Arctic Tern

  Chris Hawkes

  Milton: Paradise Lost

"Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe."

The Fall

Introduction and context
The story of Paradise Lost
Syntax and vocabulary
Classical references (See also Syntax and vocabulary)
Milton's verse form
The problem of Satan

Click here for links to other Milton pages

At first glance, Milton’s Paradise Lost might seem daunting. It is written from a different context from ours both in terms of time (1667, in the reign of Charles II – Milton had supported Cromwell during the Civil War and the Protectorate that followed) and in terms of religious belief. To understand Paradise Lost one does not have to share Milton’s faith, but one does need to understand what he and his society believed to understand what he is doing in the text.

Milton’s stated aim in Book I is to “assert th' Eternal Providence,
     And justifie the wayes of God to men.” He is attempting to make sense of a world that can often seem chaotic, and to show there is a reason for this chaos, and an underlying purpose, “Eternal Providence”, that will ensure that at the end order will be established.

But Milton has another aim too. A devout Christian, and also a literate scholar, fluent in Latin and Greek, he deplored the fact that the great classical literary epics, such as the Iliad and the Aeneid, were written about mythical stories involving pagan gods, whilst there was no Christian epic to celebrate the triumph of the – to him – one true God. So, as he writes in Book I, his intention is to raise his poem “Above th' AONIAN Mount”, the home of the Classical Muses who inspire art, and instead seek inspiration from “the secret top
     Of OREB, or of SINAI” – the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. The Muse he invokes – “Sing Heav'nly Muse” – is not the pagan muse, therefore, of Homer or of Virgil, but “Heavenly” – sent from his true God.

Therefore, he sets out to tell the fundamental story of Christian (and partly of Judaic) myth – the expulsion of mankind from the Garden of Eden – and turns what in the Bible is the first three chapters of Genesis into a literary epic.

The story is a familiar one. We begin, not with Creation itself, but with the end of war in Heaven: Satan, once an angel, “Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud / With vain attempt” is “Hurld headlong flaming” from Heaven and cast down for rebellion against God (because, tradition has it, he thought “I will not serve”, thus effectively expelling himself by going against his created nature.) Once in the chaos of “bottomless perdition”, he rallies the other fallen angels by appealing to their pride, and together they build a chaos fortress in Hell, “PANDAEMONIUM” (“all devils”).

In Heaven, meanwhile, God and the angels are contemplating His creation and marvelling at its beauty – and especially the beauty of Adam and Eve,
     “Our two first Parents, yet the onely two
     Of mankind, in the happie Garden plac't,
     Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love,
     Uninterrupted joy, unrivald love
     In blissful solitude.”
God says that he gave a great gift to the angels, free will, and “Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.” Without free will there is no merit in faith and love. Satan and the fallen angels chose to fall, and therefore have condemned themselves to Hell. Mankind also has this gift, and God foresees that mankind will be tempted to fall by Satan; because “Man falls deceiv'd / By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace” – mankind will not be condemned for ever for choosing disobedience – but someone must choose to accept punishment for the sin mankind has committed: “death for death”. The Son of God offers himself as the sacrifice so that mankind can regain grace:
      “I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
     Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
     Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
     Freely put off, and for him lastly dye
     Well pleas'd, on me let Death wreck all his rage.”

Milton shows us this scene in order that we can see God’s mercy, and also his omniscience: the Fall of Man is therefore now inevitable, but so is mankind’s redemption, if we have faith in God’s providence.

In Pandaemonium, Satan has decided to destroy God’s creation; he escapes to Earth and is envious of its beauty: “envy seis'd
     At sight of all this World beheld so faire.” He attempts to attack Eve through dreams, but is prevented by Gabriel, who sends the Archangel Raphael to talk with Adam. Raphael tells Adam about the war in Heaven and God’s creation of the universe; Adam tells Raphael of his memories and of the creation of Eve.

Satan meanwhile has learned of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden: as a symbol of the need for free obedience, God has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree. In the disguise of a serpent, he convinces Eve that she should eat the fruit: if they eat, “ye shall be as Gods,
     Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.”
Having eaten, she returns to Adam, and tries to persuade him to join in what she has done. Whilst aware of the enormity of her act of disobedience, his love for her forces him to share her act: “Flesh of Flesh,
     Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
     Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.”

