Tuesday, November 9, 2010

“Paradise Lost" Book-I: A Critical Appreciation

Paradise Lost (1665) is the great epic which Milton had been planning for years to write. During the years of political activity he had been looking around for a suitable subject and for a little while he even toyed with the idea of writing on the Arthurian legend. But eventually he chose to write on a far greater subject - the fall of Adam and Eve from God's grace and though them, the fall of the human race.

No other poem but Paradise Lost contains such treasures of learning. The Bible, the Talmud, the church Fathers - all have contributed to the outline of the story. The structure and tragic tone of the poem are indebted to Homer and Virgil. But everywhere one will find transfigured for Milton's own purposes a world of literary tradition, i.e. Greek mythology, the scriptures, Ovid, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser and many Renaissance writers in Italian, Latin, French and English. The reference, in Milton, to the lore of learning is not mere decoration; it is the very tissue of his thinking. Like the creation of the universe which it celebrates, the poem creates a world that is timeless and placeless; it is the past, the present and the future.
Theme of "Paradise Lost"
The theme of a literary work is a concept made concrete through its representation in character, action and imagery. The subject of Paradise Lost is Man's disobedience and the ensuing loss of Paradise on earth, but its theme in the simplest term is love. The central episode of Satan's revolt against God and his defeat by the Son is illuminated as the origin of the difficulties which Man will experience (though not yet created) and as continuous admonition of Satan's defeat before, during, and at the end of mortal time.
The thesis of Paradise Lost is that full recognition of Eternal Providence will justify to men the ways of God towards men:
"That, to height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men"
The justification of God's ways lies in the demonstration that man can learn the nature of God only by knowing the nature of evil, that he can rise only by first having descended, and that obedience is the natural consequence of love.
Structure of "Paradise Lost"
The fable of this epic poem can be read more or less in three distinct parts: the rebellion of the angels and their struggle with God (Books I, II, III and the end of the greater part of Books V and VI); the creation of mankind, the intervention of the Saviour; and the state of man's existence (touched on in Books I, IV, and part of V, VII and VIII); the stratagem of Satan against Man, the disobedience of Adam, and Eve, and their banishment from paradise (Books IX to XII).
The universe of "Paradise Lost"
"Every great work of art creates its own universe that obeys is own universe that obeys its own imaginative laws. As we read on, or look, or listen, we come to learn what may be expected and what may not, what we can demand and what we cannot or should not ask." This view of Helen Gardner is very sensible and we should agree with her that the universe of Paradise Lost is intensely dramatic and filled with energies and wills. But besides having an unprecedented concentration, Milton's epic also has a wider scope in time and space than any other epic poem. It ranges from the height of Heaven to the depth of Hell. In Helen Gardner's words: " Milton's conception of his subject is the source of what has always been regarded as one of the chief glories of Paradise Lost, its wealth of epic similes". And to say that Milton's world is lacking in sharp outlines is to completely overlook the nature of his subject as he conceived it.
Paradise Lost is the outcome of a Puritan's deep reflections on the Bible. And though Milton accepts the whole of biblical history as genuine and sacred, he takes great liberty in interpreting it. The outcome is a ceaseless conflict between his faith and his temperament - a universe, with its wealth of epic similes which keeps us charmed all the way through.
Milton's Style "A Wealth of Epic Similes'
"The name of Milton", says Raleigh, "is become the mark, not of a biography, not of a theme, but of a style, the most distinguished in our poetry." Milton's is the language, says Pattison, "of one who lives in the companionship of the great and the wise of the past time." It would not be wrong to say that the word "sublimity" best describes Milton's mature style. The portrait of Satan is Book I is an ample proof:-
He, above the rest
In shape and gesture, proudly eminent.
Stood like a tower, his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess,
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams or from behind the moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight shades,
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs
Images of a tower, an Archangel, the sun rising through mists, or in an eclipse, the ruin of monarchy, and the revolutions of kingdoms this crowd of great and confused images affect us exactly because they are crowded and confused. The images used in poetry are always of this obscure kind. His remoteness from common speech is not a defect. As Tillyard puts it: "The heightened style of Paradise Lost was something demanded of him as an epic poet a rigour against which there was no possible appeal." In fact Milton's vast learning became a part and parcel of his poetic sensibility. Satan's size and power is compared to "that sea-beast Leviathan". He compares the vast number and confusion of the fallen angels too "thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrose". The truth is the Paradise Lost is resplendent with such epic similes.
Characterisation in "Paradise Lost"
The character of Satan strikes us as the most impressive figure in Paradise Lost. The poet's great achievement lies not only in the portrayal of the majestic figure of Books I and II but in the slow and steady degeneration of the "arch fiend" into a slimy, deceitful serpent. The portrayal of Satan in the first two Books is such that a controversy has cropped up about the hero of this epic. Many critics have taken Satan to be the hero. This misinterpretation, perhaps, is due to the fact that such a view is based on the reading of the first two books only. In fact the hero is Adam - a tragic figure in many ways. Adam's character, though not as dynamic as Satan's is nevertheless very finely etched. Adam's role is not that of a warrior (which Satan is) but that of a God fearing man, faced with temptation and defeated in the conflict between himself and Satan. But the defeat is not final. Adam regains the Paradise "happier far".
There are some critics who feel, that either God or the Messiah is the hero of this epic. This seems to be an absurd thesis. Neither God nor the Messiah takes part in the central action of "Paradise Lost". It is true that Adam has a somewhat passive role as well but the fact remains that the whole epic turns round 'man's first disobedience'. Adam disobeyed God, and by this act of disobedience, he not only lost Paradise but brought about the fall of the while human race. No action can be more tremendous in its import and significance than that which brought the fall of the whole of humanity. And Adam being responsible for it, is obvious meant by the poet to fill the role of the hero of the great poem. Ultimately, Adam and his race come out triumphant by the grace of God and regain the lost Paradise.
In the final analysis Milton's Paradise Lost proves to be a stupendous work of art which offers idea and conclusion for man in all ages. Down the ages, all men have been concerned with what seems to be a discrepancy between a benevolent and omnipotent God and their own state of ill-war, famine, disease and death. Though many critics have stressed the analysis of evil which the poem presents thereby producing the major controversies over the poem it also analyses good, and it is by this idea of good that the seeming discrepancy is annulled. 

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