Biblical Story of The Genesis in Paradise Lost

Also Read

      The prologues in Paradise Lost begin as classical invocations, but, with one exception, they rise to Christian prayer to the Holy Spirit, read by Christians into the second verse of Genesis: “and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the Water.”

Thou from the first
West present, and with mighty wings out spread,
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And madst it pregnant.

      In twenty-six lines, (Book-I) we have learned the theme of Paradise Lost, “man’s first disobedience”, we know that the materials are to be drawn chiefly from the Genesis, that Milton is writing a classical epic, but that he intends, with the aid of the “Heavenly Muse” to transcend the classical, and in a poem both Hebrew and Christian, deal with the most profound of all problems, “to justify ways of God to men”. In twenty-six lines Milton has fused three great civilizations, the main sources of Renaissance religious poetry: Classical, Hebrew Christian.

      The primary function of the Prologue in Book IX is to change the tone from that of the leisurely books in which Adam and the “sociable Angel” talked so easily together in the idyllic days before sin entered the Garden of Eden to the mood of the four final books: “I now must change Those notes to tragic”. In addition, the Prologue serves as Milton’s defence for the kind of poetry he is attempting: a Christian epic, “not less but more heroic,” he insists, than the three great classical epics.

      The theme or subject of Milton’s Paradise Lost is the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, from Paradise. The story is given in the bible, in the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, which is the first Book of the Old Testament.

      Adam, the first man created by God, and Eve, the first woman, lived happily in Paradise. Paradise was a divinely beautiful garden, forming part of Eden, a favored spot in the newly created world. Here Adam and Eve had been placed by God. They could eat the fruit of every tree in their garden except that of one tree, namely, the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil). Adam and Eve were expressly warned by God of the evil properties of the fruit of this tree. They were told that on the day they tasted it, they would surely die. For a long time they obeyed God and were happy. One day, a serpent came to Eve, and by its wiles tempted Eve to taste the forbidden fruit. Eve tasted it, found it good, and induced Adam also to eat it. On this, their eyes opened to their nakedness and they hid themselves from God. For their disobedience, God expelled them from Paradise and pronounced upon them the curse of eternal toil, misery, and death. This is a well-known story but it does not tell us who the serpent was and why it tempted Eve in the way it did. A hint of it is given in the Book of Revelation, the last Book of the New Testament. Here, it is said that the ‘dragon’ or that old serpent habitually given to deceiving mankind is the same as the devil, or God’s enemy, Satan. Here also is mentioned a war in Heaven raised by this Satan, a war in which he was defeated. Out of this slender material furnished in the Bible, and out of a further mass of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian tradition, a fine story was woven round Satan as the serpent who tempted Eve and brought on mankind all it misery.

      Milton’s Paradise Lost is a poetic rendering of the story of the Fall in such a way as to illuminate some of the central paradoxes of the human situation and the tragic ambiguity of man as a moral being. Paradise Lost was a heroic poem, but its theme was to be far above the themes of conventional heroic poems. To narrate the story of the Fall of Man was

Sad task, yet argument
Not less but more Heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles on his Foe persu’d
Thrice Fugitive about Troy Wall; or rage
Of Turn us for Lavinia disespous’d
Or Neptun’s ire or Juno’s, that so long
Perplexd the Greek and Cytlicrea’s son;

      The ‘answerable stile’ demanded a verse which allowed of both a dignity and a flexibility, an ability to rise to the most sublime heights and at the same time to indicate through changes in movement, shifts in moral attitude, differences in cosmic status, and the relationship between the four great theatres of action— Heaven, Eden, Hell, and (by suggestion and implication only, yet most strongly and significantly) the ordinary, familiar postlapsarian world.

      The degree of Milton’s Christian orthodoxy is of less literary interest than the kinds of craftsmanship he employs in order to make his ideas proper material for poetry and achieve adequate poetic expression of his theme. Paradise Lost is not a piece of Christian theology put into a grand epic style in order to sound persuasive any more than it is the expression of a piece of exploded mythology in magnificent verse or a wilful piece of barren virtuosity. It is a poem about the nature of man which uses the Christian story of the Fall and its consequences as a frame work. Occasionally Milton confuses the framework with the fabric of the poem, and these are the less interesting and less important parts. The most impressive and enjoyable—are those where Milton’s use of language expands the core of literal meaning to produce a complex and moving statement of trie great paradox of the human condition.

      Some vague and scattered hints in the realm of myth, legend, and Jewish and Christian doctrine are by Milton welded into an artistic unity. First, he conceives of a vast, unbounded Chaos. Then he portions out of it the bright region of the Heaven in which God and the angels lived. Then he passes in review the great commotion in Heaven following on the rebellion of Satan and his angelic crew and the rout of the rebels. Then emerges into view the vast region of Hell, and the amazed angels wallowing there in a lake of fire; their revival at the stirring call of their leader; and the scheme first hatched there of the Temptation of Man. Satan is the one chosen to do it. So the poet follows Satan in his flight through Chaos, his meeting with the Angel of the Sun, and his first survey of the Garden of Eden. After some globe-encircling movements, Satan returns to Eden, takes the form of the lovely serpent, impresses Eve with his eloquence and gives her a taste of the fruit forbidden by God. Eve tempts Adam, and both fall. They are led out of Eden, held in either hand by Michael, the Archangel. This is Milton’s handling of the story.

      Finally, Milton invests the theme, not only with an artistic, but a further moral unity. Milton conceived of life as an eternal struggle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. This universe is the arena of an unending struggle that goes on between God and Satan. Caught between two such mighty antagonists, Man’s fate is continually hanging in the balance. God has banned him with a bright sound and an unclouded reason; if Man will only make proper use of them, he will be saved. But, on the other side, Satan holds out quite a few of his ‘fair-appearing’ attractions; and if man is not on the alert, at any time the serpent’s gleaming coils will close on him and crush him beyond redemption. God, being just, must visit each sin with its corresponding punishment. But, being also a merciful God, and anxious to bring about the ultimate discomfiture of the forces of Evil, His grace will extend to that Man who shows true fortitude, contrition arid a sprit of sacrifice. The working out of this idea is a further moral unity binding together the extensive scheme of the poem.

      Incidentally, Milton, who cannot do violence to the Biblical text, is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that the story in the Genesis has the serpent as the tempter, and says nothing of Satan. Though later tradition made the serpent merely the disguise of Satan, the clear statement in the Book Genesis of the serpent’s own guilt and punishment leads to some odd prevarication on Milton’s part.

      The form that he gives to his poem, the Epic, is a distinctly classical form, and this is a heritage of the Renaissance. In making his poem the ideal epic, he avails himself of the ‘pagan’ devices of Homer and Virgil; and this does not show either intolerance or blindness to light. For making clear his ideas of Heaven, Hell, the Garden of Eden, the first Man and Woman, he employs liberally parallels from classical literature and even mythology.

University Questions

“Paradise Lost is classical in form but biblical, even Hebraic, in substance.” Discuss.
Critically examine Milton’s use of the biblical story of the Genesis in Paradise Lost.

Previous Post Next Post