Last Updated on January 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4737
The poet must now dispense with all the talk about God or angel as the guests of man in paradise, he says. He can no longer indulge them in food and conversation but must now change the epic to a tragic tone. Man will disobey God, and heaven will rebuke man, judging him for bringing sin, death, and misery into the world. Though it is a “sad task,” it has a more heroic theme than those of prior epics dealing with the wrath of Achilles (the Iliad), the anger of Neptune against Odysseus (the Odyssey), and Juno’s hostility toward Aeneas, Cytherea’s son (the Aeneid), along with the anger of Turnus for the loss of Lavinia in the same epic. He hopes to obtain a style equal to the dignity of his theme from the inspiration of his heavenly muse, who visits him nightly. The subject for his epic, Milton says, was chosen long ago, but he began composing it much later. It is not his nature to write about wars, the only theme that has been regarded as worthy for the heroic epic. He feels the same way about detailed accounts of “gorgeous knights” in jousting tournaments that are “long and tedious” while their true “heroic martyrdom” is left unsung. He is confident that his higher theme will be sufficient to raise his epic poem to the heroic level unless people in his historical period do not accept his poem. The cold climate, thought to be unfavorable to the mind, or his old age might keep him from finishing his intended work, but he looks to his muse to continue her nightly visits and prevent these things from happening.
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Satan, who had been driven from Eden by Gabriel, returns eight days later and enters paradise through an underground channel of the Tigris River. Rising up through a fountain, Satan finds himself next to the Tree of Life. Afraid of being caught under the watchful eye of Uriel, angel of the sun, he has fled for seven continual nights, always careful to keep himself within the shadow of the earth. He has searched the earth for a creature that would be a “fit vessel” for his fraudulent temptation of Adam and Eve and finally decides that he will enter the body of a serpent who would subtly hide his “diabolic power.”
Before he disguises himself as the serpent, Satan, overcome with “inward grief,” speaks to the earth with “bursting passion,” mourning his lost state in heaven. The earth is like heaven, if not better, Satan says, for God built it second, “reforming what was old!” Satan sees the earth at the center of the universe with all the “officious lamps” shining for its benefit. The light of the sun and stars produces plants and animals all the way up the scale of nature to man. It would be delightful to walk the earth, he says. He regrets that he cannot find refuge in the pleasures of paradise and is tormented by its contrast to his own existence. He suddenly remembers, however, that he does not wish to dwell in heaven nor on earth unless he can reign over the supreme God. He can, in fact, only find peace by destroying, and it is man he intends to destroy.
For marring in one day what it took God six days to create, Satan will be given the sole glory among his “infernal Powers” in hell. He feels it was out of God’s spite to the fallen angels that he later created man to replace them. The greatest indignity is that the angels have been subjected to man’s service by guarding him in paradise. It is these guards that he now dreads as he looks under every bush to find the sleeping serpent so that he can hide in his “mazy folds.” He feels completely humiliated that he, who once sat with the highest God, is now incarnated in the shape of a beast. He admits that he is paying the price for his past ambition to aspire to the height of deity. Revenge, though sweet at first, will eventually become bitter. Since God made man out of the dust to spite Satan and his angels, however, he must repay spite with spite. He finds the serpent sleeping on the “grassy herb” and enters at his mouth.
In the morning Adam and Eve join the “choir of creatures” without human voice and add their “vocal worship” in praise to the creator. Their discussion then leads them to their work for the day. Eve suggests to Adam that they “divide their labors,” since they could get more work accomplished if they were not distracted with each other’s conversation and smiles. Though her proposal is admirable in a woman, Adam says, God has not imposed labor so strictly that he would not allow them to talk or smile to refresh each other. Smiles flow from reason and are, therefore, denied to animals. Until they have children who would be able to help them, they can easily keep their paths and bowers from becoming overgrown. He acknowledges, however, that she might be satiated with too much conversation, so he could allow her a “short absence,” which sometimes makes the return even sweeter. He is troubled that harm will come to her, though, since they have already been warned by Raphael about the “malicious foe” that lurks in paradise. He urges Eve not to leave his side. Eve tells him she overheard the angel’s warning about their enemy and has heard Adam say the same, but she cannot believe that her husband would expect her “firm faith and love” to be shaken by Satan’s fraudulent seductions.
