John Milton's Paradise Lost Essay: Allegory of Sin and Death

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Allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost  

    That Milton's Paradise Lost is unsurpassed--and hardly equaled--in English literature is generally accepted by critics and scholars. Whether it may have serious flaws, however, and what they may be, is less certain, for it is here that opinion varies. Of particular interest to some is the allegory of Sin and Death (II. 648-883). Robert C. Fox wonders that it has not been the subject of much more critical discussion, asking "Is it that Milton's readers are puzzled by this episode and, unable to explain its significance, prefer to pass it over in silence? Or do they regard it as so obvious in meaning that no interpretive remarks are necessary?" ("The Allegory" 354). Whatever the answer to Fox's query, his point is well taken; in a survey of the bibliography of the Modern Language Association from 1950-1980, fewer than twenty references specifically devoted to this allegory can be located, and many of these, rather than pursuing the question of its appropriateness and/or its importance within the total work, simply investigate its tradition and sources.


Merritt Y. Hughes, in referring to those scholars who have commented on the allegory, writes that "for two centuries critics agreed that the step into pure allegory in Sin and Death was a blemish on the poem and an external incrustation. Recently they have been wondering whether it is not a part of the structural irony of the whole design" (177). It is this latter view on which this paper focuses; the allegory is indeed an integral part of the whole of Paradise Lost, not an error of judgment on Milton's part, as some critics believe. It is defensible on two levels, both in terms of structure and in terms of content.


Since it is the presence of allegorical figures--abstractions--in the epic to which some critics object, it is necessary here to discuss both allegory and epic form. Allegory, according to William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, is defined as "an extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative . . . are equated with meanings that lie outside [it]," uses characters that "are usually personifications of abstract qualities, the action and the setting representative of the relationships among these abstractions. Allegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters, and setting presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to convey or the significance they bear" (7-8).

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"John Milton's Paradise Lost Essay: Allegory of Sin and Death." 22 Mar 2018
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John Steadman notes that for many critics, "the chief objection to the allegory of Sin and Death was [this] violation of the principle of verisimilitude" ("Allegory" 36); he goes on to wonder if Milton's allegories are really inconsistent with the rules of true epic poetry and quickly answers that they are not.


There are two defenses which Steadman discusses which are, it would appear, both convincing and reasonable. First, he broaches the idea of the poet's license to put in an allegory, noting that "both classical and vernacular literature contained numerous examples of this . . . license" ("Allegory" 37). His list of examples includes those by Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Dante. He also quotes Aristotle, noting that the latter believed impossibilities to be justifiable (37). In the light of such expertise and examples, it would be difficult indeed to remain unconvinced. Of course, literary license has long been a justification for variation. Milton certainly was not trying it here for the first time. An examination of his sonnets reveals a tendency to move away from the strict octet/sestet division between presentation/resolution. (It is interesting to note that some critics who object to the inclusion of the allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost see nothing wrong with--in fact, applaud--this variation of sonnet form, a form as deliberate certainly as that of the epic.) Milton's readers are also certainly familiar with his digressions in "Lycidas," and many find them totally justified. David Daiches, in fact, does not believe digression to be an apt label, remarking that their content is building on an established theme in the poem (86). To call some poetic license of Milton's creative and ingenious and other variations, just as justifiable, an intrusion and an error is, it seems, quite inconsistent and extremely arbitrary.


Steadman's second defense of the allegory is couched in a discussion of the era involved:

the blame [for the adverse criticism] lies less with the poet or his critics than with time--with the evolution of poetic theory and its inevitable corollary, the relativity of critical standards. The principles underlying the composition of Paradise Lost are by no means identical with those by which the poem has been judged. . . . Whereas Milton's theory of the epic had been based, in large part, on the critical thought of the Italian Renaissance, the theory of his neo-classical successors bore the hallmark of seventeenth-century France. ("Allegory" 36)

