The Natural, Benevolent State of Creativity

Illustrious Ideas and Illustrations: The Imagery of Gustav Doré

The Natural, Benevolent State of Creativity
And God said: “Let the waters generate Reptile with spawn abundant, living soul; And let fowl fly above the earth.” (Book VII, Lines 387–389), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” (Public Domain).

John Milton was blind by the time he wrote "Paradise Lost" in 1667. Throughout the text, he occasionally calls out to a “Heav’nly Muse” to inspire him to tell the story of human sin, as he does at the beginning of the book. He opens Book VII with a call to the Heavenly Muse, who then visits him and drives out the evil around him and only then shows him a truth, a truth he wishes to share with his audience—that is, with us, the readers.

In the previous part of this series, we ended with Archangel Raphael telling Adam how the war in Heaven began. Inevitably, the angels in Heaven defeat the rebel angels and drive them to Hell. After receiving and sharing the events that occurred in Heaven, Milton asks the Heavenly Muse to return him to Earth so he can finish the rest of the revelation. The fact that evil is driven away before Milton continues his poetic revelation is a theme that is repeated.
 “Wave rolling after wave, where way they found;/If steep, with torrent rapture” (VII. Lines 298, 299), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)
“Wave rolling after wave, where way they found;/If steep, with torrent rapture” (VII. Lines 298, 299), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)

God Creates the World

Adam's inquiries don't end with the war in Heaven. According to Milton, Adam asks Raphael why God created the world. Raphael tells Adam that one of the reasons the world was created was to replenish the universe with a new earth when the rebel angels were expelled from Heaven. This time, however, the newly created human beings on this earth would have to prove their merit before being accepted into Heaven:

"... I can repair That detriment, if such to be to lose Self-lost, and in a moment will create Another world, out of one man a race Of men innumerable, there to dwell, Not here, till by degrees of merit raised They open to themselves at length the way Up hither, under long obedience tried, And earth be changed to Heav'n, and Heav'n to earth, One kingdom, joy and union without end." (Book VII, Lines 152–161)

Here, merit means obedience to God. Only through obedience to God over long periods of time does one become worthy of making it to Heaven. Yet obedience to God not only affects the soul of the obedient, but also affects the world itself, making the world a reflection of Heaven. At the very beginning of His creation, God separates virtue from vice:

"... God the heav'n created, thus the earth, Matter unformed and void: darkness profound Covered th' abyss: but on the wat'ry calm His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspread, And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged The black tartareous cold infernal dregs Adverse to life … ." (Book VII, Lines 232–239)

 “Wave rolling after wave, where way they found;/If steep, with torrent rapture” (VII. Lines 298, 299), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)
“Wave rolling after wave, where way they found;/If steep, with torrent rapture” (VII. Lines 298, 299), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)

The “vital virtue” of God spreads throughout the lifeless, dark abyss. These key words, "vital virtue," in contrast to the lifeless, dark abyss, reveal a lot about the act of creation in Milton's poem. God is all that is virtuous and vital. That is, God is all that is good and beneficial to life and its creation. This characteristic of being good and beneficial to life is spread throughout that which is dark and adverse to life and purges it in the process. The mere presence of God's benevolence is enough to eliminate that which is not benevolent.

Doré illustrates Milton's description of creation: Light is separated from darkness, and water is brought to land. The coexistence of these opposites provides the living environment for everything, as the animals of the water, land, and sky emerge.

Doré's illustrations reveal dynamic, high-contrast interpretations of nature's exuberance in its unadulterated state. For instance, "Wave rolling after wave, where they found;/If steep, with torrent rapture" shows water, reflecting heaven's light, traveling through craggy rocks and falling from above the clouds. No creature is yet in sight.

On the other hand, "And God said: Let the waters generate/Reptile with spawn abundant, living soul;/And let fowl fly above the earth" depicts sea creatures dwelling amid the crashing waves and birds flying across the sky. Rays of light cascade from heaven upon all of creation. God sees it as good.