To soothe Eve’s hurt feelings, Adam answers her with comforting words. It is Satan’s attempt that Adam wants to avoid, since even that can dishonor her. Adam is confident that the enemy would not dare to assault both of them at once. If he dared, he would surely assault Adam first. The enemy must be subtle if he could seduce angels.
Our foe will not dishonor us, Eve says, but will only turn his foulness on himself. Faith, love, and virtue are of no value if they have not been tested and found to be strong enough to stand on their own worth. God has not given them happiness so frail that either one of them could not stand alone. Adam replies that Man’s danger lies within himself, and he can “receive no harm” against his own free will. He warns Eve to use reason to govern her will but to be sure it does not appear fair when it is false and “misinforms the will,” causing her to disobey God. They should remind each other often, he says, that reason may “fall into deception.” He tells her that if she wants to confirm her constancy, she should prove her obedience. Though she has been forewarned, he will not keep her against her will.
Eve decides to go, confident that a proud foe would not attack the weaker person. Softly she withdraws her hand from Adam’s and leaves like a wood nymph (oread or dryad) to her groves. Though she looks like the goddess of the hunt (Diana), she is not armed with her bow and quiver for protection but with crude gardening tools instead. Adam bids Eve goodbye with longing looks, reminding her to return to him quickly.
Eve has been much deceived, the poet says. She will never again find the tranquility of paradise, for ambush, in the form of a serpent, lies hidden among the flowers. Since the break of dawn, Satan has been looking for the earthly pair. He hopes to find Eve working separately, and, to his surprise, she is alone. She is gently propping up the roses as the serpent draws near. The garden is more lovely than the classical gardens of Adonis and Alcinous, or the biblical garden of Solomon (the sapient king). The serpent admires the garden but is even more attracted to Eve’s “heavenly form.” Her beauty and “graceful innocence” overpower his malice, and, for a time, he remains stupefied into good and disarmed of hatred and revenge. The feeling soon ends, however, and “fierce hate” returns.
Since his only pleasure is in destroying, Satan vows he will not pass up the opportunity to perpetrate Eve’s ruin and the subsequent death and destruction of all mankind. Though he would shun the intelligence and strength of Adam, Eve is more approachable. He will beguile her with a show of false love since she cannot be “approached by stronger hate.” Satan, within the Serpent, is attempting to attract Eve’s attention as he “curls his wanton wreath in sight of Eve,” but she is too busy to pay attention to the commonplace sounds of the beasts. She finally notices the Serpent when he fawns on her and licks “the ground whereon she trod.” Happy that he has gained her attention, the Serpent speaks with flattery, telling her that all living things are gazing at her “celestial beauty.” She should be “universally admired,” the Serpent says, but here, in this enclosure, she is seen by only one man when she should be adored as a goddess and served by angels.
Eve is surprised to hear a serpent speak, since the gift of speech was reserved only for humans on the day of God’s creation. She asks him to explain this miracle. Addressing Eve as the “Empress of this fair World,” the tempter tells her that he was just like all the other beasts until one day he came upon a tree whose “alluring fruit” filled him with a “sharp desire.” The other beasts could not reach it, but he wound himself around the trunk, plucked the fruit, and ate his fill. He soon felt a “strange alteration” in his ability to reason and became capable of human speech, though he retained the shape of a serpent. Flattering Eve, he tells her that of all things “fair and good” in heaven and earth, he has found nothing that is equivalent or even comes second to her beauty.
Unwary of the Serpent’s deception, Eve asks him to guide her to the tree though she feels his praise is excessive. With a sense of fraudulent hope and joy, the Serpent leads Eve to the Tree of Knowledge. When they arrive, Eve tells him he has wasted his time since God commanded that this is the “tree we may not taste nor touch.” The Serpent acts surprised that God should have declared Adam and Eve lords of all the Earth yet forbidden them to eat the fruit. Eve repeats God’s command, but the Tempter argues with bold persuasion, telling Eve not to believe God’s threats of death. The Serpent has “touched and tasted,” yet he has not died. If God were just, he would not hurt them. He has put this prohibition on Adam and Eve because he is afraid they will become “as Gods.” If the Serpent, who was a beast, can rise to the level of “brute human,” they can be raised to “human Gods,” he says. In this way they will die to their humanity and live as Gods. It is God’s envy that keeps them in subjection to him, the Serpent says.