C. S. Lewis devoted much space to an examination of epic form and style, examining its evolution over the years as it developed and changed as a result of changing customs and beliefs, noting that the early epics--court poetry--are a far cry "from Mr. John Milton printing a book to be sold in seventeenth-century London . . . " (16). Certainly both of these critics are correct when they recommend looking at the piece not only as a stiff, formal form but also as a reflection of both the author and the time. If examined in that fashion, variations on the form may become attributes rather than flaws; Lewis' point that "every poem has two parents--its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form" is very well taken (3). To disallow the individuality of a Milton would indeed be a sad state of literary affairs--what new, distinctive, and arresting qualities in writing styles would we be able to enjoy if no variance from formalized rules were allowed?


It is not only the structure of the epic poem which has received criticism over the years; the content has also come under attack. Voltaire was almost vehement. After summarizing the action of the allegory--Satan begetting Sin, then having sexual relations with her, with the result that Death is brought into the world, a son, who, as had his father, also had relations with Sin, resulting in the birth of serpents, a grim picture indeed--Voltaire appears to be appalled: "Let such a picture be ever so beautifully drawn, let the allegory be ever so obvious, and so clear, still it will be intolerable on the account of its foulness. That complication of horrors, that mixture of incest, that heap of monsters, that loathsomeness so farfetched, cannot but shock a reader of delicate taste" (516). One cannot help but think that Milton would have been pleased with the obviously grand effect of the scene--surely this is exactly the sort of impact he had hoped it to have. And this is the same allegory which Samuel Johnson called "unskillful . . . one of the greatest faults of the poem; and to this there was no temptation, but the author's opinion of its beauty" (531). Beauty? Perhaps an aweful beauty--it is indeed difficult to reconcile these two criticisms.


More recent criticism seems to be leaning in favor of the allegory, finding it part of a long tradition and discovering more and more links between it and the rest of the work. In terms of tradition,

its component elements were consciously derivative, and Milton's artistry consisted precisely in combining in a new and striking figure details with which his predecessors had invested the mythological woman-serpent. The primary value of his portrait resided in its formal resemblance to the conventional serpentine hybrid; he enriched it, however, with details suggestive of particular precedents. In this way he could invite comparison with a general tradition and also with specific analogues. He could evoke a chain of literary associations which stretched from Hesiod to Fletcher. . . . The entire tradition, moreover, could easily be subjected to allegorical interpretation, for in combining the bestial and the human, the irrational and the rational, the mythological hybrid could conveniently symbolize the essence of vice--the distortion of man's rational nature by passion. (Steadman, "Traditional" 102)

Fox emphasizes the continuation and strength of the tradition into the Renaissance ("Milton's" 121), a point well considered in light of that era's impact upon Milton.


Once one accepts the fact of literary license and the importance of considering the development and evolution of an art form, looking at specific works within their own period, and that what Milton was doing in the allegory was in fact part of a long tradition, it is possible to move more deeply into the text itself to look at details and meaning. Certainly, Milton's use of parody shines in the allegory; that there is, for example, a parody of the Holy Trinity is clear. That the Son is Light and Sin is Darkness is apparent; that the Holy Spirit is Life and is parodied by Death is also obvious. But there is a great deal more.


That the readers are to draw comparisons between Satan and Sin and Adam and Eve is also clear. According to Fox,

The affinity of Sin for the mortals on earth recalls certain parallels between the diabolical and human levels. Just as Eve is created from the side of Adam, so Sin springs full-grown from the brow of Satan. And just as Eve's first action after her creation is to admire the reflection of herself in a lake, so Satan first sees in Sin a more perfect image of himself. The effect of these parallels is to draw our attention to the correspondence between the respective falls from grace. The disobedience of man is followed immediately by a sequence of lust that begins with looks, proceeds to desires, and culminates in deeds. With Satan, it is the same; following his non serviam, Satan looks on Sin, becomes enamored, and then secretly takes his joy with her. ("The Allegory" 362)

Fox sees Sin and Death as representing Lust and Gluttony in addition to their nominal concepts; Sin is a seductive woman, Death is a gluttonous monster (357).


