Background and Politics in John Milton`s Paradise Lost

Category: God, Heaven
Last Updated: 07 Dec 2022
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Milton has dramatic vision of God in history, re-creating the key stories of Scripture. Once an active participant in the political turmoil of seventeenth-century England, he now asserts in Paradise Lost “Eternal Providence” that transcends not only his contemporary England but also the sinful works of men in history. Milton finds the will of God, not in the reformation of the political world, but in the spiritual reformation of each individual. Thus he becomes a prophet, seeing the things invisible and proclaiming the values that are eternal.

Recent critics have called attention to Milton's view of history reflected in his Paradise Lost. They tend to lay much emphasis on his political awareness to see spiritual aspects that underlie Milton's poetic imagination. Christopher Hill (1978), for example, stresses the importance of a historical approach to Milton's Paradise Lost. Hill connects Milton's ideas, or even his theology, to the political circumstances of seventeenth-century England.

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For Hill, it is astonishing if Paradise Lost is not about politics; he calls it “a different type of political action from those which have failed so lamentably” (67). It is true, that Milton's concern with political circumstances is an important element that enables him to perform his role as a prophet and to participate in the historical process with a prophetic vision of teaching and correcting his contemporaries. Paradise Lost is obviously political poem. The text conceals the historical traces of its own composition so skilfully that readers are likely to forget its political significance.

While Paradise Lost was evidently composed over the long period before and after the Restoration, it saw new political problems in post-revolutionary society. Among Milton's three major poems, the brief epic thus addressed itself most specifically to the Restoration audience. The purpose of this paper is to historicise Paradise Lost as a Restoration poem in order to propose a new political way of reading the epic. No English writer dealt more directly with Eden lost and redeemed than John Milton, and this work analyses his uses of Paradise to express his ambivalence about empire.

After the establishment of Puritan Massachusetts in 1630, British colonial energies (and Milton's) were absorbed by internal conflicts through the civil wars of the 1640s and into the Interregnum of the 1650s—an introversion brought to an end by Oliver Cromwell in 1654—1656 with his unilateral Western Design against Spanish America. However much Paradise Lost (1667) reveals Milton's double-mindedness about such designs, there can be little doubt that the highwater mark of Miltonic anti-imperialism is found in Paradise Regain'd (1671).

It is in this brief epic that heroism is most fully reimagined along Augustinian and humanist lines. Here Jesus, Christendom's moral model, rejects first the temptations of patriotic conquest and, beyond these, the temptations of universal virtue. Therefore, Milton's poetic message is for his contemporary England. Even though Milton as a poet-prophet does not ignore the situations in which he is placed, the message he delivers in Paradise Lost contains a spiritual meaning that transcends the political and temporal world of his time.

A similarity between Milton and Isaiah can be found in their pursuit of the timeless truth that God is our salvation. Isaiah foresees that truth in the future history of Israel, while Milton sees it in Adam's historical preview, which is also a historical review for Milton. With regard to Isaiah's prophetic vision, Hobart Freeman argues that “Not every prophecy needs to be traced to a definite contemporary historical situation, nor directly applicable to the generation to whom it is spoken."

If we apply this to Milton's poetic work, Milton “speaks from an ideal, future standpoint as if it were the present or past” (166). Milton clearly demonstrates his role as prophet in the last two books of Paradise Lost by immersing himself in future events in order to allow Adam a vision of the restoration of man from his fallen state. Paradise Lost deals with God's handling of human affairs in history, and out of that context, delivers the spiritual message to the individual man. The first is the revelation of divine truth, the second the illumination of the mind.

Milton presents in Paradise Lost two important aspects of God's purpose: first, God's macrocosmic purpose in history, and second, His microcosmic purpose in each individual soul. These two elements, historical and spiritual, are essential components of the poem. Milton in his writings shares the fundamental outlook that traces its roots to the ideology of holy war. In the case of the Civil Wars, this occurrence is only natural considering the extent to which the Civil Wars were looked upon as holy wars both by those who upheld in battle the cause of God against the king and by those who inculcated holy war ideology into the warriors.

It is no accident that the War in Heaven is conceived as a civil or "Intestine War" (6. 259). In this sense, Abdiel, that most outspoken of nonconformists, refers ironically to himself as a "dissenter" and to the host of God as "sectarians" (6. 145-47). Milton saw no contradiction in the fact that as one who supported the rebellion against God's so-called vicegerent on earth, he could write an epic portraying the evils of rebelling against God's true "Vice-gerent" in Heaven (5. 609).

Milton's celestial battle transcended the conflicts of Milton's own time and expressed the larger conceptions of holy war, conceptions that are both cosmic and apocalyptic. The historical orientation of Paradise Lost in the political context of Restoration society requires a juxtaposition of the brief epic not so much with Milton's political pamphlets before the Restoration, like Eikonoklastes (1649) or The Readie and Easie Way (1660). Paradise Lost is historically in closer proximity to Of True Religion than to any other polemical piece of the author.

