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Great Greek writer Homer was a beginner of all the world literature. The success in the study of his creations was considered to be the forward movement of all philological sciences. That’s why Homer’s poems with their emotional perception had a great influence on the next generation of writers.
In 1667 the English writer John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost”. It was written after the Restoration, but the powerful voice of the poet declared that the spirit of the Revolution was not broken, that it still lived in the hearts of the people. Being a Puritan, Milton wanted to portray God as an almighty embodiment of Justice, and Satan as the villain, but Satan became the hero of this great work.
Description of “Paradise Lost”
“Paradise Lost” was an epic poem. The characters were Satan and his rebel angels. God, three guardian angels – Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, and the first man and woman – Adam and Eve. The revolutionary spirit was shown in Satan, who revolted against God, drew to his side many rebel-angels, and was driven out of Heaven. Down into the fires of Hell they fell. But Satan was not to overcome. He hated God who ruled the universe autocratically:
“High on a throne of royal state,
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven” (Readprint)
The very word “tyranny” made God a despot and repulsive to the free mind. Though banished from Heaven, Satan was glad to have gained freedom. He pitied the rebel-angels who had lost life in Heaven for his sake and decided to go on with the war against God.
Milton served the highest model of epic poetry of antique times. The writer was inspired by Homer. Following him in “lost paradise” the author attempted to draw the universal picture of existence: the battles, which solve the fates of peoples, the elevated faces of Gods and the human persons, and also different everyday details. Poet scrupulously reproduced the composition of the antique model – Homer’s “Iliad”. He, like the Greek writer, widely used the methods of hyperbolization characteristics of heroes, constant epithets, expanded comparisons, and metaphors. Milton’s choice of words, grammar, and word order were Latinized. The tone of narration was elevated and solemn without psychological nuances. Both eposes were written in the blank verses.
Milton hid his thoughts behind the fantastic subject. He was not interested in private cases and situations from people’s life. The author was interested only in person on the whole. That’s why he put a religious subject into a philosophical poem. If in the first books a contrast between forces of sky and hell symbolized the fight of good and evil, the central theme of «Paradise Lost» was a reflection of such fight in human’s heart (Stephen Fallon, 1991).
Milton’s work was varied in content and at the same time was extraordinarily difficult and contradictory. The author himself wrote that in his “Paradise Lost” he wanted “to justify the way of God towards a person” (Marritt Hughes, 2003). The work was based on the plot of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible legends made the basis of the plot of “Paradise Lost”, that’s why it was considered to be a poetic arrangement of the Bible. Such an arrangement was in Homer’s “Iliad”. The Greek writer created his poem based on different legends and short poems about great Greek Gods and Heroes. He combined the folklore epics with the technique of improvisation, which helped him to write a masterpiece of such a length (Gilbert Murray, 1997).
Image of human history
“Iliad,” told us about the Trojan War. Homer combined verbal ballads into the “Iliad” very skillfully. He chose only one episode of the long war. The episode is about Achilles’s anger. Nevertheless, Homer managed to depict the whole heroic century.
Milton knew ancient and new poetry and decided to revive the classic form of heroic epos. Ancient epos was an expression of the collective consciousness of people. Literary epos, on the contrary, had an important seal of individual awareness of the author. In the poem “Paradise Lost” Milton managed to represent the whole epoch of the endless war between good and evil due to his great poetic power and ability to reproduce all contradictions.
It was the myth about Adam and Eve which served Milton as starting point for the philosophical and poetic meditations about the sense of life, nature of man, his tendency toward knowledge, his place under the sun. The man was depicted in “lost paradise” as essence, which stood in the center of the universe: on “the stairs of nature” it occupied the mid-position between the sensual, animal peace and the peace of angels. It was higher from the terrestrial essences, the deputy of God on the earth; it clamped together lowest and influential circles of existence. The bright way of spiritual elevation opened before Adam and Eve. But the gloomy abyss, which threatened to absorb them, opened wide before them if they betrayed God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which grew in the heart of Eden, was a symbol of the freedom of choice given to the first people. Its designation was to test the faith of people in their creator.
That episode presented the symbolic image of human history losing their primary freedom. The duality of the author’s thoughts was shown also in his description of Adam and Eve’s sin. On the contrary, to Bible legend, Milton considered the bliss of paradise just like an illusion, which didn’t fit the truth.
The author believed that the corporal and spiritual origins of people should be in harmony. Living in paradise Adam and Eve lived only spiritual life and couldn’t understand all sides of evil and good. Without losing their love and spirituality. We could easily understand that when Adam was ready to share Eve’s fault, they had no sense of quarreling because their destinies were inseparable. And their future lives depend only on themselves.
