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“Glorious Works”: An Analysis of Creative Narcissism within John Milton’s Paradise Lost

By: Rebecca Dillon

Havelock Ellis’s observation that “all creation is essentially an exercise of Narcissism” becomes especially intriguing when considering the representation of creation in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (374). In an effort to project goodness into his world and ensure its stability after the fallen angels rebel, Milton’s God forms a new world and sculpts its occupants in his own image. However, Milton depicts divine creation as a process motivated by God’s obsessive desire to self-duplicate, resulting in the creation of beings who visually and creatively resemble himself. The poem blurs the distinction between creation and procreation, implicating reproduction as mode through which the parent can see his image reflected in his creation. This paper analyses the creator-creation relationships within the poemembodied by God and the Son, Adam and Eve, Satan and Sinto illustrate the inherent narcissism within their acts of creation. The formation of beings similar to oneself not only implies a self-reflexive egotism that seeks gratification through reproduction, but registers creation, exhibited by the creative industry of Milton’s God, as an act self-glorification. The creative outcomes of the poem’s Artistic figures illustrate the narcissistic impulse within creation to self-replicate and seek gratification from the comparison and hierarchy between the creator and the created.

There is little distinction between divine creation and bodily procreation in Paradise Lost. Throughout the work Eve and Adam are described as the “progenie” of God (PL 5.503), and their innocence and ignorance replicate that of a child as they learn the boundaries and rules of their life in Eden. The Bible frequently intertwines creation and procreation by referring to God as the spiritual father of man, whose power as “God our Father” is channelled through a paternal relationship (King James Bible, 1 Cor. 1.3). In Paradise Lost, God maintains his authority over his human creations through the Son’s role as mediator between the divine and the human world, as Christ’s embodiment of “divine compassion” (3.141) champions God as a creator possessing “paternal Love” for his creations (11. 353). In the Creation of the world, God’s command to “bring forth life” impregnates Nature, and, in response, her “fertile Woomb teem[s] at a Birth/Innumerous living Creatures” (PL 7.454-5). The same language of birth and reproduction extends to Adam and Eve as the products of this act of procreation. The correlation between creation and procreation illustrates the refractive nature of reproduction; the child is an imperfect reflection of the parent through genetic and environmental influences, yet the parent sees himself within his offspring. By identifying his children as images of himself, God’s intentional reproduction of this likeness illustrates an a narcissistic process of self-replication disguised as procreation.

The visual resemblance of Adam and Eve to their creator further exemplifies the narcissism imbedded within the act of reproduction. The text describes Adam and Eve as “Godlike” (4.289) and as “the image of thir glorious Maker,” thereby depicting them as perfectly formed, visual reflections of their creator (4.292). Here, the child’s visual resemblance to the parent implies God’s tendency for self-reflexivity because, as the parent, God quite literally sees a likeness of himself when he looks upon his offspring. The pleasure gained by looking upon his own creations is reminiscent to Eve’s story of her creation, which evokes the myth of Narcissus. Like Narcissus, Eve becomes enamoured with her own reflection, pining “with vain desire” as she looks at the surface of a smooth lake (4.466). Her reflection is a source of fascination for her, although it is an innocent interest given that she, like Narcissus, is unaware that it is her own image. Comparatively, God’s interest in Adam and Eve is much more self-interested, for in his intentional act of imitation, their ‘divine’ creation in his image reveals an awareness of his own superiority as the “Deity supreme” (7.142). His conscious replication of himself to balance the destruction caused by rebel angels suggests that divine creation is innately narcissistic; to reproduce beings in “the image of thir glorious Maker” to acknowledge that his own form and creative capacity is best suited to restore goodness to the world (4.290).

