The first 34 lines of the epic set the stage for everything else. They explain the speaker’s purpose, tell us we are listening to the Holy Spirit, and show that the Fall is part of a much larger tapestry. (1: 1—34)
Paradise Lost, like all classical epics, begins by addressing the Muse. In our day, a muse can be anyone who inspires artists. The muse is not always human, however. Whether they include verses in their poems or sentences in their essays, many writers appeal to spirits outside themselves before they start projects. Some may ask that their work somehow serve God; others might wish to persuade their readers to act, and most might ask for help making their work clear, true, or beautiful. Maybe they don’t pray to Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, or Krishna, but many writers reach beyond themselves because they need to let go of old thoughts to let new ones come in or because the task seems too big for them to accomplish alone. At some point, in some way, almost everyone asks for help.
In Milton’s time, writers drew on classical Greek Mythology (true??) which holds that the muses are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Two of them are Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and Clio, the muse of history. Since Paradise Lost is an epic, we might expect an address to Calliope. In this case, however, the speaker goes straight to the Holy Spirit, who spreads its wings, “brood[s] on the vast Abyss” like a dove on its nest, and “ma[kes] it pregnant” (1: 17—20).
Notice that the Spirit is both male and female, both nurturing and impregnating, and present before God said, “Let there be light.” The speaker asks that spirit to sing about “man’s first disobedience” and the “mortal taste” of “fruit from the forbidden tree.” These few words invite unpacking:
- The taste of the fruit brings “death into our world and all our woe,” for it is “mortal” fruit. Everything else in the garden would let Adam and Eve live forever, but this fruit guarantees that they will die (though not for some time).
- Also consider taste as opposed to flavor. Eve tastes knowledge, limited wisdom, and the illusion of equality with God. We still speak of the tastes of success and power; they tempt many of us to make mistakes as we follow what could be false promises. The metaphor of Milton’s “mortal taste” still holds.
- Finally, these lines contrast with David’s “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:8). The taste of God is good, bringing light and care, but the taste of what he forbids brings darkness.
The poet asks the Holy Spirit to sing so he can listen to the story about how death remains our enemy until Jesus defeats it. In Milton’s words, we fight death and lose Eden “Until One Greater Man/Restore us and regain the blissful seat” (1: 1-4). When Jesus dies and rises, he defeats evil and puts us right with God. In that way, he brings us back to Eden.
No one has ever tried to tell this story before, “in prose or rhyme,” and the speaker asks the Spirit to help him (I:15). He never asks to fulfill this purpose alone. Instead, the poet asks the Spirit to lighten his darkness so that he can “Assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to Men” (I:25-6)
He does not ask for light, clarity, and strength for himself, but to be able to explain God’s ways and show us their perfection. As St. Francis asks to be “an instrument” of God’s peace, the poet asks to be an instrument of teaching, of explaining. Both saint and poet ask that they disappear in order to let God work through them. Rather than channeling peace, however, Milton’s speaker wants to make us understand God’s “Providence.” In this case, providence refers to God’s “foresight and plan for all history” (Note, Teskey 4) Before Adam and Eve leave Eden, Michael the Archangel shows Adam everything that will happen until Jesus comes to defeat Satan (Books 11 and 12). Adam sets out for the larger world knowing his place and his purpose in God’s plan. The poet asks the Holy Spirit to help us understand as well.
Near the end of his invocation, the speaker asks the Spirit to explain what causes our “grand parents” to go against the “one restraint” God places on them. He asks, “Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?” The rest of the poem is the Spirit’s answer, beginning with “Th’infernal Serpent” (I:33-34). The epic is presented, not as the speaker’s ideas, but as what he hears from his Muse, the Holy Spirit. We are to see ourselves reading dictation, not Milton’s creation. The poet is supposed to disappear.
We should understand the concept of providence by the end of the poem. As Adam and Eve leave the garden, these lines take us back to the beginning:
Some natural tears they dropped but wiped them soon.
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 (12: 645--9)
Without considering the larger meaning of Providence, we might think that God would simply take care of them that night. If we consider the whole epic and the opening prayer to the muse, however, we see that God will care for them that night and every other night, for each daily action feeds into Jesus’s eventual victory, no matter how it may appear, no matter how much people suffer, and no matter how they behave. These lines also suggest forgiveness; Adam and Eve hold hands as they face the future together. They have finished blaming each other and accepted the consequences of disobeying God. They walk slowly and alone, but we understand that they are not abandoned.
James, Carolyn Custis. “A Forgotten Legacy—Eve.” Lost Women of the Bible. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005. 27—46
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Shawcross, John. Ed. The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Revised Edition. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company: Garden City, New York. 1971. 249—518.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Teskey, Gordon. Ed. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2005