The Serpent’s words that seem reasonable and truthful win an “easy entrance” into Eve’s heart. She gazes longingly at the tempting fruit as noon draws near and stimulates her “eager appetite.” The Serpent has shown that eating the fruit did not cause him to die but made him wise instead. She rationalizes her natural desires, seeing the fruit as a cure-all. With “her rash hand” she picks the fruit and eats. Nature then sighed, the poet says, and “gave signs of woe, / That all was lost.”
The guilty Serpent slips back into the thicket, but Eve, with Godhead in her thoughts, does not notice as she gorges herself with the fruit. She worships the tree like a god and promises to sing praises to it each morning. Heaven is “high and remote,” and she reasons that God might have been too distant or, perhaps, too busy to notice her evil deed. She deliberates about what she should tell Adam. She considers keeping her new knowledge in her own power and, thereby, render the female sex “more equal,” but wonders whether God, having seen, might punish her with death and present Adam with a new Eve. She resolves to share the fruit and her new knowledge with Adam, which will cause him to die with her.
Meanwhile, Adam waits anxiously for her return with a garland of flowers for her hair. He has misgivings, however, and goes out to meet her, finding her coming from the Tree of Knowledge with a bough of fruit in her hand. Approaching Adam apologetically, she tells him she has missed him and will never again leave his side. Something strange and wonderful has happened in his absence, however. Contrary to what they have been told, she says, the Serpent has eaten from the forbidden tree and has not died but has taken on human speech and reason instead. He has persuaded her to eat, and she feels the “divine effect,” which is close to Godhead. Her cheeks are flushed with guilt and falsehood as she tells Adam she has done it chiefly for him. She offers him the fruit to eat so that they will be equal in degree.
Horror runs through Adam’s veins when he hears Eve’s story. Dumbfounded, he lets Eve’s garland wreath drop from his hands as the faded roses shed from the effects of Eve’s fall. Realizing the seriousness of her sinful act, he curses the enemy who has tricked her. He decides immediately that he must die with her, since he could not bear to live without her again in the forlorn woods. Even if God gave him another Eve, he could never overcome the loss. Eve is part of his flesh and bone, and he will not part with her.
Resigned to the inevitable, Adam begins to flatter Eve, just as the Serpent had, for being adventurous and bold. What is done cannot be undone, Adam says, and he rationalizes her sin by telling her the Serpent was, after all, the first to profane the fruit by tasting it. Perhaps she will not die, since the Serpent still lives. God, in his infinite power, could create more worlds, but he would not allow Satan to triumph over him by crediting him with a second fall.
Overjoyed with Adam’s decision, Eve tells him from her own experience that he will not die, but his life will be augmented with new hope. Weeping for joy, she embraces him as she offers him the “enticing fruit.” With no scruples, he eats against his “better knowledge” as he is “overcome with female charm.” Nature gave a second groan, the poet says, as thunder shook the earth, and the sky wept over Adam’s mortal sin.
Acting as if they are intoxicated, Adam and Eve feel lust for each other for the first time. He leads her to a shady bank, and “there they fill of love and love’s disport / Took largely.” When they become weary with “amorous play,” they fall asleep. When they awake from their restless sleep, they realize their loss of innocence and are overcome with guilt, shame, and awareness of their nakedness. Adam is like Samson who, betrayed by Delilah, has been “shorn of his strength.” Adam blames Eve for listening to the “false worm” who promised them knowledge of good and evil. They have lost their good and are now evil, he says, which leaves them void of honor and purity. Their loss of innocence has left them aware of their nakedness that they desperately attempt to cover with large leaves from a variety of the fig tree.
Though they have partly covered their shame, their minds are not at ease. For the first time their passion is in subjection to their reason as anger and mistrust comes between them. Adam blames Eve for not listening to him when she wanted them to work separately. Eve, in turn, blames Adam, the head, for not commanding her to stay if he knew the danger was so great. If Adam had been there, she says, he could not have discerned fraud in the Serpent any more than she could.
Incensed, Adam asks her whether this is the thanks he gets for choosing death rather than life after her fall. He had warned her of the danger of the lurking enemy, he says, and if he had forced her he would have been going against her free will. He has made the mistake of thinking she was perfect, but he sees his error now. This is the way it is when a man lets a woman rule, he says. If she goes her own way and then encounters evil, she will blame him for being weak and indulgent. They go on like this, arguing and accusing each other, but neither person wins.