God tells the angels that he must now go to judge the fallen humans: however, he shows that he intends to “temper so
Justice with Mercie” – the greater part of the punishment will fall on him through the sacrifice and death of his Son, Jesus. Adam is ashamed in the face of the Lord, and admits his guilt. God pronounces the punishment they have brought on themselves: to Eve he says
     “Thy sorrow I will greatly multiplie
     By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring
     In sorrow forth, and to thy Husbands will
     Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule.
To Adam, “Curs'd is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow
     Shalt eate thereof all the days of thy Life;
     Thornes also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth
     Unbid, and thou shalt eate th' Herb of th' Field,
     In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eate Bread”

At this moment, Sin and Death are released from Hell and come to Earth to plague mankind, and Satan and the fallen angels are punished by being forced to take the form of serpents – the form in which Satan tempted Eve.

Adam and Eve desperately regret their actions, and are met by the Archangel Michael who is to lead them from Eden. First, however, he tells them what is to come: that their actions have brought death and sin into the world, and that the first to taste this fruit will be their own as yet unborn son, Abel, who will be murdered by his brother, Cain. However, Michael goes on to explain that Adam’s sin will be paid for by God’s Son, who will through love gain victory over both Sin and Death, and allow mankind to enjoy second, eternal life after death. Adam is overjoyed: he understands that God’s providence is something in which mankind must trust, as God seeks always to turn evil into good.
     "O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
     That all this good of evil shall produce,
     And evil turn to good; more wonderful
     Then that which by creation first brought forth
     Light out of darkness!"

Reassured that all will in the end be well, Adam and Eve leave Eden hand in hand:
     "The World was all before them, where to choose
     Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
     They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
     Through Eden took thir solitarie way.”

One problem encountered by readers is Milton’s sentence structure. We often expect a more simple, main clause focused grammar; however, Milton’s syntax is complex and can seem dense. Look, for example, at the opening to Book I:
      Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
      Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
      Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
      With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
      Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
      Sing Heav'nly Muse"

We have to wait until line 6 for the main clause, “Sing Heav’nly Muse”: the preceding 5 lines describe what the “Muse” is to sing of – they act as a subordinate noun clause group. This deferral of the main clause should not cause difficulties, so long as we expect it and have the patience to wait! This technique, however, is a deliberate choice (arguably) by Milton. The sentence structure is Latinate or Ciceronian, a grammar used by the great Roman writer and statesman Cicero. By adopting this style Milton could be asserting, as argued above, that his subject matter is more worthy of epic treatment than the Latin and Greek epics of pagan Classical poets.

Indeed, the same argument can be made for his Latinate vocabulary – and examples of this can be found in every line. Both syntax and diction are elevated in a way that naturally fits his subject matter: for him and other Christians, the most elevated subject in the history of the Universe.

Another way in which Milton makes clear his intention to write epic poetry to rival and indeed outshine Hesiod, Homer and Virgil is by reference to Classical myth. Such references abound – in line 15 of Book I Milton states his intention to make his “adventurous song” soar above the “Aonian Mount”, the Classical home to the goddesses who inspire the arts. The fall of the angels, “Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie”, bears a close relationship to the fall of the Titans in Hesiod, whilst the roll-call of the rebel angels gives them the names of the false pagan gods of Classical, Egyptian and Philistine mythology. Indeed, the structure of Paradise Lost owes much to Virgil’s Aeneid.

Linked to this argument is another important aspect of Milton’s epic: his verse form. Unusually for his time, he chooses not to use rhyme, writing instead blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter (lines with alternate weak and strong stresses: five iambs, two-syllable groups with a weak/strong pattern per line. The name “Michelle” is an iamb.) Indeed, in the “Front Matter” to the poem, Milton calls rhyme “ the invention of a barbarous age”. The classical epic poets did not use rhyme, and so Milton is explicitly allying himself with them: he writes in the “Front Matter” “The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin”.

