Paradise Lost, Books XI and XII: The Bittersweet End

It’s the end of our Paradise Lost readalong, folks.

ParadiseLostReadalongWhen I first started thinking about doing a readalong for Milton’s epic, I planned on a once-a-month posting schedule, but then thought that maybe not too many people would sign up for a year-long immersion in Paradise Lost. Reading-wise, I think two books every ten days is manageable, though strenuous work, especially for first-time readers, and so, after thought and some discussion, I ended up with our every ten-days schedule that you’ve seen.

Posting every ten days, though? I think I may have been optimistic about that. Paradise Lost is so dense, so challenging, so vitally interesting, that I found it pretty much impossible to write the kind of posts I wanted to write in just ten days, especially since I didn’t cut back on my non-Milton reading and posting. The lesson I took from this readalong: go with your gut instincts, even if you think you’ll be the only one reading.

That said, I hope you’ve still found these posts interesting and not too didactic, and that if you haven’t read Milton, you’ve been persuaded to give him a try some day.

So here’s the man himself with summaries of Books XI and XII:

Book XI:

The Son of God presents to his Father the Prayers of our first Parents now repenting, and intercedes for them: God accepts them, but declares that they must no longer abide in Paradise; sends Michael with a Band of Cherubim to dispossess them; but first to reveal to Adam future things: Michael’s coming down. Adam shows to Eve certain ominous signs; he discerns Michael’s approach, goes out to meet him: the Angel denounces their departure. Eve’s Lamentation. Adam pleads, but submits: The Angel leads him up to a high Hill, sets before him in vision what shall happ’n till the Flood.

Book XII:

The Angel Michael continues from the Flood to relate what shall succeed; then, in the mention of Abraham, comes by degrees to explain, who that Seed of the Woman shall be, which was promised Adam and Eve in the Fall; his Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension; the state of the Church till his second Coming. Adam greatly satisfied and recomforted by these Relations and Promises descends the Hill with Michael; wakens Eve, who all this while had slept, but with gentle dreams compos’d to quietness of mind and submission. Michael in either hand leads them out of Paradise, the fiery Sword waving behind them, and the Cherubim taking their Stations to guard the Place.

Not everyone likes these final two books, since they compress a great deal of Biblical history into, essentially, forty pages. C.S. Lewis called Books XI and XII “an untransmuted lump of futurity,” and called its verse “curiously bad.” Not one for mincing words, C.S. Lewis. A modern creative writing teacher might tell you that these books “tell” instead of “show,” especially as the lines go on and Adam’s heightened sight fades.

With the exception of a few passages*, I find myself aligning with C.S. Lewis’s sense of Books XI and XII; the illustration of repeated covenants between God and humanity, punctuated with violence and vengeance, is utterly unappealing after the beauties of the garden and Eve’s hymns to God and nature (Eve is, by the way, sleeping through most of these books). On the other hand, this feeling of disappointment is Milton’s point; after the Fall, there can be no return to Paradise, in either location or language.

[* On the Flood: “Sea covered sea, / sea without shore, and in their palaces / Where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped / and stabled” (11.749-52).]

One of the appealing parts of this section of the epic, at least for me, is its political resonance. Milton makes his case here for the always-tyrannical, and yet inevitable nature of monarchy, or as Michael puts it, “Tyranny must be, / Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse” (12.95-96). Risky stuff, but Milton has already aligned himself with the righteous angel Abdiel in Book VI, and in Book XI with Enoch, whom he turns into a figure unjustly persecuted for his righteous political and religious beliefs.

Then there’s Adam. I don’t much care for him in the rest of the poem, but in Books XI and XII I want to throttle him pretty much all the time. Michael usually takes the trouble to correct Adam’s errors in perception, but it’s galling every time Adam waxes rhapsodic about his “seed” someday overcoming Death (with an assist from Mary, of course) — all the while eliding Eve’s necessary role in populating the Earth. Here’s the worst offence, and one that seems to go uncorrected (after Michael explains the coming of the Son of God):

Now clear I understand
What oft my steadiest thoughts have searched in vain,
Why our great expectation should be called
The Seed of woman: Virgin Mother, hail!
High in the love of Heav’m, yet from my loins
Thou shalt proceed and from thy womb the Son
Of God Most High: so God with Man unites! (12.376-82; emphasis mine)

See what I mean? Adam inserts himself into the redemption narrative, while totally ignoring Eve’s role. And it seems that this elision will stand — but Milton is nothing if not surprising, because guess who gets the last spoken lines of the poem?


