Paradise Lost, Books I and II: You know a book is great when you can’t wait to start talking about Satan.

[If you missed the introductory post, click here.]

ParadiseLostReadalongIt’s here at last: the first reaction post for the Paradise Lost Readalong! Joining me in reading things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme will be these fine folks:

Please head on over to their blogs to read their perspectives on the poem.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Paradise Lost — at least seven times, but quite possibly more. Like any great work of art, it withstands repeated scrutiny, always offering something new to the reader.

Still, this is the first time I’ve posted about Paradise Lost, and it’s rather overwhelming — there’s so much to talk about. I mulled over what to write for a couple days, and decided that posting a summary of the action and a few stand-out passages/themes seems like a workable plan. I’m open to suggestions, though, so if I’m not covering something you want to talk about, let me know in the comments, won’t you?

So: the summary.

Book I begins with an invocation to the muse in which the poet/speaker sets out the scope of the work and its trajectory, as well as his own ambitions. From there, we move to a view of Satan, stunned on a lake of fire, surrounded by his rebellious followers (one-third of Heaven’s host). Satan rouses himself, and the others, and they convene to discuss what they should do next — whether they should resign themselves to their lot in Hell, or make open war on Heaven, or attempt some middle course.

Book II begins with the demonic conclave, the result of which is that Satan will undertake a one-angel journey through Chaos to seek out the ‘Earth’ that was spoken of in Heaven, to see what use of it he can make for his own ends. His way out of Hell is barred by two terrible figures, Sin and Death, who reveal their familial relation with Satan. They allow him to pass, and Satan finds his way to Earth: “Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge / Accurst, and in a cursèd hour, he hies” (2.1054-55).

Here’s what struck me on this read:

Milton’s Audacity: Sure, he calls on the Muse’s (in this case, the Holy Spirit; this isn’t your Grandma’s pagan epic, after all) aid, but his purpose is to JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN. Sheesh. Along the way, he plans to explain the source of all fallen human history — essentially improving upon the Bible — and he plans to do so in a blank verse epic poem. Amazing. And the audacity is justified; the epic similes are just that, the catalogue of demons is like some kind of Hendrix guitar solo, and Satan— well, that’s where I’m going next.

Satan: I know — everyone talks about Milton’s Satan, and there’s a good reason for that. He’s the most likable devil you’re unlikely to meet, and it’s amazing what Milton does with him. In Book I, Satan reads like a tragic hero, the leader of a lost (and yes, evil) cause:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost: th’ unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield–
And what is else not to be overcome? (1.105-109)

and

Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever 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 Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (1.249-255)

It’s this combination of charisma, truth, falsehood, and evil that makes Satan so very dangerous. By Book II, however, Milton pulls back some of the heroic constructs around Satan — his physical size, his precedence among his peers, his persuasive speech — to reveal the tyrant beneath (and for Milton, tyrant is pretty much the worst moniker one can earn). Satan sits “High on a throne of royal state” (2.1), but he’s not the only king in Hell; Moloch is described as a “sceptered king” (2.43), while Beëlzebub, rising to speak, is described thusly:

Deep on his front engrav’n
Deliberation sat and public care
And princely counsel in his face yet shone,
Majestic though in ruin. (2.302-05; emphasis mine)

Still, among these Satan is still preeminent, the only fallen angel willing to make the dangerous journey out of Hell (and the only one smart enough to be certain that he takes full credit for his courage):

None among the choice and prime
Of those Heav’n-warring champions could be found
So hardy as to proffer or accept
Alone the dreadful voyage till at last
Satan, whom now transcendent glory raised
Above his fellows with monarchal pride
Conscious of highest worth, unmoved thus spake:
[. . .]
But I should ill become this throne, O peers
And this imperial sov’reignty adorned
With splendor, armed with pow’r, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deter
Me from attempting. Wherefore do I assume
These royalties and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept as great a share
Of hazard as of honor, due alike
To him who reigns?
[. . .]
Thus saying rose
The monarch and prevented all reply (2.423-29; 445-54; 466-67)

Fascinating, isn’t he? He’s about to lead the equivalent of a one-man away team onto a hostile planet (bet you thought I couldn’t work Star Trek into this post — ha!), which is admirable and brave, and yet his purposes are nothing but evil. Extraordinary character development.

Sin and Death: The only king who comes close to Satan’s power is, of course, Death:

The other shape
(If shape it might be called that shaoe had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either): black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell
And shook a dreadful dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on. (2.666-73)
Creepy, no? An admission: I’ve spent so much time poring over the disgusting descriptions of Sin and Death (fun fact: my research was on obstetrics & gynecology in early modern literature, which is weirdly relevant here) that I just don’t have the energy to write about it again. The passage is gross, replete with incest and bowel-devouring hounds (really!), Paradise Lost‘s very own trippy excursion into allegory. Start reading around line 650 if you’re interested.

I was going to talk about Milton as proto-environmentalist (I might even bring in some JRR Tolkien, because that’s how I roll), but that’ll have to wait for next week, since I’m afraid I’ve gone on too long.

See you again on January 20th for Books III and IV!

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22 thoughts on “Paradise Lost, Books I and II: You know a book is great when you can’t wait to start talking about Satan.

  1. Hi! I’ve only conquered part 1 so far, and the main reason I like Satan as yet is because his speech doesn’t have so many references as Milton’s! I don’t know what I would have done without an annotated edition, but it’s only helping in some cases, not all the time. I’ll try to get through part 2 today and I’ll stop by again after it. Also, LOL for the poets’ dialogue! 🙂

  2. My post is on the way! I have been letting the story sink in a little. It took me a couple of re-reads and re-listens (to an audio book), but I am beginning to really love Paradise Lost. The imagery and language have blown me away. It truly is an epic poem … and we’ve only just started the book!

    Ooh, obstetrics & gynecology in early modern literature sounds strangely fascinating and, yes, completely relevant.

    • I’m so glad you’re liking it! It’s so weird and beautiful and re-reading is definitely the way to go.

      You should have seen the weird looks people used to give me at parties when I told them my research subject.

  3. Loved reading this, Carolyn, and your title cracked me up. That would be the draw for me, too. Your points and quotes are making me want to pull my copy off the shelf and crack it to take a peek. 🙂

    7 times, girl???? I bow before your endurance and literary acumen. Looking forward to hearing more from your reading adventure!

    • Oh, 7 times out of necessity, really (1 before Milton seminar, twice during, once during a different seminar, twice while teaching, once for orals prep . . . ). Ah, grad school. 🙂

  4. Okay, you’re actually making me want to read this. Luckily for me, I am getting a very good sense of the book just from your post (and the other’s posts, as well). So, if I just keep following along, by the end maybe I will feel like I’ve read it. I love the way you structured this!

  5. Hello! My husband found and forwarded your blog to me because, as it happens, I have just started rereading PL after a hiatus of about 15 years. I’m even roughly on your same schedule, and I have found to my surprise that the poem is completely gripping to me now in a way that it never was before. I’m in Book 4, and while rereading the whole Satanic council debate, Satan’s inner musings, and his arrival on Earth, I have felt pulled along by the dramatic narrative and undisturbed by all the allusions and whatnot that used to bog me down. Sometimes I even feel my heart pounding and keep reading further than I had planned. I am looking forward to diving into the conversation here. Carol

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