Close Reading: John Milton Paradise Lost, Book 1, Lines 1-83
Although his source of inspiration (the Holy Spirit) and subject matter is greater than those stories attempted in the past, he humbly acknowledges his debt as he reinvents the epic convention from a Protestant Christian perspective.
Close Reading, Colloquial Paraphrase, and Analysis
Of Mans 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 Heav'nly 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 Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA'S Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
O Divine Muse, sing about man’s first disobedience and the fruit of the forbidden tree, whose fatal taste brought death into the world and caused mankind’s woe and the loss of Eden, until Christ restored us, and regained Heaven, that on Mount Sinai inspired the shepherd Moses, who first taught the Jews in the beginning how the heavens and earth came out of Chaos: or, if Mount Zion appeals more to you, and the spring near the Temple where Christ cured a blind man (NAoEL page 1818, footnote #4); I therefore ask for your aid to my epic poem, that doesn’t intend to go only halfway, but instead will soar over the Helicon, the home of the classical muses (NAoEL page 1818, footnote #5), and surpass Homer and Virgil in my attempt to do things as of yet not done in prose or rhyme.
John Milton, in recounting the Fall of Man, invokes the classical Muse, an epic convention used by great pagan poets such as Homer and Virgil; however, he specifically mentions that the Muse he calls is the one that inspired Moses to speak to the Israelites, so he means the Holy Spirit. Milton demonstrates no false modesty, as he knows this will be an awe-inspiring work surpassing those of Homer, Virgil, Dante, et cetera, whose format he knows and has mastered.
Similar in gravity to the Book of Genesis from the Bible, the opening also echoes ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry in its form. Although his source of inspiration (the Holy Spirit) and subject matter is greater than those stories attempted in the past, he humbly acknowledges his debt as he reinvents the epic convention from a Protestant Christian perspective. Milton uses Biblical mountains and streams to replace the favorite haunts of the classical Muses. He not only compares himself to past epic poets, but also places Adam, his arguably primary character, above others.
He makes a pun on the word “fruit” as both a consequence and the cause of Adam and Eve’s descent from grace. A monotheist who believed that all things came out of God, Milton borrowed ideas from Plato and Hesiod in the concept of unformed matter, or Chaos. Ariosto's Orlando Furioso canto 1, stanza 2 must bear some sarcasm in line 16 from Milton.
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 satst 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 highth of this great Argument
I may assert th' Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
And mainly you, O Holy Spirit, who prefers above all temples the righteous and pure heart, instruct me, because you know; from the beginning you were present, and spreading your wings, dove-like sat brooding on the chaos and impregnated it: what in me is dark make illuminated, what is low raise up and support; so that I can raise this great subject to the highest heights and assert Eternal Providence, justifying what God does so man can understand.
Lines 17-18 recalls to mind Christ’s comments and parables in the New Testament on how God would rather a man genuinely repent and love him than the outward show of propriety. The image of a dove comes from John 1:32, in which the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove. Apparently Milton’s translation from the Hebrew of “brooding” is better than the commonly read “moved upon the face of the waters.”
We are to imagine that this divine bird-like creature, both powerful and gentle, made chaos pregnant. Milton here requests God to improve in him what is base and to make him worthy of this great self-appointed task, to create an epic for the English language as Virgil for the Romans and Homer for the Greeks, but better. He asks that his perception be corrected from what is wrong so as to best explain God to mankind.
He wishes to explain the reasons for God’s actions, heretofore inscrutable to man, so that the latter will understand Him. The regularity of the iambic pentameter indicate the overall order of a God-ordained universe; as well, as Milton was blind when he composed Paradise Lost, the consistency may have assisted him in “seeing” the form and shape of the poem, in a way he could not have done with free style verse.
Say first, for Heav'n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov'd our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour'd of Heav'n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?
Who first seduc'd them to that fowl revolt?
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankinde, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal'd the most High,
If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.
First say, because Heaven doesn’t hide anything from you, nor does the deep depths of Hell, first say what made Adam and Eve in their pure and happy state, so privileged by Heaven, to become estranged from their Creator, and go against his will because of one forbidden thing, although they were in charge of the world otherwise, who first tempted them to rebel against God? The Hellish Serpent; it was he whose terrible cleverness aroused envy and thoughts of revenge, deceived Eve, after his arrogance had caused him to be thrown out of Heaven, with his followers of rebel angels, with whose help he wanted to set himself above his fellows, and hoped to equal God himself; and with this ambitious goal against God’s authority he agitated an unholy war in Heaven and fought vainly. God threw him flaming from the divine Heavens in miserable ruins to Hell, there to exist in chains of extreme hardness and punishing fire, he who dared to defy God with violent intentions.
The first phrase of this section echoes Homer’s request to the Muse in the Illiad. Milton questions what could cause mankind’s parents to sin, as they only had one thing forbidden to them; besides that, they were the lords of the earth. According to the Bible, Satan beguiled them to sin, much like he incited a third of the angels to revolt against God’s authority.
