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Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epic poems of the 17th century, written by John Milton. This is a poem of twelve books describing the fall of man in blank verse, in a manner that is at par with Virgil’s Aeneid for the Romans and Homer’s Iliad for ancient Greece. Milton has several ways of using comparison, which he uses profoundly throughout Book II. Allegory, allusions, contrasts, the comparison between heaven, earth and hell, and the different arguments in the book are the most significant and prominent in his poem, and both pertain to his grand style as well as his motifs.
Towards the end of book II, Milton presents an allegory of the two figures Sin and Death at the gates of hell who represent their respective abstract ideas and principles, which he develops throughout the entire poem. As they are abstract ideas, they cannot be visualized, thus Milton gives them physical attributes to further allude to the ideas they represent. Sin is described as
“… woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
With mortal sting.” (II.650-53)
With this description, it’s clear to see that Sin is an allegory of Eve because Eve is also beautiful and “fair” on the outside, but deep inside is evil and tempted by a “serpent”, even if she is not composed of one. Also, Sin explains how she was seduced by Satan, and as a result of their fornication, conceive Death. She then explains how Death raped her
“…in embraces forcible and foul” (II.793)
and created monsters that are
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me;” (II.797-99)
Both Eve and Sin are seduced by Satan, have excruciatingly painful labor, and bring about the beginning of mortality for all of mankind as a result of sin. Milton has created Sin as an allegory of the whole concept of sin, and furthermore, suggested that women accomplish their sin by being seductive and beautiful, yet evil and serpent-like. Death on the other hand, is a shadow-like creature, described as having a
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.” (II.672-73)
He is allegorically the consequence of both Sin and Satan’s sin. Interestingly enough, Death is in control of his condition, and instead of enduring suffering himself, he enjoys inflicting human pain. This can clearly be seen as a symbolic, comparative representation of death on earth and how it often inflicts human pain, as well as the way in which us humans are not in control of it. The effect of this comparative literary technique enables the reader to stretch the imagination in order to effectively draw symbolic conclusions and make logical deductions. Another effect of this technique is that it introduces multiple interpretations. For example, another interpretation of Sin and Death is that they could be the pathway for humans to enter Hell through Death, and Sin could simply be one who has paved that way by giving birth to eternal mortality, or alternatively they could be an allegory of The Holy Trinity. These different interpretations lead to a deeper understanding of the poem, and make it all the more intriguing.
As well as making allegorical allusions, Milton also makes allusions to other literary works. The first allusion he makes is in the first two lines of Book two;
“High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,…”(II.1-2)
are an allusion to Ormus and Ind. Ormus is an island in the Persian Gulf, and Ind is an abbreviation for India. He makes reference to these places because they’re highly celebrated for their pearls and jewels.
“Sage he stood,
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of the mightiest monarchies;”(II.305-7)
is another allusion to the Greek mythological figure Atlas, who was able to carry the world. Milton uses references to specific people and places in order to emphasize and reinforce the grand stature of the character(s) he Is referring to, which in the above examples, would be Satan and Beelzebub respectively. Another purpose of his allusions is to further extend the reader’s imagination and understanding, whilst creating vivid imagery in the reader’s mind, through comparisons. Lastly, these allusions are important in his work because they not only make his writing exotic, but they also add a lot of weight and grandeur to his style.
Another comparative literary feature that is quite prominent in Milton’s works is the use of contrasts, such as antitheses and oxymoron’s. These figures of speech are important in Paradise Lost because they are used to convey and accentuate vivid, yet unorthodox imagery.
“To that bad eminence” (II.6) and
“…this darkness light”(II.220)
are among his many uses of oxymoron’s. This poetic device not only extends the imagery of the poem, but it also heightens the message or emotion behind it in a non-literal sense. A powerful example of antithesis which is not in Book II, but was still discussed in class is, “Hee for God only, Shee for God in him”. This is a powerful example because Milton has conveyed sharply contrasting ideas in an emphatic, yet adorning way. Accompanying this feature are the contrasts between light and dark to convey good or bad. With this, his contrasts also include high and low (in terms of altitude or status), and God and Satan. Milton’s strong imagery of light and darkness to convey these contrary ideas could be attributed to his blindness. Although he describes Satan as a powerful being, he generally describes hell as dark, fiery and very low, as opposed to heaven which is described as light and highly exalted. This can be noted in
“What can be worse
Than to dwell here, driven out from bliss, condemned
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire…” (II.85)
and a few lines later he states “He from Heaven’s higth”(II.190)
Contrasts like these are important because they help us to further extend our understanding of Milton’s paradigms of food and bad, and from this, we can deduce that the absence of light in Hell and in Satan symbolize the absence of God in all his glory.