With all their generic differences, the two works, sharing the plain style peculiar to the Restoration Milton, were published in a crucial period before and after the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, when Restoration society was groping for a new direction after the lapse of the Clarendon Code which had imposed public regulations on the matter of private faith. Paradise Lost appeared when Milton's contemporaries were eager to settle the developing issue of the relationship between the public and private spheres in Restoration society.

And should I at your harmless innocence Melt, as I do, yet public reason just, Honor and empire with revenge enlarged By conquering this new world, compels me now To do what else though damned I would abhor. —Satan, John Milton, Paradise Lost 4. 388—92 Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. —Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 4. 146 In October 1568, 114 English seamen, their ship badly damaged by a battle in the Gulf of Mexico, voluntarily stranded themselves on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

They stepped ashore into what would become forthe British one of their most luridly imagined hells: a howling tropical jungle, steaming with disease, crawling with exotic vermin, peopled with fierce tribesmen, and, worst of all, governed by Spaniards. Fifteen years later one survivor, Miles Philips, landed back in England alone, bearing on his body the marks of chains, the rack, and the lash, and bearing in his mind the kind of stories that haunt the hearer's sleep. These stories, which further blackened the already “Black Legend” of Spain, he recorded for Richard Hakluyt, who included them in his 1589 Principal Navigations (9:398—445).

We cannot adequately understand the British Empire or its literary productions unless we see them in the tremendous Spanish shadow that loomed so large at the empire's birth. Paradoxically, Spain's empire very nearly made British expansion impossible, and yet it created conditions that made British imperialism feasible. Furthermore, Spanish threats made English colonization seem materially necessary; and above all, Spanish atrocity made the English response seem—to most Protestant imaginations, at least—spiritually righteous.

Indeed, Spain menaced the English Protestant imagination far longer than it menaced the English nation. As a case in point, this work examines one of the enduring literary fruits: that encyclopedic piece of Protestant imagining known as Paradise Lost. Composing 150 years after Las Casas first compared the conquistadors to demons, and nearly a century after the last serious Spanish threat to English interests, John Milton nevertheless chose to compare his Prince of Darkness to a conquistador. Throughout his epic, Milton amplifies Satan's audacity and atrocity with frequent, implicit parallels to Cortes's conquest of Mexico.

These Spanish inflections afforded Milton special means to demonize the Devil. They also suggest the degree to which the British were able to transmute their own daunting imperial liabilities into ideological advantages and virtues. Many parallels between the Satanic and Iberian enterprises in Paradise Lost involve basic matters of setting and plot. David Quint has looked for analogues mainly to Portugal and the East, demonstrating that Satan's voyage in books 2 and 3 parodies Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India, as rendered by Luis de Canoens in Os Lusiadas.

But Milton's allusions to Spain's western discoveries are equally suggestive. These begin with Satan's commission in Pandemonium. Speaking under the Vatican-like dome of Hell's capital, his lieutenant Beelzebub climaxes the hellish consult by proposing the “easier enterprise” (2. 345) of an attack on the “happy isle” (2. 410) of this “new world” (2. 403). ... here perhaps Some advantageous act may be achiev'd By sudden onset: either with Hell fire To waste his whole Creation, or possess All as our own, and drive as we were driven, The puny habitants, or if not drive, Seduce them to our Party ... (2. 362—68) Beelzebub envisions a kind of geopolitical coup, one that we can recognize as analogous to Spain's American outflanking of its Islamic and Christian rivals at the end of the fifteenth century (Hodgkins 66). Also, while Satan the navigator may resemble da Gama and Columbus, as a traveler he is even more like the wily Cortes. There is more at work in Satan's successful voyage than mariner's luck, skill, and perseverance; there is also, most essentially, interpersonal guile.

In his crucial negotiations at the frontiers guarded by Sin, Death, and Chaos in book 2, Satan seems less like Columbus the earnestly persistent and more like Cortes the trickster. First of all, both Satan and Cortes opportunistically stoke the fires of resentment and dissension. Cortes's chaplain, Gomara, writes that, upon reaching the Mexican coast, Cortes found Montezuma's outlying imperial vassals ripe for rebellion and sought their aid and direction. The Indians of Cempoala and of Tlaxcala further inland were “not well affected to Mutezuma, but readie, as farre as they durst, to entertayne all occasions of warre with him” (Purchas 15. 509).

Similarly, in Paradise Lost, Sin and Chaos, while nominally subject to God “th' Ethereal King” (2. 978), willingly receive Satan's flattering promises that his mission will yield rich booty and restore their rightful power and sovereignty over the realms lately possessed by the divine Emperor. “[I] shall soon return, ” Satan assures his daughter and lover, Sin, “And bring ye to the place where Thou and Death ... shall be fed and fill'd / Immeasurably, all things shall be your prey” (2. 839—40, 843—44).

