The poem consists of twelve “books” which are actually chapters and has two plotlines that are closely connected to each other. One plotline narrates the eternal confrontation between Satan and God. It gives a detailed account of the mutiny against God that Satan organized and their war that ends with Satan’s defeat and his transformation from an angel to an abominable demon. The other plotline tells about the sinless life of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their seduction by Satan, fall, and expulsion from Eden. The central episode of the poem is the successful attempt of Satan to spoil and ruin the best creation of God-man. Nevertheless, Satan succeeded in his plans, God leaves a chance for humans to reform and redeem themselves, and, as a result, spiritually triumph over evil. The poem itself ends with the picture of the tragic expulsion of the man and his wife from Eden.
As we can see, outwardly the scheme of the poem corresponds to the biblical interpretation of the story. However, there are a lot of differences between Genesis in the Bible and Milton’s version of the events that happened in Eden. The representation of events in the poem, just as literary elements which the poet uses in his work to describe Satan and God and their collision, differ from the things we can read in the Bible. What is more, while reading, one can discover the poet’s attitude to the events he places in his poem which makes the style of account different from the one in Genesis. Milton’s attitude goes far beyond the orthodox attitude and that is the result of his special progressive views of life on the whole and of a church in particular.
John Milton, a poet of Middle Ages with progressive thinking was born on December 9, 1608, in London. His father was a successful businessman and could afford a great education for his son which played the important part in foundation of the writer’s personality. When he was a student, he wrote poems in Latin such as L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (1631). His most remarkable work during this period was his lines “On Shakespeare” that were placed in the Shakespearean Second Folio (1632). For the first time, Milton raised the question of good and evil in masque Comus. This is a poem-drama aimed to perform for entertainment which became one of the last compositions of its kind (Bloom, 1999). Not only the good education influenced Milton as a poet, but also the religious environment he was raised in and some new religious tendencies he adopted later (this influence on Milton’s poems will be discussed below); also, certain events of his life impacted him a lot, like the death of a fellow student Edward King on whom he wrote one of the greatest short poems in the English language – elegy Lycidas. Milton was concerned about the political situation in England and religious controversies. That is why during the period of almost twenty years (1641-1660), he dedicates himself to pamphleteering. He went through personal tragedies, as the deaths of his wives and blindness mixed with the death of his political career. Milton returned to writing and composed his greatest works, one of which is “Paradise Lost”, where the life experience, progressiveness and faith in human’s triumph over evil are closely interwoven.
The poem is written in blank verse and abounds in description of vivid and picturesque scenes. At the same time, Milton digresses from the biblical representation of the legend. In the Bible, the third chapter is dedicated to the scene of the original sin. Instead of Satan there appears the serpent which “was more subtle than any animal of the field which God had made” (Genesis 3:1). In Genesis the serpent is still an animal and there is no mention of Satan. As a clear antipode of God, Satan appears after the Babylonian fall. Also, in Milton’s poem Satan appears twice. At first, he assumes the aspect of frog whispering to Eve when she was sleeping. Only during the second time he turns into the serpent with the aim to seduce. What is more, according to that period of time which the poem was writing in, there was a commonly spread idea about how Satan should be imagined or described. That idea was adopted and spread by Catholic Church in Middle Ages. The mix of Christian theology and vivid medieval imagination created the image of Satan as a huge ugly creature with blending of humanlike and animal features. We can observe the examples of such devil perception, for instance, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, while his journey through Hell. In the Bible, Satan’s image was rather indeterminate. Milton’s characterization of Satan does not coincide with both descriptions. In first two chapters of “Paradise Lost” Satan is a heroic character who even after his overthrow does not lose the faith in the future victories, even though he realizes the might of God:
“… our Conqueror, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow’rd such force as ours)”.
The lines serve as an evidence that Satan respects his enemy. The pride of evil angel can be traced in the poem. For instance, he prefers to be the leader in Hell than a servant in Heaven: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n”. The leader Satan is respected by his allies when he decides to accomplish the important task of spoiling the best creature of God in Eden. On the other hand, he is sly and envies the creatures God created to substitute the fallen angels: “… instead of Spirits maligne a better Race to bring into thir vacant room…” (Paradise Lost 7:190). This line also explains the reasons of man’s creation in the poem which Archangel Raphael explains to Adam, just as God told him to do. In Genesis no angels talk to Adam, only God warns him not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die”. In Milton’s poem God assumes all the possible measures to warn the man against the terrible sin that will be committed anyway. Genesis always cause very passionate debates concerning how God allowed the original sin to be committed. One of the differences between Genesis and “Paradise lost” is that Milton actually tries to answer the question of how omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good) God allowed humankind to be spoiled and allowed evil on earth.
