In choosing the epic form, Milton had to mould limited biblical source material to fit a very particular way of telling his story
John Milton chose to write a verse epic. His title, Paradise Lost, tells you something significant about the arc it is going to follow. He doesn't call his poem Felix Culpa: or, the Fortunate Fall. He doesn't (as Dryden, in his cleaned-up opera version of the poem was to do) call it The State of Innocence. Nor does he reach for a title inviting a neat moral division like Lucy Hutchinson's contemporary offering on the same subject, Order and Disorder. He tells us that this is a story about loss, basic and profound. Redemption gets no stress. Structurally his poem claims as close a relationship with the fall of Troy as ever it does with the fall of man.
He had no difficulty in principle with marrying the epic genre with a sacred subject. Christian epic existed as a form in European letters. In England Edmund Spenser had pioneered it, and Milton admired Spenser. Nor, in principle or practice, had he a problem with the tragic overtones of his choice. In the list of epic predecessors he had made in his youth he had finished up his predictable roll-call of Homer, Virgil and Tasso with a fourth "brief model": the Book of Job, a biblical fable in which God allows Satan to torment a just man.
But he saw very clearly that in choosing the epic form he also chose a particular way of telling his story. It needed space and duration; it needed endurance – a journey that was travelled experientially, or geographically, or preferably both. Its imagined spaces would tend to be fluid and rendered with more than a touch of pathetic fallacy. It required a protagonist for whom the poem's journey brought about maturation, realisation. Battles (literal and metaphorical) must happen: these could be individual encounters, but armies were desirable. The clash of supernatural forces should exert apparently arbitrary pressures on human characters. The conventions and expectations of the verse interlocked with these, in terms of the palate of sound-combination and metaphorical range that would go into making and colouring the poem's world.
Milton's immediate biblical source material was very brief, very plain. The account of the fall in the second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis is over in an economical 46 sentences – and that's throwing in two (mutually inconsistent) accounts of the creation of humanity, not to mention a brief excursion into the nature of the mineral deposits roundabout the great Mesopotamian rivers. The Bible story contains no journeys; its sense of duration is hard to apprehend because the maturation of its human characters is not gradual but the instant consequence of a disastrous moment of reversal. It has no armies and no battles. The only supernatural character is God, who has no one to clash with. Milton, then, had a storytelling problem.
He solved it this way. He took from Job a structure in which the hapless humans would be subject to a supernatural moral contest. God's opponent in Job, the tempter Satan, was superimposed upon the serpent of Genesis in a move borrowed from medieval tradition. He took from the same tradition in making the Satan-serpent a fallen angel defeated by God in a cosmic battle following a failed takeover bid. Its biblical source is a short passage in the 14th chapter of Isaiah:
"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! … for thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God … yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit."All this gave Milton his battles and his armies, his supernatural oppositions, his symbolic landscapes and a parallel fall-story – Satan's – upon which to exert the slower experiential pressure of loss, failure and misdoing than could be possible for the innocent Adam and Eve.
But some of the stuff in the Genesis story that didn't fit the epic template so well fitted a tragic one to perfection. That moment in which the apple was eaten and knowledge flooded upon the eaters – it was the moment of reversal, of tragic illumination, belonging especially to Greek tragedy. That tradition also had some interesting problems associated with an unconscious guilt, an innocence containing within itself the seed of its own fated downfall, as with Oedipus.
Applied to a Christian framework the idea had some fascinating ambiguities to play about with. And if you looked at the story the other way round and thought about the fallen Satan figure as protagonist there were some beguiling possibilities in the English tragic repertoire. Just think of all those interestingly complex and strangely solitary villain-heroes or malcontents: Faustus, Richard III, Iago, Bosola, Edmund. They tended to soliloquise their moral dilemmas and dramas of private feeling, too. Promising.
And so Milton folds together two stories focused on different heroes, placing them in balance. On one side, and opening the poem, the defeated figure of Satan following a first great fall, his fall from heaven. Corrupted by overweening ambition, morally tormented, subtle and charming, Satan presents like a melange of the best villains of the stage-plays of Milton's youth; but his strand of the story follows the epic tradition.
To him belongs the journeys, the politics, the battles, a growing insupportable self-knowledge that will, eventually, diminish him to almost nothing. He travels to encounter and corrupt his opposite numbers, the counter-heroes Adam and Eve – united where he is solitary, ignorant where he is knowing, happy where he is miserable. Their meeting will result in the poem's second and very different fall, raising Adam and Eve separately and for different reasons to tragic stature. Out of its disaster, as out of Troy's burning, we see them at the beginning of an odyssey. Their final "wandering steps and slow" will walk them out of the poem and into history, an untold journey leading humanity – eventually, eventually – into the embrace of a lost beloved.
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