By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 4, 2011

5. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 83-112

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesBook IV
Milton opens with a lament that no one raised a warning of Satan's approach to Eden, but as it turns out, Satan is having his own misgivings, a wee touch of conscience spurred by "the bitter memory / Of what he was, what is, and what must be / Worse." His soliloquy gives him a tragic dimension -- sympathy for the devil. Things weren't really so bad "In that bright eminence" of Heaven -- a deliberate echo of the "bad eminence" to which his merit has raised him in Hell -- because God "with his good / Upbraided none; nor was his service hard." It hasn't been so long since he was proclaiming it better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, but now he's wishing that God had made him "some inferior Angel. I had stood / Then happy; no unbounded hope had rais'd / Ambition." But now there's no escaping what he is:
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.
Satan struggles with his conscience, by Gustave Doré, 1866

This is a long way from the claim that the mind can create a Heaven of Hell. And now he is even tempted to repent, except that he chokes on the very word "submission" and moreover is afraid of losing face: "my dread of shame / Among the Spirits beneath." He's also afraid that he wouldn't be able to maintain a vow of repentance, that the "wounds of deadly hate have pierc'd so deep: / Which would but lead me to a worse relapse, / And heavier fall."

And so he commits another deadly sin: sloth, or acedia, which is the spiritual version of sloth, the unwillingness to rouse oneself to the effort of betterment.
So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear,
Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav'n's King I hold
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.
During his soliloquy, Uriel has been watching as "ire, envy and despair ... marr'd his borrow'd visage," i.e., he no longer looks like the "stripling Cherub" he had disguised himself as.
Satan looks down on Eden, by Gustave Doré, 1866

So he reaches Eden, and it's a touch of Miltonic irony that we see the earthly paradise first through Satan's eyes. Its pleasures are so great that they are "able to drive / All sadness but despair," and Satan's chief mood at the moment is despair. He makes it easily over the walls of the garden, and "So clomb this first grand Thief into God's Fold," a line whose thudding monosyllables contrast with the mellifluousness of the description of the garden itself. He turns into a cormorant and perches on top of the Tree of Life for a good view. "Our Death the Tree of Knowledge grew fast by, / Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill."
"A happy rural seat of various view," by Gustave Doré, 1866

Milton's description of the garden has been criticized by some for a lack of sensory detail, for over-general descriptions such as "Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks grazing the tender herb." It's true that there is much conventional pastoral imagery throughout, but to my ear the lines are musical and flowing. And finally we get to the famous description by negative, the passage in which Milton tells us that Eden surpassed all the great gardens of classical myth:
                                             Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
Was gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th' inspir'd
Castalian Spring might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive; nor that Nyseian Isle
Girt with the River Triton, where old Cham,
Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Lybian Jove,
Hid Amalthea and her florid Son,
Young Bacchus, from his Stepdame Rhea's eye;
Nor where Abassin Kings thir issue Guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some suppos'd
True Paradise under the Ethiop Line
By Nilus head, enclos'd with shining Rock,
A whole day's journey high, but wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:
 Milton alludes to classical legends that his readers would know, reaping the benefits of allusion by claiming that his garden is the superior to all these. The story of Proserpina carried off to the underworld also foreshadows the story of Eve. And the introduction of Satan, the fiend who sees all delight but is undelighted by it, is a smart dramatic trick that puts an end to the extended passage about Eden.
Adam and Eve in the Garden, by Gustave Doré, 1866
Adam and Eve, by William Strang, 1896

And here we get our first glimpse of Adam and Eve, as well as our first irritating reference to Eve's inferiority to Adam:
Whence true autority in men; though both
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd;
For contemplation hee and valor form'd,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him
St. Paul's sexism is much to blame here, even in the fact that Adam's hair "manly hung / Clust'ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad" -- Paul asserted that long hair was a "shame unto" a man but "a glory unto" a woman. Of course, if God had created the sexes equal, then he wouldn't have provided Satan with such a nice target in Eve. But I doubt that all but the most orthodox Christians can read the lines about Eve today without feeling at best a twinge of annoyance.

Nor is it possible to read the lines about these naked gardeners strolling "hand in hand" (a motif for the two that persists even to the very end of the poem) without feeling that one has strolled into some kind of hippie commune and traveling circus, as the animals gather around to entertain them, though there is still some charm lingering in "th' unwieldy Elephant / To make them mirth us'd all his might and wreath'd / His Lithe Proboscis." Milton swiftly undercuts this bit of humor by introducing "the Serpent sly / Insinuating," though he hasn't yet been put to ill use by Satan.

