Notes on Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books 1-4
Introduction to Milton
An industrious youth, studious and earnestly Protestant, Milton wanted to write a great national epic, with Spencer as his predecessor. From the late 1620s through the 1630’s, he wrote pastoral and other poetry, such as Arcades and Comus (1634). Milton was a bourgeois, and his father was a successful scrivener. Milton went to Cambridge , made a grand tour of Europe in 1638-39, and three years later the Civil War broke out, an event that changed Milton ’s life profoundly. Archbishop William Laud had driven him away from the Church of England, and now Milton wrote in favor of the Puritan cause, against Bishops, in favor of divorce, and for a free press (1644, Areopagitica.)
His personal life was a sad one; his young wife Mary Powell left him soon after the marriage, only to return and die in childbirth 1652. That is the same year in which Milton went blind. He married Catherine Woodcock in 1656, but she died in 1658. he married the third time to Elizabeth Minshull in 1663, and Elizabeth outlived Milton . After the Restoration in 1660, Milton experienced some financial hardship, but by 1667, he nonetheless published Paradise Lost in 10 books (the 12-book version came out in 1674). In 1671, he published Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.Paradise Lost is a work written in sadness and disillusionment. The author’s millenarian hopes had been crushed—there was to be no immediate Rule of the Saints, and his own time no longer seemed to be ushering in Christ’s return at the Last Judgment. Ordinary people preferred theaters, bowling and the semi-Catholic and elegantly dissolute Charles the second, along with his “Protestant whores.” This would be egg on any Puritan’s face, but Milton had kept a high profile. So how was he to deal with the fall of the Puritan cause and the return of the Stuart Kings? It became necessary to tie historical developments into the persistent consequences of the Fall. England had, after all, fallen away from what had seemed to be history-making progress in religion, politics, and civil society.
The Structure of Paradise Lost:
1-2 :: 11-12. Permanent Fall of Satan versus the Fortunate Fall of Adam and Eve. 1-2 are a parody of classical epic’s militarism—set speeches, hosts, power-grabbing leaders. Satan is cast as Agamemnon and as an Asiatic despot. In 11, Michael will give Adam a panoramic view of the future, so that in his exile he will retain hope for his offspring. Satan doesn’t understand “the vision thing,” and he has a vested interest in not understanding God’s linear time.
3-4 :: 9-10. Adam and Eve converse, and we find out about the relationship between heaven and earth, which by 9-10 will have to be renewed. Satan makes his adventurous trip to earth through Chaos, and tempts Eve. God sets forth prophecies.
5-6 :: 7-8. Narration of events in Heaven, explanation of Adam and Eve’s place in the created order. WAR IN HEAVEN and its consequences = 5-8 as a block. Christ is a Warrior, God’s terrible aspect, in 5-6, and he is the Creative Word in 7-8. God is inscrutable, but Christ the intercessor makes him manifest, expressing the inexpressible.
Introduction to Books 1-2:
Problem: we have two sets of givens—our experience of an evil world, and the idea that at the creation everything was perfect. How did the change occur? Milton will draw on a grand multi-part myth cycle to explain things:
1. Creation and 2. The Fall. Milton will link these first two logically; Genesis provides a brief text without full justification, or at least without much explanation.
3. Redemption. Christ offers to atone for humankind’s original sin, re-forging a connection or path between the human and the divine. Milton ’s poetical problem is how to deal with the extremely long Old Testament history that must go by—why does it take so long for Christ to return? Michael’s Book 11 panorama justifies this length in terms of poetic structure.
4. Anno Domini. This is the time from the Annunciation to the Apocalypse. But when will the latter occur? Milton compresses the waiting time.
Some Things to Watch For:
Eyes, Ears, Understandings:
Good Angels such as Raphael, Abdiel, and Michael
Adam and Eve Unfallen
Adam and Eve Fallen
The Narrator, aided by Urania/Holy Spirit
Fallen Us, Fit Audience Though Few
Significant Texts and Structures:
The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament
Classical Epic and All Other Genres
Christian Epic and Literature (Tasso, Ariosto, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare)
The Great Chain of Being (Raphael’s “Bright Consummate Flow’r”)
Theology and Philosophy
Science—Bacon, Galileo, etc.
Current Events and Opinions—English Civil War, Rule of Saints, Stuart Restoration
Narrator’s personal situation (closely parallels that of isolated, endangered Milton)
Risks to Keep in Mind:
Narrator : may aspire without proper inspiration and authority: Satanic self-sufficiency, desire to rewrite and even replace Biblical narrative as well as all other literature (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, etc.). Is the narrator’s heart continually “upright and pure”?