Further on, Satan implores the personified Chaos to “direct my course, ” for, he promises, Directed, no mean recompense it brings To your behoof, if I that Region lost, All usurpation thence expelled, reduce To her original darkness and your sway (2. 980—84). So Chaos blesses the venture and shows the way, and Satan wastes no time in launching out on the last leg of his journey to “this frail World” (2. 1030). After Satan's voyage and earthly landfall, Milton's reimagining of earth and Eden as an idealized western planting permeates the poem.

Though he explicitly compares the “gentle gales” that “dispense / Native perfumes” to the exotic east of “Mozambic” and “Araby the blest” (4. 156—63 passim), aromatic breezes also announce the American shore: from Columbus's first scent of San Salvador and Hipiola, to Michael Drayton's Edenic Virginia and Andrew Marvell's imagined Bermudas, the west is also the land of spices (Knoppers 67). Yet Milton evokes not only pre-Columbian America's fragrant garden delights but also its golden and urban splendors.

The conquistadors came west for treasure, and Satan has an eye for it as well—the “golden Chain” that Satan sees linking Earth to Heaven (2. 1051), the “potable gold” of Earth's rivers (3. 608), and especially the “vegetable gold” hanging from the Trees of Life and Knowledge (4. 218—20; 9. 575—78). Similarly, Cortes wonders at the Mexicans' “simplicitie” in undervaluing their abundant gold and touts it as a literally consumable elixir, telling Montezuma's emissary that “he and his fellowes had a disease of the heart, whereunto Gold was the best remedie” (Purchas 15. 507— 8).

Similarly Satan, by claiming to have consumed the golden fruit, persuades innocent Eve in book 9 of its transformative powers (9. 568—612). However, when Satan first sees the Earth, Milton compares the view to a city, not to a garden, and the view is strikingly similar to the Spanish scout's first sight of the Mexican capital from the barren volcanic pass of Mount Popocatepetl, looking down on the cities glittering on Lake Texcoco. In Paradise Lost, the epic simile unfolds as Satan Looks down with wonder at the sudden view Of all the World at once.

As when a Scout Through dark and desert ways with peril gone Obtains the brow of some high-climbing Hill, Which to his eye discovers unaware The goodly prospect of some foreign land First seen, or some renown'd Metropolis With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adorn'd, Which now the Rising Sun gilds with his beams (3. 542—44, 546—51). Likewise, in Gomara's words, Tenochtitlan and its sister cities were “an exceeding goodly sight. But when Cortes saw that beautiful thing, his joy was without comparison.... Whoever hath good eyesight might discern the gates of [Tenochtitlan].

. . . These Towres [of the cities Coyoacan and Vizilopuchtli] are planted in the Lake, and are adorned with many Temples, which have many faire Towres, that doe beautifie exceedingly the Lake.... [and] many drawne Bridges built upon faire arches” (Purchas 15. 520—21, 522, 523). Even the roadways into Tenochtitlan and Eden are similarly convenient. Gomara writes that the Mexican capital was entered over “a faire calsey [causeway], upon which eight horsemenne may passe on ranke, and so directly straight as though it had been made by line” (Purchas 15.

523). Likewise, Satan sees “A passage down to th' Earth, a passage wide” (3. 528). In terms of England's domestic affairs, Milton's return to poetry after 1660 was no mere quietism or withdrawal from politics, but rather, as Laura Lunger Knoppers has suggested, “a complex internalization of Puritan discipline that can carry on the Good Old Cause in the very theater of the Stuart monarchy. ” Thus in Paradise Lost, Milton seeks to restore right reason with an eventual view to restoring right rule at home. In other words, his retreat is strategic.

Similarly, beyond the domestic sphere, when Paradise Lost exploits colonial imagery so extensively so soon after the failure of Cromwell's “imperial republic, ” Milton is not merely spiritualizing a language of defeated earthly hopes (Barnaby 56). Instead, he is practicing another kind of strategic retreat, engaging in what Blake aptly called “mental fight”—stiffening the heart's sinews against all temporally and temporarily ascendant tyrannies, whether in the heart or at home or abroad. He is biding his time, the reader's time, the nation's time, serving by standing and waiting for Providence to show his hand.

Like Cortes the conquistador, like the conquistadorial Satan, Milton knows that conquest, and reconquest, start with the soul's invisible empire. And Milton never fully abandons his belief that war against flesh and blood has its place in the wars of the spirit. Works Cited Barnaby, Andrew. “ `Another Rome in the West? ': Milton and the Imperial Republic, 1654—1670. ” Milton Studies 30 (1990). Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. New York, 1978. Hodgkins, Christopher. Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature.

University of Missouri Press: Columbia, MO, 2002. King, James. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Knoppers, Laura Lunger. Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Milton, John. Paradise Lost; Paradise Regained; Samson Agonistes. Collier Books: New York, 1962. Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes. 20 vols. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1905—1907.

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