Paradise Lost as Christian Epic
John Milton’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost, was written between the 1640’s and 1665 in England, at a time of rapid change in the western world. Milton, a Puritan, clung to traditional Christian beliefs throughout his epic, but he also combined signs of the changing modern era with ancient epic style to craft a masterpiece. He chose as the subject of his great work the fall of man, from Genesis, which was a very popular story to discuss and retell at the time. His whole life had led up to the completion of this greatest work; he put over twenty years of time and almost as many years of study and travel to build a timeless classic. The success of his poem lies in the fact that he skillfully combined classic epic tradition with strongly held Puritan Christian beliefs.
In Paradise Lost, Milton uses many conventions of the classic epic, including an invocation of the Muse, love, wa, a solitary voyage, heroism, the supernatural and mythical allusion. Milton writes, “Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire that shepard who first taught the chosen seed in the beginning how the heavens and earth rose out of Chaos.” Here he invokes the traditional muse of the epic, yet in the same sentence he identifies the muse as a Christian being and asks him to sing of Christian tales.
A central theme of Paradise Lost is that of the deep and true love between Adam and Eve. This follows both traditonal Christianity and conventional epic style. Adam and Eve are created and placed on earth as “our first two parents, yet the only two of mankind, in the happy garden placed, reaping immortal fruits of joy and love, uninterrupted joy, unrivaled love, in blissful solitude.”(…
…le in one sentence. Thus, he successfully completes the tapestry which he has created, weaving the Bible and the genre of the epic closely together to create a work of art.
Throughout Paradise Lost, Milton uses various tools of the epic to convey a traditional and very popular Biblical story. He adds his own touches to make it more of an epic and to set forth new insights into God’s ways and the temptations we all face. Through his uses of love, war, heroism, and allusion, Milton crafted an epic; through his references to the Bible and his selection of Christ as the hero, he set forth a beautifully religious Renaissance work. He masterfully combined these two techniques to create a beautiful story capable of withstanding the test of time and touching its readers for centuries.
Scott Elledge, ed., Paradise Lost, second edn. (NY: Norton, 1993).