Adam and Eve were allowed by God to live in Paradise, in the Garden of Eden, as long as they did not eat the apple that grew on the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. Satan, who had been driven from the Garden of Eden by the guardian angels, returned at night in the form of a serpent. The next morning, the serpent persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and to take another one for Adam. Eve told Adam what she had done.
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Adam decided to eat the fruit for the love of Eve. As a punishment, God banished Adam and Eve to the newly created world, where they had to face a life of toil and woe. The angel Michael drove them out of Paradise, waving his fiery sword. From a hill, Michael showed Adam a vision of the tyranny and lawlessness which were to befall mankind. Milton’s sympathies lied with Adam and Eve, and this showed his faith in man. His Adam and Eve were full of energy. They loved each other and were ready to meet whatever the earth had in store for them.
The revolutionary poets of the 19th century said that in “Paradise Lost” Milton refused to accept the conventional Bible story. Adam and Eve were Man and Woman – the finest of all earthly creatures.
One of the most striking artistic receptions of Homeric epos was the image of heroes operating not on their motive but in important moments of their lives following the help and advice of patronizing Gods. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost” a person became the point of reflection of the opposing influences, radiated by powerful space forces. Poet placed his heroes in the very center of the Universe, halfway between empyrean and hell. According to Milton the people themselves were critical for their fate: allotted by reason and free will, in every moment of their life selected between God and Satan, Good and Evil, creation and destruction, spiritual sublimity, and moral baseness.
Signs of war
The “Lost Paradise” began with the description of the war between sky and hell following Homer’s “Iliad” which began with the war between Greeks and Trojans. On the one hand, Milton showed God, his archangels, angels; on the other hand, he showed the fallen angels – the Devil, spirits of evil and demons. Homer, in his turn, described two warring tribes with different Gods helping them. It seemed that everything was quite clear, but it wasn’t true. Creatures fallen from the sky decided to revolt against God. They were outcasted from the sky, that’s why they considered God to be a tyrant and despot.
Milton believed in God as the highest shrine, but he was Puritan and revolutionary, that’s why he couldn’t accept the sole power of God. So he surrounded the Devil with the halo of heroism. Satan was also a Son of God, but the son who chose a wicked way. In his descriptions of Satan John Milton was influenced by Homer’s vivid descriptions of ancient Heroes – sons of Zeus and earthborn women. A lot of epic lines were shown in him – physical power, warlike attitude, and bravery. Suddenly in a threshold Eden, a conscience woke up in him, an internal fight began between angelic and satanic. Lucifer justified the choice on behalf of an «evil».
In the last episode of the poet, John Milton reflected his philosophy and inserted it into the archangel’s words. The archangel Michael showed Adam the coming fate of humanity: through pain and suffering, labor and grief man would find a new paradise, created by his own hands and more wonderful than that was lost by him. The picture of heaven’s punishment changed with the ideal picture of peace and happiness. In the future, a lot of diseases and sins would cover people. Having understood the greatness and wisdom of God, Adam decided to be resigned to faith. He wanted to make his life devout, true, and just.
The final part of the poem was full of humility and obedience, but till the last lines of the “Lost Paradise,” we could hear the voice of the poet-fighter against evil and suffering. In contrast to his teacher, Homer, the poet wanted to create the work, unconfined by historically real themes, but which had general human scales. Milton’s concert coincided with the concept of Homer who also dedicated his life to fighting and poetry. Similar to the author of the great “Iliad”, the poet attempted to give his work the nature of universal, suitable for all times symbolic image.
In “Paradise Lost” the features of the so-called “literary” epos and the flashes of the philosophical poem were combined with the elements of drama and lyric poetry. The work was full of lyricism, but the epic beginning in “Paradise Lost” was predominant. It came out in a complex relationship with the dramatic and the lyric. Thus, Milton’s poem is considered to be a complex phenomenon.
The English literature “Paradise Lost” by John Milton carried out the dream of epoch about the highest form of poetry – heroic epos, thus raising national literature to the classical height. Even his ailment prompted the raising analogy with Homer. However, undoubtedly the main thing – in the fact that English history with its cataclysms proved to be beneficial material for the biblical analogy, and contemporaries – by receptive readers of the poetry, which modernized Old Testament means.
John Milton Poem. Harper’s Magazine, April 1878, 13 pp.
Gilbert Murray. The Rise of the Greek Epic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Stephen Fallon. Milton Among the Philosophers. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.