“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven . . . Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” (i, 254-5, 263)
Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve—how they came to be created and how they came to lose their place in the Garden of Eden, also called Paradise. It’s the story of Genesis retold, expanded by Milton into a long, detailed, narrative freedom free of rhyme. It also includes the story of the origin of Satan, for whom Milton is actually empathetic. Originally, he was called Lucifer, an angel in heaven who led his followers in a war against God, and was defeated, and ultimately sent with them to Hell. Thirst for revenge led him to insinuate as a serpent, plotting deceit, and causing man’s fall by tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.
… whatever thing death be, / Deterred not from achieving what might lead / To happier life, knowledge of good and evil; / Of good, how just? Of evil, if what is evil / Be real, why not known, since easier shunned? (ix, 695-9)
The epic poem dramatically confronts the fallen Christian nation with its failures, and offers some distant and doubtful hope of an eventual return to grace. While most of the narrative concerns with the events leading to the fall of mankind and the redemption, its focus is on Satan. Paradise Lost acknowledges from the outset that God’s ways are not self-evident, any more than God is. It’s hinted that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of heaven. But since there’s no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning?
An idea that resonated throughout the poem ponders on the question how one knows anything except by trial? This is why Milton is showing empathy toward Satan, portraying him the most human character whose psychology and motivation are more relatable and comprehensible to us. Milton is courageous to acknowledge our ties are more profoundly with Satan than with God. This is why Satan is not presented as hideous and perverse. It’s rebellion that makes obedience meaningful—what good is the good without evil?
The fall is hardly anything but an easy transgression. It is an intricately linked series of small actions no one of which is clearly understood by any of the participants; and the final outcome is far more the result of ignorance and inexperience than of intentional disobedience. It really boils down to free will and the right to know. What is forbidden to man is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the ability to distinguish between them and thereby choose between them. Therefore, the sin has been committed as soon as it is acknowledged that there is another way of looking at things.
This book is very dense, but filled with artistry of lines and archaic lyricism. It has great cosmic vistas, it describes gods and monsters, and creation of the world. And the sublimity of its subject matter is matched by the sustained beauty of its language. Adam and Eve are more human than they are in the bible, with Adam putting his value in his love for Eve. It’s a story about losing perfection, coming to take responsibility for that loss and going on despite it.
330 pp. Oxford World Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
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