Paradise Lost, Books III and IV: Oh, Milton.

Feel free to read the Paradise Lost Readalong introductory post here, and catch up on Books I and II here.


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].).

Gender Hierarchy

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:

Though both
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.

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!