Sunday, April 15, 2007

Paradise Lost - John Milton

Epic poem in blank verse, one of the late works by John Milton, originally issued in 10 books in 1667 and, with Books 7 and 10 each split into two parts, published in 12 books in the second edition of 1674. Considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest poems of the English language, Paradise Lost tells the biblical story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve (and, by extension, all humanity) in language that is a supreme achievement of rhythm and sound. The main characters in the poem are God, Lucifer (Satan), Adam, and Eve. Much has been written about Milton's powerful and sympathetic characterization of Satan. The Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley saw Satan as the real hero of the poem and applauded his rebellion against the tyranny of Heaven. Many other works of art have been inspired by Paradise Lost, notably Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation" (1798) and John Keats's long poem "Endymion." Milton wrote a companion piece, Paradise Regained, in 1671, which dramatizes the temptation of Christ.

Summary of Paradise Lost

Books I-II

The action begins with Satan and his rebel angels, chained to a lake of fire in Hell. Once freed, they fly to land, gather minerals and build Pandæmonium, the capital of Hell (also the palace of Satan). There they hold a debate on what to do next in relation to the war in Heaven. Moloch, a fierce devil who wishes to be equal to God or annihilated in the struggle, argues for open war. Belial advises the council to wait and see. Mammon suggests that they make the best of their situation in Hell, dismissing war altogether. Beelzebub, Satan's chief accomplice, suggests that the best way to attack God would be corrupting His new creation: humankind. Satan, who had conceived the idea in the first place, agrees and volunteers to go himself. At the gates of Hell he is met by his two children: Sin and Death. Sin reveals to him that he is her father and they have had sex and produced Death. Death's violent birth changes her bottom half into that of a snake. Death's first act is to rape his Mother, thus conceiving the terrible hellhounds that follow her everywhere and return into her womb periodically to gnaw at her entrails. Sin holds the key to the locked gate of Hell, which she opens for her father, releasing him from his prison. Once opened, these gates cannot be shut, forever opening the doors of Hell to the rest of creation. Satan goes through the realm of Chaos and his consort Night. Chaos is pleased with Satan's plan and directs him to Earth, which is suspended from Heaven by a golden chain in the regions above.

It is in these first books that Satan is at his most noble: He is described in grandiose terms--as a giant, physically larger than the Titans of Greco-Roman mythology. Like the ancient epics of Homer, Paradise Lost begins in the midst of things (just after the rebellion in heaven ends), just as the Iliad begins in the middle of a long war.

Book III

God the Father sits on his throne in Heaven and predicts to the Son that Satan will tempt man, but it will be man's fault if he disobeys God since man was made "Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall". However, whereas the evil angels fell by their own suggestion, man falls because he is tempted by Satan, and that is why he will be able to find mercy and grace. The Son volunteers to sacrifice himself in order to redeem humankind. Meanwhile Satan is traveling and comes upon a stairway up to Heaven and a stairway down to Paradise. He has a vision of the whole universe that fills him with wonder and envy. Further on Satan discovers Uriel, the angel of the Sun, and disguises himself as a "stripling cherub" and tells Uriel he wishes to see and praise God's glorious creation and Uriel points out Earth and Paradise for him.

Book IV-V

Landing on Earth, Satan takes a moment to reflect, leading to a famous speech about the sun. He is troubled because wherever he goes, he carries Hell around with him in his mind and cannot escape it. Paradise brings him pain rather than pleasure and he reaffirms his decision to make evil his good. Satan leaps over the wall of Eden, like a wolf jumping into a sheepfold; and disguised as a cormorant, he perches himself atop the Tree of Life, and there plots death for man. He sees Adam and Eve for the first time, the natural king and queen of their world, in complete harmony with their surroundings, returning to their bower to rest after a long day of work. Adam and Eve talk about God and from their conversation Satan learns of the existence of the Tree of Knowledge, from which they are forbidden to eat. He takes the form of a toad and whispers into Eve's ear, giving her an evil dream that foreshadows the fall, in which an angel tempts her to eat from the Tree.

Earlier on Uriel had noticed a change in Satan's appearance and called Gabriel to deal with the impostor, who orders Satan to leave. God sends down Raphael to teach man of the dangers they are facing so that they do not fall from ignorance. The next morning Raphael arrives on Earth and has a meal with Adam and Eve, indicating the possibility of easy give and take between angels and Man before the fall. Raphael then tells the story of Satan's envy over the Son's appointment as God's second-in-command. Satan influenced many other angels into siding with him and plotted a war against God. The angel Abdiel tried to convince Satan that the Son's reign over the hierarchy of angels will give it more glory and make it more secure. Even though he is right, no one had the courage to support him, and he returned to God.


