Last Updated on January 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2024
Milton prefaces “The Argument” to book 1 of his epic poem with a defense of its unrhymed heroic verse. He declares that, besides “Homer in Greek” and “Virgil in Latin,” the best English poets of tragedy have also rejected rhyme. After a brief summary of book 1, the author introduces...
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Milton prefaces “The Argument” to book 1 of his epic poem with a defense of its unrhymed heroic verse. He declares that, besides “Homer in Greek” and “Virgil in Latin,” the best English poets of tragedy have also rejected rhyme. After a brief summary of book 1, the author introduces the subject of Paradise Lost, which is “Man’s first disobedience” and his loss of paradise. He invokes the “Heavenly Muse,” or, in other words, the Holy Spirit who inspired “that shepherd,” Moses on Mount Sinai. Insisting that his theme will be elevated above that of the pagan poets, Milton proposes to “justify the ways of God to men.” He reiterates the familiar story of the fall of Adam and Eve with a reminder that it was the “infernal Serpent” who was the cause. Declaring himself as God’s equal, Satan’s pride and rebellion have been the reason for his expulsion from heaven. It was the envy of God’s new creation, Man, that prompted Satan’s revenge when he deceived Eve and, consequently, brought sin into the world.
The first action of the poem begins with Satan, a former archangel, chained on the burning lake in hell after he and his angels have been cast out of heaven. It is a wild, dismal wasteland in flames with darkness all around. Satan addresses Beelzebub, who is lying next to him, and assures him that “all is not lost.” He is startled by the frightening changes in Beelzebub’s appearance since his fall. Satan swears that he will never repent and bow to God, but will wage “eternal war” against him. His apparent confidence, however, is “racked with deep despair.” Convinced of God’s strength and supremacy, Beelzebub questions Satan’s optimism in this place of eternal punishment. But Satan quickly replies that they must stay strong and find ways to avenge God by changing good into evil whenever possible.
Since Heaven has given Satan free will, he recovers his strength and, followed by Beelzebub, lifts himself from the burning lake, flying to dry land. Satan concedes that here he must bid farewell to his former happy state and welcome the horrors of the “infernal world,” but at least he will be free. He relishes the idea that God will be far from this place and decides that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Meanwhile, the other fallen angels still lie prostrate on the burning lake. Satan calls them to action, loudly shouting their heavenly titles, “Princes, Potentates, Warriors.” At the sound of their general’s voice, they spring up and take flight, filling the air like a “cloud / Of locusts.”
The poet enumerates the primary fallen angels. First is Moloch, who became the “horrid king” in biblical times, forcing children to pass through fire as human sacrifices. The list continues with Chemos, god of the Moabites, who is much like Moloch. Astarte, Thammuz, Dagon, Rimmon, Osiris, Isis, and Orus are also fallen angels who later become pagan gods and goddesses after wandering around on earth. Belial, whose name means “wickedness,” bears the distinction of depravity and lust.
With his customary pride, Satan speaks to the dejected group of angels, trying to boost their courage and dispel their fears. Azazel, the standard bearer, raises the flag as a universal shout rings out, and Satan’s angels await his command. Satan attempts to speak three times but is choked with tears when he observes the “withered glory” of his loyal followers in their fallen state. He finally speaks, advocating war either against God or against his new creation, Man. The legions of angels react joyously, throwing flaming swords into the air and “hurling defiance” toward God.
Mammon leads the fallen angels to a hill to dig for gold, attempting to prove that hell, like heaven, has its riches. Suddenly, they encounter a temple, Pandemonium, rising like a vapor out of the hill. Built by the architect, Mulciber, it serves as Satan’s capitol in hell where he summons them to a council to decide their fate. Swarming as thick as “bees / In springtime,” they enter the capitol, where they begin the consultation in an attempt to resolve the issue of war against God for the “recovery of Heaven.”
A perceptive interpretation of Paradise Lost must necessarily include an understanding of the epic devices employed by Milton. In imitation of Homer and Virgil, he opens the poem in “medias res”—in the midst of things. The war in heaven has ended with the defeat of Satan and his angels, who have fallen into the abyss. In keeping with the epic tradition, the poet will later return to the rebellion of Satan and the consequent battle that started the chain of events.
Milton also follows the age-old epic device of invoking the Muse to inspire him and, thereby, lend authority to his expansive theme of justifying “the ways of God to men.” He calls on the Muse who had revealed the secrets of the creation story in Genesis to Moses. In the opening lines of book 7, however, the poet invokes the muse, Urania, who was the classical muse of astronomy. The poet makes it clear that it is “the meaning, not the name” that he is calling forth. In this way he upholds the tradition of the epic, identifying himself with all the great poets of antiquity. His Muse is not one of the nine who dwelt on Mount Olympus, but is “heavenly born.” Milton is alluding to the Holy Spirit, the Muse of Moses and the prophets, who inspired the Scriptures.
