches by Satan in Book I. It is on the basis of the eloquence and power

of those speeches that much of the claim for Satan’s position as ‘hero’ is

based. Finally, Milton makes frequent use of the epic simile. Four major

examples are of interest in Book I; they include the simile of the sea monster

(lines 192+), the autumnal leaves (lines 300+), the son/sun (lines 594+), and

the swarming bees (lines 768+). Linda Gregerson points out that "the

Miltonic similes portray knowledge as problematic; they do not suggest we throw

away the tools we have and wait for grace as for rain" (137). She

continues, saying that the similes do a number of tasks: they "convey real

information about the tenor, or locate it in an experiential realm"; they

do this by "stimulating the sensual memory," perhaps inducing "in

the reader an experience which characterizes the subject, " she adds (138).

They also may, she notes, "be proleptic. . . . They often prefigure

subsequent events in the story. Thus Satan is compared to Leviathan . . ."

(139). The similes, she continues, "put is in training of a sort, give us

sometimes a running start and sometimes the edge of the cliff . . ." (140);

they "focus attention upon the act of perception itself and make us aware

that we are not looking alone . . ." (142), that "we read in the

company of those who have read before" (147). James Whaler, in an oft

referenced article regarding the use of animal similes in Paradise Lost, notes

that: From Homer on, certain images have been part of the epic poet’s

inheritance and equipment. Not only has he felt obliged to introduce them

somewhere into his work, but to distribute them in the very proportion observed

by his predecessors. Beasts, plants, any phenomena used in previous epic simile

belonged to him, too, if he could make them at home in a new context. Of course

he was free to originate novel images from contemporary events or his own

personal experience; but Homer’s high precedent, or Vergil’s, prescribed the old

images as well. Milton’s choice of imagery, however, is distinguished from that

of other important epic poets of Western Europe by an iron control over, a

virtual renunciation of, animal similes. (534) Whaler comments that Milton

"selects an animal image only when the perfect opportunity appears"

(545), that Milton "must have felt they had had their day" (538).

Whaler goes on to examine, after a lengthy discussion of other epic animal

similes, Milton’s rare use of such similes, specifically that of the swarming

bees: First, Milton’s bees direct our mind’s eye to winged creatures of the very

size that the spirits . . . are to become. Secondly, they make us contemplate in

advance diminutive creatures which, despite their tininess, we have always liked

to imagine do expatiate and confer their state-affairs, — exactly what the

infernal assembly is going to do. (551) As Gregerson had noted, the simile

"prefigures" and/or is a reflection of other events that are to come

later in the story. Clearly, then, and in spite of some alterations and

modifications, Milton did indeed use classical epic conventions. As Blessington

so artfully writes, "Milton built his epic out of those of Homer and

Virgil, like a cathedral erected our of the ruins of pagan temples whose remains

can still be seen" (xiii).

Blessington, Francis C. Paradise Lost and the Classical Epic. Boston:

Routledge, 1979. Gregerson, Linda. "The Limbs of Truth: Milton’s Use of

Simile in Paradise Lost." Milton Studies 14 (1980): 135-52. Gregory, E. R.

"Three Muses and a Poet: A Perspective on Milton’s Epic Thought."

Milton Studies 10 (1977): 35-64. Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Paradise Lost and the

Rhetoric of Literary Forms. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Lewis, C. S. A

Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford UP, 1942 . Milton, John. Paradise

Lost. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes.

Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1957. 173-469. Ricks, Christopher. Milton’s Grand Style.

Oxford: Clarendon, 1963. Steadman, John M. Epic and Tragic Structure in Paradise

Lost. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976. —. Milton’s Epic Characters: Image and

Idol. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968. Stein, Arnold. The Art of

Presence: The Poet and Paradise Lost. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977. Thrall,

William Flint, and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Rev. by C. Hugh

Holman. New York: Odyssey, 1960. Tillyard, E. M. W. Studies in Milton. New York:

Barnes and Noble, 1951. Whaler, James. "Animal Simile in Paradise

Lost." PMLA 47 (1931): 534-53.


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