Raphael continues his story, recounting the following day as war preparations had begun, and Abdiel called Satan a fool not to recognize that it is useless to fight against God's omnipotence. The battle lasted two days, when God sent the Son to end the war and deliver Satan and his rebel angels to Hell. Raphael ends his account by warning Adam about Satan's evil motives to corrupt them. Adam asks Raphael to tell him the story of creation. After Lucifer had fallen from Heaven, God announced his intention of creating a race of beings to repopulate Heaven in the place of the fallen angels. He sent the Son to set boundaries on Chaos and created the earth, and stars and other planets, following the account in Genesis.

Still curious, Adam asks Raphael about the movement of heavenly bodies. The angel answers that it should not matter to man, God conceals that and other things that are not necessary for man to know. Adam decides to tell Raphael of his own story, of waking up and wondering who he was, what he was, and where he was. God spoke to him and told him many things, including his order not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam asked God for a companion, because the animals who live in Paradise are not his equals. He took out a rib from Adam, from which he formed Eve. He explains his intense physical attraction to her, but Raphael reminds him that he must love her more purely and spiritually.

Book IX

Seven days later, Satan returns to Paradise. After studying closely the animals of Paradise, he chooses to take the form of the serpent, the "subtlest beast of all the field". Meanwhile Eve suggests to Adam that they should work separately for a while. Adam, having Raphael's warning in mind, is hesitant, but then agrees. Eve does not think a foe so proud will attack the weaker person first. Satan finds her alone, and in the form of a serpent, talks and compliments her on her beauty and godliness. She is amazed that the animal can speak, and he explains that he has risen from his animal state by eating from a certain tree, that gave him the ability to reason and talk. Upon seeing the tree, Eve recognizes it and tells the serpent that it is forbidden. The serpent argues that they have been wronged by God, and that the fruit will give them wisdom and god-like status, and God wants to keep this knowledge for Himself.

She is hesitant but reaches for a fruit and eats, the serpent quickly disappears into the woods. Eve is distraught and searches for Adam, who has been busy making her a wreath of flowers. He is horrified to learn that she has disobeyed God, realizing that she is lost, and he with her. Realizing that he would rather be fallen with her than remain pure and lose her, he eats the fruit as well. Utterly caught up in their actions, thoughtless and intoxicated, they give in to lust and display for the first time ugly passions such as hate, anger and mistrust. (Here, as elsewhere, Milton reads much into the account given in Genesis.)

Book X

God tells the angels in Heaven that Adam, Eve, and Satan must be punished, but with justice and mercy. First the serpent is punished, condemned to never walk upright again. Then Adam and Eve are sentenced to pain and death. Eve and all the women must suffer the pain of childbirth and submit to their husbands, whereas Adam and all men must work, hunt, and grow their own food. The Son gives them clothes out of pity, given that now they are ashamed of their nakedness.

On his way back to Hell, Satan meets Sin and Death, who travel to Earth, making a bridge over Chaos. At Pandæmonium, he is greeted with cheers, but shortly thereafter the devils are unwillingly transformed into snakes and are tempted to reach a fruit from trees that turn to dust as they reach them. God tells the angels to transform the Earth. After the fall, humankind must suffer hot and cold seasons instead of the consistent temperatures before the fall. On Earth, Adam and Eve fear their approaching doom and blame each other for their disobedience and become increasingly angry at one another. Adam even wonders why God ever created Eve, who begs him not to abandon her. They contemplate suicide, but realize that they can enact revenge on Satan by remaining obedient to God, and together pray to God and repent.


God hears their prayers and forgives them, but will not allow man to live in Paradise any longer: the immortal elements of Paradise reject Adam and Eve who are now mortal. Michael arrives on Earth and tells them they must leave. But before that he puts Eve to sleep and takes Adam to the top of the highest hill in Paradise, where he shows him a vision of the future of humankind. Adam sees the sins of his children, Cain and Abel, and of all his progeny. He is horrified with visions of death, lust, greed, envy, and pride. They kill each other selfishly and live only for pleasure. Then there is Enoch, who is saved by God as his warring peers attempt to kill him; Noah and his family, whose virtue allows them to be chosen to survive the Flood. God punishes Ham and his sons. Then there is the hunter Nimrod and the Tower of Babel he builds to reach Heaven; the triumph of Moses and the Israelites, and finally the Son’s sacrifice to save humankind. Adam realizes that this is all the knowledge he needs to have, knowing he must obey God and depend on Him. All he needs to do is to add facts of faith, virtue, patience, temperance and love to his knowledge and he will find within himself a paradise far happier than the one he is now in. Led by Michael, Adam and Eve slowly and woefully leave Paradise hand in hand into a new world.


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