Autobiographical Elements in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Paradise Lost is an epic; it belongs to that species of poetic composition which is described as “objective,” i.e. in which the poet least intrudes himself, and is content to tell the story of other persons. There is thus no room for the expression of the personality of the poet; yet the greatness of Paradise Lost is due to its intense subjectivity. It is the superb utterance of a soul-centered in itself, which draws upon its own rich resources in the construction and perfection of as complete a work of art, and as noble as Notre Dame itself.

      An examination of the circumstances of the composition of the poem will lead to this conclusion. Milton was ambitious from youth of making his country as renowned as Greece and Rome by the production of some notable literary monuments. He dedicated himself to this self-appointed task with all the fervor of a Nazarite of ancient Judea: and, deliberately, he set out to prepare himself for it with religious zeal. He believed that his work must be divinely inspired and should show the proper fruits of study. Like the Hebrew prophets of old, he led a life of abstemious virtue, even denying himself simple luxuries, and incessantly praying to the Eternal Spirit to touch and purify his lips with the hallowed fire of “all utterance and knowledge.” With all the assiduity of Petrarch or of Goethe, he devoted himself to self-preparation. “In wearisome labor and studious watchings,” he confesses, “I have tried out almost a whole youth.” “Labour and intense study,” he took to be his portion in life. He would know, not all, but “what was of use to know,” and form himself by assiduous culture. By 1642 he had completed his equipment, and there remained for him the choice of the theme and form. Even these were settled by 1658, although he took a long time deliberating about them. Meanwhile, events were moving fast around him in the political sphere, of the wheels of which he himself was a cog. He had now become totally blind, and was thrown more upon his own resources. Always independent of others, he now began to live more intensely within himself. His isolation was further aggravated with the Restoration. He was surrounded by enemies, and his very existence was in jeopardy. Though circumstances eased a little, the blind genius could not rid himself of the conviction of his danger. His only comfort at the time was the work for which he had been deliberately preparing himself, and prevented from expressing his indignation openly, he let loose his fury in the fable he was composing. The very theme of his epic - a revolt - offered a parallel to the conditions of his existence. To him the civil war in Heaven was little more than the Civil War he had himself gone through. It symbolized the tragedy of his own situation with peculiar force, and he brought to bear all the learning he had painfully accumulated, all the energy, fire and fury of his own character on the composition of this great epic. Thus we have the poet living and breathing in every line of what he has written, not only in those purely personal utterances with which he prefaces certain parts of his poem, but also in the very framework and body, and the characters and sentiments of the epic.

      The theme of Paradise Lost is founded upon the meager account of the creation of Paradise, and the fall of man as narrated in the Book of Genesis. Milton has built the mighty edifice of his epic upon this slender foundation. The literalism which his particular brand of Christianity fostered in him never allowed him to depart from this account, but he built round it such a wealth of detail from the learning with which he had stored his mind, that it astonishes us. This scaffolding, however, is no superfluity; it forms an integral part of the poem. The war in Heaven, the defeat of Satan and his crew, their rout through Chaos, the conclave in Hell, the journey of Satan through Chaos, are details which have been added to the account in Genesis; Milton owed the knowledge of them to several sources, Hebraic, Greek, Latin and Italian. But they seem to be quite necessary for the central theme, the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Besides, Milton was faced with the difficulty of rendering the superhuman probable and credible; he had to use the ordinary language of human speech in describing supramundane effects. He felt he could not do it successfully without setting the stupendous activities of his angels and devils against the background of the mighty deeds of the heroes of history, legend and romance. Hence the latter are introduced as allusions. All this wealth of learning, which forms so essential a part of the poem shows what a scholar Milton was. But his learning is not mere pedantry. It has been sublimated by the fervor of his intellect, and he has made it his own. His language is the language of one who has lived in the habitual companionship of the great and the wise of past time.

      The subject of the Second Book is the debate in Hell, the amusements of the devils, the episode of Sin and Death, Satan’s journey through Chaos and his approach to the New World. It shows vastness and grandeur of conception beyond the reach of ordinary human fancy. The ability to endow such mighty characters as Moloch, Belial, Mammon, Beelzebub and Satan with sentiments proper to their superhuman nature, the originality to invent games and pastimes for the devils in Hell, the capacity to create such formidable Shapes as Sin and Death, and the power to fill the void illimitable with jarring atoms - these necessarily reveal the active and fervid imagination of the poet. In the words of Samuel Johnson, Milton had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions therefore were extensive. The characteristic quality of his poem was sublimity.

      His delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of Hell, or accompany the choirs of Heaven.

      Milton’s imagination possessed the power of visualizing vividly vast spaces and his art enabled him to present what it saw in pregnant and beautiful form. Such is the description of the frozen continent beyond the river Lethe in Hell, which

Lies dark and with perpetual storms
Of whirlwind and dire hail; which on firm land
Thaws not; but gathers heap, and ruin seems Of ancient pile.

