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.796 – 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.323 – 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):
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:
is 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
(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.
Colie, Rosalie, The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance, Berkeley: 1973
Cuddon, J. A., The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th ed., London: 1998
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, ‘The Genres of Paradise Lost’ in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, 2nd ed., CUP: 1999
Lewalski, Barbara K., ‘Genre’ in A Companion to Milton, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford: 2001
Steadman, John M., The Epic and Tragic Structure of ‘Paradise Lost’, Chicago: 1976