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Is Milton a revolutionary writer? Discuss with reference to 'Paradise Lost'.

Is Milton a revolutionary writer? Discuss with reference to 'Paradise Lost'.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Lisa Keating. Originally submitted for John Milton and the Revolutionary Image at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Crawford Gribben in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Lisa Keating. Originally submitted for John Milton and the Revolutionary Image at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Crawford Gribben in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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Is Milton a revolutionary writer? Discuss with reference to
 Paradise Lost 
There is no question that much of John Milton’s work was revolutionary, both because of the radicalideas expressed in his writing, as well as the undeniable influence which this writing has had on avariety of literary movements and genres. The image of Milton as revolutionary is in large part dueto his work as a prose writer from the 1640s onwards. Although today Milton is perhaps most fam-ous for his poetry, particularly
 Paradise Lost,
during his own lifetime Milton was better known as a pamphleteer who produced controversial and inflammatory works upon a variety of subjects.Among the contentious issues which Milton addressed in his pamphlets were episcopacy, divorce,monarchy and censorship. It is not surprising, therefore, that for centuries critics have sought to un-cover in
 Paradise Lost 
the same revolutionary ideas which Milton expressed in his prose. There arenumerous aspects of the epic which could be said to consolidate Milton’s reputation as a revolution-ary writer, one of which is its depiction of politics. Given the turbulent political context in whichMilton was writing, it is not surprising that many critics have analysed Milton’s description of Satan’s rebellion from the perspective of Milton’s own political views. From this perspective, Satanemerges as a brave and rebellious leader waging war against a tyrannical and king-like God. Al-though the portrayal of rebellion in
 Paradise Lost 
has been analysed as revolutionary, there arehowever shortcomings to such analyses, which must also be addressed.In order to examine whether 
 Paradise Lost 
supports the view of Milton as a revolutionarywriter, it is important to establish what Milton’s position on politics was in 1667, when the epic wasfirst published. The years of Milton’s life were a time of great and rapid political upheaval, witness-ing the assassination of Charles I in 1649 and the subsequent rise to power of Cromwell, followed by the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Although he had written poetry from a young age, fromthe 1640s until the 1660s Milton predominantly worked as a prose writer, using the pamphlet medi-um to address the key socio-political issues of the time, particularly the issue of monarchy. Al-though historians are undecided as to when Milton began to harbour anti-monarchical views, hiscondemnation of prelacy in his first published prose work,
Of Reformation
, in 1641, could beviewed as a precursor to his attack on Charles I:Milton may have insisted in
Of Reformation
that it was the corrupt system of episcopacythat was doing damage to the monarchy, but famously, Charles I, like his father, saw his own power as linked inextricably with that of his State Church: no bishop, no King. In taking onthe bishops, men like Milton were in effect challenging the power of the monarch.
Mounting opposition towards Charles I would lead to the outbreak of civil war in August 1642, andin January 30th 1649 Charles I was executed following a trial by the Rump Parliament. Shortly af-terwards Milton published his controversial prose piece
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
inwhich he justified Charles’ execution. Milton also became active in the new parliament, being ap- pointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues, and producing several works of prose on their behalf such as
 Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio.
Although it seemed as if the democratic repub-lic for which Milton had argued had been achieved, Milton had also expressed concerns in
The Ten-ure of Kings and Magistrates
that political backsliding would take place, and that the revolutionaryleaders would allow their personal interests to hinder progress, concerns which would prove proph-
1 Beer,
Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot,
p. 136.
etic. Though Milton worked on behalf of the Commonwealth, his prose and poetry from the 1650sseem to subtly hint that Milton was dissatisfied with the direction in which the new government washeading. An example of this can be seen in “Sonnet 16,” written in 1652 and addressed to Crom-well. Having praised Cromwell’s military victories, Milton proceeds to caution that “muchremains /To conquer still; peace hath her victories /No less renowned than war,”
revealing his be-lief that the position of the new government was still tenuous. Milton’s fears were perhaps realisedin 1653 when Cromwell dissembled the Rump Parliament, bringing an end to the democracy of theregime, and became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth later that year. However, Milton’s anxiet-ies regarding the leadership of the new regime would soon be superseded by the rising threats to theregime itself following the death of Cromwell in September 1658. Milton continued to speak outagainst monarchy even when the Restoration seemed inevitable, publishing
The Ready and EasyWay to Establish a Free Commonwealth
in February of 1660 at considerable personal risk. By May,however, Charles II had been pronounced king, and Milton went into hiding. In August Milton’s books were publicly burned, and Milton himself was subsequently arrested for a short period later that year. Surprisingly, given his polemical works, Milton managed to escape execution, perhapsthrough the efforts of friends and relatives who were Royalist supporters, yet had to endure thedeaths of many of his former colleagues. Having witnessed the victory of the Parliamentarians, andhaving worked tirelessly on their behalf during the Interregnum, Milton was now forced to confrontthe failure of the revolution in which he had so strongly believed. This took an enormous toll onMilton spiritually, and it is worth considering to what extent he had maintained his belief in revolu-tion by the time that he was writing
 Paradise Lost 
, or whether he had become disillusioned in theface of such overwhelming disappointment.In order to understand
 Paradise Lost 
as a text of rebellion, it is crucial to keep in mind thehistorical events which had unfolded during Milton’s life, and his own position on them. In under-taking the ambitious project of converting the Biblical story of the Fall into the form of an epic poem, Milton was influenced both by his religious beliefs and by his literary aspirations.
