Books III and IV of Paradise Lost are, for me, the most difficult to grapple with. Book III is, for the most part, an exercise in Milton’s brand of theology (which I find unconvincing) and Book IV contains some of the very worst of Milton’s views on gender hierarchy. So in today’s post, I’m going to wrestle (in a limited way) with these issues. But first: the summary.
Book III begins with the invocation to light, one of the poem’s most famous passages. Within the invocation, the poem transitions from the darkness of Hell to the light of Heaven, where God the Father tells the Son and the heavenly hosts what is to come: Satan’s successful temptation of Eve and Adam and the Fall. However, the Father also plans to offer humanity grace, but only if a suitable sacrifice can be offered to satisfy the demands of justice. The Son offers to become that sacrifice; the Father accepts, and orders the angels to praise the Son. Meanwhile, Satan reaches the Limbo of Vanity, and from there goes to the gate of Heaven. Disguising himself as a lesser angel, he finds Uriel, regent of the sun, and asks directions to the home of humankind. He “alights first on Mount Niphates.”
In Book IV, we finally reach Eden, and meet Adam and Eve. Satan, after much internal debate, reaffirms his evil purpose, and descends into the Garden (enacting yet another fall). The garden, as well as Adam and Eve, are at last described. Satan stalks the human pair, and learns that God has forbidden them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Uriel, having recognized Satan as a bad angel by his wild gesticulations on Mount Niphates, warns Gabriel (who’s in charge of security in Paradise) that an evil spirit is skulking about. Gabriel sends two angels to check on Adam and Eve as they sleep, and they find Satan crouched at Eve’s ear, tempting her in a dream. Brought to Gabriel, he plans to resist, but a sign from Heaven sends him flying out of Paradise.
Here’s what I’m mulling over this week:
The Problem of Evil
Book III finds Milton confronting the problem of evil (why does an all-loving, all-powerful God allow Evil to exist? Why does he allow the Fall to occur?). He presents his solution in the most Miltonic way imaginable: by putting his theories in the mouth of God (the Father) himself. He prefaces this excursion with the invocation to “holy light” (3.1), recalling his invocation to the Muse (Holy Spirit) in Book I, in which he asked,
What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men. (1.22-26)
God’s omniscience means that he mixes his tenses rather indiscriminately, so that even though, in linear time, the Fall hasn’t yet happened, God can accuse Adam and Eve of ingratitude, explaining that he created them “sufficient to have stood though free to fall” (3.99). He goes on to ask his audience (rhetorically) if he hadn’t given men and angels free will, “what proof could they have giv’n sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love” (3.103-04). He dismisses his own foreknowledge as an influence on those who choose to sin, and makes a distinction between those who sinned without deception (the bad angels) and those tempted and deceived (men). The latter will receive mercy, tempered with justice; the former will languish in Hell.
When the Son offers to be the sacrifice demanded by justice (though Milton never explains why an omnipotent God feels bound by justice), the Father praises him and anoints him “universal king” (3.317). In Milton’s view, true kingship is born of sacrifice and sanctity, not a will to power. Earthly kinship, in Milton’s theology, is an echo of Satan’s desire to usurp the heavenly throne, to reign as a tyrant.
(This passage speaks for itself.)
So spake the false dissembler unperceived,
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible except to God alone
By His permissive will through Heav’n and Earth.
And oft, though Wisdom wake, Suspicion sleeps
At Wisdom’s gate and to Simplicity
Resigns her charge while Goodness thinks no ill
Where no ill seems (3.681-89)
The Garden and the Nature of Work
Milton’s triumphant, lovely description of Paradise is too long to quote here. The garden is wild, dripping with fecundity and lush growth; Milton compares it with modern planned gardens, praising Paradise’s luxurious profusion. Here all manner of beasts and birds and plants live harmoniously (Adam and Eve are vegetarians; fruit practically offers itself to them, and they use the husks to scoop water from accommodating streams.). This natural world (and the pair’s bower of bliss) contrasts with the demons’ artificial edifice in Hell, just as humans’ prelapsarian work (tending the garden) contrasts with Fallen labor (Mulciber will teach men to, “with impious hands / [Rifle] the bowels of their mother Earth / for treasures better hid” [1.686-88].).
It’s always difficult for me to suppress a groan when I read the first description of Adam and Eve in Book IV. Both are beautiful, more beautiful than any other humans will ever be, but Milton is careful to describe their relationship in terms of hierarchy:
Not equal as their sex not equal seemed:
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace:
He for God only, she for God in him. (3.296-99)
Coming from a man whose views on marriage and sexuality were, for his day, very progressive (In the 1640s, Milton was widely excoriated for the tract Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he advocated companionate marriage — a meeting of the minds — and the right to divorce if the spouses were not compatible emotionally. And he’s no prude — Adam and Eve clearly have sex before the Fall.), this declaration always disappoints me, even if it doesn’t surprise me.
However, scholars have pointed to several ways in which Milton ameliorates Eve’s subservient position. Foremost among these is the simple fact that Eve is the poem’s best poet. Adam’s declarative sentences are leaden read next to Eve’s lovely, flowing lines. Even Satan doesn’t compose as well as she does; his syntax is too sinuous, too studded with outbursts. Eve speaks in melodious paragraphs. Here’s an example of the way Eve undercuts her own stated submission with glorious poetry:
To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorned:
My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains.
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change: all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming-on
Of grateful evening mild; then silent night,
With this her solemn bird, and this her moon,
And these the gems of heav’n, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glist’ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon
Or glittering starlight, without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these? for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes? (4.634-58)
Or consider Eve’s account of her creation, the first to appear in the poem, at lines 440-91 . I’ll talk about it next time, when we venture into books V and VI on January 30th.