The poet tells the story of Lucifer’s fall because he dared to think himself equal to God and tried to take Heaven’s throne from Him by force. God, being God, tossed him into Hell for his presumption. Hell is described as a flaming pit, a lake of fire without light. The battle in this story is that of the ultimate struggle of good against evil, God against Satan. The lofty tone in the epic and blank verse scorns such poetic devises as a rhyme scheme as unnecessary trinkets for lesser works.
Milton’s choice of words leaves no doubt as to which side has the cause of Right, although later the reader may question that earlier assumption. Interestingly, Milton refers to Hell as both a state of being, a “bottomless perdition” and an actual place which has a fiery lake of fire, as the character Satan does a little later. Lucifer fell in “hideous ruin” to Hell and became Satan, only a wretched shadow of the being he once was after the destruction of his overly ambitous, rebellious hopes.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Nine times the extent of distance that measures day and night to humans he and his rebel followers lay beaten, falling in Hell confused even though they were immortal: but his doom made him more angry; now the memory of lost happiness and eternal pain tortured him; he rolls his hateful eyes around, eyes that had seen awful and discouraging scenes combined with obstinate pride and everlasting hate. All at once as far as angels can see he views the disheartening situation of godforsaken wastes, a horrible prison, surrounded on all sides by fire, but there was no light from those flames, but instead a visible darkness which only made possible the sights of suffering, places of sorrow, sad shadows, where serenity and rest can’t exist, hope which is in everyone is not here; but only an everlasting torment that continually provokes, and a fiery flood, fed with eternally burning sulfur that doesn’t go out.
The distance that Satan and his rebel followers fell echoes that of the Titans being flung down to Tartarus from Olympus by the victorious gods. Unfortunately for Satan, he recalls his past glory in the paradise of Heaven as Lucifer, in contrast to the horrible state he is in now.
The importance of obedience to God is stressed as a primary theme; first Satan as one of God’s first creations disobeyed Him, then he caused God’s next creation, Man, to disobey Him as well. Hierarchy and a proper order of things must be recognized and followed: God must be first in greatness and purity, then angels, then man, and then lastly, demons headed by Satan. Numerous opposites and contrasts make themselves known in Paradise Lost, including light and dark as motifs. God, good angels, Heaven, and Christ of course are written about with many mentions of light, and the Satan, Hell and the devils with darkness and flame.
Satan’s power does not preclude him from being baffled and at loss, at least momentarily at this abrupt, horrible change in situation. The ever-burning sulfur unconsumed is like the evil in Satan; he lives to cause evil, revels in the results, but can never be satisfied because God will always have the upper hand. All this leads up the story to where it begins, in medeas res, or in the middle of things, like other epic poetry.
So far the reader has been introduced to three places in the Universe: wonderful Heaven, horrible Hell, and a bewildering Chaos. The reader can guess that the next battlefield will be earth, with the souls of Man as the prize. The cosmology of Milton’s Paradise Lost is not necessarily dependent on contemporary science, but rather is only a part of the religious message he wishes to convey.
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n
As from the Center thrice to th' utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell!
There the companions of his fall, o'rewhelm'd
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in PALESTINE, and nam'd
BEELZEBUB. To whom th' Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav'n call'd Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.
Such a place God’s justice had made ready for these rebels, here their dungeon ordered in complete darkness, and their just desserts placed as far from God and the light of Heaven as from the center three times to the furthest pole, O how different from the place from which they fell! There his rebel comrades, overcome with floods and whirlwinds of tumultuous fire, Satan soon found, and rolling in the waves by his side, one close to him in power and in transgression, known for a long time after in Palestine, called Beelzebub. To him Satan, named that thereafter in Heaven, with daring words broke the terrible silence and thus began.
That God was so prepared for Satan’s attempted coup that he even had Hell waiting to receive Satan is an obvious indication of God’s omnipotence, but Satan apparently fails to take note of the futility of defying Him. Milton like earlier epic poets wrote on the subject of an age long past, but his thematic matter consisted of the ultimate time and place gone forever—Paradise Lost, the “first and greatest of all wars (between God and Satan) and the first and greatest of all love stories (between Adam and Eve)” (NAoEL Paradise Lost Introduction p 1816).
Clearly he meant to excel in every literary area. Typically an epic consists of a long narrative written in several books (usually 12 or 24). The literary work’s epic quality comes from the extent of the scope the author has set out to write in exploring a moment of a particular civilization in its most important facets. Dramatic exchanges, hyperbolic (or perhaps not so hyperbolic, because this is truly a cosmic fight) descriptions and lengthy speeches here not addressed or translated, take up a great deal of the stylistic choices made in the narrative.
Milton very self-consciously uses the material of earlier epics and a considerable array of written work available to show his great learning (which included several languages and a vast amount of reading). He is one of the first major authors we have read who wrote his work to be read, and had access to printed literature. Roughly half of Paradise Lost consists of conversation and meditation, and indicate that they are as important as the great battles that take place.