 Paradise Lost 
was Milton’s attempt to “assert eternal providence, /And justify the ways of God tomen”(
 p. 295, i.25-6), to depict the tragic events which would bring an end to harmony onEarth, and yet to show that there was still the possibility of redemption, both for Adam and Eve andfor the contemporary reader. Simultaneously, what Milton was trying to create in
 Paradise Lost 
wasa great epic in the English language, one which would surpass the epics of the classical poets be-cause it dealt with Christian material. Reading
 Paradise Lost 
from this perspective teaches that sal-vation can only be obtained through obeying God’s will, while Satan emerges as a parody of typicalheroic virtues. However, when we take Milton’s political opinions into consideration the text takeson a vastly different meaning, becoming an examination into whether it is right for God to rulewithout opposition, and whether Satan and his followers were justified in rebelling. One of the keyreasons for this is that throughout the poem God’s rule is aligned with monarchy. For instance,Satan and his followers are said to rebel “[a]gainst the throne and monarchy of God”(
 p. 295,i.42), and the hell into which they are thrown is referred to as a “dungeon”(
 p. 296, i.61),while God is deemed “Heav’n’s matchless King”(
 p. 386, iv.41) and sits “[h]igh thronedabove all highth”(
 p. 362, iii.58). Although the practice of portraying God as a king is a fairly
2 Kerrigan, Rumrich and Fallon,
The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton,
p. 153, 9-11. As Iwill be quoting frequently from this source, subsequent quotations will be indicated in parentheses after thequotation.
standard one, Milton’s antipathy towards monarchy makes his use of such imagery problematic. An-other issue concerning the justness of God’s rule emerges when we consider the issue of God’s om-nipotence. As God is all-powerful, there is no possibility for opposition to his rule in Heaven, andinsurrections such as that of Satan can be quickly suppressed. Given Milton’s own commitment todemocracy, the depiction of an autocratic ruler whose supremacy cannot be challenged is similarlytroublesome.While the issues which arise due to Milton’s portrayal of God may be sufficient in them-selves to justify a revolutionary reading of 
 Paradise Lost,
it is the character of Satan who most of-ten convinces critics that the poem should be read subversively. The theory that it is Satan withwhom we are meant to sympathise, dating back as far as John Dryden and still championed in mod-ern times by critics such as William Empson, finds much of its support in Books I and II of 
 Para-dise Lost,
in which Satan emerges a brave and natural leader of the fallen angels. Satan’s heroicqualities are evidenced by his refusal to accept defeat or to ask for forgiveness, despite his recentvanquishment: “What though the field be lost? /All is not lost; the unconquerable will... /And cour-age never to submit or yield: /And what else is not to be overcome?”(
 p. 298, i.105-9). It isSatan who rallies the other angels in Hell, urging them to “arise, or be for ever fall’n”(
 p. 306,i.330), and who persuades them not to relinquish their hopes of revenge upon God. Satan is also physically impressive, being superior in height and strength to his cohorts: “he above the rest /Inshape and gesture proudly eminent /Stood like a tow’r”(
 p. 315, i.589-91). Despite his as-sumption of the role of leader of Hell, Satan arguably does not abuse his leadership, and the debateheld among the fallen angels in Book II could be said to resemble a democratic system of rule. Thiscontrasts greatly with the ruling system in Heaven, in which God’s word is accepted as law. The im-age of Satan as a brave rebel who objects to a tyrannic system of government has led some critics totry to read
 Paradise Lost 
as a political allegory, with God representing the monarchy and Satan asone of the Parliamentarian leaders. Through his military prowess, Satan could be said to resembleCromwell, while the sufferings which the fallen angels undergo might be analogous to those of Cromwell’s supporters during the Restoration. Although this interpretation will prove difficult tomaintain based on the text as a whole, from the evidence of these early books it seems Milton foundit difficult to sympathetically portray an omnipotent ruler, and may have sympathised, at least un-consciously, with Satan’s aims.Although it is tempting to read Satan as a mouthpiece for Milton’s revolutionary views, thisinterpretation is almost impossible to maintain without ignoring certain elements of the poem. As previously mentioned, Milton underlines the fact that he wants to establish a new model for heroismin
 Paradise Lost,
one which is separate from that of the classical epic as it is based on Christian val-ues. In describing Satan’s strength and combat skills, particularly during the war in Heaven, Miltonis clearly setting him up as a hero in the tradition of classical writers such as Homer. However, asCharles Martindale points out, this battle, and its reminiscence to Homer, is meant to be satiric; asangels are immortal, none of the wounds which they receive can be lasting, and any form of combatseems futile and pointless. Furthermore, since God is omnipotent, the rebel angels of course have nochance of victory, and the battle ends as soon as God decides to intervene. This belittling of Satan isdue to Milton’s desire to promote Christian virtues; not being “sedulous by nature to indite/Wars”(
 p. 518, ix.27-8), Milton instead chooses to promote “the better fortitude /Of patienceand heroic martyrdom”(
 p. 518, ix.31-2), as embodied by Christ as well as by Adam and Eve.Though Milton’s disregard for the military virtues which Satan possesses is one argument against

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