Us: siding with Satan the Rebel with a False Cause; mere literary appreciation of text’s complexity and beauties as “dead letter”—i.e. failing to interpret PL spiritually; not fitting ourselves into the story or applying stern lessons to ourselves. We may fail to be, in Stanley Fish’s phrase, “surprised [continually] by sin”—an effect that many of Milton ’s dramatic descriptions and narrations are clearly meant to create. In this regard, the work as a whole resembles a strong, varied sermon—it must be appliedto members of the congregation.
Some Modes of Showing and Telling:
Example: Christ, Abdiel, Raphael and Muse as poets describing heavenly things, etc.
Demonstration: The War in Heaven—demonstrates to rebel angels God’s omnipotence and serves as vehicle for Christ’s dramatic elevation.
Celebration: Prayer and Song, as in Eden Adam and Eve chant orisons unpremeditated.
Concrete Description (allegory included): Narrator and Raphael able to do this, bearing in mind the limits of speech as a conveyance for heavenly things.
Vagueness: Strategic vagueness to remind us how to interpret the poem’s concrete descriptions.
Oratory: Public set-piece speeches by God, Christ, Satan, Adam, others. Satan is the first “politician” (in the bad sense, not the good Aristotelian one wherein politics helps us pursue the good life).
Narration: recountings “situate” prior and higher things and events temporally and spatially, in terms that the fallen eye and understanding can encompass. This is due not to God’s need, but ours, and even to that of unfallen Adam and Eve. Main justifications for history as unfolding occur in Books 7 and 11: the Annunciation of Christ, Adam’s Panoramic Vision of Human History as Granted by Michael--the Fortunate Rise of Christ and Fortunate Fall of humankind. Exclusion and differentiation lead to still greater unity and coherence.
Places to arrange: Heaven, Hell, Chaos, Unfallen Earth, Fallen Earth, Narrator’s Study
Book-by-Book Notes on Milton’s Paradise Lost
General Comment: Regarding the claims of Milton’s epic to retell parts of the Bible, we might refer to “the doctrine of things indifferent,” which suggests that if something isn’t discussed in the Bible, people are free to invent, opinionize, and so forth. Milton would probably agree that the basic articles of belief and conduct necessary to make it to heaven aren’t particularly difficult to comprehend, so authors are free to extrapolate from or elaborate on the Scriptures. The text’s truth-status is certainly something Milton must defend in Paradise Lost since he can’t rely sincerely on an argument like that of Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote in his “Defense of Poesy” that a poet shouldn’t be accused of falsehood since “he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for . . . to lie, is to affirm that to be true, which is false.” Milton is, after all, extrapolating from the Scriptures, and it’s obvious that he considers his text “inspired” by a Christian Muse. But there is a long tradition of defending the use of metaphor and figurative language in the Bible (carried on by no less than Augustine, Aquinas, among others) as a necessary form of accommodation, and Milton would probably say that his own stories based on Biblical events are just such a form of accommodation to help fallen human beings understand their predicament.
1-26. In his initial invocation, the narrator will take his readers all the way back to the beginning of things, back to “man’s first disobedience.” Milton’s text shows a strong interest in getting back to the origin or source of things, events, tendencies, words, stories, and just about everything else he can find time and scope to investigate. The narrator calls his muse Urania, but indirectly invokes the Christian God, or “the Holy Spirit” as a creative, illuminating power. At 15-16, the narrator claims that there will be “no middle flight” in this book—nearly every major human thought-system and historical cycle is to be subsumed into Paradise Lost, there to be given its place within the Christian order and narrative. Homer, Virgil, and all other great literary artists of pagan times may be considered honorable predecessors whose work to some extent prefigures Milton’s, but it’s clear that we are to understand them as having written about what Milton, in a famous line from Book 1, calls “devils to adore for deities.” The narrator prays at line 18 for the “upright heart and pure” that should prove a fit vessel for the task to be accomplished. Blindness—and of course Milton had gone blind by the time he began to compose Paradise Lost—is an early theme in the epic, one that will recur more than once in the books ahead. The compensation for physical blindness, the narrator implies, is inward illumination about spiritual matters.
36. The first sin, according to the narrator, was pride. This sin involved Satan’s desire to upset the fixed, just hierarchy of God, an ethereal and yet real order that Satan (ever the bad interpreter) mistakes again and again for something merely material.
54-75. At this point, we are treated to the first “elegiac moment”; Satan suffers from “the thought / Both of lost happiness and lasting pain.” There will be many more such moment, some perhaps less illegitimate than others, but none fully deserving of pity. Milton seems to have learned much from Shakespeare’s handling of his tragic heroes, and while Satan may not have a “Fool” of the same kind that King Lear has by his side throughout most of his sufferings, he carries his own “inner Fool” with him at all times.
