Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608 – 1674) Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608 – 1674) Type of Work: Narrative, epic poem Setting Hell, then Heaven, then newly-created Earth; all “in the beginning” Principal Characters Satan, earlier called Lucifer, a fallen angel Adam, the first man Eve, the first woman God the Father God the Son Various angels and demons Story Overveiw (Recounted here is the story of Man’s fall, Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree,whose mortal taste Bought Death into the World, and all our woe With loss of Eden, Till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat..) Satan, the once radiant Lucifer, and his angels lay in a formless, sulphurous lake of fire having justbeen driven out of Heaven. Their fall had sent them plummeting through space from their heavenly home down to Hell, leaving them beaten senseless. Only now, after lying unconscious for nine days, did Satan and his demons begin to rouse themselves. Accustomed to living in heavenly glory, they found their new home horrifying, and convened a council to determine how they might escape Hell and recover at least some of their former glory. Too proud to consider seeking re-admittance to Heaven through repentance, they agreed with Satan that it was “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” One demon favored remaining in Hell, but transforming it into a kingdom as powerful and glrious as Heaven. But another, Beelzebub, second in command, proposed a different plan: He had heard that God had designs to create a new world, to be the home “of some new race called man ..
/ To be created like to us, though less/ In power and excellence” Beelzebub argued that, if they acted quickl,, they could possess this new world and subdue as slaves the new race of men. His vengeful plot was eagerly approved by the hosts of Hell, and Satan himself volunteered to make the perilous journey past the Gates of Hell and through space to the new earth. Satan, after a long trek, happened upon a heavenly angel, Uriel, custodian of the orb of the sun. Disguised as an angel, Satan managed to get the unsuspecting Uriel to point out where the new earth lay. The devil then flew off.
His earthly arrival, however, did not go unnoticed by God, who calmly explained to His Son that Satan’s presence would, in time, lead to the fall of man, bringing upon him punishment and death. Moved by compassion, the Son offered to give his life in order to save men, which sacrifice the Father accepted. But for the time they left Satan to his wiles. Satan was overwhelmed by the earth’s beauty. But that very beauty, far from filling him with joy, stirred up memories of the Paradise he had lost.
In a stormy speech full of self-doubt, fear, and envy, Satan lamented his fall and foretold a future filled with ever-worsening torments. He would never be able to escape Hell, he concluded, since “which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” But if he could not live in peace, at least he would divide Heaven’s kingdom, and possibly rule over the greater part of God’s creation. Searching, Satan finally came upon Adam and Eve. Disguised in the forms of various beasts, he marvelled at the first man and woman, whose beauty and nobility inspired in him both admiration and caretakers of the Garden of Eden and eavesdropped on their long, affectionate conversations. He was astonished to find them endowed with full faculties of speech and reasoning, and yet they were so innocent as to enjoy sexual union without the slightest taint of lust.
After performing their evening devotions, Adam and Eve retired to their bed. Satan, crouching as a toad beside the sleeping woman, whispered falsehoods and rumors into her ear. After a time, guardian angels arrived to interrupt his mischief, but allowed him to escape. On the next morning Eve awoke complaining of a nightmare in which an angel had tempted her to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God, seeing the peril his creation was in, sent the angel Raphael to explain to the couple that Satan had been the cause of the dream and to warn them against further temptation. Adam’s curiosity was sparked; he asked Raphael about this “Satan” and how he had managed to come to the earth.
The angel answered Adam with an account of Satan’s fall. The problem, he related, began when God the Father announced to the assembled angels that He had anointed His Son, who stood at His right hand, as a Lord over them all. Lucifer, full of envy, managed to assemble a rival faction of angels to contest God’s power. The ensuing battle lasted three days. On the first, the loyal angels routed the rebels.
Satan retreated, but during the night manufactured a slew of weapons with which, on the second day’s fighting, he surprised Heaven’s angels. On the third day, God sent His Son to personally lead His forces. The Son drove Satan and his legions over the edge of Heaven into the waiting flames. Raphael went on to describe the creation of the earth, the forming of man and woman, and advised Adam not to seek knowledge beyond his comprehension. Capping off his visit with a warning to beware of Satan, Raphael returned to Heaven.