Milton’s contrasts of light and dark, and high and low to convey good and bad are also used to contrast Heaven, Hell and Earth. Milton presents a hierarchy based on the proximity to God. Heaven is at the top of the hierarchy where “Heaven’s high Arbitrator” (II.359) sits, and the primary quality is light. Hell is at the very bottom of the hierarchy and is portrayed as the antithesis of heaven, which is primarily dark.
“As he our darkness, cannot we his light”(II.269)
Is a phrase which best portrays the strong contrasts between the two places. Earth is depicted as the young, vulnerable middle-ground connected to both Heaven and Earth. It is also the battlefield that Beelzebub suggests they try to corrupt because he knows that although there is goodness on earth, it is not at par with that of Heaven’s, and is thus able to be defeated. It is portrayed as the neutral middle-ground by Beelzebub who states that the new race of man is
“To be created like to us, though less
In power an excellence, but favoured more
Of him who rules above;” (II.349-351)
Also, Milton’s geographical description of hell has similar physical features as earth (Mountains, rivers, valleys), however, the only difference is that hell has the worst in nature. Milton describes hell as
“…dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms
Of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land
Thaws not,” (II.588-90)
with streams “Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage.” (II.581)
By knowing that Hell is the degenerated form of nature, and that Earth is the middle-ground, we can deduce that Heaven is the more natural and aesthetically pleasing form of nature. This further highlights the hierarchical contrast between the three places. An interesting observation I made was that Earth is connected to heaven with a gold chain and connected to hell through a dark gulf (Chaos and Night). This shows the contrast between the journey to Heaven and Hell. Milton is implying that throughout life, Man must choose to make the difficult, strenuous journey up the gold chain into Heaven, or take the easy way and perambulate down to Heaven through the wide gulf. These hierarchical contrasts and comparisons not only give clarity to the settings in the poem, but also give us a deeper understanding of the nature of the characters in the story. Most importantly, it provides a philosophical and theological context for the poem and it gives us deeper insight into the beliefs and principles that Milton adheres to, without being persuasive.
The hierarchy and balance of good and evil are also portrayed and compared through the different speeches given by arch devils Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub. Milton seems to depict a certain balance between good and evil or Heaven and Hell, and from that, it is clear that he believes that good will always reign over evil. The first arch devil to speak is Moloch. He proposes open warfare on a battlefield. He believes they have nothing to lose because
“What can be worse
Than to swell here, driven out from bliss, condemned
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;” (II.85-87)
So he clearly believes that nothing can be worse than living in hell anyway. Lastly, he says even if they are defeated in the battle “…if not victory, is yet revenge”(II.1.5). The second speaker is Belial who disagrees and suggests that they stay in hell in the hope that God will forgives them, or over time, they will grow used to the eternal pain and suffering. He has based his reasoning on the belief that even if God could kill them, he never would, and because he is almighty, he can see everything they are doing, and thus, they might be subjected to an even worse hell. The third speaker, Mammon, disagrees to both proposals and suggests that they build a kingdom in hell that will someday be equal to Heaven, because open warfare would be unavailing, and they would not want to go back to living in heaven eternally anyway.
Finally, Beelzebub proposes that they do neither. He states that war will be futile because there is no place where God does not reign, so instead, Beelzebub tells them of a new race that God created called “Man”, and suggests that they seek revenge against him by seducing Man to their side. This is the decision that is unanimously agreed upon. All these proposal’s present Milton’s views about the balance of good and evil, as well as his theological beliefs. The first proposal is rejected because open warfare between Heaven and Hell would be ineffective as Heaven and righteousness will always conquer evil. Belial’s proposal is dismissed because the fallen angels would never be forgiven by God because evil will never go away, thus, the fallen angels will always exist.
Finally, as Mammon suggests, there will never be peace between Heaven and Hell because Hell will never match up to Heaven’s greatness, and although Hell will always exist, it will always be under God’s control. The reason Beelzebub’s proposal is agreed upon is because Milton believes that Earth, and therefore Mankind, is the neutral, middle-ground between Heaven and Hell, Angels and Devils, as well as good and evil. It therefore serves as an effective battleground for good and evil forces on earth, as well as in the souls and consciences of mankind. The effect of these comparisons gives us further insight into the beliefs of the philosophical and theological elements in Milton’s time period, as well as the relative forces of good and evil, and how they effect the lives of mankind.
In conclusion, there are various ways that Milton uses comparison in Paradise Lost, which each have different effects that range from the introduction of multiple interpretations, to simply extending our understanding of the story through vivid imagery. The comparisons that Milton uses are so complex that they are all connected in some way or other, and this alone gives us an even deeper understanding of the theological and philosophical messages conveyed in the poem. Ultimately, Milton’s intension was to tell the story of Man’s fall, and with his comparisons, he has managed to do much more than just that.