In adhering to the epic convention, Milton depicts the vast settings of heaven, earth, and hell. The poem also includes the regions of Chaos that Satan later travels through on his way to earth. The distance from hell to heaven is, the poet says, “from the center thrice to the utmost pole.” The setting of the poem stretches throughout the universe.
In the introductory lines of book 1, Milton exemplifies the grand style and exalted tone traditional to the epic, declaring to the Muse that he will pursue “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” With elevated language, thickly plaited with biblical, classical, and geographical allusions, the poet will attempt to glorify and justify the ways of God.
Milton frequently makes use of the device of the expanded epic simile. Satan’s angels are described in a series of superb Homeric similes. “His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced / Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks.” Later the angels are referred to as “a pitchy cloud / Of locusts . . . that hung like night and darkened all the land of Nile.” When Satan waves at them to direct their course, they land on the brimstone and fill the plain. “A multitude, like which the populous North / Poured never from her frozen loins.” The simile alludes to the invasions by the Roman Empire. Each of these three examples is extended to a length of approximately eight to fourteen lines. Another illustration of the epic convention is seen in Milton’s enumeration of Satan’s fallen angels from Moloch to Belial which resembles the epic catalogue in the extended list of ships in Homer’s Iliad.
An epic device common to the poem is the utterance of the long formal speeches by the main characters. In book 1, Satan, lying prostrate on the burning lake, addresses Beelzebub, who is lying next to him. Satan renders a long, unrelenting speech, swearing to avenge God’s actions. Beelzebub answers him in a speech equally as lengthy, mourning his loss of heaven.
Milton’s characterization of Satan has been the subject of much controversy among the critics. The debate has centered around the portrayal of Satan as an attractive figure who rebels against God in his personal ambition for independence. With determination, Satan demonstrates his “courage never to submit or yield,” though he has been hurled by God from the “plains of Heaven.” Satan is admittedly a well-drawn character whose grandiose aspirations involve his own pride. Milton’s appealing delineation of Satan’s character, some commentators say, forces the reader to sympathize and identify with the fallen archangel just as Milton himself does. C. S. Lewis argues, however, that although “Milton has put much of himself into Satan, it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased.” When Satan rises to address his fallen angels in book 1, his attractiveness is still apparent since “his form had not yet lost / All her original brightness.” But throughout the poem, he is seen in a steady degeneration from an archangel who still possesses some of the qualities of his former state in heaven to a completely depraved creature after the fall of Man. Milton also evokes our sympathy for Satan in book 1 when he depicts him weeping for his angels, whose glory has withered since their fall from heaven. When he finally speaks, he is unable to offer much hope. The more he speaks, the more he appears to be damning himself.
Satan’s denial that God created him allows him to consider himself as an equal to the Almighty. In speaking to Beelzebub on the lake of fire, Satan refuses to deify God’s power since he has so recently “doubted his empire.” Satan, while still in heaven, confirms this heretical belief in book 6 when he tries to convince Abdiel to join him in rebellion against God. Abdiel tells Satan that God “made all things, even thee,” but Satan challenges him.
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power.
Satan’s greatest sin is his refusal to see himself as God’s subordinate.
Milton’s consciousness of the natural order, based on the hierarchy of all beings and things, had its beginnings with Aristotle and influenced the ethics of medieval thought. The idea still permeated the plays of Shakespeare in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and would have been readily understood by the people of Milton’s day. In this hierarchy, God was supreme, and all other beings, including the angels, had a superior to whom they owed obedience and an inferior whom they ruled. It extended from God to the lowest animals and even to inanimate objects. When the hierarchy was destroyed, disorder and chaos reigned. Satan’s refusal to recognize his particular place in the hierarchy results in his disobedience to God and the consequent destruction of the natural harmony. Milton’s seventeenth-century readers would have thought it ludicrous for Satan to think that he could rule as an equal to God and his Son in heaven.
The abundance of biblical allusions lends credence to Paradise Lost as a reflection of the authoritative Scriptures. The opening lines allude to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, Moses’s receiving the law on Sinai, Christ’s redemption of mankind, the Holy Spirit as divine inspiration for the Scriptures, and the creation story. Besides the book of Genesis, where the familiar creation and fall are recorded, the poet alludes to fourteen other biblical passages in the first thirteen lines alone.
Although Milton’s care in closely echoing his biblical source is an impressive achievement, he often deviates from that source. There is, for example, no direct biblical statement that affirms Milton’s implication that the fallen angels later became heathen gods.
Osiris, Isis, and Orus, classical Egyptian deities, are not mentioned in the Bible. In the opening lines, Milton follows his biblical source explicitly; however, when he asks the Spirit to instruct him, he says “for thou know’st; Thou from the first / Wast present.” These lines are a combination of two sources that read “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11) and when the earth was “without form and void . . . the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1: 2). For the most part, Paradise Lost has been well received by orthodox Christians knowledgeable about the Bible.