Milton: Paradise Lost

March 31, 2022

Paradise Lost
John Milton
[1674]
Third reading.

I’ve little leisure at present to write about this great poem. Instead, this is just a brief scrapbook of lines and thoughts that I compiled as I was reading.

***

The opening gesture:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
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, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

The fall of Satan:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

Satan claims for himself a “fixed mind”, unwilling or unable to repent.

Satan’s non serviam:

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

(Those first lines were memorably set to music by Nick Cave.)

And Satan’s despairing inversion of the moral order:

So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.

***

Does the history of modernity recapitulate the infernal debate of the rebel angels?

First, Mammon counsels that true liberty involves self-invention and freedom from the designs of a Creator:

But rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.

And he observes that in course of time the contrast between Divine friendship and their current state will be forgotten:

Nor want we skill or art from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heaven show more?
Our torments also may, in length of time,
Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain.

But Beelzebub counters that this talk of building an empire outside God’s providence is foolishness:

The King of Heaven hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heaven’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’ inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude. For he, to be sure,
In height or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part
By our revolt, but over Hell extend
His empire, and with iron sceptre rule
Us here, as with his golden those in Heaven.

If modernity is retracing these steps, we’re still on Mammon’s course, waiting for Beelzebub.

***

An aphorism:

“Goodness thinks no ill where no ill seems”

***

Satan’s rebellion consisted of envy and pride:

He of the first,
If not the first Arch-Angel, great in power,
In favour and pre-eminence, yet fraught
With envy against the Son of God, that day
Honoured by his great Father, and proclaimed
Messiah King anointed, could not bear
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

In Eden, Satan’s agonized incapacity for repentance and lust to destroy:

“The more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries: all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heaven much worse would be my state.
But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts”

***

The fall of Eve:

“Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: What hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?”
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat!

The fall of Adam:

She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge; not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.

***

Adam’s wish for death:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust;
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received”

Death as a gift in the wake of sin:

“I, at first, with two fair gifts
Created him endowed; with happiness,
And immortality: that fondly lost,
This other served but to eternize woe;
Till I provided death: so death becomes
His final remedy”

***

The poem’s concluding lines:

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

4 Responses to “Milton: Paradise Lost”


  1. I finally read this a couple of years ago, and quite enjoyed most of it, enough that I want to read it again, which I’m told is not a usual reaction. I did think there were some pretty dull stretches. The war in heaven was something of a letdown–the big buildup to the revelation of Satan’s dreadful Ultimate Weapon: cannon! I guess that was persuasive in the 17th century. I seem to recall that Michael’s long narration was a little dull. But the temptation and fall were very effective. There are some poignant moments when Satan’s ill will is softened a bit by Eve’s beauty. I almost felt sorry for him.

    • cburrell Says:

      As I’m sure you know, there is a theory that Milton has intentionally made Satan appealing — and pity, I think, could be a manifestation of that appeal — in order to seduce the reader, just as Adam and Eve were seduced. Personally, I do not find Satan appealing in the poem, so it doesn’t work on me.

      Milton can feel plodding, especially if we hold him up against Shakespeare, who has so much more range and variety, but there is a cumulative strength to his verse, and moments, as I’ve tried to indicate by my selections, of real power.

      I would like to commit some sections to memory, but I haven’t done so as yet. I know of someone (Tony Esolen) who said he plans to memorize the entire poem in his retirement. Surely you could do the same? No?


      • No. I don’t think I could even if I wanted to. I don’t even think I could have when I was young and supple of brain, and I surely couldn’t now.

        I tend to think that Paradise Lost is intrinsically flawed, basically not a good idea. It almost seems like an early manifestation of the well-meant, doctrinally-dominated, didactic art of which there is a good deal in our time. A lot of Christian pop music, for instance. But his tremendous gift makes it a great work anyway, even if one has this or that reservation. I meant to say earlier that I find both the opening and the closing very powerful, especially the latter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: