In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Every poem can be considered in two ways ” as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exists to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers” (2). Genre, therefore, is important not only as a mode of framing a story, but also as a model that produces expectations in readers.
In Book 2 of The Reason of Church Government, Milton declares his desire to write a great work that will serve to glorify England as earlier poets had glorified their native lands and cultures: “what the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might doe for mine” (RCG 2).
He declares his intention to write in English rather than another language such as Latin, and then ponders what genre to adopt: epic, tragic, or lyric (RCG 2). These three genres of poetry have existed since ancient Greece, and by Milton’s time they carried with them a set of connotations and expectations that most educated people recognized. Milton’s concern about which genre to choose, therefore, was not simply a matter of seeking the perfect medium for his story, but the anxiety of a writer seeking to place himself within a centuries-old poetic tradition.
In deciding to write an epic, Milton consciously places himself in the tradition of prior epic writers, such as the ancients Homer and Virgil, and the Medieval and Renaissance poets Dante, Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser. By doing this, he raises specific sets of expectations both for himself and for readers. Formally, Paradise Lost contains many classical and Renaissance epic conceits: it begins in medias res; it concerns heavenly and earthly beings and the interactions between them; it uses conventions such as epic similes, catalogues of people and places, and invocations to a muse; and it contains themes common to epics, such as war, nationalism, empire, and stories of origin.Milton’s range of variations on epic conventions contribute to Paradise Lost’s stunning effects. Unlike classics such as the Iliad and the Aeneid, Paradise Lost has no easily identified hero. The most Achilles-like character in the poem is Satan, whom Milton surrounds with “epic matter and motivations, epic genre conventions, and constant allusions to specific passages in famous heroic poems” (Barbara Lewalski, Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms 55). Critics and writers such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley believed Satan to be the hero of Paradise Lost. Yet the problems inherent in viewing Satan as a hero have led modern critics to reject this idea. As Lewalski writes, “by measuring Satan against the heroic standards, we become conscious of the inadequacy and fragility of all the heroic virtues celebrated in literature, of the susceptibility of them all to demonic perversion” (78).Another possibility for the hero of Paradise Lost is the Son of God, but although he is an important force in the poem, the story is not ultimately about him. The most likely possibility, therefore, is Adam. Adam resembles Aeneas in many respects: he is the father of a new race, responsible for founding civilization on earth. But unlike Aeneas, Adam’s primary heroic act is not heroic at all: it is the first act of disobedience. The heroism celebrated in Book 9 as “Patience and Heroic Martyrdom” stands in stark contrast to traditional epic heroism (PL 31-2). Is Adam’s disobedience an indictment of traditional heroism? If the quiet Adam is the true hero of Paradise Lost, and Satan with all his heroic oratory is not, then Milton is simultaneously entering into a dialogue with previous works about the nature of heroism, reconfiguring the old model, and effectively redefining notions of heroism for his seventeenth-century English Protestant audience.The hero is not the only epic tradition to be reconfigured in Paradise Lost; the poem also plays on readers’ expectations about epic form. Although it most resembles an epic, Paradise Lost contains elements of many other genres: there are elements of lyric poetry, including the pastoral mode, as in the descriptions of Paradise, the conversations between the unfallen Adam and Eve, and their joyful prayers to God in the Garden (PL 4.589-735). There is an aubade (PL 5.136-208), a type of symposium (Raphael’s visit, PL 5-8), and examples of georgic verse (PL 4.618-33, 5.209-19, 9.205-225). There are also elements of tragedy, as in Book 9 when Milton, preparing his readers for the fall, writes, “I now must change / Those Notes to Tragic,” and continues throughout the book to employ tragic conventions, as when he apostrophizes Eve (PL 9.404-411) and describes the earth’s response to the eating of the fruit (PL 9.782-4 and 9.1000-4). Throughout the poem Milton makes use of soliloquy, another tragic convention. And even the ten-book structure of the 1667 edition, according to John Leonard, “might owe something to English tragedy, forming five dramatic acts of two books each” (Introduction to PL xi). In fact, Milton’s first attempts to write the story of man’s fall took the form of a tragedy that he later rejected in favor of epic. Scott Elledge writes that Milton favored tragedy because of its “affective and curative powers,” which are no less present in Paradise Lost than in his more formal tragedy, Samson Agonistes (Introduction to PL xxvi). As Barbara Lewalski writes, the incorporation of multiple genres into the poem invites us “to identify certain patterns and certain poems as subtexts for portions of Milton’s poem, and then to attend to the completion or transformation of those allusive patterns as the poem proceeds” (20).Cordelia Zukerman and Thomas H. LuxonReturn to the list of topics”Things invisible to mortal sight”: Milton’s GodUnlike the gods and goddesses of classical epics, whose desires and disagreements often mirror those of humans, Milton’s God is invisible and omnipresent, a being who cannot be considered an individual so much as an existence. Milton’s underlying claim in Paradise Lost is that he has been inspired by his heavenly muse with knowledge of things unknowable to fallen humans. His dilemma of how to describe God to the reader resembles the archangel Raphael’s dilemma of how to “relate / To human sense th’invisible exploits” of the angels in Heaven (PL 5.564-5). Like Raphael, Milton solves the problem by expressing the infinite in terms of the tangible by portraying God as if he were an individual, when he is really something much greater. Therefore, although Milton credits God with speech and with enough form that the Son can sit “on his right,” everything relating to God in Paradise Lost should be understood as a kind of metaphor, a device used to place the divine in human terms (PL 3.62).Perhaps because of the contradictions inherent in the attribution of human characteristics to a divine being, Milton’s portrayal of God has been a frequent subject of debate among scholars and critics. Milton presents God as a harsh and uncompromising judge over his subjects, hardly the figure one would expect a poet to present whose goal is to “justifie the wayes of God to men” (PL 1.26). C. S. Lewis explains the aversion that readers often feel towards Milton’s God by blaming the modern reader: “Many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God: infinite sovereignty, by its very nature, includes wrath also” (126). But Milton seems to be doing more than merely portraying the Christian God; he is, according to William Empson, “struggling to make his God appear less wicked than the traditional Christian one” (Milton’s God 11). Perhaps this is why Milton’s God often appears on the defensive, explaining again and again that his foreknowledge of the fall has nothing to do with fate: Adam and Eve fall of their own free will, not because God in any way decreed it (see Argument to Book 3, 3.80-210, and 10.1-62). This defensive tone is hardly becoming in an omnipotent deity, yet Milton needs to use it in order to justify God; hence the endless potential for contradiction in Milton’s presentation of God (and those of many seventeenth-century writers as well).Empson and other critics also bring into question God’s justice. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that Milton “alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil” (A Defense of Poetry 527). Empson agrees, writing that God’s “apparently arbitrary harshness is intended to test us with baffling moral problems” (Empson 103), such as why a hierarchy is necessary in Heaven at all, or why God would establish a complex arrangement of demonic and angelic guards to prevent an adversary from traveling from Hell to Eden, only to call them off “as soon as [they] look like succeeding” (112). One can explain these problems by recalling that God does not simply want absolute obedience in his subjects, he wants the obedience of free beings. In his own words, “Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere / Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love.” (PL 3.103-4). Yet at times, God’s complexities do make him difficult to find trustworthy, while Satan’s seemingly logical challenges to his authority are quite appealing.William Blake found Milton’s depiction of God so far inferior to his depiction of Satan that he considered Milton to be an unwitting Satanist (Flannagan, The Riverside Milton 322). There seems to be good evidence for it: God’s language is “flat, uncolored, unmetaphorical,” compared with Satan’s vivid and inspiring rhetoric (321). But Stanley Fish presents a different theory: his thesis is that Milton deliberately lets Satan seduce not only Adam and Eve, but the reader as well. Fish writes, “The reading experience becomes the felt measure of man’s loss” as the reader is first seduced by Satan’s powerful and impressive logic, then slowly realizes that the logic is in fact twisted and nonsensical (Surprised by Sin 39). The reader emerges from the experience renewed with a greater sense of faith, which is the ultimate goal of the poem.If we are not to trust Satan at all, however, then what should we make of Satan’s enlightened questioning of God’s authority? When contemplating the ascendancy of the Son, Satan says, “Who can in reason then or right assume / Monarchie over such as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less / In freedome equal?” (PL 5.794-7). This argument in favor of equality and against monarchy would strike a familiar note among seventeenth-century readers who had so recently experienced the English Civil War. Milton had been a supporter of Cromwell and had strongly advocated the execution of Charles I in 1649 (see the Open University’s site on the English Civil War 1625-1649). Satan’s doubts about God’s authority seem based in republican values ” values that Milton believed in and promoted through his writing ” yet Milton consciously undermines those values by placing them in Satan’s mouth. Paraphrasing Blair Worden, Lewalski writes that perhaps “Satan’s rhetoric of republicanism signals Milton’s profound disillusion with his own party and with political discourse generally” (466). But Lewalski herself thinks differently, pointing out the great difference between God’s natural eminence and the “Stuart ideology of divine kingship” that created idols out of monarchs in the seventeenth century (469). She writes, “By demonstrating that there can be no possible parallel between earthly kings and divine kingship [Milton] flatly denies the familiar royalist analogies: God and King Charles, Satan and the Puritan rebels” (466). Satan’s doubts about God are unfounded and sinful, not because they are inherently evil, but because God is a true monarch whose authority should never be questioned.