Hope After Eden: Creation and Identity in Paradise Lost

JESSICA GLUECK

Jessi Glueck, Featured ImageBoth Milton’s God and his Satan create: but while Satan’s creativity results in perverted replications of himself, God creates growth and change and ultimately human beings, who can create their own stories.

England in the 1660s was a weary, ravaged place. King Charles I had become the first king in history to be executed by his Parliament. His successor, Oliver Cromwell, was initially supported by idealists seeking an end to monarchy, but they watched in dismay as Cromwell ruled with an iron military fist. By 1660 Cromwell’s son, Richard, had resigned and a king was again on England’s throne. In the midst of this dispiriting political melée, a blind poet named John Milton was dictating the final books of the finest epic in the English language: Paradise Lost. The poem tells the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s parallel fall from heaven.

As an early supporter of Cromwell, Milton had a difficult couple of decades: he was forced into hiding, his writing was threatened, his friends killed. Yet embedded in Paradise Lost are surprising themes of hope: a purpose for fallen humans, an articulation of their relationship with God. My work analyzes these ideas through the lens of creation. Both Milton’s God and his Satan create: but while Satan’s creativity results in perverted replications of himself, God creates growth and change and ultimately human beings, who can create their own stories.

The first instance of this contrast between God and Satan lies in the worlds they construct. Satan builds a magnificent stone palace for his Hell, where lamps hang immobile in place of stars. In contrast, God’s earth is filled with movement and life. His sky is compared to a field; his stars are seeds. God’s creativity nurtures growth.

I next examine differences in the individuals God and Satan fashion. Satan conceives Death with Sin, a hideous creature who emerged from his head. Death’s first action is to rape his own mother; their offspring torture Sin for eternity. Creation in Hell is an act of consumption, an expression of these creatures’ inability to abide separateness.

In Eden, by contrast, Adam and Eve are distinct, with different skills and interests. Eve is mistress in the garden, while Adam is a diplomat who engages with God and with visiting angels. As critic Diane McColley puts it, “What seems to matter most to [Milton] is the eachness of each being.” God’s creations are fully formed individuals; Satan’s are destructive repetitions.

There is one aspect of God’s creation that has no parallel in Satan’s: the idea of self-creation. Milton suggests that human beings partner with the divine in shaping their fate. After showing Adam the future of humankind just before he leaves Eden, the angel Abdiel advises Adam to shape his individual destiny: “Add deeds to thy knowledge answerable,” he urges. Though humanity’s future is outlined by God, humans will write it with their own choices.

God’s creations, then, become creators themselves. There could be no more fitting theme for a creative work on the scale of Paradise Lost, which remains a testament to the almost divine power of human poetry.

Jessica Glueck is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at jessicaglueck@college.harvard.edu.