Compare Biblical & Classical in Paradise Lost, Books 1-2

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      To Milton and many of his contemporaries, using the Bible as a literary source was a matter of grave concern: could the divinely inspired word of God be altered to the slightest extent in the interest of art? Milton decided that it could, although he considered the Bible, individually interpreted, to be of far greater authority than any organized Church. Certainly, he considered the Old Testament to be much superior to the literature of ancient Greece, not only in its content, but also in its form: this he states clearly both in the Reason of Church Government (Bohn, Vol. 2, p.479) and in Paradise Regained, IV. 331-50. In Paradise Lost, I and II, however, there is no direct conflict between these two major sources of literary inspiration, the biblical and classical.

      The Old Testament provides Milton with a considerable part of his narrative material in Book I. He believed that the fallen angels lost the names they had borne in heaven before their fall and had taken the names of heathen idols, by which names they were worshipped by the tribes with whom the Hebrews came into contact, like the Ammonites, the Moabites and the Philistines. These gods parade in epic style in Book 1. 381-505, and two of the most important, the first and last, Moloch and Belial, appear again as principal speakers in the great debate in Book II. The Bible provides Milton with something more than narrative material; his illustrative material, the content of his epic similes and other comparisons, is often taken from the scriptures. For example, when he speaks of the vast numbers of fallen angles, he compares them to the army with which Pharaoh pursued the Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea (1.306-13), a passage which also illustrates Milton’s relish for the sound values is shown by his choice of the alternative form ‘Alcides’ for ‘Hercules’ or ‘Herakles’:

As when Alcides from CEchalia crowned
With conquest, felt the envenomed robe, and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines.
And Lichas from the top of CEta threw
Into the Euboic sea. (II.542-6)

      Thus Milton uses his biblical and classical material for two identical purposes: the fallen angles become both the heathen idols of the Old Testament and the pagan deities of classical mythology; and the resounding proper names of Milton’s epic similes are taken mainly form these two sources - when he wants size, he thinks of Leviathan or these two sources - when he wants size, he thinks of Leviathan or Briareus and Typhon, when quantity, Pharaoh’s armies, the leaves of Vallambrosa, or the barbarian hordes invading the Roman Empire. Both sources, too, can be drawn on for discussion of themes less obvious than the principal ones: the New Testament for the nature of the Holy Spirit whom Milton invokes in 1.17; the colors of classical rhetoric for the variations in tone in the speeches of Book II, and the Latinised syntax and vocabulary of the whole work.

      There are, however, some differences in Milton’s use of his two main bodies of source material, slight though these are in comparison to the similarities. Milton was deeply learned in both, but whereas Old Testament material predominates in Book I in the much longer list of heathen idols and the greater number of scriptural authority, Milton relies almost exclusively on classical references even in his epic similes.

      This must therefore be our conclusion. In Books I and II Paradise Lost, Milton makes extensive and almost equal use of biblical and classical material; he possessed, and shows, a vast knowledge of both. Biblical and classical references reinforce or supplement each other in both narrative and illustration, and nowhere in this work is the conflict to be found between the two which unhappily occurs elsewhere, though Milton leaves us in no doubt that for him it is the Bible which has the advantage of being divinely inspired.

University Questions

Compare Milton’s use of biblical and classical materials in Paradise Lost, Books I and II.

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