The line “no light but rather darkness visible” (60) is deliciously absurd, but that’s because the narrator needs to render something of the strangeness and absurdity of Hell itself. This is perhaps our first look at Milton’s important strategy of accommodating heavenly things to more understandable earthly ones. Hell, as Milton’s narrator describes it, is a crazy composite “place”; it burns with a bizarrely negative light, and although it is a prison (a place of stagnation), there’s literally “no rest for the wicked.”
80-94. The elegiac quality of Satan’s opening words here is hard to miss; in essence, he tells the first rhetorical lie to Beëlzebub, whose aid he courts with chivalric sentiment.
95-124. Satan’s rhetoric is absurd here, as it will prove to be throughout Paradise Lost. Milton’s Devil is always equating himself with God and making bogus political claims. While he obviously covets the role of absolute dictator over the fallen legions, he sets himself forth as an angel whose peers “democratically” chose him as their leader. Christ’s declared advancement is seen as mere favoritism on the Father’s part, and as one of my UC Irvine professors used to say, Satan suffers from a serious case of “injured merit.” In a word, he feels slighted and can’t see why the Son has any more right than he, Satan, has to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The battle is described as having taken place on a literal plane, a “field,” and the outcome is characterized as dubious. It makes no sense to ask defiantly, “What though the field be lost?” (105) when one’s defeat is total and extends infinitely beyond any physical, containable dimensions. God’s power, in Milton’s order of things, is absolute and infinite; it cannot be countered with anything but laughable results. And there is a great deal of this sort of humor in Paradise Lost. Well, Satan needs to enlist sham reasoning in the service of his perpetual illusions and confusions. He seems eternally astonished at the plain truth of God’s justice and order, and he chooses instead to ally himself with chaos and cover-up. Following Satan’s speech, Beëlzebub evidently doubts the force of what Satan has said—what if, he asks, the “field” is more than just one battle, and what if things really can keep getting worse and worse?
156-91. In reply to Beëlzebub, Satan is ready with some more speedy words; he sets the devils’ tasks as those of un-creation, negation, inversion, chaos-making, and in general the frustration of Providence (God’s plan).
195-210. Here is the first of Milton’s excellent “observer” similes: this one describes the bulk of Satan as similar to that of the Biblical Leviathan or a great whale that a Norwegian captain might stumble upon in the dark of night, and mistake for an island. The purpose of similes in Milton is generally fourfold: it may refer us back to a former state of things; offer an historical parallel (Red Sea, Egyptian chivalry, Biblical times, etc.); bring other epics into the mix (Homer refers to leaves and bees metaphorically; and so does Milton); or refer to Eden and the wilderness thereof. In the present simile, we see the strangeness of what the narrator is trying to describe to us—its proportions and dimensions are too huge for our senses to take in, which may produce a disorienting effect. The simile itself doesn’t try to reduce Satan to a level easily taken in; rather, it reproduces the “original” sense of disorientation implied.
242-70. Satan offers another elegiac perspective on his situation, taking his farewell in thought of the “happy fields” he had formerly known. Some of his most memorable lines occur in this little speech: “The mind is its own place,” he insists at line 254, and then goes on to sum up his position on the angelic fall: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (263). This is why British romantics such as Byron and Shelley praise Milton’s Devil—they see him as the ultimate rebel with a cause: opposing God’s allegedly tyrannical rule over adoring slaves. Shelley’s “Essay on the Devil and Devils” takes this view about as far as it can go since he proclaims that Satan is “morally superior” to the God against whom he rebelled. This is what he writes in the essay: “Nothing can exceed the grandeur and the energy of the Devil as expressed in Paradise Lost. . . . Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy—not from any mistaken notion of bringing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity but with the open and alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.” (Shelley’s Prose. Ed. David Lee Clark. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988. 267.)
But the same romantics probably also understood that Milton would scarcely ratify their interpretation: Satan’s claims are about as dubious as claims can be: the mind is not independent in the way Satan claims, as Milton would surely say, and neither is reigning over a territory of utter desolation better than praising the Almighty in Paradise.
283-94. Although Milton uses the ancient Ptolemaic system of astronomy, he is aware of the discoveries of Galileo (1564-1642), whose name is associated with his predecessor Copernicus (1473-1543), whose “heliocentric” theory helped initiate the modern Scientific Revolution. The narrator likens Satan’s shield to the moon as viewed through Galileo’s telescope.
315-30. Milton borrows here and elsewhere from classical epic’s standard portrayal of the haranguing captain inciting his men to courageous exploits with a mixture of insults and inspirational language: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n” (330).
