Paradise Lost, Book IX (John Milton)
Paradise Lost tells the story of Satan being thrown out of heaven, his descent into hell, his tempting of Eve, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. All is not lost, however, for Christ can deliver people from their fallen state. What is the purpose and point of such a story? The purpose is simple: we live in a fallen world where sin and death exist. The poem sets out to illustrate how there is a divine order in life. To express this in even briefer terms: Paradise Lost is a poem about God’s love in a world where sin and death exist. If the intention of the poem is as clear as this, however, you might wonder why Milton has written such an immensely long poem; The answer is that the poem gas a clear-cut purpose, but it is also a complex purpose, for Milton desires to do justice to the immense complexity of experience.
The poem is an epic, which is a poem that sets out to confront and make sense of the whole of experience. It, therefore, has to be immense in its range, so the port’s ambition is huge; for he attempts to present a coherent view of life in which he seeks to explain the order, in this case, a divine order, in the whole of experience. The manner, in which Milton fulfils these ambitious goals, if he does indeed fulfil them, should start to become clear as we look at the opening of the poem.
Look for a central opposition in the poem
Then take a very quick look at a passage from book IX. The poem opens as follows:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste………
This opening sentence of the poem is sixteen lines long, and it is obviously an immensely complicated sentence. It is just this kind of complication of structure, and the difficulty of grasping all that is being said, that can confuse or alienate the reader encountering Paradise Lost for the first time. First, though we need to look for opposition in the hope that this will enable us to identify the central theme in the poem. It is, in fact, not all that difficult, as Milton does state his theme fairly directly here. Milton is going to look at the problems of disobedience, sin and death. And he immediately provides us with the solution: the ‘greater Man’ he refers to is Christ, and it is Christ who will restore us to the kingdom of heaven. We might worry about death but we can feel secure in the knowledge of God’s love. A few lines later Milton tells us that he hopes to justify the ways of God to man: the same note is struck again, therefore, that he will examine and explain God’s divine plan for the world.
Initially, it appears to be a baffling and taxing sentence. The point to grasp is that the complication of the structure is part of the meaning of the poem: the sentence goes on and on, bewildering us with a sense of the complexity of the world. It is only by the most astonishing effort that Milton manages to impose overall control on the diverse materials of this sentence. And in that, we have, in miniature, a sense of what the poem as a whole is going to be like and what it is going to be about. On the one hand, the poem will consistently expand and become more complicated, giving an immense vision of the complex nature of experience. Yet we shall always be conscious of the poet managing to exert his authority and control. Milton does not give himself an easy ride; however, the poem maintains a sense of the world’s disorder, which is complex and confusing enough to challenge Milton’s desire to find and impose coherence. The poem might set out to justify the ways of God to men, but the approach Milton adopts involves presenting such a complex’ sense of experience that any greater truth he reveals will have to encompass and contain all those complex facts about life and the history of mankind.
Begin to look at the details of the poem, trying to see how the poet brings his theme to life.
The principal events in Book I of Paradise Lost are Satan’s rallying of the fallen angles after their defeat by God and his declaration that he will fight against God in every possible way. As Satan is so central in Book I, it obviously makes sense to look at him here.
Let us look, then, at these adjective-and-noun phrases. On one level they clearly reflect disorder: they refer to the serpent, war, ruin and perdition. It would be hard to envisage a more extreme list of problems and woes. There is, however, a force pulling in the opposite direction: the regularity with which Milton supplies an appropriate descriptive adjective for the noun suggests a writer who is imposing some kind of regularity and control upon his materials. This becomes even more obvious if we think about the predictability adjective-noun combination every couple of lines is to suggest an author who has got the measure of even the most extreme problems. It is as if the truth is encapsulated in received phrases and that Milton can exert order and control over even the most extreme concepts.
In essence, then, we have a picture of Satan who is the embodiment of evil and disorder, but also a sense of a writer who has got the measure of this evil force. And there are other ways in which Milton reveals his control. There is, for example, a confident and comprehensive listing of Satan’s faults, all of which centre in the one area of sins of immoderation and lack of discipline: we are told that he is guilty, envy, revenge, pride ambition.
It is, however, a fairly precarious control, for the disorderly forces are so strong. In addition, there is also a sense of a very large universe that Milton is attempting to make sense.
Again, however, we might return to the question of whether there is a real tension in the poem, for God and Milton seem so firmly in control. Yet there is always. I feel a sense of Satan as so powerful that he seems almost too big and powerful to control. We might be aware of Milton’s control. But we are also aware of Satan’s force. These senses of his force and indeed of other aspects of his personality become more apparent as we look at a passage.
My impression is that a fairly favourable image of Satan comes across from these lines. We can almost sympathise with rebels who have been flung into a ‘dreary plain, forlorn and wild’, words as he refuses to accept defeat. He is, of course, the incarnation of evil and entirely motivated by hate, and in a way, his words graphically reveal such shortcomings, but none the less this is someone who leads, speaks to and inspires his forces in terms we can understand.
Can this, however, be a correct view of the poem? Are we really meant to sympathies with Satan? I think we are meant to see some admirable qualities in him, for it the poem is going to work we must be allowed to feel the strength of the force that works against God’s order. The poem comes to life because we feel that there is a real tension. The presentation of Satan makes us feel that the force of Satan, including the tempting power of his speech, can barely be contained. A question that sometimes comes up in relation to Paradise Lost is whether Satan in the sense that his refusal to submit to God’s authority is courageous, even heroic and that he is, therefore, a comprehensible character- unlike God, who must appear as an abstract and inhuman force. To suggest that Satan is the hero, however, is to impose too neat and reductive a reading on the poem. Rather than pursue the point at this stage, though, it should prove more productive if we discuss it in the light of further extract.
