The mind is its own
place and in itself, can
make a Heaven of Hell, a
Hell of Heaven.”
John Milton is one of the most prominent English writers and a highly regarded intellectual in his time as he is still today. A man of extensive knowledge he studied at Cambridge and learned Greek, Latin and Italian. During his Grand Tour in Italy he met Galileo and became familiar with his scientific discoveries.
He was a convinced Puritan and therefore sided with Cromwell and the Common wealth. In 1649 he was part of Cromwell’s Council of State as Secretary of Latin since Latin was, throughout the 17th century, the language of international diplomacy. However, upon the monarch’s restoration, in 1660, he lost all government official charges and was even arrested, although he was soon released he was nonetheless estranged from public life and spent his remaining years nearly secluded and in poverty. He died in 1674.
One of his most passionate political battles concerned freedom of press. Right after the king’s execution censorship was, at first, repealed. But in the early 40s an incredible number of political writings were published against the new power which were considered disturbing for many who, eventually, fearing the people’s reaction against them pushed Parliament to pass the Licensing Act implementing censorship once again in 1643. Milton strongly opposed this turn of events and in one of his works he supported freedom of press but to no avail, his pleas were disregarded.
RELIGION AND WRITING
He was also a prolific poet and, as a fervent puritan, he truly believed that his poetic talent was a gift from God. Some of his most widely known literary works are: Lycidas (1637) a pastoral elegy, many sonnets and, in addition some pamphlets outlining his political standpoints such as The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in which he advocates, if necessary, the right of the people to depose of a despondent ruler whether king or not. Later on, with Eikondlastes he attempts to analyse the reasons that brought the English Parliament to put on trial, condemn and execute Charles I. Inspired by his personal unhappy marriage he also wrote Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Aeropagitica supporting, among other things, the freedom of press and of education for all in every field of knowledge.
HIS POETIC MASTERPIECES
But his most distinguished writings still widely appreciated till this day are undoubtedly: Paradise Lost (1667), his masterpiece; Paradise Regained (1671) much less forceful than the previous epic poem and, finally, the only tragedy he wrote, Samson Agonistes (1671). These were all written during his later years; he had by then become blind and retired to private life.
Paradise Lost (1667)
This is Milton’s masterpiece and an epic religious poem of 12 books. It contains, as we will see, all the typical elements of the best traditional epics and a wide excursus of the history, culture and religious background of Western knowledge. Nevertheless this great poem has some stylistic innovations as well, classifying it surely as belonging to its specific time and at the same time making it timeless.
As all the best epics such as the classical ones or the Anglo-Saxon’s Beowulf this one too (in book I) lays out from the very beginning its precise intentions by informing its readers about the themes of the poem that can be summed up as the fall of man and his redemption through the sacrifice carried out by God’s son; the angel’s rebellion that leads to a war in Heaven resulting in their everlasting exile in hell; finally the creation of Earth and the Universe in God’s own image. Each following book describes in depth all the events that lead to the climax ending in mankind’s inevitable banishment due to Satan’s irresistible temptation and its life in the real world out of the Eden forced to face the misery that this would entail.
Milton’s universe in Paradise Lost is still based on the overturned Ptolemaic theory rather than the more recently widely accepted Copernican one for two specific reasons. The first one is for mere artistic convenience since the Ptolemaic system with its clear cut order that centred the entire universe on God and the Earth outlined precise boundaries allowing Milton to restrain the chaos that characterised the Hell in which he places the fallen angels, thus giving him the opportunity to work with greater ease around the momentous task he had set out for himself. In fact this represents an allegory of the real world, on one side; and the invisible one, on the other, where God and mankind are the two opposite ends of the same order that can be united in a binding relationship through man’s access to God’s grace by overcoming any falsehood through reason, meaning the full acceptance of faith, against the misleading senses.
In other words, according to Milton, man can make a free choice between right and wrong, good as ascertained by reason and evil always tempting him through the senses.
The other reason for maintaining the Ptolemaic order is that, according to Milton, it was still quite evocative for the majority of people since it was still a strong part of their traditional culture as it had been handed down from long past literary and religious heritage.
Cultural Heritage and Innovations
It is, in fact, this cultural heritage that permeates Milton’s entire poetic endeavours as one can see from the extensive use he makes of the mythological, biblical and previous epics’ imagery; yet there are some very important changes as well, first of all, it must be pointed out that Milton’s protagonist is no longer a fearless warrior but one that is more suitable for his own contemporaries, therefore his hero will be much more concerned with deep philosophical issues regarding his inner being and most profound individual development before he can be considered fully entitled to head a new cosmic order.
Another interesting change employed by Milton is that about his nearly open sympathy towards Satan. Although Milton’s Satan cannot be regarded as a traditional epic hero, especially since Milton is undoubtedly a religious man and he would not have pledged any allegiance to the symbol of evil as Satan unmistakeably is throughout his work; yet Milton does bestow upon Satan several traits that had previously characterised the epic heroes and his Satan is a true born leader who doesn’t back down when faced with incredible challenges even if they will cause his downfall.
In fact he shows great determination in standing up for his beliefs and in this courageous defence the reader can easily observe many autobiographical instances. Milton had been a rebel himself when he challenged the King and the Church of England, therefore siding against authority was not new to him and his poetry clearly emphasizes his personal understanding of his character’s state of being despite his faith in God.
In addition, Milton feels for Adam too as he portrays his disobedience to God as a necessity in order to fulfil his true human nature, that of a less than perfect creation.
Milton, Dante and their respective Satans and Infernos
Finally, Milton’s Satan is quite different from the one that Dante had shaped in his Divine Comedy some three centuries before. Milton’s Satan is not only a means of punishment as the one created by the Italian poet was, but he is himself punished as God takes away from him the eternal light of Heaven and condemns him to a “gloomy dwelling”, moreover, as the poem’s narration progresses Milton’s Satan is transformed from a fallen angel into a base despicable creature, a snake, deprived of any of the monstrous mythological dignity that Dante had endowed him with losing everything because of his rebellion to the Almighty.
As far as the style is concerned Milton resorted to a blank verse that allowed him, along with an eloquent vocabulary, to match the greatness of the subject chosen for his masterpiece, therefore his eloquence is very far from everyday common speech.
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© L. R. Capuana