365-521. At the command of their leader, the rebel angels rise from the burning lake and begin to wander about the realm of Hell, giving the narrator an opportunity to trace the lineage of the world’s “devils to adore for deities” (373). The goal in cataloguing these pagan gods is partly to get to the source of mythological and historical confusion. Hell accounts for a great deal of the wrong kind of human diversity in that its bad angels spread out over the Middle East, Egypt, Greece, Britain, and nearly everywhere else on the globe. (By “bad diversity,” I mean the kind that stems from fiendishly clever variations on wicked and selfish acts, not the kind that stems from God’s generous decree in Genesis that humans and all creatures should “be fruitful and multiply.”) Moreover, the catalogs so full of names and places underscore the deceptiveness of fallen language, which multiplies confusion along with its many terms for things.
587-621. Satan surveys his great host in a moment of epic grandeur. Again we see his divided psyche, in which what may be genuine pity for the fallen coexists with cruel determination to forge a rival empire dedicated to the frustration of God’s cosmic order. Satan towers above the other rebel angels, and we are told that some of his old beauty still survives, in an “excess / Of glory obscured” (593-94). Milton must, of course, play up the epic dimensions and persona of Satan, lest his epic become much less interesting—Satan must, after all, be greater than an earthly Achilles or Aeneas, mustn’t he? But at the same time, the narrator will keep twinning his sublime descriptions of Satan with passages casting the hellish hero as a posturer and deployer of devious rhetoric and “smoke-and-mirrors” visual spectacles.
622-62. Satan takes stock of the situation for his host, blaming God for the catastrophe they’ve suffered because he advanced Christ as the Crown Prince and then put down the envious rebels with strength they never knew he had. The charge, then, is that God deviously “concealed” the true dimensions of his power, and in effect tempted the angels to defy him—in Satan’s view (if, of course, we are to suppose that he really believes what he says), God set them up for a fall. Satan is issuing what we might call a terrorist’s manifesto; he waffles somewhat on the question of confronting God again directly on the so-called “field of battle,” and insists that in any case the bad angels can wage asymmetrical warfare against this sublimely powerful foe. However, as always in Milton’s scheme of things, Satan doesn’t see that God’s power is not merely physical; it is moral and spiritual, and therefore cannot truly be opposed.
670-751. In this segment, the narrator belittled human pretensions to grandiosity and opulence: the devils set to work on their infernal palace, mining the necessary metals and other materials as they go, with a speed that would astonish the most proficient human engineers and architects. This whole passage is a reminder that much human industry amounts not so much to intelligence as to fiendish cleverness stemming from a desire to rival God or simply achieve an illegitimate independence from him. What the devils do in Hell, we might say, is the archetype of the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis.
775-98. In the concluding segment of Book One, the narrator’s multiple similes describe the devils as they prepare for their “great consult[ation].” The narrator allows a pretense of grandeur, orderliness, and democratic assent into his description, only to take it all back in a spirit of mockery at their shape-shifting grotesqueness and, ultimately, inessentiality. We are told that the devils shrunk themselves down to “smallest forms” (789), but we hear subsequently that “far within / And in their own dimensions like themselves” (792-93) some of the highest angels (if I read Milton correctly here) take their seats and begin the meeting. But what exactly are these true dimensions? The point we are to derive, it seems, is the Augustinian one that says evil, correctly understood, simply does not exist; it lacks ontological stability because authentic beings are grounded (and freely recognize that they are grounded) in God.
30-42. Satan puts forth a false principle of egalitarianism, claiming that no one in Hell will claim “precédence.” But he is exactly the sort of despot Milton himself had long been on record as despising.
43-105. Moloch is the Devils’ Achilles-like fighter; he declares for open warfare, not guile. As far as he is concerned, nothing could be worse than the present situation. At line 65, he sounds like the first spokesman for the “military-industrial complex.” Milton chastises ancient epic’s glorification of war for war’s sake and uncontrolled wrath, the “oulomenos mēnin” of Achilles. This kind of anger differs from God’s righteous wrath in the Hebrew Scriptures.
106-228. Next Belial offers his opinion. Possessed of more savvy than Moloch, he realizes that things actually could get worse and that God’s powers are not of the almost purely material kind that some of the angels attribute to Him. If God is omniscient as well as omnipotent, it also makes no sense to suppose, says Belial, that the bad angels will be able to trick him or hide anything from him. Belial therefore counsels that the fallen host play a waiting game; perhaps God will remit some of their punishment if they stay out of his sight for a long time. Still, this advice is no better than a variation on Satan’s mistake: how can one be “out of sight, out of mind” when the perceiver is God?
