How does Milton use generic systems in Paradise Lost? Essay

Paradise Lost is most obviously a long poem with Judeo-Christian subject matter, placing particular emphasis on the struggles and successes of individual characters. The size of these characters (Satan, God, Adam, Eve, Raphael) allows them all to be seen as heroes. This overriding concern with heroes and the nature of heroism categorises Paradise Lost firmly as epic, which, according to J. A. Cuddon, is at its simplest level ‘a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes’ (264). Milton’s poem can be further termed an epic because of its incorporation of a large number of different forms and modes within its primary narrative of ‘man’s first disobedience’. Rosalie Colie has mentioned that Homer’s epics were the source of all arts and sciences – philosophy, mathematics, history, geography, military art, religion, hymnic praise – and all literary forms (22 – 3).

By including a wealth of references to other epics, a model of classical tragedy, several pastoral episodes, various lyric forms and a number of dramatic elements, Milton extends the range of his subject matter so that his poem becomes almost a master-epic, embodying a panoply of literary kinds and strengthening its affinity with Homeric epic. His inclusivist approach aligns him equally with Sidney and Spenser, his greatest English precedents, whose narratives, though in Sidney’s case perhaps not claiming epic status so self-consciously, comprised mixtures of romance, pastoral, allegory, song and epic.

The references to past works not only called to mind in the learned reader the tradition inherited by Paradise Lost, it furthered the poem’s own status as epic, thereby doubling its position as such. At the heart of the poem’s claim to epic status are its interest in individual heroism, its cross-references to other major texts and its use of varied literary forms. Each of these relates in some way to classical or Renaissance systems of genre. Barbara Lewalski (1999) explains the Renaissance concept of genre, or ‘kind’: the term Genre … s reserved for the historical genres – epic, tragedy, sonnet, funeral elegy, hymn, epigram, and many more – which are identified in classical and Renaissance theory and poetic practice by specific formal and thematic elements, topics and conventions. (116)

Lewalski understands genre in the Miltonic landscape therefore as a product of literary custom and common interest in subject matter, with emphasis on stylistic constructions. She differentiates between ‘genre’ or ‘kind’ and ‘mode’, examples of which she lists as ‘pastoral, satiric, comedic, heroic, elegiac, and tragic’, and which she identifies by ‘attitude, tonality and motifs … hich interpenetrate works or parts of works in several genres’ (117). There is hence a possibility in the literary climate of the 16th Century for a heroic epic, a pastoral epic, a tragic epic, and a single epic uniting all of these.

The shifting tone of Paradise Lost, which ceaselessly runs a gauntlet of styles and forms, not only complies with the literary conventions of its age but by extending the possibility for modes within genres it pushes generic definitions further than they had gone before, so much so that, in Cuddon’s words, ‘It has become a commonplace that Milton wrote the last major epic’ (271).

The treatment of heroism in Paradise Lost remains one of its most controversial critical themes. At more than one level of the poem, Satan is cast as the hero. He is firstly a brave and courageous leader of his army: after falling for ‘Nine times the space that measures day and night’ through darkness into Chaos he still manages to break free from his chains and command the building of Pandemonium.

During his long speeches to galvanise and restore morale in his troops in Book II he reveals himself as a proud and unhumbled figure; his decision to travel alone to Eden is referred to even by Milton as a ‘hazard huge’ (II. 473). The terrifying dignity of the fallen Satan reigning over Pandemonium attains an heroic glory from his immensity alone. Secondly, by associating Satan with the great heroes of literary tradition, Milton prompts the reader to contrast Satan’s heroism with that of Achilles or Aeneas. Lewalski (1999) notes that ‘Like Achilles …

Satan prides himself on his obduracy; … and like Aeneas he escapes from a flaming city to seek a better kingdom’ (118). There are allusions to the Odyssey as Satan sets forth like Odysseus alone on a journey to Eden through Chaos; these find completion when he returns home successful to liberate his wife and son (Sin and Death) from captivity. However, intersecting these associations with the great heroes of previous epics is the presentation of Satan not as an embodiment of all of them but as a perverted version of the true heroes in Western literary tradition.

Firstly, the echoes to the Aeneid are inverted as Satan eventually emerges the loser in all his battles: we first encounter him as the leader of a recently failed rebellion, Satan’s loss of which Raphael reinforces by providing details of the battle to Adam in Books V and VI. Unlike the Odyssey, which is an epic about returning home, Satan deliberately ventures out to earth, which has never been his home and in the Miltonic universe is no longer his most fitting dwelling place.

Further, as Lewalski has noticed, ‘Satan at the very outset of his travels (in Book 2) is reunited with, but ironically fails to recognise, his reprehensible daughter-wife Sin, and the hideous offspring of their incestuous union, Death’. He is therefore contrasted with Odysseus whose journey was about returning home to Penelope. The epic reversals continue when we remember that Penelope remained faithful throughout Odysseus’s years away, while Sin is repeatedly raped by her son ‘hourly conceiv’d / And hourly born, with sorrow infinite’ (II. 96 – 7).

