The Theme of Paradise Lost By John Milton


An epic is a long narrative poem which has a lofty and sublime subject presented in dignified style and ornamental language. It is the most ambitious kind of poem that represents the great deeds of a heroic figure or a group of figures concentrating on the crises in the history of human race or culture. Homer and Virgil were the two great masters. The first and foremost essential feature of an epic is that it is of wider and universal scope. It has national importance or significance. It means that an epic must be true and faithful mirror of life and of a nation. Homer and Virgil were the two great masters of the classical epics. Homer in Iliad showed national life, thought and culture of the Greeks. Virgil in Aenied revealed the hopes and aspiration of the Romans. But unlike these two great masters, Milton believed that poet’s function is “To inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind and set the affection in right tune. Therefore he could not think of separating poetry from his zeal of reformation. It was his passionate morality that inspired him to give his Man as the theme of his great epic.  He had also the ambition to write: Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” That’s why, he hit on a most extraordinary and universal theme which had never been attempted by any poet for his epic. It is “The Fall of Man.” He wanted “to justify the ways of God to man”. In the opening twenty six lines of the poem, Milton asserts himself that his subject is greater than that of a classical epic. He says:
Of man’s first disobedience and fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death in the world, and all over.
His muse is not a classical muse but the very spirit of God. In his invocation to the Muse, Milton mentions about the purpose of the story which was to justify the ways of God to men:
I may assert eternal providence,
 And justify the ways of God to men”
            Milton’s grand style and universal subject for his poem have fostered different controversies regarding the theme of this poem. Different critics have pointed out different themes. Coleridge thinks that the theme of the poem is no doubt universal, the combat between good and evil. Good and evil have always been at war since the time immemorial. Same is the theme of the Paradise Lost. He remarks: It represents origin of evil and the combat of evil and in “Paradise Lost” this combat is originated by Satan who raised impious war in heaven against the throne and monarchy of God.”
            Walter thinks that the poem deals with the whole humanity. It tells us about, the fate of mankind, the origin of evil and tendency of a man towards evil. So, it is not a specific poem for an individual, some persons or a nation, it deals with the whole human race. He says: “It (Paradise Lost) concerns itself with the fortunes not of a city or of an empire but of the whole human race.”
            J. Michael believes that the theme of the epic is ‘Evilwhich has been handled in traditional Christian terms. He further says that God has created angels and men free to choose or not to choose His service. When they do choose, they choose what their own highest good is also but when they do not, they choose something less and anything less is evil. For evil in Christian thought lacks positive existence; it is simply a falling below the highest good. This is what Milton’s Satan and other rebel angels have done. They too turn away from God’s will, their highest good, to seek their own free will, a lesser good.
In so far as the modern critics are concerned, they have totally different view. They are not satisfied with the surface interpretation of the theme of the poem. They go beyond the explicit meanings of the poem. According to Surat the theme of the epic is: If the power of passion in man triumphs over reason, it will become the source of all evil.” Green Law agrees with Surat’s opinion and remarks: The theme of “Paradise Lost” is less that of obedience to God than that of obedience to temperance.”
Rajan, another critic believes that the Paradise Lost is in terms of massed polarities. On dramatic level, it is a conflict between Satan and Christ. On physical level, it is a conflict between darkness and light. On the level of moral reason and passion, it is a conflict between good and evil.
Similarly, many other ideas are attached to the poem by different critics. For instance one idea is related to Satan and his rebellious companions. Some critics think that unconsciously Milton has sided with Satan. Devoutly, but mechanically, Milton paid lip service to the duty of obedience but in his heart he was chantinga hymn to freedom and rebellion.”
Another theme directly comes to the level and it is man’s inborn aptitude to evil and sin. William Golding also believes, “A man produces evil as a bee produces honey.” Our original ancestors could not avoid committing sin in the Garden of Eden. It is natural for all human beings to have tendency towards sin. Milton’s only purpose to quote this example is to appease a man’s conscience that human beings are helpless prey to sin.  Therefore, they should always have a hope of redemption. Actually, he is trying to convey the message philosophically that the experience of sin is not bad one; it is a blessing in disguise  because it ultimately urges a man to connect once again with God from whom he separates under the powerful influence of sinful acts. It clearly shows that Milton’s aim is: “Man must make the right use of every moment of life because his actions are irrevocable.”
            The theme of disobedience can also be regarded as one of the major themes. God, superior to everything in the universe should be obeyed. God placed one restriction on Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of tree of knowledge. The prohibition is actually not so much a matter of the fruit of the tree as it is obeying God’s order. It is believed that the proper systematic running of the universe requires the obedience of inferiors to their superiors. By disobeying God’s authority, Adam and Eve cause catastrophe into their lives as well as the lives of all mankind. Similarly, Satan’s rebellion because of jealousy is the first great act of disobedience and commences all that happens in the epic. Similarly, the crucial moment in the poem results from disobedience and a breakdown of hierarchy. By disobeying God, Eve has gained neither equality nor freedom; she has instead lost Paradise and brought sin and death into the world. Similarly, Adam shows disobedience by eating fruit. Moreover, Adam shows disobedience knowingly when Adam puts Eve ahead of God. So, we can say that disobedience by Adam and Eve and disruption of the correct order cause the existence of sin and death.
We know that Milton’s first and foremost purpose in writing this poem is “to justify the ways of God to man.” Some critics believe that Milton has failed badly in conveying this idea. David Grierson has pointed out that instead of justifying the ways of God to Man, Milton has justified Satan’s ways to man. In the poem, Satan says that God is going to plant in Paradise A generation whom his choice regards should favour equal to the sons of heaven.” David Daiches also thinks that the poem is an utter failure in the sense that it is unable to convey its message fully. He says: Milton’s heart was not fully in this sort of justification, whatever he might have consciously thought.”
However, there are some other critics who do not believe these views and think that Milton has succeeded fully in conveying what he wants. Addison remarks: As his genius was wonderfully turned to sublime, his subject is the noblest that could have ever entered the thoughts of man.” Dr. Johnson also favours the opinion of Addison and says, “Milton, the puritan, wanted to show the reasonableness of religion and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law.”
            Summoning up all the views, we can that the major theme of the poem is “The Fall of Man and Milton has forcefully tried to interpret his theme through this epic poem. It was his Puritanism and his great faith in the Bible that made him cull this subject which is universal in all respects, full of interest to all men and agreeable and acceptable to all. He has explained his theme with so many arguments which, no doubt, hardly convince us. However, we cannot overlook other views regarding the theme of this poem and can say without any hesitation that it can be explained on many levels more than one. As David Daiches says: The Biblical story of the fall has many undertones of human situation.”                                                                                                                                   (Words: 1531)
Points to Remember
Ø  An epic must have a theme.
Ø  The theme of Paradise Lost has been controversial. It can be interpreted on many levels.
ü   Justification of God’s way to man
ü  The combat between good and evil
ü  The fate of mankind
ü  Evil
ü  Triumph of power of passion in man over reason
ü  Conflict between Satan and Christ
ü  Conflict between Darkness and light
ü  Hope of redemption
ü  Disobedience
ü  Justification of Satan’s ways to man
Ø  To sum up, the major theme of the epic is “The Fall of Man”, and “Justification of God’s ways to Man.