229-83. Mammon then takes his turn, and he offers a Nimrod-like pan: the devils should stay in Hell and concentrate on building up their empire. He believes that they can achieve a level of splendor rivaling God’s Heaven and even that in due time, they will become accommodated to the fiery element of their new abode.
299-416. Beëlzebub now steps in and plays “spin doctor,” extrapolating from Satan’s earlier thought that it might serve best to seek out earth and ruin whatever “next big thing” God has planned for the cosmos. The whole speech is carefully staged, and leads to a portentous request for a volunteer: who will be so bold and skilful as to make his way out of Hell and fulfill the task specified?
430-85. Satan sets himself forward as the princely devil for the job. His bold exploit will lead the bad angels on to their new dream of building and maintaining a rival empire against God, by any means necessary. Satan’s speedy response has effectively “prevented all reply” (467), and so with Beëlzebub’s help he is able to cement his position as Hell’s great dictator and heroic champion, receiving the clamorous acclaim he seeks upon the conclusion of his speech.
506-628. The “Stygian council” breaks up now that the necessary decision has been made, and the rebel angels split up into separate groups according to their various inclinations. They participate in games and practice arts—Olympian-style contests at 530, recitation of heroic epic at 546ff, and philosophical and theological debate at 557-65. Hell has its explorers, too, as we find at 570, and they begin to trace the stunning geography of the “dismal world” into which their sin has thrown them. Lines 614-28 offer a remarkable description of this place, with its “Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death, / A universe of Death,” all seen, we must presume, in the eerie “darkness visible” mentioned back in Book 1.
629-889. This segment presents the famous meeting between Satan and his “daughter” Sin, along with their offspring, Death. Sin is described with Spenserian visual dimensions at line 645 and following, and at first Satan fails to recognize either his old lover or his son Death, when the latter appears and threatens to sting his father. As usual, Satan is blind to the consequences of his actions, calling Death “execrable shape” at line 681. At 727, Sin shows a strange affection for Satan, and dissuades him from harming Death, as he seems set on doing, and she similarly warns her son not to harm his father. This is truly the first “dysfunctional family,” fraught with violent regard and incestuous relations. When Satan still cannot recognize Sin, she recounts for him the story of her birth, which Milton has evidently borrowed from the Greek myth of Athena springing fully grown from the head of Zeus. Sin sprang from Satan’s head just at the point when he was about to declare his bold plan in council to rebel against God’s tyrannical rule. The lady now reveals a Satan-like sense of “injured merit,” believing that she is now deprived of that favor which her father and lover had formerly granted her. At 774, in what seems to be a parody of Saint Peter’s reception at the hands of Christ of the Key to Heaven, Sin says that after the rebel host fell, she was given the key to Hell’s portal, “with charge to keep / These gates for ever shut” (775-76). At 792, Sin recounts how she was raped by her son Death, and the union produced myriads of “yelling monsters” that surround her always and return at will to the womb, there to gnaw her innards. This is Milton’s grotesquely Spenserian figure for the incestuous relationship between sin and death. By line 815, Satan has come to realize that this hideous pair are his natural allies, fitting instruments of the revenge he seeks against God. He will set them free as if they were two attack dogs, and Sin obligingly obeys her father. Her recognition of him and her support for his plan are ironic, considering the disloyalty Satan has shown for God.
918-67. The Gates of Hell now opened (not to be shut again until the Last Judgment), Satan beholds the great space he must cross for a time, and then embarks on his Odyssean voyage through Chaos. The narrator describes this passage in somewhat comic terms: we see Satan falling, tumbling, and stumbling through the empty space, only advancing, the narrator reminds us, at the sufferance of God. He is ill at ease and off balance throughout his “heroic” voyage, dependent on the will of the very Power he means to oppose.
968-1010. Satan manages to convince Chaos and Night, and the dread Powers surrounding their throne, that he means them only good. Theirs, he promises, will be the “advantage,” while he seeks only “revenge” (987). They agree without much ado, and Satan is able to make his way forwards.
1024-55. Sin and Death follow their father, building after his tracks the great bridge that will speed the passage of the bad angels back and forth from hell to earth, there to tempt mankind. Book 2’s final passage offers a panoramic vision of the “empyreal Heav’n” and the beautiful new “pendent world” (1052) next to its moon. Satan’s mind, however, is dark with revenge—he has not come merely to behold this magnificent sight; he has come, so he thinks, to destroy it utterly if he can, or at the very least to spoil it for the better part of its inhabitants.
