Seeing the world through the eyes of John Milton would be both supremely enlightening as well as dark beyond all measure. It was likely the many years spent scrawling political pamphlets by candlelight that cost the English poet his eyesight at the age of forty-four, and ensured that the majority of his magnum opus, the Christian epic Paradise Lost, would be written out by his daughters, to whom Milton would dictate. It was an irony not lost on Milton, who saw himself as a seventeenth-century combination of Homer and Tiresias; a fulfillment of the ancient tradition of the blind bard as well as the sightless seer.
Andrew Marvell, a poetic contemporary, would compare Milton to another great blind figure of antiquity, Samson. In his poem “ On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost,” Marvell writes of Milton, “When I beheld the poet blind, yet bold, in slender book his vast design unfold, [like] Samson groped the temple’s post in spite, the world o’erwhelming to revenge his sight.” Milton himself saw the connection and expressed it in his work Samson Agonistes.
It is no wonder then that Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, the 10-book epic (published as 12 books in a later edition) that tells the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven and his successful temptation of humanity, is filled with contrasting moments of brilliant light and absolute darkness; the luminescence of heaven and the shadows of hell. It also juxtaposes many other dualities, including God and humanity, love and fear, and, most important, liberty and oppression. Throughout the hundreds of pages of hauntingly beautiful verse, in the midst of demonic debates, angelic visitations, infernal propaganda, and pastoral bliss, Milton includes within his story a critical examination of poetic, political, and religious liberty.
Paradise Lost is among the most frequently quoted poems in the English language. It is the likely origin of the idiom “all hell breaks loose,” as well as the source of the word “pandemonium,” which Milton used for the central palace of hell. It also contains some of the more memorable lines in literature, including Lucifer’s bold statement that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (Book I, line 263).
In addition to being one of world literature’s most supreme achievements, the epic transcends art and is an important addition to centuries of Christian thought. Much of what John Milton believed is available to us only through conjecture or obscure allusions, the occasional theological hint or political reference tucked in between stanzas of difficult verse. However, very few of the poet’s opinions are as explicitly clear as his thoughts on rhyme. Milton wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse—unrhymed, iambic pentameter. While this writing style is hardly groundbreaking today, it was a popular trend in seventeenth-century Italy and Spain and was becoming more adopted in England, too. Milton, however, did not adopt blank verse and eschew rhyme, a staple of English epic poetry for many centuries, for the sake of literary fashion. Rather, in his introduction to Paradise Lost, “The Verse,” Milton calls rhyme not only unnecessary for successful creation of good poetry, but also a “troublesome and modern bondage,” as well as “the invention of a barbarous age.” Instead, Milton fills the pages of Paradise Lost with a variety of other poetic devices, designed to delight the ear as much as the eye.
When Beelzebub, a demon separate from and beneath Satan, shares his thoughts on waging war with heaven, uttering the line, “in all assaults their surest signal, they will soon resume,” (Book 1, line 277) the reader cannot help but hearing the sibilance, the repetitive hissing sound, of one of hell’s most infamous residents. Ultimately, it is not for want of skill that Milton removes the traditional reliance on rhyme. His distaste for this particular poetic technique indicates more than simple literary snobbery, his use of “bondage” not just hyperbole. Milton, perhaps more so than any other English poet prior to the twentieth century, believed wholeheartedly in and constructed his work upon a living, breathing concept of liberty. The removal of the rhyme scheme, the overthrowing of that particular yoke, is simply the first of many arguments the author makes for freedom within the pages of his work.
In all actuality, Milton would have had little use for rhyme or poetic meter in the majority of the written work that made up his day-to-day life. Milton was a pamphleteer and polemicist, arguing against the monarchy and in favor of Parliament in the English Civil War (1642-1651). He also approved of the execution of King Charles I, the culminating moment of that war, and the victorious conclusion for the republicans. His publishing of “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” in February of 1649, which showed support for citizens who overthrow a wayward monarch, along with “The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth” in about March of 1660, published with great risk after the restoration of the monarchy and the failure of the republic, position Milton as one of the most politically liberal writers of his era. His pioneering advocacy for the right of subjects to overthrow a tyrannical ruler is expressed allegorically but rather curiously within the pages of Paradise Lost, and is given a powerful voice through the character of the fallen angel, Satan.
It’s a peculiar paradox that confronts every reader of Paradise Lost: how can the noblest of political arguments be made by the prince of darkness, especially when one discovers that the despotic dictator in this story is none other than God the Father? The path forward for the Christian reader is a tricky one.
Hearing the fallen angel, the once-noble Lucifer and the most infamous antihero in western literature since Achilles, air his seemingly legitimate grievances against the Creator, is to be witness to some of the most chilling rhetoric ever written, all in the name of liberty. The devil speaks persuasively, passionately, and brilliantly, arguing many of the same anti-monarchical points that John Milton puts forth in his pamphlets against King Charles I. When accepting his fate to dwell in the pits of hell, the archfiend exclaims in Book I, “Be it so, since he who now is sov’reign can dispose and bid what shall be right: farthest from him is best Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme above his equals” (lines 245-249).
Satan, who is subtly and briefly described also as a “monarch” (Book II, line 467), makes his case, during a series of manipulated democratic debates and votes, that God unfairly used force to expel from heaven those who were His equals, those beings who matched Him in debates of reason. It’s easy to fall into the trap that Satan, and Milton, set for the reader, to think that the devil’s argument truly is legitimate, to believe that the political laws of earth apply to leadership in heaven.
