Blending of Renaissance and Reformation

Blending of Renaissance and Reformation in “Paradise Lost” Book-I

Blending of Renaissance and Reformation : Milton’s mind was shaped and moulded by the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation. On the one hand, he drank deep of classical poetry and philosophy and inherited all the culture and humanism of the Renaissance, and on the other, he had a deeply religious temperament, and was a profound student of the Bible and the literature of the scripture.

Blending of Renaissance and Reformation

Thus at the back of Milton’s mind there were the best fruits of classical scholarship and Biblical learning. He was a lover of art and music, and possessed what may be called an all-round culture of the mind.

Besides, he was full of moral and religious earnestness, and possessed all the piety and devotion of a true Christian. He was however, free from the intensely narrow outlook of a fierce Purian. He combined in himself the humanism of the Renaissance with the spiritual fervour of Puritanism. These two influences moulded all his poetic work. Dr. Johnson complained that his Lycideas was an inconsistent mixture of pagan and Christian sentiments. The two elements were no doubt mixed up, but the blending was on the whole harmonious in Lycidas as it was in Paradise Lost. The great epic, as it stands, could not have been written if the poet had not been equally influenced by Hellenism and Hebrasim.

Puritan Element in Milton

The very theme of Paradise Lost shows the Puritan or Hebraic element in Milton. The fact that he chose the Fall of Man as the theme of his great epic shows the Puritan in him. Wars and adventurous deeds did not interest the Puritan poet. You are reading Blending of Renaissance and Reformation in Paradise Lost.

Not sedulous by nature to indite”
War!, hitherto the only argument

Heroic deemed…                                  (Book IX-27-29)

The theme is the most heroic of all great English poems. He based his great work on the story of the Fall of Man, as given in the Bible. To him this story was not fictitious or legendary, but literally and historically true. And in telling the story of “Man’s first disobedience” he set out to justify the ways of God to man. Whether he succeeded in his aim or not, the fact remains that his ultimate design was to show how man fell through disobedience, and how he could regain the lost Paradise through the grace of God. It was indeed his Puritan character that led him to this theme, but it gave full scope for the expression of his stupendous genius.

Though he has introduced wars and adventurous deeds into the body of the epic, according to the classical tradition, the central theme of the poem is disobedience to God’s command and the consequent Fall of Man. The conflict in the epic is not external; it is a spiritual conflict ‘Man’s first disobedience.’ The theme of the epic, thus, is religious; it is based on the Bible. “Milton‘s contemporaries had the Bible in their heads and in their hearts, the modern reader must be at least prepared to have it in his hand.” (Rajan).

Stopford A. Brooke observes: “The form is the epic form of the Greeks and Romans… The filling up of the form is partly invented and partly derived from Scripture. The character and the greater part of the action are invented; but the part derived from the Scripture has a theological system attached to it… This scheme of theology so far as it intrudes, lessens the interest of the poem… but it does not destroy it. And it is not its presence but its presence in an argumentative form which is alien to art.. The scheme in itself, is abstract and logical and as such repugnant to art. One thing which has grandeur… and which broods over all these parts of the poems is the conception deepest in Puritanism and the source of its power – the overshadowing idea of sovereignty of God.” Milton’s Biblical and classical education combined their influence to make him think of a poet as something more than a versifier, as one whose work was to be justified by the lesson which the poem inculcated.”

 According to Grierson in Paradise Lost, Milton’s object is not only to “assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men,” but much more. For the poem contains profound observations on religion, morality, politics, government, war and peace and the relationship between man and woman, arts, sciences, explorations and on practically all the important aspects of life. All are sanctified by ‘whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave.” You are reading Blending of Renaissance and Reformation in Paradise Lost.

 “Paradise Lost” based upon classical model

Yet if the body of the epic is the encyclopaedia and hexametric tradition and its stiffening sinews, the Bible, the shaping spirit is surely that of the classics” (Rajan). The division of the epic into twelve books, the relieving similes, the councils, the heroic catalogues and the heavenly messengers, are only some of the technical devices that show Milton’s indebtedness to the classics. You are reading Blending of Renaissance and Reformation in Paradise Lost.

The form of the epic and treatment of the religious theme are entirely in classical tradition. Milton had declared that he would write an epic in the style of Homer, and every element in the form of Paradise Lost is in the classical style. We have in Paradise Lost all the ingredients of the classical epic-invocation to the Muse, plunging into the very middle of the action, description of war, gradual development of action leading up to the climax – viz, plucking the fruit of the forbidden trees, resulting in the Fall of Man, and then the resolution of the conflict ending in Man’s loss of Paradise. Thus the plan and design of Paradise Lost follows meticulously the classical models of homer and Virgil.