And here they are:

This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence: though all by me is lost,
Such favor I unworthy am vouchsafed,
By me the promised Seed shall all restore. (12.620-23)

It’s a definite revision of Adam’s claim that Milton not only allows to stand, but also emphasizes with Adam’s silent confirmation: “So spake our mother Eve and Adam heard / Well pleased but answered not” (12.624-25).

Milton’s poetic prowess returns in full force these last thirty lines. Here’s a metaphor I love for its multilayered quality:

from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
Homeward returning. (12.626-32)

Isn’t that lovely? The cherubim, fierce and dangerous in their “bright array” move from a “fixed point” into midair, “gliding” like insubstantial “evening mist,” which itself might “glide” from a “marish” (marsh) and comes to earth around the feet of the working man walking home.  The descent of the cherubim emphasizes the change in Adam and Eve’s state; they will become laborers who must return home each night, though to to their first home they can never return. The cherubim’s gliding ease contrasts with the heavy, weary step we imagine for the laborer; their speed reminds us how swiftly the fortunes of the first human pair have changed. The heavenly and the homely in one metaphor — just lovely.

I’ll leave you with the poem’s final lines, as Adam and Eve turn away from Paradise:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Paradise Lost, Books IX and X: Crime and Punishment

ParadiseLostReadalongAt long last, we’re here: Books IX and X bring the Fall and its aftermath to Paradise. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Summaries courtesy Milton.

Book IX:

Satan having compast the Earth, with meditated guile returns as a mist by Night into Paradise, enters into the Serpent sleeping. Adam and Eve in the Morning go forth to their labours, which Eve proposes to divide in several places, each labouring apart: Adam consents not, alleging the danger, lest that Enemy, of whom they were forewarn’d, should attempt her found alone: Eve loath to be thought not circumspect or firm enough, urges her going apart, the rather desirous to make trial of her strength; Adam at last yields: The Serpent finds her alone; his subtle approach, first gazing, then speaking, with much flattery extolling Eve above all other Creatures. Eve wondering to hear the Serpent speak, asks how he attain’d to human speech and such understanding not till now; the Serpent answers, that by tasting of a certain Tree in the Garden he attain’d both to Speech and Reason, till then void of both: Eve requires him to bring her to that Tree, and finds it to be the Tree of Knowledge forbidden: The Serpent now grown bolder, with many wiles and arguments induces her at length to eat; she pleas’d with the taste deliberates a while whether to impart thereof to Adam or not, at last brings him of the Fruit, relates what persuaded her to eat thereof: Adam at first amaz’d, but perceiving her lost, resolves through vehemence of love to perish with her; and extenuating the trespass, eats also of the Fruit: The Effects thereof in them both; they seek to cover their nakedness; then fall to variance and accusation of one another.

Book X:

Man’s transgression known, the Guardian Angels forsake Paradise, and return up to Heaven to approve their vigilance, and are approv’d, God declaring that The entrance ofSatan could not be by them prevented. He sends his Son to judge the Transgressors, who descends and gives Sentence accordingly; then in pity clothes them both, and reascends.Sin and Death sitting till then at the Gates of Hell, by wondrous sympathy feeling the success of Satan in this new World, and the sin by Man there committed, resolve to sit no longer confin’d in Hell, but to follow Satan their Sire up to the place of Man: To make the way easier from Hell to this World to and fro, they pave a broad Highway or Bridge over Chaos, according to the Track that Satan first made; then preparing for Earth, they meet him proud of his success returning to Hell; their mutual gratulation. Satan arrives at Pandemonium, in full of assembly relates with boasting his success against Man; instead of applause is entertained with a general hiss by all his audience, transform’d with himself also suddenly into Serpents, according to his doom giv’n in Paradise; then deluded with a show of the forbidden Tree springing up before them, they greedily reaching to take of the Fruit, chew dust and bitter ashes. The proceedings of Sin and Death; God foretells the final Victory of his Son over them, and the renewing of all things; but for the present commands his Angels to make several alterations in the Heavens and Elements. Adam more and more perceiving his fall’n condition heavily bewailes, rejects the condolement of Eve; she persists and at length appeases him: then to evade the Curse likely to fall on their Offspring, proposes to Adam violent ways which he approves not, but conceiving better hope, puts her in mind of the late Promise made them, that her Seed should be reveng’d on the Serpent, and exhorts her with him to seek Peace of the offended Deity, by repentance and supplication.