An alternative type of narcissism within creative self-duplication lies in the formation of a being out of another’s body. Eve is formed from Adam, another one of God’s creatures and is therefore branded as a derivative and as the “Daughter” of both “God and Man” (4.660). The relationship between Adam and Eve also mirrors that of Satan and Sinwho, together, produce Deathsince both women stem from their lovers’ bodies. Sin tells Satan that in seeing “thy self in [her],” he became enamoured with her (2.764). Satan’s incestuous narcissism makes literal what is implied with Adam’s admiration for Eve who he describes as “Heav’ns last best gift” (5.19). Eve is created by God as Adam’s inferior, and rather than being his “equal” she is his “likeness, thy fit help, thy other self”(4.294; 8.450). She is designed as a companion and subordinate of Adam, yet in his request for her creation, Adam seeks an equal. He distinguishes the natural world as inferior to him and desires a partner; he tells God: it is “Of fellowship I speak/Such as I seek, fit to participate/All rational delight” (8.389-91). Unlike God, whose is solitary, Adam seeks out an equal partnership with the woman created as his inferior.

The narcissism associated in the creation of Eve is one held and complicated by Adam. Paradoxically, Adam expresses a deficiency in himself which is improved when he is physically dismembered to create Eve. This unidentified self-deficiency is solved when Eve is created. Adam sees Eve as a part of himself which at times surpasses his own intellectual ability: he knows she is the “best Image of [him] self and [the] dearer half” (5.95). Therefore, his pride in her is directed both at himself, as her derived source, and at an individual beyond himself. This exemplifies a multifaceted narcissism which celebrates both the similitude and the difference of the creation from the self. In contrast, Satan favours and remembers Sin only as long as she resembles himself. Once she is banished to hell and transformed from her lovely appearance she is forgotten and becomes an abandoned creation. Yet she still retains filial piety for him. She expresses this filial obligation when she allows him to exit hell and wonders “whom should [she] obey” but him (2.865). Sin regards Satan as her father and author, the body from which she is derived. This hierarchy within familial relations gratifies Satan, just as Christ’s piety towards his father empowers God.

The filial obligation witnessed between Christ the Son and God embodies the uneven power dynamic within the relationship between parent and offspring. As Christ arrives to defeat the fallen angels, he rides in “Chariot of Paternal Deitie” (6.750; emphasis added). God has sent forth his son to perform the judicial banishment, as both his representative and physical manifestation. Though not physically fighting, God is present through his union with the “filial Godhead” (6.727). The relationship between God and his son is a hierarchy of obedience predicated on love and the implication of gratitude. Yet the love that God possesses for this son is reflective, for they are indivisibly associated and will one day be “All in All” (6.732). This form of disguised self-love epitomizes the narcissism imbedded in God’s relationship to his children. Not only does he see himself within the Son, Adam, and Eve, but he benefits from his association with them as beings of original innocence and goodness.

The parental bond between God and his progeny produces an association favourably linking him to the intelligent and virtuous beings he creates. Adam and Eve praise God as the “Parent of good” (5.153). In God’s creative production of Adam and Eve, there forms an inevitable chain of association between the nature of his creations and his own. Because his created world is “wondrous fair…how wondrous then,” he himself must be “how wonderous then!” (5.155). Not only are they visual reflections of their creator, but the goodness of Adam and Eve reflects back upon God. Raphael tells Adam that he “best may serve/To glorifie the Maker” (7.115-6). The elevation of Adam’s comprehension serves to glorify God’s ability to form ideal beings, bringing into question God’s purpose in creating him. Adam’s role as a worshiper of God paints God’s creation of humanity as a narcissistic, self-affirming act of creation. The intentional creation of a being to glorify oneself displays a narcissism that not only indulges in self-admiration, but also seeks reassurance from outside sources.

Adam’s required service to God establishes a hierarchy which illustrates the narcissism in creating a subordinate being. It is for this reason that Raphael is given “commission from above” (7.118) to provide Adam with a knowledge of the cosmos “within bounds” (7.120). The suggestion that certain “Almightie works” will be incomprehensible to Adam solidifies the division between the human and the divine (7.112). Despite Adam’s cognitive excellence, there remains an unbridgeable gap between the creator and his creation. This limitation can be interpreted as the God’s inability to create another omnipotent being like himself. However, the creator’s failure to produce a perfect image of himself also suggests a form of procreative narcissism, which provokes both a personal pride in one’s offspring and the fear of the child eventually surpassing the parent. This elevation of creation over creator manifests in the portrayed excellence of Eve, who derives from Adam’s physical body. However much God desires his creatures to echo and glorify their maker, this mimetic desire does not overshadow a consciousness of personal superiority. God passes on to Adam and Eve his own ability to produce art so that through its creation, they may further glorify him.