At the beginning of book 9 (lines 6–12), Milton repeats the theme that was announced in book 1.
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. (book 1, lines 1–4)
The theme bears repeating, since book 9 is central to the narrative, containing the climax of the action, “Man’s first disobedience.” The events preceding the climax are a part of the rising action, gradually heightening our emotional response to Eve’s temptation and fall and the subsequent fall of Adam. All that follows is a direct consequence of this central climactic event. Milton has been preparing us for this event through the conversation between Adam and Raphael in books 5-8. He announces the turning point of the action in book 9 when he explicitly states that “I now must change / Those notes to tragic.” Milton’s account of the fall contains the elements of tragedy put forth by Aristotle in the Poetics. The fall involves two noble human beings, Adam and Eve, who make a tragic choice that is dictated by some flaw in their character. In this case, both of them subject their reason to their passion. We see evidence of this in Eve’s gluttony when she eats the fruit and her vulnerability to the Serpent’s flattery as he gains “too easy entrance” into her heart. Adam also lets his passion sway his judgment when he, in his inordinate passion for Eve, quickly resolves to die with her after her fall rather than go on living without her.
These choices result in a tragic catastrophe, which is Adam and Eve’s loss of immortality and their subsequent expulsion from paradise. The purpose of classical tragedy is to arouse pity and fear in the reader (or the spectator in drama), or in this case, sympathy for Eve when she, with a naive trust in the Serpent, reaches for the fruit. The Serpent’s lies and flattery lead Eve to believe that he is unselfishly sharing his newfound joy with her, and the dramatic irony reaches its peak when she reasons that he is “far from deceit or guile.”
Adam is pitied when he first sees Eve in her lost state. The garland wreath he had prepared for Eve drops from his hands, and the faded roses shed from the effect that Eve’s fall has had on him. He cries out in anguish for his loss. “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defaced, deflowered, and now death devot!” The heavy alliteration lends pathos to the language that, of itself, carries overtones of the fading images of death. We pity him for his loss of Eve, but we are aware that it is not only Eve’s ruin he must face but his own as well. “And me with thee hath ruined, for with thee / Certain my resolution is to die.” When he faces the choice between what is reasonably right in the sight of God and his passionate idolatry of Eve, the “fairest of creation,” Adam chooses to die with Eve.
In classical tragedy, the reader’s emotional conflicts (sins) are resolved by vicariously expending fear and pity on the tragic heroes. In Paradise Lost, the reader feels purged of their sins of passion (pride, gluttony, greed, lust, idolatry) by experiencing them with Adam and Eve and empathizing with the characters.
It is commonly accepted that Milton had begun composing a dramatic version of Paradise Lost by 1642. The composition of the epic was begun around 1658 and published in 1667. Milton himself refers to his procrastination in writing his epic through his “subject for heroic song / Pleased me long choosing.” Though he had written poetry in his early years, most of the writings of his middle years dealt with the political and religious issues of his time. It was not until he was totally blind and retired from political life that he wrote Paradise Lost.
Before entering into the action in book 9, the poet invokes his muse for the fourth time (books 1, 3, 7, 9). He has called forth his muse by such various titles as Heavenly muse, Holy Light, Urania, and now Celestial Patroness. His reference to “her nightly visitation” is reminiscent of the “Nightly” visits of the muse in book 3 (32), where he visits the brooks of Sion or, in other words, reads the Scriptures nightly. In book 9, however, his muse inspires him while he is “slumbering.” His verse is “unpremeditated,” which implies that he gives little forethought to his writing but depends largely on spontaneous inspiration.
Images of light and darkness lend contrast to good and evil in the opening of book 9. In keeping with the poet’s tragic theme in the introduction, the action opens at midnight with information regarding Satan’s whereabouts. He has spent the last seven days in darkness within the shadow of the earth. This alludes to John 4:19. “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Satan finds an “unsuspected way” into paradise as he enters through the underground Tigris River “by stealth.” After his soliloquy he searches for the “wily snake” so that he can disguise himself in its body. “Through each thicket dank or dry, / Like a black mist low creeping, he held on / His midnight search.” The language of the simile reflects the images of darkness and evil: “dank . . . black mist . . . low creeping” and “midnight” suggest a villainous search. Satan finds the snake and enters its body as he waits for the approach of dawn.
