Since all epics of antiquity deal with personalities and events of divine or superhuman dimensions, it has become a fixed rule that an epic worthy of the name should deal with an action or story which has universal or even cosmic appeal. The affairs of small people do not interest us since there is nothing heroes or noble about them at first sight. The Iliad dealt with Gods and heroes, lovely women and romantic lovers, doughty deeds on the battle-field and heroic achievements and death.The Ramayana deals with the heroic virtues of constancy, parental duty, filial love, chivalry, succouring the oppressed, loyalties and treacheries on a grand scale. In the Mahabharata, we have the endless complication all springing from the rivalries of brothers for power and dominion. As the fortunes and misfortunes affect all human beings, all are interested in following the adventures of such exceptional beings. We see what man is capable of, what man has to contend with and what man has to suffer as a result of transgressing the rules of Dharma. From such knowledge we come out chastened and inspired to order our lives more honorably and nobly.
But the ancient epics dealt with men and events which we know could not have happened as described. Much of it is pure imagination, much of it is fantastic or incredible and many other parts are beyond human agencies. They help us to realise that we are surrounded by invisible powers which can shape us to some extent, and which exert a continuous influence over us for good and ill. Faith in God and a divine order is thus inculcated, and we do not feel as strangers or helpless beings in this world. Death is the final end of all mortal men. But before death comes, we are impelled to do something worthy of our higher natures so that it may remain as an object of inspiration to all mankind. Thus, epics give us delight, instruction, edification and consolation.
Milton's Subject: Fall of Man
Milton was a profound student of the classics, and from a very early period of his life, he was seized with the ambition to write an epic poem. But the course of his life was chequered by many interests, conflicts and crosses which prevented him from taking up the work on which he kept on brooding. At last he hit upon the subject of the fall of Man as narrated in the Bible as a fit theme for his epic, and planned and completed his Paradise Lost. The actual story of Adam and Eve, of their blissful state of innocence in paradise and the manner of their fall from it is very briefly narrated in the Genesis. Taking it as the kernel of his work, he decided to enrich it in all possible ways with the resources of his poetical faculties, his wide knowledge, learning and scholarship.
Coleridge commenting on the theme of Paradise Lost said: "It represents origin of evil and the combat of evil and good, it contains matter of deep interest to all mankind, as forming the basis of all religion and the true occasion of all philosophy whatsoever."
The fall of man is a subject of universal interest. Unlike other epics of ancient times, he could treat it in such a way as to ring conviction to the modern mind. But as mythology is a very essential aspect of all epics, he decided to make use of all his classical lore to embellish and illustrate his own narrative. As an epic should provide for the free play of all the nova rasas as we call them, he developed a plot which provided scope for them in ample measure. Biblical history is a part of the Sematic racial heritage; and the ancient Hebrews had come into contact with the pre-classical body of knowledge which goes back to a much more ancient past than that of ancient
and Greece . At the same time, according to the Christian religion, all mankind has been cursed as a result of the disobedience and fall of Man. Also that religion connects it with the coming of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of mankind from the sin of which Adam and Eve were guilty. Rome
Raleigh remarks: "A prerogative place among the great epics of the world has sometimes been claimed for Paradise Lost, on the ground that the theme it handles is vaster and of a more universal human interest than any handled by Milton's predecessor. It concerns itself with the fortunes not of a city or of an empire but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history of the race which has moulded all its destinies.".
A.C. George states: "We can state the essential theme of Paradise Lost as the sustained opposition between love and hate, God responds to the destructive challenge of Satan with the creative expression of love." "Milton has combined two traditional elements - the story of the challenge and response through an indirect agent. The former theme is the direct physical conflict of the Celestial Battle, and the latter is Satan's challenge of God-indirectly through God's own creature man. The second theme arises out of the first."
Another interpretation is that the theme of Paradise Lost is "the Fall of Man" from Paradise on account of his sin. Here Milton has tried to show that every action of man, however, insignificant, has its consequences. His principal concern is that man must make the right use of every moment of life because his actions are irrevocable. Milton's object in this poem was also to emphasize the role of Christ as the Redeemer of mankind and to justify the ways of God to men.
According to Tillyard, when the passions get the upper-hand chaos ensues, all peace is gone and man falls from true liberty to moral anarchy. According to F. Kermode, Paradise Lost points the contrast between the true delight of love and the false delight which leads to sorrow.
The doctrine of Free Will has been insisted on by Milton frequently and emphatically. The kind of action or state of mind Milton felt desirable was one perfectly controlled by the conscious will. Any deed, however significant, performed instinctively or without the full significance of the issue realized, was of little value. Milton has not condemned the element of desire in human nature but the difference between love that is genuine and passion that is not controlled by reason has been brought out.
