Paradise Lost is built upon comparisons and oppositions that colour our reading of the poem. Milton uses these oppositions and subverts them by blurring their delineations allowing us to experience almost first hand the vertiginous complexity of moral experience and human existence.
The most obvious theme in a poem about sin and the fall of man is that of good and evil. God and the angels represent the good while Satan and the devils represent evil, and Adam and Eve are the metonymic representatives of man-kind, who occupy a middle ground, caught in the struggle between the two opposing sides, and who feel the attraction of each. However, this opposition is far from simple or concrete. Milton’s supplication to the muse ends with an exposition of his purpose: to ‘justify the ways of God to men’[i]. This immediately puts into question God’s legitimacy as a pure representative of Good, as if this were an accurate epithet, his ways would not need to be justified. In fact, when God first appears, in Book III, his character appears irate and unmerciful, rather than good. He has seen Satan approaching Eden and in his omniscience realises that Adam and Eve will eat from the tree, but rather than expressing sorrow or pity, he seems to use their free will as an excuse for their damnation, turning the blame on to them, and he angrily exclaims, ‘whose fault? Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me all he could have; I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’[ii]. Immediately prior to this outburst God has been discussing the fall of Satan and his crew, and the complex Latinate syntax makes it difficult to realise at first that he is now talking about Adam. This irascibility is only emphasised by the fact that the first character we encounter in the poem is Satan, and that he appears to be far nobler in character than we would expect from the reification of evil. Satan’s conviction in his opposition to God seems to be a result of a passionate political belief in democracy, rather than an evil disposition, as can be seen in this passage:
Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,
Said then the lost Archangel, this the seat
That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid
What shall be right: furthest from Him is best,
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. 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.
The first line dramatically increases in pathos, due to the repetition and shortening of ‘is this the’ in the sequential references to ‘region’, ‘soil’ and ‘clime’. It is important to note that Milton did not use speech marks, so we are unsure whether the first line is being spoken by the narrator or Satan, and in this case uses Latinate syntax to delay the revelation until the second line, which means we are drawn into feeling the building emotion ourselves. The use of ‘lost’ as an epithet to archangel brings up an issue of scale, as we cannot comprehend the immensity of space that could make a being that is closer to Godliness even than the majority of angels feel lost. This is a tension created by Milton’s attempt to describe the metaphysical in the language of the physical, or expressed differently, to explain in man-made language something that is beyond the comprehension of man. This is a recurring theme throughout the poem that I will return to later. Milton tries to make us comprehend the dismal nature of hell by creating a binary opposition between its ‘mournful gloom’ and heaven’s ‘celestial light’, and the contrasting of ‘this’ and ‘that’ sets up the ideas of immediacy and distance. These first three and a half lines convey the deep misery of the setting that Satan has found himself in, so his stoicism and principled defiance that we see when he suddenly cuts in with ‘be it so’ in the middle of line 4, is surprising and endearingly noble. ‘He who now is sovereign can dispose and bid what shall be right’ is, in my opinion, one of the most important lines in the poem. It explicitly highlights the arbitrary nature of objective morality. We see from this line that the only reason that Satan decides that ‘to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight’, and the only reason that he can be seen as evil, is because he disagrees with God, and it is God who decides what is good and what is evil. Satan argues that according to reason God is equal to the other angels, but it is only ‘force hath made (him) supreme above his equals.’ His following farewell to heaven and embrace of hell along with his assertion that ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ is incredibly stoic and is more the admirable resistance of a social revolutionary than a malevolent spirit.
In fact, this view of Satan as a freedom fighter for democracy against a tyrannical autocrat highlights another comparison, this time external to the text, which can, and, dubious as authorial readings tend to be, in this case I think should be made, and that is the parallel between Satan’s rebellion against God and the English civil war, which we know Milton to have been very actively involved with. In this reading Satan and his followers represent Cromwell and his anti-royalist army, while God represents the tyrannical king, Charles I. The most compellingly analogous sections of the poem, which support this idea are the two counsels held; the first in hell to decide on the actions of Satan’s army in gaining vengeance on God, and the second in heaven, when God sees that man will fall and somebody will have to be made mortal and die to redeem them. During the council in hell, Satan is the last to speak, allowing Moloch, Belial and Beelzebub to pitch their ideas first to be decided on by general consensus. In comparison, the voice of God dominates the council in heaven, with only Christ replying. This meeting is conducted as a despot’s declaration, rather than a democratic counsel. Linguistically, Satan speaks humbly and nobly, asserting that ‘I should ill become this throne, O peers, and this imperial sovereignty, adorned with splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed and judged of public moment, in the shape of difficulty or danger could deter me from attempting’. In comparison to this, God rants bad-temperedly (‘ingrate, he had of me all he could have’) and then asks, ‘which of ye will be mortal to redeem man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save(?)’ A variation of this reading could also be made, in which Satan, as well as representing Cromwell, could also represent Milton himself. The powers of Satan and God once again form a binary opposition. God’s power, according to Satan, derives from ‘force’, whereas Satan’s own power is in his rhetoric. Before the poem even begins he has used his powers of persuasion to build an army with which to rebel against God, and his power over their minds is clearly incredibly strong, as they remain loyal to him even after their defeat. He again manages to convince Eve to disobey God, not through force but by persuasion. Milton’s role in Cromwell’s revolt was not as a fighter, but as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues, in the Commonwealth parliament, and he wrote important tracts and polemics in support of the deposition and execution of the king, such as Areopagitica. Milton also studied classical rhetoric while at school and was required to participate in regular debates at Cambridge, so he clearly understood the importance of persuasion as opposed to force in a political uprising.
Related to the opposition of God and Satan, is that of heaven and hell, and just like man Eden acts as a middle party, prone to shifts and changes. We first see hell, which is characterised by darkness (‘darkness visible’), fire (‘as one great furnace flamed’) and depth (‘bottomless perdition’). Heaven, in contrast is characterised by light, and Milton emphasises the absolute nature of this light through repetition, when he says ‘since God is light, and never but in unapproachèd light dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee, bright effluence of bright essence increate’. Eden is subject to a cycle of day and night, at first undisrupted, but after the fall suddenly subjected to eclipses and storms. However, it is Milton’s use of light and darkness with regard to heaven and hell that I find most interesting. Milton was completely blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost and his use of visual imagery takes on a abstract and sublime character, which melds together the physical and metaphysical in a way that must necessarily transcend or be limited by the human imagination. Rather than shying away from these descriptions Milton is content to use oxymorons and paradoxes, such as ‘darkness visible’, or simply images that can’t be comprehended like ‘thou from the first wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss.’ This use of incomprehensible imagery emphasises the sense of the sublime and allows Milton to show that ‘the ways of God’ are far beyond our comprehension.
[i] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Oxford, 2008; Book I, 26