1-55. The invocation at the beginning of the third book, with its Petrarchan extremes and genuine pathos, is perhaps the most intimate and moving of any in Paradise Lost. The narrator will soon describe the consequences of the fall, but at this point the issue for him is the consequences of that fall for him personally. He is blind, and what compensation can there be for so terrible a deprivation? He feels a duty to cultivate the spiritual insight that can alone make up for such loss, and asks for help from “holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born.” God obliges him, and the narrative moves on. The narrator links himself with ancient seers who have shaped history, and brings the story down to the level of a brief, individual human situation (his own) in the present time. Milton had implored God at the beginning of the first book, “what is dark in me illumine,” and here in the third book we are reminded of the difficulty in accommodating heavenly things to earthly understandings and reassured of the narrator’s confidence in his ability to do so: “So much the rather thou celestial Light / Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence / Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight” (51-55). We are moving from darkness and chaos to the realms of light, and the narrator prays to be freed for a time from Satan’s and his own painful way of knowing things as a fallen man. Milton would have been quite aware of his predecessor Dante’s wonderful achievement in characterizing heaven as a place of pure energy and light in the Paradiso, and Paradise Lost must venture into the same region.
79-134. God begins to speak to his Son. Some have said that he sounds almost petulant at times, but the logic is Milton’s own: “reason is but choosing,” as the author had written in “Areopagitica.” God says of mankind, “whose fault? / Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have; I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (96-99). As for the old argument about God’s omniscience and omnipotence making him responsible for the evil others do, God says, “if I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had no influence on their fault” (117-18). The idea is that God did not compel either the rebel angels to disobey or Eve and Adam to sin; he simply knew that they were going to make the choices they in fact subsequently made. Not everyone finds this argument convincing, but it’s the one Milton himself evidently means to make. At line 129, we see that God is by no means a full-on predestinarian: to humankind he offers grace, while Satan he views as a lost cause: “The first sort by their own suggestion fell, / Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived / By the other first: man therefore shall find grace . . .” (129-31).
144-66. The Son replies to the Father, showing concern for the latter’s reputation: wouldn’t allowing mankind to be utterly lost amount to a victory for the rebel angels? Wouldn’t it be a profoundly decreative act, whereas God is all about creative generosity? The Son’s reverential tone marks a change from the tone of the heroic epic we heard in the first two books to a more reverential tone; as the editors point out, what the Son says sounds a lot like Abraham’s pleadings with God not to destroy the people of Sodom.
167-216. God explains to the Son and the angels that redemption is indeed possible and part of the plan. At line 180, we are told that man will be “By me upheld, that he may know how frail / His fall’n condition is, and to me owe / All his deliv’rance, and to none but me” (180-82). This line may seem to have a bit of the Hebrew Scriptures’ “jealous god” in it—it’s the kind of statement against which Shelley takes radical aim in his prose.
217-73. God explains that for the redemptive potential to come into its own, a sacrifice will be necessary: “death for death” (212). Even the good angels want no part of this demand, and the Son alone shows the “active virtue” Milton had praised highly in “Areopagitica”: “Behold me then, me for him, life for life / I offer, on me let thine anger fall; / Account me man . . .” (236-38). We may remember the infernal parallel to this scene, where Satan alone rises to the challenge of finding a way out of hell. Well, does the Son seem to be less than equal with God the Father here? Or is Milton just accommodating the dialog to our limited understanding? He has an obvious dramatic problem here: how do you represent a dialog between perfect beings, two members of the Trinity? Well, you have to make them sound like entirely separate beings.
317-43. God prophecies (infallibly, of course) about End Things or eschatological matters: Christ will return a second time and judge the living and the dead, while the world “shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New Heav’n and earth, wherein the just shall dwell . . .” (334-35). In the end, “God shall be all in all” (341) and the Son will be able to put away his scepter. The assembled hosts are told that they must “Adore the Son, and honor him as me” (343). Well, we might ask, why doesn’t this all happen sooner? Why must there be such a long detour? In terms of Paradise Lost as a narrative, the eschatological scheme implies a linear progression towards the last things, but that isn’t a scheme the epic itself can follow. The difference or detour on the way “there” from “here” Milton treats as the effect of sin and as part of God’s providential design.
344-417. The hosts comply, and sing hymns first to the Father and then to the Son, his “Divine Similitude” (384). Radiant imagery prevails, with the Father called a “Fountain of light, thyself invisible / Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’st / Throned inaccessible . . .” (375-77). The narrator announces a shift in his subject matter at the end of this segment: “Hail Son of God, Saviour of men, thy name / Shall be the copious matter of my song / Henceforth . . .” (412-14).
