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Both the Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost can both be categorised as etiological texts. However, without the former the latter could not exist; Milton’s work is both informed by, and seeks to elaborate on, the biblical text. Tied within these texts the notion of creation has a sense of power. Drawing from a text that is sacred, Milton’s work can be seen to both tiptoe around its assertion of primacy and its complete devotion to such a text. It is the tension between these power dynamics that rouse the most interest between the two texts.
The Book of Genesis lays claim to be the text that has the answers to the creation of the world. It starts: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ And then the chapter proceeds to list how, in each subsequent day, God created other facets of the world such as day and night and the seas. It is salient to note that the Book of Genesis was believed to have been written by Moses, and so is seen to be the word of God. Milton taps into a similar mode of deference with his calling on the heavenly muses. He calls on Urania to ‘descend from Heav’n’ and to inform Milton of the conversation between Adam and Raphael. By invoking a muse in the shape of Urania, Milton seeks to not only elevate his work by stating that it comes from something celestial, but he also creates an authorial distance from the body of the text. By being, like Moses, merely a vessel for the word of something otherworldly, Milton places it on the same level as the biblical text it derives from. The very first lines to his epic poem state that such a work has been ‘unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’; this is a text that transcends previous fiction in that it claims to do as the Bible does – explain the origin of the world. However, this vessel-like approach could be to distance himself and negate any accusations of blasphemy. This is a text that places Milton next to Moses and could see Milton land in dire trouble should he claim to know such things without any external spiritual input.
This tension between adhering to scripture and being suggestive of Paradise Lost’s primacy continues in the body of the text. Milton claims that ‘half yet remains unsung’, suggesting that the Book of Genesis does not provide enough information. Milton tries to rectify these supposed inadequacies of the text himself; he sees scripture as having gaps that he must fill. Almost as if in celebration of the Book of Genesis, he maintains the word of God: ‘let there be light’, said God’, but he makes a few additions: ‘and light from darkness by the hemisphere / Divided: light the day, and darkness night / He named’. This filling of the gaps, in which he also states that God’s impetus for creating the world came as a reaction to Lucifer, was a response, or perhaps an answer, to the cosmological argument: ‘what cause / Moved the creator in his holy rest’. Thus, Milton both protects against arguments against the Bible as well as adding to them blanks which may have already been questioned.
However, there still lies an underlying sense of Milton asserting his own primacy. Whilst this has already been discussed by his parallels with Moses, it can also be seen in Book 7 Paradise Lost. Milton states, ‘if else thou seek’st / Aught, not surpassing human measure, say.’ This suggests, alongside his detailed account of creation, that he knows more, or that he has the ability to know more. Thus, Milton hints at a kind of omniscience, which is an attribute of God. By Milton asserting this, it could be argued that he is putting himself not only in line with Moses, but above Moses with God.