God's Pity on Mankind
As every sin has to be punished so was it the lot of mankind to suffer death although they had been promised immortality by God. But God himself took pity on mankind after a time, and resolved to come down in human shape to save men from hell and death. So Christ is represented as the Son of God, who came on earth and suffered Himself to be crucified, thus taking on himself the sin of mankind. This is known as the doctrine of vicarious suffering. God as man, suffered despite being pure and guiltless. By following Christ men were thus giving a chance of regaining their lost Paradise. This is the main topic which Milton has elaborated in his two great epics called Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The first deals with the entire story of the Universe from the moment of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, down to the disobedience of Adam tempted by Satan.
Two Groups of Angels
To explain how Satan came to be an evil spirit, we have another mythological story of how there was formerly great war between one group of angels devoted to God and another group of angels led by Lucifer who wished to overthrow God so that he himself might become the most supreme of spirits, in the end, Lucifer was defeated and hurled down by God with all his hosts into a bottomless pit there to suffer for ever. But Lucifer, thereafter called Satan rankled in his defeat and planned to seek revenge against the Almighty. On hearing that God had created Man to take the place of the fallen angels, he decided to tempt him and wean him away from God. He found an opportunity to do so, since God put Adam and Eve in Paradise and gave him the lordship of all creation with one exception alone. This was that they should not taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge which grew in Eden.
Satan seized the opening, and after recognising his shattered hosts and placing them in suitable dwellings in Hell, came out, and taking the form of a serpent, entered
and caused the fall of both Adam and Eve by persuading Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge. With knowledge, Adam and Eve lost their innocence, and God cursed them not only with the loss of their immorality and happiness but also drove them out of Eden to wander over the earth and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. Eden
Into this main Biblical story, Milton has woven many episodes, drawn from the entire range of ancient lore to give his poem both substance, bulk and shape and impressive majesty and sublimity.
Vastness of the Theme
Critics have admired Milton's courage in dealing with the universal subject. The scene of action is the universal space; time is represented by eternity. The characters are God and His creation. The epic deals with the fortunes of the whole human race and not of a particular country and nation.
The Problem of Evil: The Conflict between Good and Evil
The problem of evil is a very old subject. Philosophers have given different views regarding the origin of the evil. Some regarded it as something external. Others regarded it as something eternal. For Satan, evil is the disobedience of the order of God. It is the will of the Man asserting himself. In fact, Satan brought freedom to Man. He gave consciousness of personality to Man. Man began to act with free choice and judgement. Now this freedom meant facing the consequences of one's choice. Adam and Eve have, therefore, to leave paradise because they followed their own free will. Milton condemned the act of Man. He did not appreciate man's free will and judgement because he was a very strict Puritan. His stress was on the results of the evil which led man to his ruin.
Some critics feel that there are two themes which are quite balanced, namely, the Fall of Angels and Fall of Man. The first half deals with Satan's efforts to do something against God. The second half is the drama of Adam and Eve.
But this cannot be accepted. Milton clearly said that his story dealt with the Fall of Man. Satan's story is subsidiary to the main story of Adam and Eve.
Milton's Failure to Justify the Ways of God to Man
Some critics believe that the poet instead justifies the ways of Satan to men, he has not justified the ways of god on the poetic level. Milton has tried to do so through arguments which are unconvincing.
Moreover, the punishment given to Adam and Eve is out of proportion to their sin of disobedience.
points out that "the justification of divine ways lies in the representation of Adam as a free agent and in the revelation of the working of God's Grace which allows to him and his descendants the opportunity for a new exercise of moral choice and of consequent salvation even after the Fall... The poet has gone out of his way again and again to insist on the fact of Adam's freedom…..Neither personally nor as a part of the system did the idea greatly move or interest him." Hanford
The theme of the epic is the justification of "God's ways to Man. "Milton justified the punishment of Adam and Eve for the crime they committed. They are expelled from Paradise. However, Milton is not a pessimist. He believe in spiritual development from Hope to Faith. God through His Goodness redeems man from sin. His son namely Christ offers his own sacrifice for the sake of Adam and Eve. At the end of the Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve feel repentant. They are punished in Heaven by God through the angel named Michael.
David Daiches states: "Milton's heart was not fully in this sort of justification. Whatever he might have consciously thought." However, he adds that the true justification lies in the way in that virtue, can only be achieved by struggle, that the Fall was inevitable because a passive and ignorant virtue, with the challenge of an imperfect world, cannot release the true potentialities of human greatness.
Milton's Puritanism and his great faith in the Bible made him choose his subject which was of interest to all men. His great achievement lies in making such a serious subject which is agreeable and acceptable to all. In fact, his sublimity (greatness and grandeur) can only be maintained at high level on a very lofty subject,