      Or of the empyreal Heaven, seen from the far distant verge of Chaos extending wide

In circuit, undermined square or round,
With opal towers and battlements adorned; Of living sapphire.

      Or, finally, of the pendent world, hanging by a golden chain,

in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.

      The characteristic of these pictures is that they are all clearly outlined, and are made vivid through the use of the metaphor of luminousness. But they are all pictures of landscape, and they suggest either charm or hideousness. Rarely are there such clear descriptions of individuals. There is no glamour in his sketch either of the Divinity or of his angels. But in suggesting pictures of monstrosities, like Sin and Death, his imagination is most active.

      The vividness of the imagination has in Milton’s case something to do with his blindness. The clearness with which Milton divides space into Heaven, Chaos, Hell and the Material Universe, and the frequency with which the imagery of lucency occurs in the poem reveal, if there were no external evidence even, that the poet must have been blind when he composed the great work. Milton had become totally blind by 1652. A few years later his vision was totally dark. “In what,” asks Masson, “would the imaginations of things physical of such a person consist? Would they not consist in carving this medium into zones, divisions, and shapes, in painting phantasmagories, on it or in it, in summoning up within it or projecting into it combinations of such recollections of the once visible world as remained strongest and dearest in the memory? But are there not certain classes of images, certain kinds of visual recollection that would be easier in such a state of blindness than others? The recollections of minute objects may grow dimmer and dimmer, but there would be a compensation in the superior vividness with which certain other sensations of sight, and in particular all luminous effects, all contrasts of light and darkness are remembered.”

      And so, “in the first place, the very physical scheme and conception of the poem as a whole seems a kind of revenge against blindness. It is a compulsion of the very conditions of blindness to aid in the formation of a visual phantasmagory of transcendent vastness and yet perfect exactness. That roof of a boundless Empyrean above all, beaming with indwelling light; that Chaos underneath this, of immeasurable opaque blackness; hung in this blackness by a touch from the Empyrean, the created Universe, conceived as a sphere of soft blue ether brilliant with luminaries; separated thence by an intervening belt of Chaos, and marked as a of antarctic zone of universal space, a lurid or dull-red Hell: in all this we have the poet marking districts in the infinitude of darkness in which he himself moved, suffering some of the districts to remain in their native opaque, rescuing others into various contrasts of light. In the filling-up, in the imagination of what goes on within any one of the districts into which space is marked out, or by way of the intercourse of districts with one another, we may trace the same influence. Much of the action and incident consists of the congregation of angelic beings in bands beyond the Universe of Men, or in their motions singly towards the Universe, descrying it from afar, or in their winnings to and fro within the Universe from luminary to luminary. Now in all these portions of the poem the mere contrast of darkness with light goes very far. When Satan, already half-way through Chaos in his quest of the New Universe, ceases his temporary halt at the pavilion of Night, and, having received direction there, rises with fresh alacrity for his further ascent, the recommencement of his motion is described in the lines that he sprang upward ‘like a pyramid of fire. Thus we see the fond familiarity of the blind poet with the element of light in contrast with darkness, and an endless inventiveness of mode, degree, and circumstance in his fancies of the element. In Paradise Lost brilliance is to a considerable extent, Milton’s favorite synonym for beauty.”

      But it is in his delineation of Satan that Milton has revealed himself most. He found Satan’s situation as a political rebel corresponding with his own, and in the absence of any source from which he could draw his lineaments he endowed him with characteristics which were his own and those of the party to which he belonged. Not that he was in sympathy with the character, as some critics of the poet have argued - Milton could never be in sympathy with a rebel against God; but intuitively, and, as Denis Saurat has expressed it, in revenge on himself, in his sense of isolation, in his lofty disdain of his crew. The pride and indomitable courage of the revolted archangel rekindled the emotion of the interest hours of his own life. Satan’s reserved and self-contained nature, brooding over his own ideas, not easily admitting into his mind of ideas, of others - these were also the characteristics of Milton’s nature. Milton felt with Satan that he had fallen upon evil days, and that he was compassed round with dangers and solitude. He had the same “indurated egoism” as the fallen archangel, and he was as unrepentant in his obstinacy as the other. Like Satan again, he was fond of exploring the unknown on the wings of his imagination, and as daring in his flights; and like Satan Milton had a contempt for the people—“a herd confus’d, a miscellaneous rabble, who extol things vulgar.” Milton has thus projected himself most into the character of Satan, especially in the first two books, so that we can draw a clear sketch of the character of the poet from merely studying him.

      Paradise Lost then though epic and objective, is a poem into which Milton has put most of himself, his own pride and temperament. He so constantly returns to himself in the poem that he limits its objective value, but this very self-centredness imparts to it a continuous emotion and eloquence and lyrical ardor. Milton’s absorbent personality is the central force of the poem.

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