In telling the story of the Fall of Man, Milton fully expresses the spirit of the Renaissance. One of the fundamental attributes of Milton’s character was his love of freedom and spirit of independence. In the story of Adam there was the conflict between pre-destination and free will. Without entering into theological controversy we may say that Milton was all for freedom, and pointed out how Adam plucked the fruit out of his free will (induced no doubt by Eve), though he had been commanded by God not to do so. And as a result of disobedience he fell under the wrath of Gold. “The moral thesis of Genesis is submission to the Almighty, which makes out disobedience to be sinful.

But Milton, who wished to emphasize this moral, had an independent spirit and had lived independently. He had acclaimed and advocated the rebellion against the prelates and even the king, and celebrated the glories of regicide. In spite of himself, he was in deep sympathy with Satan, the great rebel of Heaven and the enemy of God. The pride and indomitable courage of the rebel angel rekindled the emotion of the intensest hours of his life. Devoutly but mechanically he paid lip service to the duty of obedience, but in his heart he was chanting a hymn to freedom and rebellion.” (Legouis). This spirit of rebellion is embodied in the character of Satan, and it is in Satan that Milton put most of himself, his pride and temperament.

In Paradise Lost we have a combination which is absolutely unique in the literature of the time; a poem which has all the deep spiritual fervour of Puritanism, decorated and diversified by every ornament and beauty which could possibly be borrowed from classical literature and mythology. The reader will feel a sense of confusion arise at times from the strange mixture of Christian and pagan ideas. It is essentially the Hell of the ancient Greeks and Romans which Milton describes where the river of Lathe, Cocytus and Styx flow, and it is the Greek Fury, named Medusa who guards the fort.

The dreadful figures of Sin and Death are modelled on ancient classical monsters, while Chaos is surrounded by the classical figure of Ades, Orcus and Demogorgon. This makes us wonder what Milton really did believe in, but the fact is that the Christian Bible does not supply a clear picture of Hell and is not very definite as regards the geography or population of the lower region. On the other hand, the classical conception was clear-cut, vivid and pictorial and hence Milton did not hesitate to draw boldly from it so that the nakedness and deficiencies of the Puritan conception would be well hidden under gaudy pagan robes.

Impact of Classical Scholarship in the Style of “Paradise Lost

In the style of Paradise Lost again, we find the unmistakable impress of classical scholarship. His use of similes, “his use of history and geography, his knowledge of the ancient and modern literature, his love of art and music, his culture and refinement-all point to the influence of the Renaissance and Hellenism on his receptive mind. There is no poetic work so stupendous in its scope, so sublime in its style and moral outlook, that can be compared with Milton‘s Paradise Lost. Truly did Dryden write:

Three poets in three distant ages born GreeceItaly and England did adorn;
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed.
The second in majesty; in both the last.

“A typical Renaissance figure Milton was impregnated with the classics but he equally drew his inspiration from the Bible and from Hebrew lore. His epic shows his familiarity with the literature, history and the lore of medieval and Renaissance Europe. He understood the technique of music, architecture, engineering, soldiering, astronomy and uses illustration from all of these to add majesty and variety to his work.

One of the most significant features of the use he makes of his erudition in the manner in which he adapts classical lore to his Christian purpose and mingles reference to the classicals with the use of the Bible and Herbrew mythology, i.e.,

(1)     He is inspired by a ‘Muse’ (classical) but the Muse is ‘heavenly’, the one which inspired Moses: he combines his appeal to the Muse for help with connected appeal to the New Testament of Holy spirit.

(2)     His Hell is the Gehenna of the Jews but at the same time the Hades of the Greeks.

(3)     His devils will be the Gods of Paganism (Palestinian, Egyptian, Greek), and in the remarkable ‘naming’ section he offers us a full display of his learning in the  various mythologies.

(4)     God-like Zeus – uses thunder and is the Thunderer.

(5)     Sin and Death are allegorical figures from Milton’s Christian imagination, but the description of Sin’s birth is adapted from the classical accounts of the birth of Pallas Athene, while the revolting description of Sin herself is modelled on the account given of Scylla by   Ovid and Virgil.

(6)     The description of the position in space of the Earth’s Universe-hanging by a golden chain from Heaven – is taken from Homer’s story of the golden chain of Zeus, etc.


Paradise Lost is great by reason of its vast imaginative range, and its deep moral earnestness. It was the influence of the Renaissance, with spirit of humanism and classicism, that gave to the poem its epic form and its imaginative grandeur; while its subject-matter and its moral earnestness are due to the influence of the Reformation with its spirit of Hebraism.

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