The strength of Milton’s blank verse is its vigour: the poem creates a tension between the artificiality of the rhythmical five strong stresses in the line and the spontaneity of the enjambment that allows lines to flow over, disguising that regularity, the inversion of feet to trochee (strong weak) or the use of spondee (strong strong) especially at the beginning of the line, and the use of the caesura, or pause, in varied places within the line. This tension gives force to the poem, allowing an elevated form to match its elevated subject matter whilst still retaining the sense of the poet speaking directly to the reader: iambic pentameter is the rhythm of English speech, which is why it is employed by Shakespeare and other dramatists.

One aspect of the poem that has attracted much attention is the character of Satan. Several critics have felt that he is the hero of this poem, something surely that goes against Milton’s intent. Indeed, William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell writes “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.” Certainly, there are powerful arguments for this case. Satan is expelled from Heaven into chaos, and yet heroically argues against submission:
      “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
      Better to reign in Hell, th[a]n serve in Heav'n.”
The other fallen angels are in despair, but Satan is able to rally them “to try what may be yet
      Regaind in Heav'n, or what more lost in Hell”. This refusal to submit, and determination to fight a battle against such a powerful, indeed, omnipotent, adversary, God, can be seen as admirable.

Indeed, Philip Pullman models Lord Asriel, a major character in his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy on Satan: both has pride and ambition, both dare to battle with the Almighty and against the “tyranny of heaven”, as Satan calls it. Pullman’s epic arises out of Milton’s: consider Will and Lyra as a second Adam and Eve.

However, the case for Satan is not as overwhelming as it might first appear. Milton chooses to begin his epic with the fall of the angels after the rebellion had been crushed: arguably, this underlines the futility of the struggle and suggests that all Satan’s plots will also inevitable fail. Furthermore, God is shown not only to have knowledge, but to have foreknowledge of Satan’s plans – but will not directly act to stop them achieving fruition, as He has given angels and mankind free will to choose to obey or to disobey Him: God made them “just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”
These are not the actions of Satan’s tyrant.

Arguably too Satan’s determination to destroy God’s order, although glossed by him as heroism, surely smacks rather of petty vindictiveness?
            “If then his Providence
      Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
      Our labour must be to pervert that end,
      And out of good still to find means of evil”.

We could also look at the way in which Satan’s shape alters: his change from the brightness of Lucifer to the fallen glories of Satan, to his assuming the disguises of a cherubim, a cormorant (symbolic of greed) and then a serpent (the shape in which he is forced to remain as punishment in Book X) charts his symbolic as well as his physical decline.

There is, however, another possible argument. Perhaps Milton intended the figure of Satan to be attractive and compelling. Could we argue that Milton is allowing us to experience for ourselves the temptation with which Adam and Eve are presented? If we feel that Satan is the “hero” of the poem, could it be that we are being reminded by Milton that we are all sinful - “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” - and therefore share in the Fall of Adam and Eve - and also in their final release from Death and Sin?

Paradise Lost is a towering literary achievement,and one that, given willingness to approach the poem with patience (and also perhaps a mindset that realises that one does not have to share an author's beliefs to appreciate her or his work) has great rewards for the reader. The struggle between good and evil is a constant theme of literature, of film and of television, and Milton's attempt to "justifie the wayes of God to men" surely must strike a chord with any one who has ever wondered why our world seems full of injustice and evil.

     click     e-text of Paradise Lost prepared by Project Gutenberg - thanks to Knowledge Matters.

     click     The Milton Reading Room: more e-texts, including many of Milton's poems. Dartmouth College also include a number of interesting background links.

     click     A brilliant Milton resource from Christ's College Cambridge. Try it!

     click     A cornucupia of Milton resources: texts, audio recordings, articles, images, and a discussion group. Thanks to Roy Flannagan (Ohio University), Louis Schwartz (University of Richmond) and Kevin J.T. Creamer (University of Richmond).

     click     New Arts Library's Study Notes for Paradise Lost. Contains much of interest, including essays - but remember the warning about scholarly practice.

     click     Luminarium maintain this link page, the contents of which are well worth browsing.

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