Finally, in eventually embracing Sin and Death as his own progeny, Satan casts himself in the role of a debased Spenserian Red Crosse Knight, who defeated the serpent Error and eventually the serpentine Duessa. These images of perverted heroism find their climax when Satan returns to Hell in Book X, expecting a triumphant return, and encountering instead a terrible hiss of his followers all turned into snakes in a grotesque black comedy of God’s own devising.

Milton’s exploitation of previous literary presentations of heroism in order to highlight Satan’s position as a corrupt heroic figure demonstrate his readiness to use generic convention as a means of underlining theme. This technique is developed in the Fall narrative, which can be said to follow Aristotle’s famous outline of classical tragedy: the descent of people better than ourselves through hamartia, with several peripeteia, and one case of agnorisis (Steadman 1976).

Cuddon explains that an Aristotelian tragic hero ‘ought to be a man whose misfortune comes to him, not through vice or depravity, but by some error’ (373). Adam and Eve’s hamartia are respectively submitting to the wiles of an outside deceiver and letting human emotion override divine sense. Both can therefore be said to constitute errors of judgement. The knowledge that the Fall was supposed to provide them (‘Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing evil’) constitutes a tragic reversal of fortune articulated in Adam’s pithy outcry ‘O miserable of happy! (X. 720). Finally, the classical dramatic discovery is said by Lewalski (1999) to occur when ‘Adam and Eve awaken from their lust-induced sleep and realise their loss’ (121): ‘good lost, and evil got … naked thus, of honour void, / Of innocence, of faith, of purity’ (IX. 1072 – 5). Yet Milton does not stop at this nod to Aristotle: as with his treatment of a perverted heroism in Satan, he uses literary precendents to further the thematic tensions of his own poem.

Here, instead of the catharsis that concludes a classical drama and, indeed, Shakespeare’s tragedies, the Fall is turned through God’s grace into a blessed fate for the couple. Although as they leave the garden ‘Some natural tears they dropp’d’ (XII. 645), Raphael tells Adam that he will ‘possess / A Paradise within thee, happier far’ than the one afforded him in Eden (XII. 586 – 7). Instead of a scene where all human emotion except despair is virtually drained, so desolate seems the environment of the play (a state articulated in Edgar’s comment at the end of King Lear: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey’ (V. 23 – 4)), Paradise Lost finishes with Eve’s triumphant recognition that ‘By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore’ (XII. 623).

The postlapsarian couple are given the means to continue in the world after the devastation of their sin, as an understanding and graceful God has physically and spiritually clothed them, and the poem does not so much exhaust itself into a hollow catharsis as come to a peaceful note of resolution with the potential and expectation, as Paradise Regained makes clear, of a sequel to assert the justness of the claims made at its end.

The first readers of the epic would therefore have seen its author initially embrace and then subtly alter the generic conventions of classical drama in order to show that God, not Satan, is the only figure who can successfully ‘make a Heav’n of Hell’ (I. 254). Milton uses genre as a primary means of revealing not just the potence of his characters, but their natures and personalities; the large number of lyrics in the poem demonstrate the main way in which he does this.

Lyrics have no immediate narrative function in Paradise Lost, but they bring across character and theme in a more developed way than the narrator or Raphael describing events as they occurred. Adam’s aubade and love song to Eve in Book V has an intensity and purity of feeling that aligns it with the Song of Solomon, referred to as ‘a divine pastoral’ by Milton in the preface to the Second Book of The Reason of Church Government (1642): Awake My fairest, my espous’d, my latest found, Heav’n’s last best gift, my ever-new delight, Awake, the morning shines, and the fresh field

Call us, we lose the prime, to mark how spring Our tended Plants, how blows the Citron Grove, What drops the Myrrh, and what the balmy Reed, How Nature paints her colours, how the Bee Sits on the Bloom extracting liquid sweet. (V. 17 – 25) The speech is associated with lyric in its brevity, in its readiness to resource natural imagery, in its gentle imperatives to a loved one and in its ‘personal and subjective’ stance (Cuddon, 481). The tranquility of its setting is tragically inverted after the Fall, where Adam’s tone changes to one of despair: s this the end Of this new glorious World, and mee so late The Glory of that Glory, who now become Accurst of blessed, hide me from the face Of God? (X. 720 – 4) It is through their lyrics that we glimpse Adam and Eve’s feelings about the Fall. When they fall to lust after eating the forbidden fruit in Book IX, Milton demonstrates how the Sin has corrupted them and caused them to turn away from God; their realisation of their nakedness is an indication of the knowledge they have learnt from the Tree.

But by including these details Milton is simply complying with his source in Genesis: by incorporating lyrical episodes into his epic he shows more delicately and in fuller detail the effect of the Fall on his human characters. Again, a willingness to work within and beyond generic convention proves the springboard for the elaboration of theme in Paradise Lost.