Out of thousands of things to talk about, I’ve picked three passages from Books IX and X. I’d love to talk about every passage that’s provoked marginalia, but I require food and sleep and interaction with other humans.

It pays to have a compact OED: Sure, it weighs more than my toddler, and you need the included magnifying glass to have any prayer of reading it, but when you read a passage like this —

There was a place,
Now not (though sin, not time, first wrought the change)
Where Tigris at the foot of Paradise
Into a gulf shot underground till part
Rose up a fountain by the Tree of Life.
In with the river sunk and with it rose
Satan involved in rising mist, then sought
Where to lie hid. (9.69-76)

— if you’re like me, you want to know the etymology of “involve.”

photo (54)And so I turn to my OED and read that it’s from the Latin “to roll into or upon, to wrap up, envelop, surround, entangle, make obscure” (1480). And sure enough, Milton’s cited as an example later in the definition. But see the genius at work here? With Satan’s reappearance in Paradise in Book IX, with one verb, Milton does so much to elucidate Satan and foreshadow the Fall to come. Yes, Satan’s enveloped in mist, and he’ll roll on the serpent’s folds. But he’ll also entangle Eve in sin, and make obscure what is plain. (And, by the way, how awesome are the “mazy folds” of the serpent, and the way Satan rises up on the folds like an orator about to speak?)

One of my favorite similes in the poem:

Much he the place admired, the person more.
As one who long in populous city pent
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air
Forth issuing on a summer morn to breathe
Among the pleasant villages and farms
Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight–
The smell of grain or tedded grass, or kine
Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound–
If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass
What pleasing seemed, for her now pleases more,
She most, and in her look sums all delight.
Such pleasure took the serpent to behold
This flow’ry plat the sweet recess of Eve,
Thus early, thus alone. (9.445-57)

For an epic poem, Paradise Lost is often concerned with the domestic; Eve and Adam are, after all, gardeners. We see them at home and in their ordinary daily pursuits, and with this simile, Milton reaches out to the ever-growing number of city dwellers in his own era, comparing Satan’s pleasure at Eve’s beauty (and the beauty of her handiwork) with the simple pleasures of getting out of town. It’s my favorite incursion of “modernity” in the poem. I’ve said before that we can read Paradise Lost as an example of eco-poetry, and this is just one instance of the way Milton values the rural, the natural, over artificial constructs. Later, after Eve and Adam eat of the forbidden fruit, he writes that “Earth felt the wound,” comparing the pain nature itself experiences at the Fall to the pains of labor and birth.

The return of the poem’s creepiest character: Sin and Death create a path from Hell to Earth, and Death vows to follow in his mother’s steps.

I shall not lag behind nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable,, and taste
The savor of death from all things there that live.
Nor shall I to the work thou enterprisest
Be wanting but afford thee equal aid.
So saying with delight he snuffed the smell
Of mortal change on Earth. As when a flock
Of rav’nous fowl though many a league remote
Against the day of battle to a field
Where armies lie encamped come flying, lured
Wish scent of living caracasses designed
For the death the following day in bloody fight,
So scented the grim feature and upturned
His nostril wide into the murky air,
Sagacious of his quarry from so far. (10.266-81)

Gah! I wrote about Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as the scariest poem in English last Halloween, and there’s no way that Milton’s death wasn’t an inspiration for the creature slouching toward Bethlehem. Yeats’s creature is a “shape”; Milton’s Death is a “feature” with one “nostril wide.” And snuffing? Nazgûl-like, if you ask me. And P.S., fellow Tolkien fans: there’s a simile in Book IX that’s a dead ringer for the Dead Marshes.

