English Civil War as a Background for Milton's Paradise Lost
Political Foundations in Milton's Paradise Lost: Ties to the English Civil War
Paradise Lost is an epic tale of defeat and the consequences which come from breaking with the proper form of divine rule. In his work, John Milton pits Satan and his army against God in Heaven, illustrating the notorious Christian battle within particularly political contexts. The English Civil War did play a large role in the creation of Milton's infamous work, Paradise Lost. In fact, the work itself is a political allegory, in which its thematic structures invoke the political tension through character allusions, which is most evident in Milton's description of the battle for Heaven and the tension between God, the supreme ruler, and the rebel figure of Satan; moreover, the stylistic structures mimic Milton's political prose, thus further connecting Milton's political activism in the period to the background and underlying structure of one of the most famous literary works in the Western tradition.
The English Civil War was a major influence in a number of literary and artistic works made during this period. The beginning stages of the conflict lasted between1642-1651 (Roberts 1). Royalists and Parliamentarians took up arms against one another in a struggle between the authority of the crown and the growing power of the members of Parliament. King Charles I ruled as if he had a divine right to rule over the people of England, and many opposition figures were sick of his desire to levy increased taxes, which were seen as illegal to many citizens of England at the time. As such, Charles I created tension within the country by not calling meetings of Parliament as often as many believed he should have during the decade of the 1630s. This is contrasted with the more democratic view of many members of Parliament who believed the King also had to cooperate with the power being emitted from Parliament. According to the research, "much of Parliament believed that the king had a contractual obligation to the people to rule without tyranny" (Roberts 1). The year 1649 saw the execution of King Charles I and the beginning of a period of turmoil where England had no king. The country was ruled by a vastly republican government until 1653. Oliver Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector, "essentially a military dictator" (Roberts 1). Richard Cromwell, Oliver's son, took his place in 1658 which once again through the nation into turmoil. Finally, in 1660, the monarchy was reinstated when Charles II, son of King Charles I, was restored as King of England in the Restoration.
Milton's political background is significant because it influences his creative works as well as his political prose. He began writing political prose in 1641 with his publication of the work Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England (Online Library of Liberty 1). Essentially, Milton was starkly against supporting King Charles I, who claimed that the court of England could not even try him for treason because of his divine protection and right to rule, as pointed out by God's protection of the Kings of Israel. Milton had a much different interpretation of the Biblical texts, and believed that man's role, including kings, was to support a divine hierarchy. In this, a "tyrannical ruler contradicts this divine order, and that the role of the king is primarily to maintain this order, rather than to destabilize it" (Roberts 1). In fact, Milton was known for his support for Cromwell and was actually appointed as a Secretary for Foreign Languages in 1649 (Online Library of Liberty 1). This was "a position which involved acting as the voice of the English revolution to the world at large," a tradition which continued in his epic prose (Roberts 1). Milton wanted the monarchy replaced with a free commonwealth, which would further empower the citizens of England and keep them from experiencing the tyranny they had been witnessing in past reigning monarchs. He fought against the reinstatement of King Charles II in his work The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth in 1660 and remained active in England's politics through his writing career until he died in 1674.
Milton's political beliefs were definitely intimately intertwined with his religious beliefs, all of which were the founding thematic structures that later appeared in his prose and poetry. Here, the research states that a "close analysis reveals a subtle change in his thought away from the youthful orthodoxy which had led him to consider ordination as a priest, and towards the increasingly and subversive theology which typifies his later writings" (Roberts 1). His creative prose was laden with political references and allusions. In fact, the work Paradise Lost can be read as a political allegory, where thematic elements within the epic are "aligned with aspects of the political context of the poem's creation" (Roberts 1). In this political allegory, the characters are in a political situation, as "he saw the events of the Christian myth he was retelling as paradigms or archetypes for the daily events of the Civil War" (Forsyth 63). The heavenly struggle came to represent man's own intense struggle against tyranny. In this, "the cosmic struggle and the origins of human sin were the main subjects of the epic, but those events could now be understood in the terms made clear by contemporary politics" (Forsyth 63). Thus, there is a high political structure within Milton's prose, especially in connection to his descriptions of God and Satan.
In this politicized reading of Paradise Lost, God is pictured first as a ruler. Rather than just a figure of spiritual guidance and piety, he is a rule who focuses on instituting laws upon his creations, men and women. God is the Father, and man is the Son, thus man must obey God's rule. Milton shows this as representing the ideal kingship, where the rule is not instituted through tyranny, as the citizens of England were being forced to endure under the rule of King Charles I. God places restrictions on Adam and Eve, predominately because he is their ruler and has the authority to do so. Yet, these restrictions come not from a selfish or tyrannical perspective, but out of love for His subjects and their well-being. He sets rules in order to define His leadership, which Milton sees as a healthy implication of how a kingship should actually be. Moreover, God's inaugural speech likens the deity to a kingly figure (Forsyth 63). He is seen as an incredibly politicized figure. God's army is successful in fighting off his fallen angels, because He is the ultimately figure of kingly authority, and thus He has to see victory, or else Milton would have been advocating that even the most appropriate kings are unable to rule righteously.
Satan's rebellion and the dark figure of Satan himself are also components to Milton's political undertones. Milton's powerful representation of Satan in Paradise Lost is another powerful political tie to the English Civil War. Through this character, Milton is exposing the "fear of change / Perplexes Monarchs" (Milton I.598-599). Satan represents a challenge to traditional rule, under a monarchy, and thus his more sympathetic representation shows how Milton supported such changes when in times of tyranny. Throughout the work, Satin is one of the primary political figures. Here, the research suggests that "Milton responded to and consciously or unconsciously reproduced these entangled aspects of war in his portrayal of the war in heaven" (Summers & Pebworth 235). Satan's speeches to his fellow fallen angels are a parallel to Milton's own desire to support a free commonwealth in the midst of a new monarchy in England. He becomes a strange, but highly political representation of the support for rebellion in England at the time. Oddly enough, Milton takes Satan's character and turns him into a sort of "epic hero" (Summers & Pebworth 203). Satan and his angels are seen as unlikely epic heroes because of their devotion to fighting for their ideals. They are essentially taking up arms and using military force and strategy as a way to create a new political environment. Satan's defeat is also representative of the defeat of those in England who had fought so hard for a commonwealth. This is seen in the image of when he is wounded on the battlefield in combating Michael. Milton writes, "then Satan first knew pain / And writhed him to and fro convulsed; so sore / The griding sword with discontinuous wound / Passed through him, but the ethereal substance closed / Not long divisible, and from the gash / A stream of nectarous humour issuing flowed / Sanguine, such as celestial spirits may bleed, And all his armour stained ere while so bright" (VI.327-34). Satan is not just wounded, he is forced to suffer, a physical representation of the disgrace of his defeat as well as the literary manifestation of the movement's failure to install a commonwealth. In response, the rebel angels break in…
Sources Used in Document:
Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Epic. Princeton University Press. 2003.
Online Library of Liberty. "The Political Thought of John Milton." The Forum. 2012. Web. Retrieved 27 Apr 2012 from http://oll.libertyfund.org/readinglists/print/138-the_political_thought_of_john_milton
Roberts, Gabriel. "Milton's Political Context." Darkness Visible. Christ's College at Cambridge University. 2008. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2012 from http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/darknessvisible/politics.html