418-587. The narrator performs a rather cinematic “cut” to Satan with the word “Meanwhile.” The Arch-Fiend surveys the region later to become known as the Paradise of Fools. But the narrator undermines Satan’s grand perspective of “Jacob’s ladder” to the heavens (510) by reminding us of various ridiculous delusions, sins, and pridefulness. We hear of the friars with their false doctrines about how to get to heaven, false rituals, and so forth: “Then might ye see / Cowls, hoods and habits with their wearers tossed / And fluttered into rags; then relics, beads, / Indulgences, dispenses, pardons, bulls, / The sport of winds . . .” (489-93). Satan himself is on a quest to hold divided empire: in essence, he is a Manichean who believes in his own substantiveness in opposition to God. But in due time “The stairs were then let down” (523) and a way into Paradise is thereby opened for Satan, whereupon we shift with a perhaps conquistador-themed observer simile to the magnificent sight that unfolds before the Fiend, sparking his “wonder” and “envy” alike—at least for a moment, whereupon he makes his landing on the sun. And who should he espy there but a radiant angel that turns out to be Uriel.
588-742. When he sees Uriel, Satan knows he must begin his career as an Ovidian shape-shifter, so he presents himself as an innocent cherub on vacation from heaven, just a fine young angel who burns with the desire to see and know more about the universe God has made. And the deception works: Satan turns Uriel’s kindness into weakness for, as Milton says, “neither man nor angel can discern / Hypocrisy” (682-83). Satan is at least free to make his way down to earth, and lands on Mount Niphates in Assyria.
1-113. Milton does a fine job at the beginning of this book with regard to preventing our perspective from unifying with Satan’s or our sympathies from his way. That’s the risk an author always runs when dealing with a powerful villain whose understanding of and control over the situation seems to be greater than those of anyone else around. Readers find it hard to side with dupes, to put the matter bluntly. But the narrator makes sure to characterize Satan as a stage villain—one who is lucid enough to understand the nature of his error and so stubborn that he would rather persist in his villainy than repent. Why did Satan rebel? His own explanation is, “Ah wherefore! he deserved no such return / From me, whom he created what I was / In that bright eminence” (42-44). Satan knows this intellectually, but evidently he cannot accept it spiritually or emotionally: “Be then his love accursed, since love or hate, / To me alike, it deals eternal woe” (69-70). His situation is hopeless by his own admission: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (75). Even if restored to his former place, he would rebel again, and humanity’s creation only rubs salt into his wounds. This being so, he decides upon a strategy of depraved inversion: “Evil be thou my good; by thee at least / Divided empire with Heav’n’s King I hold / By thee . . .” (110-12).
131-287. Taking the form of a ravenous cormorant, Satan alights on the Tree of Life (194-96) next to the Tree of Knowledge, and surveys “A happy rural seat of various view” (247).
288-355. “Two of far noble shape erect and tall . . . .” In this portrait of the first couple, that they are differently ranked is not in question: the narrator says that they are “Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed” (296). They are different, but there’s reciprocity between them: mutuality and “meet conversation” reign. Adam is somewhat like Puritan husband—he is minister, teacher, and guardian to his mate. The Garden of Eden isn’t a regimented place, and neither is the relationship rigid. Instead, there’s a gentle symmetry or complementarity between Adam and Eve.
356-410. Satan views this “gentle pair” (366), and is at first stunned by their innocence and beauty. As always, Satan is deeply divided and in an unhappy dialog with himself. We see that his private compassion is divided from his sense of duty as leader of the bad angels: “public reason just, / Honor and empire with revenge enlarged / By conquering this new world, compels me now / To do what else though damned I should abhor” (389-92). The narrator’s denunciation of this ploy is right on the mark—he calls this alleged “necessity” nothing but “the tyrant’s plea” (394). Satan has an empire to administer, and constituents to satisfy and keep in line, and as far as he is concerned, nothing must be allowed to stand in his way.
411-39. Adam’s conversation with Eve shows that for him, material objects hint at the creation’s source; his “necessity” is only this generous supposition: “needs must the Power / that made us, and for us this ample world / Be infinitely good . . .” (412-14). Adam and Eve are not yet subject to the same sad way of learning that Satan is—he learns only by making mistakes and paying the price for them, and is then continually surprised at what should be obvious to him about his situation and state of error. The upshot of Adam’s lecture to Eve is something like the first pastoral: “let us ever praise him, and extol / His bounty, following our delightful task / To prune these growing plants, and tend these flow’rs, / Which were it toilsome, yet with thee were sweet” (436-39). Adam shows us his unfallen Puritan work ethic: he and Eve are to complete God’s labor of creation.