This view is supported by John Patrick: "The fair shape of Sin, with her lovely features, . . . the outward beauty of womanhood, leads man allegorically in this picture to concupiscent lust; thence to the actual sin itself; and the experience ends in remorse and disgust . . . [and] the image of the coiling serpent and the Hell-hounds . . . " (385). This emphasis by Milton on the monstrosity of sin is noted by Timothy J. O'Keeffe, who points out that "Sin is tortured because she produces more sin . . . " (76). The parallel here with Adam and Eve as they reap the rewards of their acts in the garden are hardly obscure. Patrick adds still another comment on the fall from grace and the Hell-hounds:

. . . the fruits of Sin lead simply to more extensive and greater sin, as Michael affirms in his brief explanation of the course of man's future history in Books XI and XII of Paradise Lost.

The dominant idea in all these closely related pictures of sin is that of man somehow becoming beast. In each instance the symbolic picture drawn by the poet is that of a woman blending into the form of a serpent [remember that Adam calls Eve a serpent after the fall], the symmelus with feminine torso, but with the lower extremities of a giant snake. As such, Sin is concretely symbolic of the destiny of fallen man, man who permits his baser senses to gain control unwisely over his soul, fallen man at the same time yearning for higher things, and retaining part of the divine image, the upper portion, while losing the lower--for this is man also, after the fall, ever bound to the earth, tied to the physical realm by his physical drives and needs, sunk in carnal pleasures at the level of the beast in the realm of the body. (385)

Fox likewise believes the sexual nature of sin is emphasized by Milton ("The Allegory" 357), not at all surprising when one considers that the Biblical source of the allegory is couched in very sexual terms: "Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (James 1. 15).


Other interesting parallels between Eve and Sin, in particular occur to one while reading the text. Sin was the product of lust (pride) sprung from Satan's head; Eve was the product of love taken from Adam's rib, near the heart. Surely the contrast was on Milton's mind when he had Sin address her father, Satan, as "my father, thou my Author . . . " (II. 864) and Eve address Adam as her "Author and Disposer" (IV. 635). But Eve's union was blessed; Sin's was not. Sin, according to Lewis, was the guardian of all evil; Eve was the guardian of all virtues (69). Of interest also is the idea of helplessness once begun--Sin opens the gates of Hell to permit Satan to exit: " . . . She op'n'd, but to shut Excell'd her power . . . " (II. 883-84). Similarly, Eve, through her disobedience in the garden, opened the world to sin and found it out of her control to regain the position held before. Milton, it seems, delights in tempting his readers with such fascinating discoveries; we are drawn in by them and find that to explore all the wonderful, deliberate coincidences is to be led even further into the minutest details of the test, giving the impression that every new reading would lead to new finds--new reasons to justify the ways of the allegory to critics.

 Works Cited

The Bible.

Daiches, David. Milton. New York: Norton, 1957.

Elledge, Scott, ed. Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1975.

Fox, Robert C. "The Allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost." Modern Language Quarterly 24 (1963): 354-64.

---. "Milton's 'Sin': Addenda." Philological Quarterly 42 (1963): 120-21.

Johnson, Samuel. "Paradise Lost." Elledge 521-34.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Rpt. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed.Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1980.

O'Keeffe, Timothy J. "An Analogue to Milton's 'Sin' and More on the Tradition." Milton Quarterly 5 (1971): 74-77.

Patrick, John M. "Milton, Phineas Fletcher, Spenser, and Ovid--Sin at Hell's Gates." Notes and Queries Sept. 1956: 384-86.

Steadman, John M. "Allegory and Verisimilitude in Paradise Lost: The Problem of the 'Impossible Credible.'" PMLA Mar. 1963: 36-39.

---. "Tradition and Innovation in Milton's 'Sin': The Problem of Literary Indebtedness." Philological Quarterly 39 (1960): 93-103.

Thrall, William Flint, and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Rev. and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman. New York: Odyssey, 1960.

Voltaire. "Milton." Elledge 513-17.

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