Paradise Lost was a literary product that was born from the need for an English epic poem. Greeks had Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the Italians had Virgil’s The Aeneid and Dante’s The Divine Comedy (though not an epic in the strictest terms, has its characteristics). English literature was in want of such a work; and John Milton, from his early Cambridge days, was working on meeting this void. He was at first of the mind to write an epic, centering the story on their legendary King, Arthur. Milton saw this as an excellent subject to model his poem on the likes of The Iliad and The Aeneid. But such a poem never came to light, and by the time he was truly ready to write it, he has gone through many political, social, religious, and personal upheavals, so as to change his center theme from King Arthur to the biblical subjects. The result was the production of this epic poem, which is perhaps the only (I’m not certain as to this) and certainly the best epic poem of English literature.
Paradise Lost tells the biblical story of the creation of the world, from the time of rebellion and fall of Satan and his companion angels to the ultimate fall of man. However, throughout the poem, much was focused on the fall of man. The reason for this is that Milton’s first and foremost purpose is to justify God’s action towards man. God created Adam and Eve with free will. There was only one prohibition, and that was not to taste the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They failed to adhere to this one subjection to which they were put. The act of tasting the apple was a blatant violation of their covenant with their divine maker. It was also an act of disobedience. And this disobedience is what made them fall from Divine grace and led to their ultimate banishment from Paradise.
Disobedience of God was seen by Milton as an act of cowardice. True heroism, according to him, was obedience to God as against the exercise of free will, and submission to life, whatever its condition may be, without losing faith. Obedience also leads to the question of superiority. There is a hierarchy in Heaven, Earth, and Hell with God being in the higher most position. Man was superior to women, superior to beasts, so they top the hierarchy on earth. This hierarchical structure, however, questions the right of man to rule man. The kings of England always had an aura of divinity to their subjects. But Milton was of the view that kings, being men, cannot exercise divine power as they are in a lower position in the hierarchy and can govern their fellow men only if they are superior to their subjects. This explains why Milton supported the execution of King Charles I, whom he thought to be inferior and had no business in ruling men.
When one understands the themes of Paradise Lost, one can see that Milton was driving at moral actions rather than on military actions as the basis for the creation of nations. In this sense, his work resembles Dante’s Divine Comedy. But that hadn’t precluded Milton from drawing features from Homer’s The Iliad. The battle scenes between Satan’s army and Michael and Gabriel led heavenly forces, resemble the battle between Greeks against the Trojans. Milton’s knowledge of Greek and Italian had helped him to borrow the right characteristics from these great epics to add strength and beauty to his own poem.
Reading this epic poem wasn’t daunting as I expected. Rather, from Book I, I was drawn in. The story and the setting fascinated me. Mastering the limitations of the English language, Milton has painted a beautiful picture through his words. They bring Heaven, Eden, Hell, and the biblical characters so vividly that one could almost visualize them. The story, though known, had a fresh and new appeal when reading it from Milton’s words.
Paradise Lost had always been a must-read in my reading repertoire. Being finally able to read and finish it is like satisfying a long-awaited need. I truly enjoyed this masterpiece and can quite honestly say that it is the best epic poem that I’ve read after Dante’s The Divine Comedy.