and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden, till one greater Man/Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,/Sing heavenly muse. . . .
So starts John Milton’s Paradise Lost, his poem about man’s fall in Eden. Originally published in 1667, Paradise Lost has 10,000 lines of blank verse in 12 books (originally published in 10, he reconfigured it into 12 seven years later). The language reminds you of Shakespeare’s, but there’s no way you’ll see the story in a play (and, as of now in February 2021, no movie of Milton’s Paradise Lost appears on the horizon).
Along with the story of the fall of man, Paradise Lost includes Milton’s descriptions of the creation of the heavens and earth, with a shoutout to the telescope and the man who invented it. It contains most spectacularly the battle in heaven between the angels on the side of God vs. those on the side of Lucifer (later known as Satan).
I owe my interest in the poem to an English Lit class I took as a senior in college. I held onto my Norton Anthology, which had its abridged version, and plunged into it during one winter of unemployment in the late 1990s. It didn’t take long to realize that the only way I could understand what I read was to recite it out loud. As blogger Evan Saathoff wrote in 2011:
Yes, the read is daunting. It sometimes dwarves you, but it should. This is that rare exception where true complexity produces actual awe. Seriously, as much as I love Shakespeare, nothing has ever blown away my brain like Paradise Lost. Even the non-cosmic Adam and Eve parts build to a declaration of love which sufficiently proves humanity’s worth among gods and monsters.
I’ve been lucky enough to read Paradise Lost more than once. First, the abridged version, and then the entire poem two times in paperback.
The story starts in media res, with Lucifer waking up in hell after he and the other rebel angels were thrown out of heaven. He’s chained to a burning lake of Sulfur and the first thing he does is rail against God (book 1, lines 128-132):
O Prince, O Chief of many throned Powers
That led th’ embattled Seraphim to war
Under thy conduct, and, in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endangered Heaven’s perpetual King,
And put to proof his high supremacy,
Lucifer looks about him to understand where they all are (book 1, lines 60-64):
The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
It’s after this that he rouses Beelzebub. Leading to Lucifer’s notable line that it would be “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” A little while later all of the demons arise, build their “pandemonium” (a word Milton invented) and gather there to figure out what to do. Eventually Lucifer suggests they check out this new place God was talking about before the war. A place with new beings (people) and perhaps they could mess with them a little.
In escaping hell, Lucifer reaches its entry gate, where he comes upon his daughter, Sin. She’s there with her son, Death (Lucifer had raped Sin which begat Death; Death raped Sin, resulting in hell-hounds):
. . . . About her middle round
A cry of Hell-hounds never-ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal; yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there; yet there still barked and howled
Within unseen. . . .
While Sin has the keys to hell, Lucifer convinces her and Death to let him out through chaos and eventually to Earth/Eden.
I could spend the rest of this post going over the particulars on Paradise Lost (and, again, the war in heaven), but I know that would make my post very long, and I can’t do the poem justice.
I would say that if you venture to read it that you should get a paperback version that explains all the demons and the classical images. In part because I tried reading Paradise Regained (and still should) but was knocked off because I purchased the poem with no footnotes explaining what I was reading.
I did use part of Paradise Lost as a reading at our wedding. That sounds weird (you’re choosing something written about human damnation?) until you see what love is expressed between the two human characters. A friend read what I chose, which is what Eve says to Adam after he has come across her following her bite of the forbidden fruit. Eve then says to him (book 9, lines 966-978 & 988-89):
One heart, one soul in both; whereof good proof this day affords, declaring thee resolved,
Rather than death or aught than death more dread
Shall separate us, linked in love so dear,
To undergo with me one guilt, one crime,
If any be, of tasting this fair fruit,
Whose virtue for of good still good proceeds,
Direct, or by occasion hath presented
This happy trial of thy love, which else
So eminently never had been known.
Were I thought death menaced would ensure
This my attempt, I would sustain alone
. . . .
On my experience, Adam, freely taste,
And fear of death deliver to the winds.
If you think that Satan and the demons aren’t sufficiently punished for tricking Eve (then Adam) into cursing mankind, this is what happens in Book 10 after Satan tells the horde what he did to the humans (lines 501-503):
Ye have the account
Of my performance: What remains, ye Gods,
But up, and enter now into full bliss?
No cheers, just hissing. We’re greeted by the last, disgusting image for Satan & his followers in hell. All of Satan’s guys have turned into snakes (which he does, too). Then, he & they become this big, writhing mass of snakes rolling over to another Tree of Knowledge (lines 558-566):
Though to delude them sent, could not abstain;
But on they rolled in heaps, and, up the trees
Climbing, sat thicker than the snaky locks
That curled Megaera: greedily they plucked
The fruitage fair to sight, like that which grew
Near that bituminous lake where Sodom flamed;
This more delusive, not the touch, but taste
Deceived; they, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes
And, as this is hell, they do it again. . . and again. . . and. . . well, you get the idea.
In the end, Evan Saathoff’s “Don’t Skip This” (an archived page) has a better discussion on why one should read Paradise Lost.
One thing I would say: although I like him, Saathoff doesn’t like the Son very much (in Paradise Lost, he’s referred to as “the Son” because he hasn’t been born yet as Jesus). Saathoff refers to him as “spoiled and unbearably condescending”. But I like him because, earlier on in the story (back before the recitation about the War in Heaven), he offers himself in sacrifice to save humans from the sin that God, and the Son, know they’re going to commit.
I also like the Son chasing the rebelling angels out of heaven with a quiver of 3,000 thunderbolt arrows, 10,000 angels and 20,000 other chariots. Gives you the understanding that these are not “fallen” angels. They’re “running, screaming, & holy goddamned” – literally – “holy shit, get the f*ck out of here” angels, which is something to be awed by as well.
First published February 14, 2021.
Image at the top of this post is an illustration by Gustave Doré of Lucifer falling in Paradise Lost. 1866. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
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