By contrast, dawn in paradise, before the fall, breaks with “sacred light” that shines on the scented flowers. In the morning all of God’s creatures come alive with song. This is reminiscent of the “Holy Light” that emanates from God in the opening lines of book 3 (1–3). Milton alludes to the Scriptures where light connotes good and darkness evil. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
In Satan’s soliloquy he is tormented by the same “bursting passion” that plagued him in book 4, although now he feels less penitent. He had admitted that “pride and worse ambition threw me down” (book 4, line 40). In desperation he had cried out “Is there no place / Left for repentance?” (lines 79–80). He had considered repentance but finally realized evil must be his good. He now makes a similar statement. “In destroying I find ease.” In book 4 he had retained at least a semblance of remorse, but now his attitude has deteriorated to complete hopelessness and despair. Though earth is appealing at first, he has no desire to dwell on earth nor in heaven “unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme,” which reminds us of his earlier words, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (book 1, line 264). His only hope is the glory he will receive among his “infernal Powers” in hell for ruining mankind. Since his fall he has slowly been degenerating, and now he has finally taken the form of a serpent. In his soliloquy he expresses his repulsion in his own words.
O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast, and, mixed with bestial slime.
Incarnating himself as a serpent is the lowest step he has reached in his progressive decline.
When Eve leaves against Adam’s advice, to work alone for the day, the poet compares her to Oread, a mountain nymph, or Dryad, a wood nymph, from Greek mythology. She is also seen as Delia, or Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. Though Eve carries herself with Diana’s “goddess-like deport,” she is armed only with “garden tools” rather than the “bow and quiver” of Diana. The analogy is clear. Eve, in her naive simplicity, will not be prepared to meet her foe, the subtle serpent, with only a pair of garden tools. The classical reference to Pales, Pomona, and Ceres, goddesses of flocks, fruits, and agriculture respectively, enriches the setting of the pastoral scene.
The garden spot where Eve decides to work is described as a spot “more delicious than those gardens feigned / Or of revived Adonis.” Milton alludes to the beautiful gardens of Adonis and Alcinous and, at the same time, offers a disclaimer of their beauty or worth by telling us they are “feigned.” “Revived Adonis” was the youth who, having suffered a mortal wound, was allowed to come to Earth to visit Aphrodite for six months every year. Milton places “the sapient king,” King Solomon from the Scriptures, in juxtaposition to the classical allusions to show that Solomon is “not mystic” (mythical) and, therefore, not feigned. In this way he raises the biblical allusions above the level of the heathen, classical ones as he does throughout the epic.
Though Milton follows scriptural authority in the temptation scene (Genesis 3:1–7), he has taken some liberties. It is written in Genesis that “the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field.” Milton elaborates on this passage. Speaking to the Serpent, Eve says, “Thee Serpent, subtlest beast of all the field / I knew, but not with human voice endued.” The Serpent then claims that he is endowed with speech because he has already tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and contrary to what God has told them, he has not died. This is a convincing argument for Eve, though it deviates from the biblical source. In Genesis, Eve takes the Serpent’s ability to speak for granted, and the Serpent does not claim to have eaten the fruit, yet Milton uses these points as the Serpent’s logical argument to persuade Eve of its divine power in attaining Godhead. If he can become “brute human,” the Serpent argues, Eve can become “human God.” Concerning the Tree of Knowledge, Eve tells the Serpent, “Ye shall not eat / Thereof, nor shall ye touch it, lest ye die,” which repeats the biblical account almost verbatim. Both accounts also record the Serpent’s words to Eve, telling her that God is afraid that if she eats the fruit “ye shall be as Gods.” To Milton’s claim that Eve’s “eager appetite” is stimulated because it is the “hour of noon,” there is no parallel in the Scriptures, though Genesis refers to the fruit as being “pleasant to the eyes.” On the whole, the biblical account is much less dramatic and is written with more economy of language, but Milton generally follows the connotations of the Scriptures, as seen from his seventeenth-century vantage point, throughout the epic.
There is a stark contrast between Adam and Eve before the fall and the unhappy, quarreling pair after they have sinned. Their first reaction to the divine fruit leaves them with an intoxicated feeling. Their passion overcomes their reason and develops into “carnal desire inflaming.” He casts “lascivious eyes” on her and “she him / As wantonly repaid.” They burn with lust for each other, but when they awake after their “amorous play,” they experience shame and guilt for the first time. Each one blames the other for their blind disobedience to God as they continue their arguing but find no solutions.
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