By forming Adam and Eve as creators themselves, God provides himself with beings who are able to repay him through their own creation. Both Adam and Eve create : they tend the garden of Eden, generate poetry, and will one day produce children of their own. It is natural that in their “Divine resemblance” to God, Adam and Eve should also possess creative ability (4.362). Yet this endowed skill is one that benefits God, for it is through their creative ability that Adam and Eve are able to worship him in song. Here the text depicts a divine creative act as spontaneous and effortless, divulging an interest in creative production which arises in much of his work. The hymn that Adam and Eve sing during their labour echoes the easy singing of the milkmaid, or the ploughman who “whistles o’er the furrow’d land” in the idyllic, pastoral world of Milton’s earlier poem about creativity, L’Allegro (L’Allegro 64). Work in Eden is an easy, joyful, and even poetic so that their song substantiates the presence of art as necessary to Paradise. It is easy and spontaneous, reflecting a natural mode of expression associated with the later Romantic figure of the poetic genius. The content of their hymn, however, echoes the sober reflections of Milton’s companion poem Il Penseroso. Both poetic narratives portray the weighty responsibility of creative acts. Il Penseroso’s depiction of the goddess Cynthia driving a chariot of dragons across the sky is a symbol of responsibility for the control of dangerous creative powers. In the same way, Milton’s God holds dominion over the world’s celestial bodies, reflecting the great power of a creator over his subjects. Within the hymn, Adam and Eve encourage the sun to “acknowledge him [its] Greater” (5.172). Here there is a union of ease and solemnity, for with effortless artistry Adam and Eve worship their creator through recognition of his eminence as a creative power. In this way they are able to produce for God a unique offering.

Adam and Eve are also capable of another act of creation, that of procreation. Their hymn exemplifies the reciprocal relationship in which the human is able to enact creative repayment for God’s gift of life. While Adam and Eve are given “rule/Over his Works” (7.628-9), God receives in return beings who can “multiply a Race of Worshippers” (7.30). According to Raphael, God’s instruction to them, upon Adam and Eve’s own creation, is to “be fruitful, multiplie, and fill the Earth” (7.531). Therefore, God is repaid for his creative act through humanity’s ability to worship, and to supply infinite worshipers through procreation. God forms his creations “in his Image, there to dwell/And worship him” (7.62708). In this way the relation between God and humanity is symbiotic, in which Adam and Eve reciprocates the offerings God gives to them.

As Adam recounts his creation, there forms a parallel between his creative ability and God’s. Replicating God’s relationship to his creations, Adam holds dominion over nature within a relationship of responsibility and mutual understanding. Adam recounts to Raphael the animals he encountered upon his creation: “I nam’d them, as they pass’d, and understood/Thir Nature” (8.352-3). This prodigious skill of identification is both an act of invention and of understanding. Adam replicates God’s creation of the animals through the performance of naming. The power of oration exhibited in Milton’s text mirrors that which exists in Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen 1.3). This power is a creative force which God bestows upon Adam. In this conscious inheritance of unique ability, God is representing a parental narcissism, in which the parent desires to pass on elements of himself to his offspring. Adam is both the reflection and result of God’s work and throughout the poem displays characteristics that echo those of God.

Through Adam’s inheritance of God’s creative energy, he is able to form distinctions which replicate God’s own separation from his created world. Because of Adam’s ability to name and classify, he is then able to distinguish between himself and the animal world. In identifying the animals around him he establishes a relationship which simulates God’s all-knowing regard for his creatures. Yet he also dismisses them as inferior and “farr beneath” him (PL 8.382). This recognition of hierarchy reveals that Adam possesses some of his creator’s awareness of the binary between creator and created. He has named and therefore placed the animals within his world. However, like God who forms the center of the cosmic system, Adam is both at the center Eden’s ecosystem and is elevated above it. This is exemplified by the bower that he and Eve share. At the heart of Eden, it is a private space that separates the couple from the world beyond and isolates them from the natural world. It is because of his elevation from the natural world that Adam requests for a partner with whom he can converse.