Look at another section of the poem, trying to see how the poem is progressing. It is quite possible that question about Satan’s heroic qualities might be sent in the exam. You could agree, and argue that he is courageous, or you could condemn his as utterly evil. Or, and this is the approach that I am taking, you could argue that the poem makes him attractive while at the same time condemning him. The great danger in answering such a question, however, is trying to prove your case merely from an account of the vent and actions in the story. For an answer really to work- and this would apply to any question about Paradise Lost -you must prove you’re your case from the actual evidence of the words of the poem. This is not too difficult, as all you need to do is select a short extract for close attention. Any passage in which Satan appears or speaks should provide you with plenty to say. For example, here are some more lines where he addresses his troops:
This is another inspiring speech from Satan. He talks of freedom and obviously prefers freedom in hell to servitude in heaven. Yet his words can also be viewed from another perspective: he begins by talking about how, ‘We shall be free’, but within these few lines has shifted from this general concern for all his followers and is merely concerned with his own position as the leader who will ‘reign in hell’. The same double-sided quality is also apparent in the very sound and texture of his words; his words can appear elevated, dignified and heroic, but they can also be judged as empty bombast. At times the manner of his speech almost resembles a salesman’s clever play with words.
Milton cannot present a story in which he just provides a simple sense of God’s providential order at work in existence. We have to be allowed to feel all the snarled complexity of life. And this should help us in understanding the tremendous complexity of the poem, such things as the range of reference and the complex structure of sentences. All these features help enact a sense of a diverse and complex world that is difficult to comprehend, let alone control. Yet we should also always be able to feel a precarious, elaborate control in the sentences and verse paragraphs of the poem as Milton, by a kind of superhuman effort, just manages to impose control. In reading the poem, you will not be going wrong if you feel that everything is so big that it is just about running out of control, but do also try to see how Milton does manage to hold everything together. Potentially everything is chaotic, yet there is simultaneously a strong sense of order always in evidence.
Look at how the poem concludes
Milton departs from the everyday construction, and by doing so conveys a sense of something special that surpasses everyday concerns. The lines convey to us an impression of throbbing, restless energy, of a great force that is going to rise up against God and provoke tremendous unrest.
Yet look at the same time at all the rather sly ways in which Milton makes these rebels seem, petty and insignificant. He compares them to bees swarming, and as they make themselves small so that they can all be contained in one place. Milton seizes the opportunity to refer to them as dwarfs and pygmies. The effect, as always, is that we feel the scale of the problem that is being confronted in the poem yet also feel that Milton has a larger sense of a divine order in which all challenges to God’s authority just become a part of God’s larger plan for the world.
Sum up your sense of the poem as a whole, and your sense of the writer so far. What we have seen in Book I of Paradise Lost is how, as in all the greatest poetry, there is a wavering tension between a sense of the complexity and disorder of the world and a sense of order that the poet explores, seeks or perceives in experience. The disorderly fact is that we live in a fallen world; the answer, the source of order, is God.
Yet the mention of God, and the ease with which, in that last extract we considered, the rebels are scorned, might well make us wonder again whether there is really an uneasy tension in the poem. It could be argued that Milton makes Satan just appealing enough to make the poem interesting, but that he is very firmly in control all the time, confidently and consistently justifying the ways of God to men. The thing is, however, that when we read the poem I think we do feel the strength of the forces that are pulling in the opposite direction, and do feel that Milton is having to go to extreme lengths, just as his sentences often became extremely long, to hold everything together.
In addition, at perhaps the most crucial point in the whole poem, it could be argued that God’s order is questioned and possibly rejected. In Book IX, Eve is tempted by the serpent and tastes the forbidden fruit. She then tells Adam.
I think this is a wonderful passage, as we see Adam’s consternation, his turning in on himself and examination of his feelings, and his decision that his commitment to Eve must stand before even his commitment to God. In a poem that is so often cosmic in its range of reference and so often convoluted in its sentences, there is something strikingly beautiful in the plain simplicity of a line such as ‘How can I live without there………’. It is, then, an appealing passage, but I think also a very important one, for it does seem that personal commitment here surpasses even religious commitment. It could even be argued that, in a poem that sets out to justify the ways of God to men, this particular moment in the poem justifies the ways of men to God as it shows that, for Adam, human love is more important than divine love. That is not the last word that could be offered on this extract; it could be argued, for example, that this is again all part of a larger order in the poem. But the point I am concerned to make here is the point I have been making all along, that there is a’ tension at the heart of poetry and very often it is the case that this tension will not be resolved, what we shall come away from a poem with a sense of the complexity of experience set against the poet’s desire to establish a sense of order in experience.
There is much more that could be said about Paradise Lost, as of course, there is much more that could be said about all the poets, that I have discussed in this book. In particular, when you study a poet in detail you will want to consider his or her works in context, you will want to see how they relate to and reflect the period in which they were written. And you will need to go into a poet’s works in far greater detail than I have managed to do in this book. None the less, you should find that the kind of approach I have illustrated should enable you to make a solid start on the work of any writer. There is, however, one further issue that I still need to consider. English is a subject where you have to write essays. Your understanding of a writer will always be wasted if you are incapable of writing a good essay, and it is therefore to the topic of essay writing that I turn in the final chapter.