The Power of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

The Power of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Throughout the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost, we can see many instances of binary relationships connecting separate conceptual ideas. The construction of "authorship" in the poem exists as a good example of just such a relationship. This theme incorporates two very different ideas in the poem, and is central to the understanding of issues concerning the creation and use of power.

The attention Milton gives to each character, and their specific personality, allows us to interpret their actions as consciously chosen deeds within the larger framework of the poem. Great detail is given to the idea of "creation". Beyond that of the creation of the world in Book I, there are many instances where the act of creation itself becomes an act of endowing power on some object or person. The most obvious example would be the creation of Adam and Eve by God. By creating the pair, God, desires them to glorify His ways through their praises and deeds. He gives them enough power over their destiny to choose to worship Him as the Almighty. The fact that they have free will is important to God because they choose to give Him praise despite any outside temptation. There is one obvious drawback to this kind of power. They chose to follow Satan’s beguiling words. The fact that they had the free will to follow Satan’s words meant that their decision was cosmically more important because it was arrived at through conscious thought. We can see this idea of power demonstrated throughout Paradise Lost. The dual relationship between the beneficial act of bestowing power at the time of creation and the negative side of the free will to use that power freely, shows up within every character. Instances of creation appear in every book, and can be associated with every character. Some of the first appearances of the word "author" are connected with the idea of creation. In Book III, the throngs of assembled angels say,"Eternal King, the Author of all being/Fountain of light, thyself invisible/..." (III, 376-7) Here God is portrayed as the great originator of everything in all of creation. To be the "author" of something is to be the creator, much the same way as Milton himself is creating the world of the poem. In virtually every instance the act of "authoring", is associated with images of primacy and legitimacy. The ultimate act of creation, that of shaping the physical world itself, brings about another reference to this idea.

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As the story of the creation is retold, God is called the,"Author and end of all things, . . ." (VII, 591) In reference to God, the word author is used, to describe the timelessness of God’s rule. He authored the world by creating it, and will be there to see it end. God looks over the world as a literal father does over his own children.

But, as the poem shows us, one of His children went bad. Satan, the other main power in the book, also shares references to the act of authoring. In very similar phrasing to the description of God’s authorship, the fallen angel’s personality is described as:

...Satan, and in part proposed: for whence,

But from the author of all ill could spring

So deep a malice, to confound the race

Of mankind in one root, and earth with hell

To mingle and involve, done all to spite

The great Creator? . . . (II, 380-5)


This passage links the creative power of Satan to the abounding evil within his character. It is not because of this evilness alone that humankind is destined to Sin and Death. It is through the way in which Satan has created himself, that he can hold so much power over the rest of God’s creation. In this passage, Satan is shown as an author which has the ability to create a hell of the very Paradise which is earth. The creative power of God destined this being to commit sins of ultimate evil, and at the same time has little apparent power to control it. The very root, or fundamental quality of mankind, can be affected by the power of evil in such a way as to drive it away from the divine goodness of God. In a very real way, Satan can be compared to the epitome of creation. Though evil, his entire purpose in the universe is to create actions and ideas which go against the established order of cosmic harmony. His existence symbolizes the separation of the stagnant from the explosive. God in this poem seems to be somewhat quiet and exclusive until He is upset or bothered by some force. Satan’s only existence is to prod the form of God until something happens. Although the poem calls him evil, Satan could be merely a figure of the act or need of creation within an apparently inflexible system. Such a force would be called evil, but would, in a sense, only be trying to write for itself a different kind of role.

Satan’s creativity does not only exist within his own little sphere. He is the father of both Sin and Death, which guard the gates of Hell. As he wings his way up to the realm of earth, he encounters them, holding the gates of Hell closed to all who would get out. Sin recognizes Satan first as her father and says,"Thou art my father, thou my author, thou/My being gav’st me; whom should I obey/But thee, whom follow?. . ." (II, 864-6) Through Satan, the principal assailants of mankind, after the Fall, are brought into the world. This passage explains that the act of creation implies some sort of servitude, or at the very least, some type of gratitude. In every example, whether from God or Satan, the act which brings something new into the world is essentially good. Sin is grateful for her birth, just as Adam is thankful to God for breathing life into him at the time of his creation. Even the great war in heaven is an example of the way in which a good value is assigned to the creation of something new. Satan approaches Michael, both garbed in full battle armor, and Michael says:

" ‘Author of evil, unknown till thy revolt,

Unnamed in heav’n, now plenteous, as thou seest

These acts of hateful strife, hateful to all

. . .how hast thou disturbed

Heav’n’s blessed peace, and into nature brought

Misery, uncreated till the crime

Of thy rebellion!’" (VI, 262-9)