As if you needed any more incentive to read Paradise Lost.

March 1: The bitter end — wrapping up with Books XI and XII.

Paradise Lost, Books VII and VIII: Edenic Education

ParadiseLostReadalongAs per our last outing, I’m going to let Milton himself give the summary of these two books, in which Raphael relates to Adam the story of creation, and Adam tells Raphael what he remembers of his first days in Paradise.

Book VII

Raphael at the request of Adam relates how and wherefore this world was first created; that God, after the expelling of Satan and his Angels out of Heaven, declar’d his pleasure to create another World and other Creatures to dwell therein; sends his Son with Glory and attendance of Angels to perform the work of Creation in six days: the Angels celebrate with Hymns the performance thereof, and his reascention into Heaven.


Adam inquires concerning celestial Motions, is doubtfully answer’d, and exhorted to search rather things more worthy of knowledge: Adam assents, and still desirous to detain Raphael, relates to him what he remember’d since his own Creation, his placing in Paradise, his talk with God concerning solitude and fit society, his first meeting and Nuptials with Eve, his discourse with the Angel thereupon; who after admonitions repeated departs.

Though not as action-packed as Book VI, Books VII and VIII offer perks of their own: Book VII features some of Milton’s loveliest nature poetry (and his sometimes funny tendency to explain absolutely everything), and in Book VIII, we get Milton’s views on aliens and angelic sex. Really — read it and see!

I’m in the midst of a rather horrid cold, dear readers, so I’m going to be correspondingly rather brief.

Milton’s catalog of the beauties of Eden (reminiscent of the evocation of the lush garden in Book IV) is all part of the consistent foreshadowing in these two books: all is beautiful and perfect, and it’s not going to stay that way. Similarly, Adam’s focus on Eve’s beauty and her enthralling charms presages the Fall that’s about to happen.

One of the most interesting discrepancies in the poem is revealed with Adam’s interpretation of Eve’s turning away from him at their first meeting. Adam attributes Eve’s initial relcutance to natural modesty and maiden bashfulness, but Eve tells a different tale in Book IV. Having seen her own reflection, Adam seems “less fair / Less winning soft, less amiably mild” and she wishes to return to the other figure she saw. Interesting, huh?

Here’s a passage I like that seems pretty darn important (Raphael is speaking to Adam):

Consider first that great
Or bright infers not excellence: the earth
Though in comparison of heav’n so small,
Nor glistering, may of solid good contain
More plenty that the sun that barren shines
Whose virtue on itself works to no effect
But in the fruitful earth. (8.90-96)


Something wicked this way comes — on February 20 we’ll be talking about Books IX and X, and the return of everyone’s favorite fallen angel. 

Paradise Lost, Books V and VI: The Books in Danger of a Michael Bay Adaptation

ParadiseLostReadalongWe’ve made it halfway in the Paradise Lost ReadAlong, so here are some links if you’d like to catch up:

Books I and II
Books III and IV

Books V and VI find Raphael relating recent celestial history to Adam as part of a mission from the Father. He tells Adam of the war in Heaven between the rebellious and loyal angels, effectively bringing us, by the end of Book VI, up to the starting point of the poem in Book I: Satan’s fall, with his cohort, from Heaven into Hell.

In a departure from my usual practice, I’m going to let Milton himself give you the synopsis of these two books (Yes, he’s considerate enough to provide a synopsis for each book before the verse starts. Isn’t he great?). Also, I’m writing this late at night, so things may get, shall we say, irreverent?

Book V:

Morning approacht, Eve relates to Adam her troublesome dream; he likes it not, yet comforts her: They come forth to their day labours: Their Morning Hymn at the Door of their Bower. God to render Man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience, of his free estate, of his enemy near at hand; who he is, and why his enemy, and whatever else may avail Adam to know. Raphael comes down to Paradise, his appearance describ’d, his coming discern’d by Adam afar off sitting at the door of his Bower; he goes out to meet him, brings him to his lodge, entertains him with the choycest fruits of Paradise got together by Eve; their discourse at Table: Raphael performs his message, minds Adam of his state and of his enemy; relates at Adams request who that enemy is, and how he came to be so, beginning from his first revolt in Heaven, and the occasion thereof; how he drew his Legions after him to the parts of the North, and there incited them to rebel with him, perswading all but only Abdiel a Seraph, who in Argument diswades and opposes him, then forsakes him.