Eve reveals a creative, poetic nature in her dialogue with Adam. When first Satan spies the couple, Adam reminds Eve of the approaching night, repeating God’s instruction to them to alternate “labour and rest” which should be as “day and night to men” (4.613). Adam’s expansive knowledge of the natural world extends to an understanding of God’s ordered law. He orates this knowledge logically for Eve’s benefit, who learns from him the rules of the garden. This path of knowledge reflects the source of her own creation; he is the originator of her body and her learned knowledge. She calls him her “Author,” acknowledging his authority as her origin (4.635). Eve, however, curves Adam’s thoughts into a path of her own when she admits to losing track of time and begins praising the natural cycles of the day:

But neither breath of Morn when she ascends 
With charm of earliest Birds, nor rising Sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, floure,
Glistring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful Eevning mild, nor silent Night
With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon, 
Or glittering Starr-light without thee is sweet.
But wherfore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes? (PL 4.650-8)

Eve allegorizes the periods of time she witnesses and enjoys, poetically celebrating and feminizing the natural world around her. Through comparison she transforms Adam into an aesthetic subject comparable to the beauty of nature. She sees the “rising Sun/On this delightful land” (4.651-2) and the “glittering Starr-light” but they are only “sweet” as long as Adam is beside her (4.656). Instead of reflecting God’s creative energy, her poetic voice echoes that of the narrator. Indeed, she echoes the narrator who, in Book 3, cannot sense the “sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn” (3.42), when his lack of sight necessitates and encourages celestial light to “Shine inward” towards the mind (3.52). This rejection of the visual for the cerebral occurs in Eve’s narration. The “sweet” nature of visual delights is lost to Eve without Adam, who embodies mind and thought. This indicates that she is aware of and balances the binary between the physical and cerebral world, which perhaps enables her to perceive and “tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight” (3. 54-5). As a claim made by the narrator, this declaration should be questioned. For whose sight has been lost, and what power does a storyteller truly have over his creation?

The text’s representation of Eve as a poet connects the idea of physical creation to the poetic voice. The power she holds over her own narration mirrors God’s supremacy over his offspring. Another figure maintains control of the story, however, one who is half-embodied by the anxious narrator. Just as the Son at the “right hand” of God acts as mediator between the divine and human world, Milton’s narrator mediates the authorial power held by Milton himself (5. 606). Despite the often nervous voice of the narrator, who often wonders “may I express thee unblam’d?,” Milton holds authority as the ultimate narrator (3.3). Milton’s insertion of himself into his own text reflects a narcissism which either actively projects or sees the self within all its work. This creative power reflects the creator’s desire to see himself in his work, and to derive validation from its production. The intentional replication of the poet within his own work echoes the creative acts of Milton’s God, who arises as an authorial figure whose created world contains refractive images of himself.

In Paradise Lost the formation of beings who visually and creatively mirror their creator illustrates the narcissism existing in acts of creation. The desire for self-replication implicates Milton’s God in the narcissistic tradition of the creator figure. He shapes beings who mirror his own image and creative abilities, providing them with the means in turn to venerate him through similar acts of creativity, procreation, and those that are entirely new: song and poetry. Furthermore, God’s self-projecting creative power parallels the authorial control of a poet over verse and thus implicates Milton in the same cyclical narcissism of creativity. Both God and Milton, as “thee Author of all being,” reproduce images of themselves on Earth–and in verse–to in a self-glorifying narrative necessitated by the creative abilities of their offspring (3.374).

Works Cited

Ellis, Havelock. ‘The Conception of Narcissism’, in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol 7, Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies. F. A. Davis, 1928. p. 374.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative” in Écrits: A Selection. Milton: Taylor & Francis, 2012. ebook.

The King James Reference Bible. Zondervan, 2000.

Milton, John. “Il Penseroso.Complete Shorter Poems. ed Stella P. Revard. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. p. 53-8.

Milton, John. “L’Allegro.” Complete Shorter Poems. ed Stella P. Revard. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. p. 48-52.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed Barbara K. Lewalski. Blackwell, 2007.

Photo: “Small Mirror Twin,” Graham Dean

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