So I read Paradise Lost by John Milton and really, I couldn’t help myself, I have to write about it. Please bear in mind that I haven’t studied Paradise Lost, these are just my thoughts.
So I’m going to look at the character of God first.
In Paradise Lost, God isn’t in it quite as much as you’d assume for a poem that is Milton’s attempt to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. In fact you start of meeting Satan, which is fairly surprising. But I think it becomes clear that not even Milton knows how exactly to portray God. The first time we ‘see’ him Milton clearly gets across his omniscience:
‘Now had the almighty Father from above,
From the pure empyrean where he sits
High throned above all height, bent down his eye,
His own works and their works at once to view’
But as well as that, we get a feeling for his distance – he is ‘High throned above all height’, almost as though we as readers and as humans have no hope of ever truly reaching him. It suggests his perfection, and the resounding lack of perfection that we humans show, and this distance was something that stayed with me whenever I read about God.
Quite soon after the introduction to God, he speaks to his son (essentially Jesus before he’s made into a human) and shows him how Satan has escaped Hell and is trying to find Adam and Eve in an attempt to trick them into betraying God. But here’s the thing, he knows what’s going to happen:
‘For man will hearken to to his [Satan’s] glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall,
He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.’
So the reader is suddenly confronted by this question, if God knew that mankind would fall prey to Satan’s temptation, why did he create them with that weakness? He says it himself, he made them ‘sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.’ And to a point, he answers the question:
‘Not free, what proof could they have given sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,
Where only what they needs must do, appeared,
Not what they would? what praise could they recieve?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid’
So this suggests that God doesn’t just want mindless slaves to sing his praises, he truly wants his subjects to love him and make the choice to follow him, and it’s in these lines that Milton is perhaps trying to help endear God to the reader, but I found it quite a shaky justification as the tone that God has still has this very … self-righteous tone. Furthermore if you look at the previous line, when he describes mankind as Adam’s ‘faithless progeny’ and ‘ingrate’s, it seems quite clear that he’s angry, furious even. And once again it adds this distancing element. He doesn’t seem like an all-loving, merciful father for all of creation to dote upon, more a judge or demanding deity who demands devotion. (At this point someone is going to say ‘hello, this is God we’re talking about – he is a deity!’).
But I wonder whether these observations are only valid with the modern image of God that we have. If I remember my history lessons correctly, around the time of Paradise Lost’s writing and publication (around 1667), there was also the Great Plague (1664-1666), and there were groups of flagellants and the like who believed that God had sent the Plague in order to punish sinners. Similarly, the Church used the Bible and people’s belief in God to keep the commoners obedient. All of this seems to be quite to opposite of today when we are encouraged to love God and see him as a merciful being who will help us when we need it.
Milton’s work therefore is perhaps accurate for his time, when God perhaps was used to keep people in line – but even if that is the case, it still causes him to struggle when trying to make God seem like the perfect being we should all cherish – because even in Milton’s time you had to love God.
We see this problem arising again and again in the poem, and it begs the question of whether as humans, we just aren’t capable of understanding this perfect being in our tainted states.
When Adam and Eve are pray for forgiveness in the garden, the readers are already sympathetic towards them despite their sin, and this means that God’s judgement of them seems unfair and cold, despite it perhaps being the logical thing to do:
‘Eject him tainted now, and purge him off
As a distemper, gross to air as gross,
And mortal food, as may dispose him best
For dissolution wrought by sin, that first
Distempered all things and of incorrect
Whilst his decision to throw them out of the garden of Eden is logical (they betrayed him and so they must be punished, and they endanger the whole garden’s purity if they remain), his language is blunt and brutal, and it seems hard to believe that he truly loves Adam and Eve – though perhaps this is just the disappointment of a heartbroken father. But even so, the reader may well come to resent the fact that he seems to believe that the humans are some sort of illness now that they have sinned.
So God is perhaps one of the more confusing characters in the poem, and it appears that even Milton was undecided as to how to ‘justify’ his ways to men – though whether that’s only because we’re too flawed to understand God is up to everyone to decide for themselves. What can be said though, is that by portraying God in a way that allows people to find fault in him, or even dislike him, was a brave and dangerous thing to do, and Milton did so in one of the most rigidly religious and chaotic times in British history.
I might do more of these essays … who knows … probably Satan or Adam and Eve next.