Book VI:

Raphael continues to relate how Michael and Gabriel were sent forth to battle against Satan and his Angels. The first Fight describ’d: Satan and his Powers retire under Night: He calls a Councel, invents devilish Engines, which in the second day’s Fight put Michael and his Angels to some disorder; But, they at length pulling up Mountains overwhelm’d both the force and Machines of Satan: Yet the Tumult not so ending, God on the third day sends Messiah his Son, for whom he had reserv’d the glory of that Victory: He in the Power of his Father coming to the place, and causing all his Legions to stand still on either side, with his Chariot and Thunder driving into the midst of his Enemies, pursues them unable to resist towards the wall of Heaven; which opening, they leap down with horrur and confusion into the place of punishment prepar’d for them in the Deep: Messiah returns with triumph to his Father.

Neat, huh? I’ve cleaned up a bit of the spelling. (These “Arguments,” as Milton called them, aren’t pulled from Gordon Teskey’s edition of the poem, since I thought it might be nice to give you delightful readers a better taste of seventeenth-century phrasing.)

As you can tell, Books V and VI are heavy on action (hence today’s post title. Which was a joke. I hope.) Book V features a particularly Miltonic moment, however: a lone voice raised against wrong action, in the form of Abdiel’s resistance to Satan’s call for rebellion and war.

On the surface, Satan’s initial raillery against the Father’s elevation of the Son might seem appealing to a republican (small-r) revolutionary like Milton: Satan objects to being asked to prostrate himself to a new master (especially one whose power seems to derive from nepotism) who promises to hand down new laws that must be obeyed.

However, Milton (via Abdiel) neatly refutes Satan by revealing his error — the assumption that the Son and the angels are equals:

Canst thou with impious obloquy condemn
The just decree of God pronounced and sworn
That to his only Son by right endued
With regal scepter every soul in Heav’n
Shall bend the knee and in that honor due
Confess him rightful King? Unjust thou say’st,
Flatly unjust, to bind with laws the free
And equal over equals to let reign,
One over all with unsucceeded pow’r.
Shalt thou give law to God, shalt thou dispute
With Him the points of liberty who made
Thee what thou art and formed the pow’rs of Heav’n
Such as He pleased and circumscribed their being? (5.813-25)

Scorned by Satan and Satan’s fellows, Abdiel remains steadfast, and in one of the poem’s best images, he walks fearlessly away from the rebellious to join the righteous:

So spake the seraph Abdiel faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he
Among innumerable false. Unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.
Nor number nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed
Long way through hostile scorn which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud tow’rs to swift destruction doomed. (8.597-907)

A powerful passage, isn’t it? And particularly poignant, given Milton’s own part in the failed (though initially righteous, in his eyes) English revolution. Like Abdiel, “his loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.”


I won’t quote lengthy passages from Book VI, but it’s one of the most entertaining books of the poem, in which Raphael describes to Adam (Eve being noticeably absent, having fulfilled her womanly serving duties *grumble grumble feminist grumble*) the progress of the war. On the first day, Michael leads the loyal angels against Satan and his followers. Angels on both sides are injured, but only the rebel angels feel pain (and we also learn that they’ve lost the ability to feel pleasure). Angelic bodies heal themselves, it turns out. Michael faces Satan in single combat, and Satan, to his dismay, is bested and forced to retreat.

During the night, the rebel angels invent cannon (often regarded as devilish in the Renaissance) and surprise the heavenly hosts, who respond by hurling mountains at their foes. The imagery here is so fantastic — it just cries out for Guillermo del Toro. (Michael Bay, in the unlikely event you’re reading this blog: STAY AWAY FROM MILTON.) Plus Satan engages in some tricky non-diplomacy and witty banter with his pals, so now I’m envisioning a del Toro/ Aaron Sorkin collaboration . . . But I digress.

