Hellenic and Hebraic Element in Paradise Lost

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      Milton's mind was shaped and molded by the influences of the Renaissance and the Reformation. On the one hand, he drank deep of classical poetry and philosophy and inherited all the culture and humanism of the Renaissance, and on the other he had a deeply religious temperament, and was a profound student of the Bible and the literature of the scriptures. Thus at the back of Milton's mind there were the best fruits of classical scholarship and Biblical learning. He was a lover of art and music, and possessed what may be called an all-round culture of the mind. Besides, he was full of moral and religious earnestness and possessed all the piety and devotion of a true Christian. He was however free from the intensely narrow outlook of a fierce puritan. He combined in himself the humanism of the Renaissance with the spiritual fervor of puritanism. These two influences molded all his poetic works. Dr. Johnson complained that his Lycidas was an inconsistent mixture of pagan and Christian sentiments. The two elements were no doubt mixed up, but the blending was on the whole harmonious in Lycidas, as it was in Paradise Lost. The great epic, as it stands, could not have been written if the poet had not been equally influenced by Hellenism and Hebraism.

      The very theme of Paradise Lost shows the puritan or Hebraic element in Milton. The fact that he chose the fall of Man as the theme of his great epic shows the puritan in him. Wars and adventurous deeds did not interest the puritan poet.

Not sedulous by nature to indite
Wars, hitherto the only argument
Heroic deemed, (Book IX, 27-29).

      He based his great work on the story of the fall of Man, as given in the Bible. To him, this story was not fictitious or legendary, but literally and historically true. And in telling the story of “man’s first disobedience” he set out justify the ways of God to man. Whether he succeeded in his aim or not, the fact remains that his ultimate design was to show how man fears through disobedience, and how he could regain the lost Paradise through the grace of God. It was indeed his puritan character that led him to this theme, but it gave full scope for the expression of his stupendous genius. Though he has introduced wars and adventurous deeds into the body of the epic, according to the classical tradition, the central theme of the poem is disobedience to God’s command and the consequent fall of man. The conflict in the epic is not external; it is a spiritual conflict—man’s first disobedience. The theme of the epic, thus, is religious, based on the Bible.

      But the form of the epic and treatment of the religious theme is entirely in the classical tradition. Milton had declared that he would write an epic in the style of Homer, and every element in the form of Paradise Lost is in the classical style. We have in Paradise Lost all the ingredients of the classical epic—invocation to the Muse, plunging into the very middle of the action, description of war, gradual development of action leading up to the climax - viz. plucking the fruit of the forbidden tree, resulting in the fall of Man, and then the resolution of the conflict ending in Man’s loss of Paradise. Thus the plan and design of Paradise Lost follow meticulously the classical models of Homer and Virgil.

      In telling the story of the Fall of Man, Milton fully expresses the spirit of the Renaissance. One of the fundamental attributes of Milton’s character was his love of freedom and spirit of independence. In the story of Adam, there was the conflict between pre-destination and free will. Without entering into theological controversy we may say that Milton was all for freedom, and pointed out how Adam plucked the fruit out of his free will (induced no doubt by Eve), though he had been commanded by God not to do so. And as a result of disobedience, he fell under the wrath of God. “The moral thesis of the Genesis is submission to the Almighty, which makes disobedience into sin. But Milton, who wished to emphasize this moral had an independent spirit and had lived independently. He had acclaimed and advocated the rebellion against the prelates and even the king, and celebrated the glories of regicide. In spite of himself he was in deep sympathy with Satan, the great rebel of Heaven and the enemy of God. The pride and indomitable courage of the revolted angel rekindled the emotion of the intensest hows of his life. Devoutly but mechanically he paid lip-service to the duty of obedience, but in his heart, he was chanting a hymn to freedom and rebellion.” (Legouis). This spirit of rebellion is embodied in the character of Satan, and it is in Satan that Milton put most of himself his pride and temperament.

      In the style of Paradise Lost again, we find the unmistakable impress of classical scholarship. His use of similes, his use of history and geography, his knowledge of the ancient and modern literatures, his love of art and music, his culture and refinement—all point to the influence of the Renaissance and Hellenism on his receptive mind. There is no poetic work so stupendous in its scope, so sublime in its style and moral outlook, that can be compared with Milton’s Paradise Lost. Truly did Dryden write,

Three poets in three distant ages born
Greece, Italy and England did adorn;
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed,
The second in majesty: in both the last.

      Paradise Lost is great by reason of its vast imaginative range, and its deep moral earnestness. It was the influence of the Renaissance, with its spirit of humanism and classicism, while its subject matter and its moral earnestness are due to the influence of the Reformation with its spirit of Hebraism.

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