Thursday, August 06, 2015

Notes on Paradise Lost, I

Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, CriticismParadise Lost 
by John Milton

"Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells:  hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell 
Receive thy new possessor:  one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."
-  Satan ( I, 249-255)

The Epic Begins

John Milton was more than fifty years old when he began to concentrate on creating the epic poem Paradise Lost.  He had survived the momentous period when Cromwell led the country and with the death of his second wife and the onset of blindness he was facing what many would consider a bleak future.  Yet he produced a brilliant new version of the story of Adam and Eve, but even beyond that created a poem that would "justify the ways of God to men".  His method would encompass the whole of man's existence from the creation of the Son of God to the eventual expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

Interestingly, the order of the story focuses first on the rebellion of Satan and his rebel angels.  It is not until the fifth of the twelve books of the Epic that God himself relates the creation of his Son:
"Hear all ye angels, progeny of Light,
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
Hearmy decree, which unrevoked shall stand,
This day I have begot whom I declare
My only Son, and on this holy hill
Him have anointed," (V, 600-605)
This act provokes Satan's rage and his revolt where from he was banished to hell.  It is at this point where the epic had begun.  After some introductory verses wherein Milton calls upon God to aid him as he intones  "Sing Heav'nly Muse" and goes on to:
"Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar 
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or in rhyme." (I, 13-16)

Books I and II tell of Satan and his minions on the burning lake and their arrival at Pandemonium where they have council with Satan anointing himself to destroy Man.  It is exciting stuff and Milton's Satan is an impressive character.  The events of the first two books mirror the world-shaking events that Milton had so recently experienced himself.  Satan plots a revenge on the new world created by the Lord elsewhere in the universe.  He journeys forth and encounters Sin, a sorceress sprung fully formed out of Satan's head at the instant he first conceived envy for the Son of God;  and he encounters Death, the odious offspring of Satan's incest with Sin.  With her "fatal key, / Sad instrument of all our woe," Sin unlocks the Gates of Hell and liberates Satan to pursue his mission (Book II).  Book III narrates how God chose his Son to redeem Man as he communes with his Son about Man's free will.  Satan, in the meantime, is wending his way toward Earth to discover for himself what Man, this creation of God, is all about.
I will stop for now, with the epic underway, and separately comment further about Adam and Eve in the Garden and some of the important themes of Milton's audacious poem.


Brian Joseph said...

I eagerly await your commentary as this epic has had such an impression upon me.

I do remember the first time that I read it, being surprised at what seemed like the unusual order that events were presented.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. The order is not chronological but it enhances the drama and allows for the development of Satan's character. As I continue my commentary I will have more to say about Satan.