Written by: David Taniyo-Ching
Writers have used literature to explorer the ideas of their time. Published in 1667, the Baroque English writer John Milton wrote the highly religious epic Paradise Lost. The romantic-era German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the two-part tragic play entitled Faust in 1801 and 1832. The culture of age can influence the outcome of a literary art piece. The Baroque period that Milton wrote in significantly differed in the Romantic period of Goethe.
Milton’s Paradise Lost focused on obedience to a higher power. Satan, envious of the Son of God, rebels against his creator. After falling from heaven, Satan committed the ultimate disobedience and corrupted God’s favorite creation, humanity. With Satan’s influence, Eve eventually partakes from the Tree of Knowledge with Adam following suit. Mans’s first sin was learning the evil of the world.
In Goethe’s play Faust, the main character Faust is unhappy with the limits of his potential. Wanting more than he had achieved, Faust was willing to sell soul for something more. Faust calls upon spirits, makes a deal with the devil, and embarks on an immoral path. Faust’s love’s eventual Death emphasized the Romantic idea of “the relationship between man and the unchecked pursuit of knowledge” (MindEdge 3.11).
Milton and Goethe draw on biblical stories for the inspiration for their literature piece. In Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of Satan’s disobedience to his creator, his rebellion against God in heaven, and his eventual corruption of Adam and Eve. Goethe’s play draws inspiration from the biblical story of Jove. In Faust, Mephistopheles (the devil) wagers against God that Faust will fail to resist temptation.
The difference in themes is early in each story. Milton shows the ideas of Paradise Lost. “That to the height of this great Argument I may assert Eternal Providence, And Justify the ways of God to men” (Milton p. 47). The story of disobedience and repentance in Paradise lost serves as the justification of the ways of God. Milton stays true to the revival of religious ideas of the Baroque period. Goethe establishes a very Romantic theme.
The difference in themes from the Baroque to the Romantic era can be seen early in Faust. Faust had achieved every scholarly achievement in his life from medicine to theology but was dissatisfied with the limits. The need to reach beyond man’s limits is typical of the Romantic Era’s cultural themes, and Faust is the prototypical Romantic. Faust wants the unattainable. God is written differently in each literary piece.
How God differed from the Baroque to the Romantic era
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, God portrayed as an above all figure that has no equal. Goethe’s Romantic God shows faith in Faust, a very Romantic notion, and an idea that a Baroque writer would forgo. “As long as he on earth shall live, So long I make no prohibition. While Man’s desires and aspirations stir, He cannot choose but err” (Goethe p. 25). what is said here is merely cultural differences, but it is essential to note.
The characters in these beautiful literary pieces share the similarity of individual decisions that become the story’s lesson. In Paradise Lost, Satan was the first of God’s creation to disobey. Satan was angered after God announced his son’s birth and his rightful place as the right hand of God. “He of the first, If not the first Archangel, great in power, favor, and preeminence, yet fraught With envy against the Son of God” (Milton p. 163).
Adam and Eve learned the ways of evil by way of Satan. As the serpent, Satan first convinced Eve that he had indeed partaken from the Tree of Knowledge and still lived. Satan then turned to flattery to the mother of humanity: “Queen of this Universe, do not believe Those severe threats of Death; ye shall not Die: How should ye? By the fruit? It gives you Life To Knowledge” (Milton p. 254).
Adam and Eve’s judgment for their disobedience becomes the lesson of the story. In hopes of saving them from Death, Adam placed faith in the Son of God. Adam chose to repent rather than resort to the violence Eve wanted. “What better can we do, than to place Repairing where he judged us, prostrate fall Before his reverent, and there confess Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears” (Milton p. 296).
It worked, but Adam and Eve lost Paradise and saw the bleak future of man. The repentance served as the example of an immoral path going right. Satan and his continued defiance of God severed as an example of the sinful way that continued. Goethe writes a character that decisions become the message.
Faust’s decisions in Goethe’s play not only follow the ideas of the Romantic era, but they serve as the message behind the words. Faust decided to sell his soul to the devil. “Canst thou with rich enjoyment fool me; let that day be the last for me! The bet I offer” (Goethe p.56). Faust sets off on an adventure with the devil, but he falls in love on this journey.
On the street, Faust sees Margaret (seen first in a vision when he met with witches), who becomes Faust’s obsession. “Hear, of that girl I’d have possession” (Goethe, Taylor p. 81). Upon seeing her, Faust seeks to seduce Margaret. To gain her affection, Faust asks the devil to get extravagant gifts. Margaret plays a hopeless Romantic, which plays in Faust’s hands.
Faust is between lust and love for Margaret, but still decides to continue to seduce (with much prodding from the devil.) At one point, Margaret falls ultimately in love with Faust, and he convinces her to slip her mother a sleeping potion. Faust completes his seduction of Margret by sleeping with her and then abandons her. Facing the moral right and wrong dilemma, Faust decides to act for his own needs, thus leading to the play’s tragedy.
The decision of Faust that spells the end for Margaret is the Death of her brother Valentine. Margret finds herself alone carrying Faust’s baby. At her window, the devil mocks her with a song while Faust’s only interest is sleeping with her again. “Not even a jewel, not a ring, To deck my darling girl” (Goethe p. 118). Valentine laments at the predicament of Margaret at the hands of Faust and challenges him to a duel.
Faust defeats Valentine with the devil’s help; this ultimately leads Margaret’s down a path of self-hate and, in the end, her demise.
Faust again faced a moral decision. Nearly a year after Valentine’s death, the devil is near Faust’s soul’s complete degradation on Walpurgis Night. Faust sees a red mouse during the celebration while he dances with an evil spirit and gets a vision.
“Mephisto, seest thou there, Alone and far, a girl most pale and fair? She falters on, her way scarce knowing, As if my kindly Margaret were she” (Goethe p. 132). Faust must make the right decision to save his love, or forever be on the immoral path he is on. This decision becomes paramount.
The tragic conclusion of Faust part one becomes the message. With the devil’s help, Faust returns to save Margaret, who is in prison for killing her baby and awaits execution.
Faust finds Margret in a cell lost in her mind; she mistakes Faust first as the headman, and here, Faust finds out about his baby’s fate. Margret, upon seeing the devil cries for forgiveness: “Judgement of God! Myself to thee, I give” (Goethe p. 147). With a cry from heaven, Margret is “redeemed,” but Margret refuses to leave with Faust. Margret’s salvation before her Death offers Faust the lesson that the path to morality and God is the fulfillment he had been seeking.
The Baroque and Romantic era writers Milton and Goethe lived in times of different cultural influences. The revival of the Baroque period’s religious ideas was different from the individual pursuit that was the culture of Romanticism. Milton wrote a literary piece that featured biblical stories about disobedience and the path that leads. Goethe wrote a play that sported Faust’s character, who chose to test the boundaries of the pursuits of humanity.
Despite these differences in culture, Milton and Goethe wrote similar literary pieces where characters ultimately decided between moral and immoral paths. That is the lesson behind these two great literary pieces; when choosing between obedience to a higher power or individual glory pursuits, that decision can lead to a moral or immoral path.
Campbell, Gordon. Corns, Thomas N. John Milton Life, Work, and Thought. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Taylor, Bayard. Goethe. Print.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Signet Classic. 1667. 1968. Print.
MindEdge. FAS 202:Introduction to the Humanities II: Baroque through Modern. SNHU Blackboard, November 2013. Web 2 Dec. 2013.