But only a few lines later Satan reveals that he will say anything, twist any word or phrase, to convince the reader as well as his demonic minions that his actions are justified, even if it means replacing good with evil. Before his ignoble journey to earth, Satan utters a pair of lines separated by many pages yet unified in thought, worthy of the most vile of political spin doctors, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse. All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my good.” (Book 1, lines 254, 255; Book IV, lines 108-110). Milton quite literally plays the devil’s advocate.
The political liberty that exists within the stanzas and books of Paradise Lost accosts the reader and makes one feel uncomfortable. Can a hell that holds democratic elections and reasonable discussions be more unjust than a heaven controlled by God with absolute authority and no checks or balances? Yes, but only when one realizes that this argument hinges on two important ideas: that not only is it folly to compare the politics of humanity to the law of heaven, but that in Milton’s mind the only thing worse than absolute monarchy is dictatorship in the guise of democracy.
John Milton knew that while Britain’s experiment with republican government may have failed, the people of his country would one day be free from the tyranny of absolute rule. Leaving the reader ultimately unsure of how to reconcile such seemingly opposing scenarios on earth and in heaven, the poet makes a simple plea. In between these lines of blank verse written from many centuries ago, Milton asks the reader to have faith that God knows better than we do, and that sometimes we need to trust, often blindly in the plan of an all-knowing Creator.
Within that plan, believed Milton, was the express desire to instill in human beings an ability to either choose or reject salvation. The theological liberty expressed by John Milton in Paradise Lost manifests itself most clearly in the discussion of free will presented throughout the book. Milton had earlier in his career argued for greater religious tolerance in Britain through his publishing of Aeropagitica, and in Paradise Lost extends that debate to argue that the idea of liberty is divinely placed within human consciousness.
In the story, God prevents neither Satan’s descent into hell, nor the fall of humanity, and for both rebellious parties Paradise is lost. In the epic, God famously makes humans to be “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (Book III, line 99), and when an angel visits Adam and Eve in Eden, he declares them to be created good but with a will “ordained… by nature free, not overruled by Fate” (Book V, lines 526, 527). According to the author, that liberty to choose extends to the realms of the angels also, as their Edenic visitor also explains, saying, “Freely we serve, because we freely love, as in our will to love or not” (lines 538-540).
Milton’s strong belief in free will is present throughout the text, and he struggled with Calvinism’s rejection of this doctrine, so widespread among his Puritan colleagues of the time. While the idea of free will within Christianity is hardly unusual today, it was far from a common belief in the mid 1600s. Despite being a Puritan himself and aligning with Calvinists on several issues, Milton could not believe that God predestined and deliberately caused the fall of humanity, as was the belief of John Calvin, but that humans were given an opportunity to choose. Milton’s reason for writing Paradise Lost revolves around this very concept, an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men” (Book I, line 26), explaining to the reader that God instilled liberty within the very essence of our being, as the core component of our character.
Milton writes that God created humans to be “authors to themselves in all both what they judge and what they choose; [because God] formed them free, and free they must remain” (Book III. Lines 122-124), and to change, undo, or question that concept would be akin to unraveling the very fabric of the relationship between Creator and created.
However, it would not be enough for such a masterpiece of poetry to discuss free will and theological liberty only in its abstract. The author gives the reader the opportunity to see the very moment that humanity fell from grace and used their ability to choose freely. Just moments before the Fall Adam tells Eve that “God left free the will, for what obeys reason is free” (Book IX, lines 351, 352), and Milton, in a stroke of literary genius, combines poetic, theological, and political liberty in one fluid, plucking motion. The climax of the story, Eve’s decision to consume the fruit, is described by Milton in the following way: “Forth reaching to the Fruit, she plucked, she eat: Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat : Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe, that all was lost” (Book IX, lines781-784). In that one moment, that crucial decision that would shape the future of humanity, Milton surprises the reader with the inclusion of a rhyming couplet, a staple of many poetic tales, but something unseen up to this point in the epic. In rhyming “seat” with “eat” (or the similarly pronounced seventeenth-century word “ate” in some versions), Milton surprises the reader with a break in the poem’s pattern, showing that something has changed; something barbarous has entered the world of humanity, symbolized through rhyme, something that Milton disliked so strongly.
That audible change within the fabric of Eden is also connected to the political allegory upon which so much of the book is constructed. Because just like Satan, who broke the bonds of political allegiance to his celestial leader, and like Milton, who ironically supported the overthrow of England’s king, Eve makes the ultimate political decision and chooses to live outside the government of God’s kingdom. While Milton laments that choice as being the downfall of humanity, the cause of so much heartache and pain, what the poet understood and placed within his epic was that such a decision was the result of a divine plan to give humanity the freedom to choose.
In opposition to many of his Calvinist colleagues who believed in predestination, Milton argued, through the unrhymed lines of poetry in Paradise Lost, that the push for more political freedom on earth is an unstoppable tide of progress. That desire for liberty exists only because of the divinely instilled presence of free will given to humanity by a Creator, who, while He may have foreseen the Fall, allowed it to happen in order to give humanity an opportunity to make the greatest decision the universe could ever present.
Author: Martin Surridge
Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.