On the third day, the Father decides that enough is enough. Michael’s done excellent work at QB, but it’s time to bring out the Son, who says, basically, “Hold up. I got this.” The loyal angels line up and watch as the Son, with thunder blaring and chariot blazing, charges the rebel angels alone and so terrifies them that they throw themselves out of Heaven (h/t to obliging self-opening, self-healing heavenly wall) and into a nine-day fall to Hell.  That’s what George Lucas would call aggressive negotiation. (Now that I’ve quoted possibly the worst screenplay of all time, I’m done with movies now, I promise.)

But it’s not all fun and demon defeat in Book VI. The point of Raphael’s tale is to warn Adam, lest he think about disobeying God:

Let it profit thee t’have heard
By terrible example the reward
Of disobedience! Firm they might have stood,
Yet fell. Remember, and fear to transgress! (6.909-12)

Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle Son. Wait. Where have I heard that before?

Really done now.

Coming up on February 10: Books VII and VII — Adam’s Edenic education continues.
A programming note: Today features a rare double post here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses, so you might like to scroll down or click over to today’s earlier post, a review of Melissa Pritchard’s fascinating novel Palmerino.

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)


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!

It’s Milton Time! Paradise Lost Readalong 2014


Well, friends, here we are, about to embark on the good ship Milton for the next two months.

And by “we” I mean Rick (Another Book Blog) and CJ (ebookclassics) and me, unless y’all step up to the plate and climb aboard (and no, Milton won’t be mixing metaphors the way I do.). Paradise Lost is dense, but we’ll only be covering 300 pages in two months, so it’s not exactly like tackling Moby-Dick or Middlemarch (not knocking — worthy books, both).

By the time Milton was starting work on the epic poem in English, his political cause was in decline, his first wife and only son were dead, and he was blind (he dictated the poem to one of his daughters). By the time Paradise Lost was first published (1667*) Milton had been imprisoned for his role in the English Revolution (and subsequently released, thanks in part to the offices of his friend, fellow poet Andrew Marvell) and London had burned in the Great Fire of 1666. Paradise Lost, then, was an epic born in a time of upheaval — personal, political, and national — for its poet.

Like the great Greek epics before it, Paradise Lost begins in medias res. Books I and II find Satan newly come to Hell, pondering his plan of resistance. We’ll find a Satan quite unlike the medieval caricature that might be expected, but that doesn’t mean that Hell is without horrors.

Here’s our reading and posting schedule — please join us!

January 1: Introductory post

January 10: Books I & II reaction

January 20: Books III and IV reaction

January 30: Books V and VI reaction

February 10: Books VII and VIII reaction

February 20: Books IX and X reaction

March 1: Books XI and XII reaction; Wrap-up

A word about editions: I’m partial to Gordon Teskey’s 2005 Norton Critical Edition of the poem. I was the teaching assistant (for one semester) for his Milton class at Harvard, and I was won over by his persuasive reading of the poem, and by his approach to punctuating it (lightly). The edition also includes goodies — critical responses, a brief biography of Milton, and extracts from some of Milton’s prose works.  It’s third from the top in the picture above. Even if you decide not to go with this edition, I’d recommend sticking with a reputable academic publisher.

*Paradise Lost initially appeared in ten books; the 1674 printing expanded the poem to twelve books (like the Aeneid) and included a few small changes as well. 

Sing O Muse: Paradise Lost Readalong 2014!

Yes, this is just a sample of my Milton collection.

Yes, this is just a sample of my Milton collection.

January 1 will mark this blog’s one-year birthday, and what better way to celebrate than with an epic (literally) readalong? I’m hosting a Paradise Lost readalong from January 1 to March 1, and I hope you’ll come along to brighten up the winter doldrums. I’ll be tweeting with the tag #ReadPL if you want to follow along.

Here’s the breakdown:

January 1: Introductory post

January 10: Books I & II reaction

January 20: Books III and IV reaction

January 30: Books V and VI reaction

February 10: Books VII and VIII reaction

February 20: Books IX and X

March 1: Books XI and XII; Wrap-up

Let me know in the comments if you’re interested, and I’ll link up to the participating blogs. Cheerio!