This passage says two very important things. The presence of evil in heaven was not noticed by any (except God) until it boiled over and became the great war. This points to the fact that the roots of evil are so intrinsically intertwined within the fallen angels’ souls so as to be undetectable even to their brethren. The evil inside Satan manifested itself, according to Michael’s speech, by creating a new force in heaven, namely, Misery. Earlier we find out that the rebellion of Satan causes his daughter, Sin, to break out of his head and enter the created world. In many ways, this is a fight against the established order created by God. Satan is fighting for a right to be master over his own existence. Before this gets into imagery depicting the fight for a "democratic heaven", we can say that the poem itself is trying to build a framework for interpreting the "ways of God to men." (I, 26)

By making or fashioning something, the creator endows that object with a certain measure of agency in the world. This arises from the dynamic between the creative forces of the individual, and the final material result of the labor. Whether originating from Satan or from God, creation in Paradise Lost is accompanied by issues concerning free will. No matter how anything is supposed to behave within the poem, something interferes with the designs of man, Satan, and (though He is omniscient) to some extent, God. God’s original design for mankind is corrupted by Satan. The hopes of Adam and Eve are foiled by the plot of Satan. The Fall is upturned by the redemption of man through the Son. The great movers of the poem have their plans canceled by each other. Importantly, all the action which we see within the plot of the poem revolves around this point. The architecture of creation, in any form, drives the action of both the characters in the narrative, and generates meaning for the reader. After the Fall, Satan is visited by his offspring, Sin and Death. Sin says,"O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,/Thy trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,/Thou art their author and prime architect: . . ." (X, 354-5) This passage exemplifies the connection between the power given by the accomplishment of creation, here the creation of evil in Paradise, and the legitimizing force of that act upon the created. Here, the fallen angel has won the humans for his own, forever bringing them to corruption in God’s eyes. Though Satan did not originally create the humans, he did make them intrinsically real by bringing them to know Knowledge in its pure form. Sin shows Satan building, like an architect, Adam and Eve from inconsequential beings to the level of reality itself. No longer will they be mindless servants to a higher power , now they have the capability to choose what they wish to believe in, exercising their own free will. God, also, gives this gift to Adam, but in a different way. The ways in which God creates in Paradise Lost focus mainly on acts of physical creation. Adam tells Raphael about his own memory of his first hours:

Said mildly,‘Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath.

This paradise I give thee, count it thine

To till and keep, and of the fruit to eat: . . .

(VIII, 317-20)

God, similar to His actions in other parts of the poem, gives something to the human(s). He tries to be a nice deity and says that the humans can have this neat garden, and may eat all they want of the nice food they might find therein. In some ways, the gift "given" by Satan becomes more beneficial to mankind than God’s gift of some juicy pieces of fruit. While God concerns himself with the granting of material possessions: the garden, the food, and the universe itself (you know, little stuff), the arch-fiend gives the intangible gifts of independent thought. What he offers is the chance to become truly self-willed creatures who are free to choose their own path. After the initial temptation, the humans become their own agents within Creation. Satan creates creatures which are from the mold of God, but have a will that exists almost outside of Divine influence.

Throughout Paradise Lost, the act of authorship can be likened to the main economic commodity of the primal world. The creative process is the force through which action occurs within the poem. Milton repeats again and again, the idea that to create something is to legitimize it. The passages talking about both God and Satan give them a sense of power over the things they create. This power has an opposite side to it, however. The binary which resides within the concept of "authorship" endows the creative process with a more spontaneous characteristic than might have been previously obvious. Milton emphasizes through the actions of the principal characters that a higher type of power is endowed within a fashioned object, one which the creator has virtually no control over. An example of this would be, in living creatures, the element of free will God assigns to Adam and Eve. Even physical reality has this vital component. The Tree of Knowledge within the Garden must exist in order for the world of reality to have any legitimacy or worth. Meaning arises, for Milton, in the act of creating, or authorship. In a larger sense, the entire poem symbolizes an act of creation on the part of Milton. Taking the role of the "author", Milton wields a kind of power over the creation of the poem. It becomes his choice, in the end, on what parts to create, and which to omit. The binary exists here also, as we look to the ways in which this text have influenced many generations of poets, scholars, and thinkers. The power of Paradise Lost can be traced far past the lifetime of Milton. The very fact that people today still regard this as one of the great poetical texts of all time, points to the life the text has, independent of its author. In any truly masterful work, whether in art, or music, or writing, the creative process spawns a unique result which takes on a life of its own. Each main actor within Paradise Lost is part of a process which results in the creation of something entirely original into the greater scheme of the universe. Every time this happens, a piece of the creator goes into the new object, endowing it with life, and power. In this way, we can see that the fundamental structures of power at work in Milton’s universe depend on each other in order for any of them to incorporate any meaning.

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