440-91. When in Book 9 Adam recounts to Raphael his own memories of his first moments, we find that the first thing he did was look up instinctively to seek his maker. Eve provides an innocent contrast to this later story when (at 449-91) she recalls her own first moments. She has Adam’s inductive and inferential capacities, but seems to need some help in realizing them. If Eve is a bit narcissistic, her narcissism is of the healthy sort. She is drawn by her “reflection” in the pool to find out who she is and where she belongs. Ovid’s Narcissus was a selfish lad who refused his gifts of love to a young maiden, and he pined away with “vain desire” (Eve’s phrase) after the maiden cursed him. Eve is moved by an innocent excess of desire to seek Adam; she is charitable, not guilty of cupidity. At 480, Adam and Eve engage in an innocent version of the Ovidian erotic chase; Eve is nothing like one of Wyatt’s courtly ladies, “wild for to hold.” As so often, Milton strips away the fallenness of a literary motif or genre, taking us back to its source in charitable feeling, an outpouring of positive emotions to achieve a worthy goal. We can see Eve’s potential for spiritual and linguistic development. Adam will teach her to pray and look up rather than down. He needs her. As in Renaissance literary theory, “Reason” needs the complementarity of the imagination, which is responsible for dealing with images. Eve hardly seems rebellious at this point since she professes satisfaction with her choice to yield to Adam, as the Creator (Christ in that capacity, as the Father’s “effectual might”) suggested she should: “follow me, / And I will bring thee where no shadow stays / Thy coming . . .” (469-71), and evidently agrees with the doctrine of male superiority. Adam is the possessor of “manly grace / And wisdom” (490-91), and in Milton’s order, these things make him Eve’s mentor.
505-35. Satan has been taking all this in, and he finds much to be optimistic about: the Tree of Knowledge seems to him a “Suspicious, reasonless” (516) hindrance, or at least he will be able to sell it to them that way, stirring within them “more desire to know” (523) about the universe. What has God been keeping back from them, indeed? He sees a chance to provoke envy in Adam and Eve, and to convince them to aspire beyond their current place in the created order: the same temptation to which he himself succumbed.
539-609. Gabriel warns Uriel that the bad angel is up to no good, and promises to find him no matter what shape he may have assumed.
610-775. Eve flatters Adam with the first dawn song or aubade, beginning “Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, / With charm of earliest birds . . .” (641-42). I think we are to take this fine poem as spontaneous prayer, a source of poetry. There’s no hint of John Donne’s complaint against the “Busy old fool, unruly sun” in Eve’s song. She asks Adam a question about astronomy: “But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” (657-58) And of course Adam responds with a perfectly proper pre-Copernican explanation: the stars “have their course to finish, round the earth” (661). It would not be good, he suggests, if night reigned perpetually, and the starshine has its own beneficence quite aside from their service to humankind. The narrator steps in with a classical allusion likening innocent Eve to Pandora, and warns that Eve’s gifts will turn out “O too like / In sad event” (715-16). Then comes Milton’s usual “sex-positive” outlook as the first couple retire for the evening: “who bids abstain / But our destroyer, for to God and man?” (748-49)
776-1015. Gabriel’s lieutenants discover Satan “Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve; / Assaying by his devilish art to reach / The organs of her fancy, and with them forge / Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams . . .” (800-03). This act—which the narrator describes in almost erotic tones—is Satan’s way of setting the stage for the temptation to come in Book 9. Eve’s strange, ominous dream will be revealed in Book 5, and in it Satan (in his own shape rather than as a serpent) will promise her that the forbidden fruit’s virtue will make her a goddess. Eve will find the dream disturbing, but all the same her appetite has been whetted, both materially and in the sense of unlawful aspiration beyond her place and limitations. From 823 onwards, Satan brazenly defies his Gabriel and the other discoverers, of whom he seems to have no fear at all, believing himself once more than their match, at least if God hadn’t tipped the scales against him. But God again “tips the scales,” and we are told that Satan “fled / Murmuring” from the scene. But his work for the present is done. In Books 5-6, Raphael recounts for Adam and us how God had Satan in derision during the War in Heaven, and he warns Adam and Eve not to transgress, effectively preventing us from letting them off too lightly. Books 7-8 will demonstrate God’s creative power. We move from fear in Books 5-6 to a sense of wonder and reverence for the creation in Books 7-8. Structurally, this unit of Books 5-8 helps to “justify” God’s ways, partly because we are drawn to appreciate both God’s tremendous power and righteousness and the generosity of his creation of the world. Books 9-12, as a unit, will have to do with loss and compensation for what has been lost: history records the consequences of Adam and Eve’s mistake and losses in the Garden of Eden, while Adam will be granted a vision of that history that yet offers redemption, turning the fall, ultimately, into a fortunate one.