Milton's Paradise Lost
You are reading only Book 9 of Milton's epic, and some students have difficulty jumping in at that point. If we had more time, we would spend a full day laying the groundwork, but my hope is that this handout will serve the same purpose. Therefore, here are some important points to keep in mind as you read.
Epic: You ought to read the entry on "epic" in your black handbook (you may also want to read up on "romance" to help you understand how the two genres are similar and different). Like Edmund Spenser, his literary father, who wrote The Faerie Queene, Milton had originally planned to write an Arthurian epic but abandoned the idea in order not to imitate but to overgo all previous epic literature. He will write "Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime" (he will write blank verse, the meter of Shakespeare's tragedies), and telling of the Fall is "Sad task, yet argument / Not less but more Heroic then the wrauth / Of stern Achilles" (see 1.16 and 9.13-15). Similarly, whereas previous poets have written of "fabl'd Knights / In Battels feign'd" (think Spenser), Milton will celebrate "the better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom," which is the heroism of Christ on the cross (9.30-32). Paradise Lost is a Christian epic.
Overview: The first six lines of the poem give a snapshot of Milton's subject:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse.
Here is an overview of history from Eden to Christ's resurrection. On the one hand, Milton's primary subject will be the Fall, which is why all of us, including the poet and his narrator, are "mortal" and suffer "woe." On the bright side, however, remember that as Adam is to the tree, so Christ (the second Adam) is to the cross. There is thus a sense of felix culpa, literally happy culpability: the Fall is paradoxically fortunate (see 12.469-77, quoted below). Other compensation for the loss of Eden lies in what 12.587 calls a "paradise within," a state characterized by faith, love, charity, patience, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, the proper inner orientation in the fallen world involves embracing various virtues. Still further compensation is found at 12.611, where Milton notes that "God is also in Sleep, and Dreams advise." Man will no longer commune face-to-face with angels, but not all connections to the divine have been lost: "Dreams advise." Moreover, hard-won gains in the fallen world have great spiritual significance. It is one thing to be good when one is unfallen and quite another when one has to choose (think psychomachia) between good and evil. This is why human beings are said to be above angels in heaven (angels are unfallen beings; humans get there through a crucible of trial and struggle known as life).
Satan: There is, of course, a character in Paradise Lost who embodies the kind of heroism that Milton ascribes to Achilles, and his name is Satan (the former Lucifer), who has "courage never to submit or yield" (remember that phrase when we get to Tennyson's "Ulysses"). As the poem opens in medias res (in the middle of things; such an opening is one of the characteristics of an epic), Satan and his fellow fallen angels are in hell trying to chart a course for their future activities. Satan is guilty of Faustus's sin—hubris. Having been exiled to hell for waging war against God, the fallen angels now consider various possibilities—renewed war, sloth, the development of hell, and the corruption of earth. There is no chance of reconciling with God because Satan will never submit, but he wants to do something to stick it to God. So he says, "Evil be thou my Good," embraces "malice," and seeks "revenge" (4.110, 123). When he arrives in Eden he either resembles or actually takes the shape of various animals (a sign of his degradation and distance from Lucifer/"light"). Of course, he eventually enters the serpent, as we will see in Book 9. As punishment, he and his fallen buddies are all transformed into snakes when he returns to hell, and together they emit "A dismal universal hiss" at 10.508.
Adam and Eve: The initial portrait of Adam and Eve's unfallen bliss in the garden of Eden is problematic because they are seen through Satan's eyes—the eyes of the destroyer. This portrait also comes through the filter of the fallen narrator. In the prelapsarian world, opposites can exist together, sex is spiritual rather than dirty, language is easy and fluent, nakedness is not an embarrassment, angels come over for dinner, and the only reason to work is to make rest more enjoyable. The problem, however, is that Milton laces the description with portents of the fall:
Adam is uxorious (4.412).
Eve has limitations akin to narcissism (4.440ff.). When she first awakens she sees her reflection in a pool of water (Narcissus fell in love with his own image and was transformed into a flower). The angel gets her to withdraw from the pool only by promising that she will be the mother of a race that will duplicate her facial features.
Their relationship is partly a seeming good (4.288ff.).
Her description links her to temptresses in previous literature (4.306).
And she is even a Dalilah figure (9.1060).
Hierarchy: Satan's plan is to wreck Adam and Eve's wonderful, unfallen equilibrium by attacking the weaker partner—namely, Eve. Whereas Adam's reason makes him a "Foe not informidable" from Satan's point of view (9.486), Eve is particularly vulnerable because she is narcissistic. Such a strategy is good thinking on his part, as the following chart reveals: through Satan's machinations, Adam yields the upper hand to Eve; and Eve usurps Adam's authority. Thus the Great Chain of Being is rattled a little, as it had been when Lucifer and his cronies warred against God.
God guides Adam who guides Eve
MALE aspect FEMININE aspect
Strength beauty, sensuousness
Here are the proper oppositions:
God > man
Adam > Eve
Humans > animals
Head > heart
Reason > passion
Spirit > flesh
Master > servant
Masculine > feminine
Here are some passages on the hierarchical relation of Adam to Eve. The narrator says, "Hee for God only, shee for God in him" (4.299). See also Eve's remark after the Fall at 10.931: "both have sin'd, but thou / Against God onely, I against God and thee." What has Eve done? She has transgressed not only the proper relationship between a married couple (Milton evidently believed that a woman should be subordinate to her husband; there is no doubt that some degree of the poet's misogyny is reflected in his treatment of Eve) but also the proper hierarchy between humans and beings higher on the Great Chain of Being.
Periodicity: Finally, a few words are necessary as regards the ways in which Paradise Lost reflects "periodicity." We are now in the mid-17th century (the poem was published in a final version in 1674, but Milton had been working on it for decades).
Your assignment is to identify the key points in your assigned section. I have suggested a couple of things in each case that you might discuss, but you are not limited to them.
Here are two key passages:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasiond, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to Men
From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound. (12.469-78)
Some natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way. (12.645-69)