The decision of God not to interfere with the events of the Fall raises the question of whether God let evil to exist. A theological and philosophical study of Western Christian tradition which is called theodicy, is based on the fact that God knew beforehand about the fall but did not prevent the catastrophe. As a result, God can be blamed for creation of evil. In the book of Genesis, there is no emphasis on the fact that God is all-knowing, what is more, God seems to be even surprised because he tries to figure out the situation and questions Adam and Eve why they are hiding and what has happened to them. In Milton’s poem we exactly see all God’s intentions concerning humans and the reasons why he decides to allow certain things to happen or not to happen. In his poem, the poet explains why God allowed Satan to seduce the human and does not stop the devil, even though God is all-powerful and all-knowing. He answers the question by mentioning the existence of human’s free will, the ability which God gives to man from the very beginning of his existence. As God tells the Son,
“… so will fall He (Adam) and his faithless progeny: whose fault?
Who’s but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to stood, though free to fall” (Paradise Lost 3:95–99) (Harris 2012).
Harris mentions that the concept of free will was not as conventional in Milton’s times as it is now. The thing is that starting from the fifth century the new ideas of Christianity were spread by a group of Christians called Pelagians who did not believe in the original sin, the necessity of God’s son sacrifice and free will. As we can remember from the poem, Milton gives a big importance to the sacrifice. In the twelfth chapter archangel Michal tells about the future events among which he mentions the atonement provided by the Son of God which will bring the forgiveness to the whole humankind.
Originally Milton was Puritan which impacted his views and, as a result, the writing of “Paradise Lost”. However, the influence of another Christian conception can be traced in the poem; this conception is Armenianism which was organized by Jacobus Arminius – a continental reform movement. As Danielson argues, “Arminius’s ideas seem to have developed in the first place primarily out of an attempt to bring Reformed theology into line with the requirements of theodicy”. This branch of Christianity differed from Puritanism in the idea of different predestinations of people. While Puritanism suggested that some people are predetermined to hell, Armenians believed that every human being has a choice whether to link to good or evil and everyone has a chance to be forgiven because of the Christ’s sacrifice. That very idea was presented by Milton in his poem when Milton’s God tells the Son that has fallen
“… trespass, authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Their nature, and revoke the high decree
Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained
Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall.
In Genesis there is no direct mention that God granted free will to man but we can see the evidence that humans had the possibility to choose between good and evil. If it was not so, God would not speak to Adam and warn him against eating of the tree.
Another difference between “Paradise Lost” and the Bible that is worth to mention is the central event – the Fall. In both versions Eve is the first one to be seduced but in Milton’s variant the woman is more responsible for the sin, while the man agrees to eat of the tree because he does not want to leave his wife alone in the horrible situation.
“Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet!
How art you lost, how on a sudden lost…”
“Certain my resolution is to Die;
How can I live without you”.
In the book of Genesis the fault of the Fall is put on both, woman and man, while Milton exaggerates the guilt of Eve. The character of Adam has a strong willpower because in contrast with Eve, he realizes all the tragedy of situation which she caused (Leonard, 1990). In the Bible there is no mention that Adam is upset by what Eve has done. In the poem Adam is also described as faithful and sympathetic, as he does not want new Eve to be made from another rib but decides to eat of the tree and remain with his wife.
Such detailed description of the characters which Milton provides in his poem is not typical for Genesis. Three main characters of the story Satan, Eve and Adam have vivid personalities, the motives of their actions are logically explained and thoughts can be traced in the poem. Milton gives the opportunity for a reader to understand and even feel sympathy for the fallen people, while in Genesis the actions of the two characters evoke in a reader judgment and even hate, as one cannot understand how our first parents could disobey God’s will and exchange the perspective to live happily ever after for the transient desire to know more. After the Fall, Milton describes the very first argument between man and woman. The divine creatures are now showed as a common married couple. There is nothing like that in the Bible.
Of course, it is hard to cover all the special features of the great poem and Genesis and differences between them. However, the most important and obvious ones were covered in this work.