Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the four great epic works of the Western world, vying with Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Goethe’s Faust for the supremacy. Only these four in European literature have taken the universe as their field of discourse.
Contrary to what we consider to be normal procedure, Milton chose his medium of expression before he chose his subject. It was one of his long cherished desires to leave a great epic poem behind him, one that would stand as an enduring monument. Later, as he sought for the proper subject matter, he decided that no less a stage than the universe and no less than the drama of the ages would suffice in magnitude for his proposed work. The work became universal in its scope, reaching from the beginning to the end of history and penetrating to the highest reach of heaven and the lowest pit of hell.
The Greatest Tragedy
In making his poem embrace all time, from scenes in heaven to the consummation of all things, Milton forced himself to grapple with some knotty problems.
As Buxton writes, “The poet who makes the Universe the subject of his poem, undertakes a work so supremely difficult and complicated that without an extraordinary, an apparently miraculous combination of powers and sympathies, he must ignominiously fail” (Prophets of Heaven and Hell, p. 3). But Milton was seeking a solemn and edifying subject for his epic, and his spirit revolted from the frivolous and untrue. His mind naturally turned to the greatest tragedy of all time, the fall of the angels and of man. What was more real and dramatic than the fall of man, and what better medium was there for his moral purposes and the justification of the ways of God to man? With masterful arrangement and seductive style, Milton ...1
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