God Creates Humans

On the sixth day of creation, before he rested, God created man:

"Let us make now man in our image, man In our similitude, and let them rule Over the fish and fowl of sea and air, Beast of the field, and over all the earth, And every creeping thing that creeps the ground. This said, he formed thee, Adam, thee O man Dust of the ground, and in thy nostrils breathed The breath of life; in his own image he Created thee, in the image of God Express, and thou becam'st a living soul." (Book VII, Lines 519–528)

From the dust of the earth, God creates human beings in his own image. This, of course, goes beyond mere appearance. The breath that God breathes into human beings gives them a soul that gives them life, a life that originates in Heaven. Existing with bodies from Earth and souls from Heaven, human beings are the bridge between Heaven and Earth.

With this heavenly link, they are to rule over Earth as heavenly beings rule in Heaven, that is, with benevolence to things on Earth and obedience to God in Heaven. Accomplishing this, they prove themselves worthy to ascend to Heaven to replace the rebel angels now in Hell.

When God rests, the angels in Heaven sing his praises:

"... greater now in thy return Than from the Giant angels; thee that day Thy thunders magnified; but to create Is greater than created to destroy. … Who seeks To lessen thee, against his purpose serves To manifest the more thy might: his evil Thou usest, and from thence creat'st more good." (Book VII, Lines 604–607, 613–616)

Despite the war that just occurred in Heaven and the fact that the rebel angels were expelled, God still found a way to use the act of creation to turn this negative situation into a positive one. No matter how much evil and destruction is brought his way, he only reacts in such a way that good is the outcome, and this is why he is celebrated.

God Gives 1 Commandment

Earlier, it was mentioned that God purged those things that were dark and averse to life before creating the world. It was also mentioned that God was providing a path for human beings to ascend to Heaven.
To prove themselves worthy, they must be tested and pass the test provided by God. God introduces the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and asks Adam and Eve to not eat its fruit; they can enjoy everything else that Earth provides, just not any fruit from that tree:

"This garden, planted with the trees of God, Delectable both to behold and taste; And freely all their pleasant fruit for food Gave thee, all sorts are here that all th' earth yields, Variety without end; but of the Tree Which tasted works Knowledge of Good and Evil, Thou may'st not; in the day thou eat'st, thou diest; Death is the penalty imposed, beware, And govern well thy appetite, lest Sin Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death." (Book VII, Lines 538–547)

Eating the fruit gives human beings the knowledge of evil along with their knowledge of God. The fruit from that tree reintroduces the destructive darkness that was averse to life; it brings Sin and Death in its wake.
In an earlier part of this series, we introduced Sin and Death as the children of Satan. They guard the gates of Hell and await Satan's success in tempting Adam and Eve.

The Natural State of Creation

The consistent theme here is creation through purging evil. Milton begins by suggesting that he does not receive the revelations from the Heavenly Muse without first being purged of evil. God purges Heaven of the rebel angels to maintain the goodness of Heaven and creates a good situation from a bad one by creating Earth. Before creating Earth, God first purges evil from space itself.

Human beings are created in God's image with a body made of earth and a soul made in Heaven, and in embodying the characteristics that please God—virtue and obedience—can fashion themselves and Earth to be worthy of Heaven. Obedience suggests purging all of those things that are not aligned with the benevolence and goodness of God.

It's interesting, however, that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not the Tree of the Knowledge of Evil. To me, this suggests that, since everything is created in the spirit of God's benevolence, evil can never be absolute. Evil as that which destroys instead of creates must be purged for the natural state of creativity to occur.

Every moment of every day, we have the opportunity to explore this type of creativity in our lives. We can pay attention to our hearts and minds and do our best to purge those things within ourselves that might be averse to life. In this way, we can guide our hearts and minds toward virtue and obedience to God. We can try to create good circumstances out of bad ones by thoughtfully considering all possible outcomes of our actions. In this sense, we purge what is destructive and let what is creative remain.

Gustav Doré was a prolific illustrator of the 19th century. He created images for some of the greatest classical literature of the Western world, including the Bible, “Paradise Lost,” and “The Divine Comedy.” In this series, we will take a deep dive into the thoughts that inspired Doré and the imagery those thoughts provoked.
Eric Bess is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) and assistant professor at Fei Tian College in Middletown, N.Y.