But Satan was eager to succeed. Back in Eden, he assumed the form of a serpent and waited for his opportunity. Adam had reluctantly allowed his wife to work alone that day in another part of the garden. Satan accosted her, showering her with flattery, comparing her to a goddess. Astonished and a little pleased by the compliments, Eve demanded to know how the serpent managed to acquire speech.
From eating a certain fruit, Satan explained; no sooner had he tasted it than he had found himself able to speak and reason. Though Eve was suspicious, she followed the snake to the tree bearing the fruit. Above the woman’s protest that it was forbidden to her, Satan delivered a masterful, subtle argument that if the fruit of the tree could give a mere serpent human faculties, surely it would transform humans into gods! Furthermore, he asserted, the warning of certain death associated with eating the fruit could not be true, since he himself had eaten it and had not died. Swayed by these words, Eve took of the fruit and ate her fill. She returned to Adam, overcome with the sensation of knowledge and power.
While horrified that she had partaken of the forbidden fruit, Adam chose to partake as well rather than be separated from her. Their newfound knowledge, however, was already working changes in their nature. Once wholly innocent in their nakedness, the man and woman now looked on each other with licentiousness; Just overtook them. Afterwards, in guilt and remorse, the transgressors resorted to pleading with God for forgiveness of their sins. The Son, acting as intercessor on their behalf, carried their cries to the Father, who chose to forgive them on condition that they be expelled from Eden, in order to experience mortality. To the woman it would mean pain in childbearing.
To Adam, their fall would bring a world of toil and sweat, and a curse of weeds, thorns and briars. God dispatched Michael, one of His chief angels, to carry out the expulsion. In the meantime, Satan gleefully dashed back towards Hell with news of his victory. On the way he met Sin and Death, busily building a road to earth, and bargained with them to be his ambassadors on Earth. In Hell, Satan haughtily told of his masterful seduction of Adam and Eve. But just at the very moment when he expected to receive their thunderous applause, he heard nothing but hisses – the host of them had been turned into serpents.
Trees, exact in appearance to the Tree of Knowledge, appeared, laden with fruit. But when the mass of serpents struggled to bite into the fruit, it turned to bitter ashes. The Son had prevented Hell’s hosts from becoming mortal; they would forever be the hated enemy of mankind. On an earth filled with storms, floods, earthquakes, violent predators and the discomforts of changing seasons, Adam and Eve contemplated suicide. But Michael arrived, bringing hope God would forgive their sin. Though in consequence of their sin they must be expelled from the Garden, Michael comforted them, manifesting to them a vision of mankind’s future: their progeny; the rise and fall of kingdoms; Noah; Abraham; Moses; the coming of the Messiall, and His death, resurrection and expiration to redeem fallen man; the progress of God’s church; and, in the end, the Lord’s second coming.
Cheered by the prospect of the ultimate redemption of their race, the man and woman followed the path leading from their paradisiacal garden to the barren and lonely world below. The World was all before them, where to choose Thir place of rest, and Providence thir,guide: They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, Through Eden took thir solitary way. Commentary Few literary poems attempt to take on such a huge theme as Paradise Lost. Milton himself, in the Argumentum that begins the poem, claims to have produced the greatest poem ever written, “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” The poem’s theme is nothing less than the origin of evil itself, which Milton sees as being embedded in man’s nature as a result of the original transgression and subsequent sins of humanity’s common ancestors. It recounts, in twelve expansive books, a story line that occupies only a few verses of the book of Genesis. Aside from its sheer size, other elements might make the work somewhat difficult for a modern reader.
It is told in the high formal style, filled with rhetorical speeches, invocations, elaborate similes, and long “catalogues” of names, places, and armies. Milton showers his poem with thousands of allusions to Hebraic, medieval, and renaissance culture, and his syntax may strike a modern reader as twisted. This striking and unusual word order is imitative of Vergil’s Aneid and the structure of many other great classical epics, But one need not be a classical scholar to enjoy Paradise Lost. The music of the language is often mesmerizing, and its imaginative retelling of the Genesis account is without equal. The reader is immediately intrigued by Milton’s portrait of Satan. In fact, it’s not hard to sympathize with the fallen devil, or even side with him – his character is more fleshy and alluring than that of the somewhat bland God of the poem.
But that is the very irony Milton wanted to achieve: just as Satan makes evil appear good, so Satan’s ways may appear, but only at first glance, attractive.