The literary background of Paradise Lost

The Great Courses
Western Literary Canon in Context
Lecture Twenty-Two 
The Rebel as Hero—Milton’s Paradise Lost

The purpose of this course is to introduce readers to pivotal works in the Western Literary Canon. Professor Bowers focused a good deal of his lecture on outlining the literary sources that Milton referenced when writing his epic:

Milton was a very well educated man. He is said to have read every book available, usually in its original language. Many of these books were used as the framework for Paradise Lost. Milton based his epic loosely on the Book of Genesis, but changed a few incidents and added many of his own invention. 

Much of Milton’s inspiration came from the the Greek and Roman ancient texts. He very likely considered Aeschylus’s Prometheus for his model of Satan revolting against divine law. Likewise, Sophocles’s Oedipus served as a model for the suffering and fall of Adam. And Virgil’s Aeneas is called to mind when, in the end, Adam sees a vision of the future. 

Satan uses Athenian rhetoric when he twists logic and makes the worse situation seem better. Milton’s God imposes order on the universe with the scientific precision of an Aristotelian God. Professor Bowers says: “Aristotelian notions of pattern, logic, connection, and plausibility hold the whole epic together. ”  

Milton also relied heavily on medieval theology. Milton’s avowed purpose for the epic was to “justify the ways of God to men.” Early on, he sets a theme that even very bad situations result in good with God’s plan. He seems to support the medieval Christian concept of felix culpa: “the happy fault” which suggests that the seemingly disastrous fall of Adam was, indeed, good because it necessitated the coming of Christ. This philosophy is in keeping with Boethius’s notion of theodicy in The Consolation of Philosophy. (Theodicy attempts to resolve the problem of evil by suggesting that in God’s omnibenevolence all evil leads to good.) Another theologian we are reminded of by Milton is Augustine–Milton’s portrayal of original sin as a fall into sexual depravity has a distinct Augustinian ring to it. And Milton got many of his notions of Heaven and Hell and of the war between Satan and God’s angels from Dante. 

Finally, Bowers suggests that Milton may have wanted to model Satan’s craving for revenge on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but “in the end, Satan lacks the grandeur of Shakespeare’s tragic characters; instead, he suffers a kind of comic debasement also found in Shakespeare.”

Milton’s learnedness extended beyond just literature. He studied all maps of Africa, Asia, and the Americas which were being produced during his time. Paradise Lost can be considered an allegory for British colonization. Each mention of modern-day places could be a reference to a British colony, or a place which Milton imagines the empire might soon set its boots upon. 

Milton also intended Paradise Lost to be an allegory for the failure of Oliver Cromwell’s rebellion. This allegory led to one of the many paradoxes of Paradise Lost. Milton was a very voluble supporter of Oliver Cromwell throughout the rebellion and right on to the Cromwell’s terrible end. Milton only escaped execution because he was seen as a “harmless” blind man. Although in life he was a champion of freedom from tyranny and a supporter of the fallen rebel, he outwardly condemned Satan’s revolt. Because Milton could sympathize with Satan’s injured pride, he made Satan into an alluring character–so charismatic that many people thought (and some still think) that Milton was on Satan’s side without knowing it.  

This view led to a romantic view of Milton which strongly influenced literature for the following centuries. Wordsworth and Keats both longed to emulate Milton. Lord Byron emulated Milton, but chose a comic epic: Don Juan. However, none of the emulations reached the literary sublimity of Paradise Lost, which was the last great epic Poem of English literature. However, the epic style was soon adopted in a new format: the novel. James Joyce carried on the epic tradition, while Virginia Woolf introduced lyrical novels. Milton’s rebel-as-a-hero tradition was picked up in the 19th century in Lord Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Heroes like Bronte’s Heathcliff, Goethe’s Faust, and Melville’s Captain Ahab are anti-heroes. 

Professor Bowers even suggests that in a twist of mimesis, the cultural climate created by this barrage of Satanic heroes opened the door for a real-life Satanic hero: Napoleon. The rise of Napoleon later influenced writers like Tolstoy and Stendhal. Life imitates art, and art imitates life. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s