Satan is, of course, upset by the scene, though his first words, "O Hell!" have a comic effect that Milton didn't intend. Adam and Eve are so attractive that even he "could love" the "gentle pair" and "could pity" them because he knows he's about to spoil everything for them. But he swiftly descends into sarcasm about the home he has prepared for them:
                                 my dwelling may not please
Like this fair Paradise, your sense, yet such
Accept your Maker's work; he gave it me,
Which I as freely give; Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring
But don't thank him for the lodgings: "Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge / On you who wrong me not for him who wrong'd." It's all God's fault. (He does have a point, you know. For an omnipotent, loving God, He sure does complicate things.) Satan views himself as a conquistador, "Honor and Empire with revenge enlarg'd, / By conquering this new World."
Satan eavesdrops on Adam and Eve, engraving by Francis Hayman, 1749
William Blake, 1808

So now he disguises himself as various animals to get closer to Adam and Eve and overhear Adam going on (and on) to Eve about how great God is for giving them this lovely place, and asking nothing more than that they prune a few shrubs and sweep up a few fallen petals and branches. And of course blabbermouth that he is, Adam also has to tell Eve something that she probably already knew: that they are forbidden "to taste that only Tree / Of Knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life, / So near grows Death to Life, whate'er Death is, / Some dreadful thing no doubt." Charming as that last phrase is, you do have to wonder why the word "dreadful" is even in the vocabulary of these pampered babies.

Eve responds to Adam's speech by praising him, though not without echoing a little Pauline misogyny:
                                             O thou for whom
And from whom I was form'd flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head, what thou hast said is just and right.
But then she talks mostly about herself, and how, on the day when she was created she looked into a pool and saw her own reflection: "I started back, / It started back, but pleas'd I soon return'd, / Pleas'd it return'd as soon with answering looks / Of sympathy and love." Fortunately, a "voice" tells her to stop with the narcissism and leads her to Adam, to whom she will "bear / Multitudes like thyself." And under a plane tree she finds him, "and from that time see / How beauty is excell'd by manly grace / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair."

Satan is annoyed by all this lovey-doveyness, not because it does get a bit too cloying, but because there's nothing like it in Hell, "Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire, / Among our other torments not the least, / Still unfulfil'd with pain of longing pines." But he has managed to overhear the crucial part about the Tree of Knowledge, and it puzzles him (perhaps as it puzzles us):
                                      Knowledge forbidd'n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord
Envy them that? can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they only stand
By Ignorance, is that thir happy state,
The proof of thir obedience and thir faith? 
It's a real conundrum, but unfortunately he also recognizes the opportunity: "O fair fundation laid whereon to build / Thir ruin!" He'll tell them it's a plot to keep them in their place.
Uriel warns Gabriel, by Gustave Doré, 1866

As night comes on, Uriel reports to Gabriel what he has seen -- someone sinister in disguise -- and Gabriel promises to keep an eye out. And with that Uriel rides down a sunbeam below the horizon, "whither the prime Orb, / Incredible how swift, had thither roll'd / Diurnal, or this less volubil Earth / By shorter flight to th' East." Once again, Milton hedges his bets on whether the universe is heliocentric or geocentric.

Meanwhile, Adam is off on another lecture about how "Man hath his daily work of body or mind / Appointed, which declares his Dignity." And Eve says, okay, whatever you say: "God is thy Law, thou mind: to know no more / Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise." But after talking about how wonderful everything is, she has a question about the stars: "But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom this glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?" Eve is the questioner, the seeker after knowledge. Adam plays the know-it-all again, explaining that the stars are there to keep Night from regaining "Her old possession, and extinguish life," and that anyway "Millions of spiritual Creatures walk the Earth / Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep." So they retire to their bower and indulge in "the Rites / Mysterious of connubial Love," which Milton, the author of a pamphlet on divorce, now celebrates somewhat defensively.
Ithuriel and Zephon go to check on Adam and Eve in the bower, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Ithuriel and Zephon discover Satan as a toad, whispering to Eve, William Blake, 1808

Meanwhile, Gabriel is commissioning some angels, Uzziel, Ithuriel, and Zephon, to look out for this suspicious master of disguise. And sure enough, the last two find him "Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve." Ithuriel touches the toad lightly with his spear and it explodes instantly into the figure of Satan. (Milton exhibits a cinematic imagination here, likening Satan's transformation to the "sudden blaze" of "a heap of nitrous Powder" touched by a spark.) Ithuriel and Zephon conduct him to Gabriel. Satan is a bit abashed by the fact that in comparison to these angels his own "lustre" is "visibly impaired," but he bluffs it out anyway. When Gabriel asks him why he's here, Satan treats it as a stupid question:
To whom thus Satan, with contemptuous brow,
Gabriel, thou hadst in Heav'n th' esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question askt
Puts me in doubt. Lives there who loves his apin?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doom'd?
Gabriel is unfazed, and points out that Satan got caught and is in danger of having his pains increased "Sevenfold." And anyway, why did he come alone: "wherefore with thee / Came not all Hell broke loose?" Satan sasses back that if Gabriel knew anything about real leadership he'd know that you don't send an army on a mission that you haven't first reconnoitered. To which Gabriel retorts that first Satan claimed to be fleeing from pain and then to be a spy, which "Argues no Leader, but a liar trac't." If he shows up here again, Gabriel says, "Back to th' infernal pit I drag thee chain'd, / And Seal thee so, as henceforth not to scorn / The facile gates of hell too slightly barr'd."

Everybody bristles now, and it looks like a standoff that might result in the destruction of Paradise if it explodes again into war. But God "Hung forth in Heav'n the golden Scales" and "in these he put two wights / The sequel each of parting and of fight; / The latter quick up flew, and kickt the beam." Gabriel points out that the odds are against Satan, so he "fled / Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night."  
Satan flees murmuring, by Gustave Doré, 1866

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