This page will describe my journey through John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first three posts show my order of composition. Later writings will feature the most recent ideas first. If you begin reading this blog after I write about Book I, please scroll down to the older entries to see the background. I invite you to read, comment, and share so this will become a companionable hike instead of a solitary walk.
We may need to reconsider everything we have heard about Original Sin. I suspected this when my Bible Study Ladies read Lost Women of the Bible, by Carolyn Custis James. This collection of linked essays begins with Eve’s story, and I disagreed with James’ interpretation. My questions sent me back to a poem I started years—maybe decades—ago. Furious about the way many use the garden story to condemn women, I threw in everything I associated with the Judeo-Christian creation myth and came up with a self-pitying feminist rant. Soon after reading that disappointing poem, I tried to revise it into something interesting and mature to share with my group. I looked up the poorly remembered, tossed-in references to the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. By the time I found everything and turned the poem into a confused list, I realized that we might misunderstand the story. Our first parents were not destroyers responsible for everything wrong with the universe; they were heroes. Why? They eventually admitted their wrong and chose to produce the generations that would lead to Jesus. We all learn that Jesus defeats Satan and thus redeems our first parents’ big mistake, but we forget that Adam and Eve began the process by trying to right their wrong. That makes them human heroes, not epic failures.
Unfortunately, I looked up the place where Milton writes that he wants to explain God’s ways to man, saw a line about evil entering the world, started reading the footnotes, and realized that I can’t just argue my ego-driven opinion about one man’s interpretation of a myth we have all heard since we were four. Many people have no idea that Paradise Lost was so famous and authoritative that it used to sit beside the Bible on millions of bookshelves. I need to consider Milton’s life, 17th Century cosmology, all twelve books of the poem, and formal scholars’ ideas. All of that indicates more than a few days’ work.
My personal quandary with the Eden story also figures into this project. A few years ago, I presented a paper comparing Eden to Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits.” Way before that, I wrote a story about a scorpion running rampant in a woman’s body. Several years before that story, I went to Graduate School and started asking questions about God, evil, and mercy. One of my first professors, John Shawcross, edited all of Milton’s poetry, and his book was our text. I was completely lost in that class; my Paradise Lost paper was so bad he didn’t even grade it, and my book had almost zero marginalia. All of this means that Adam, Eve, God, and the serpent have been eating my lunch for a long time. My opinion, requires knowledge and logic. What began as emotional vomit now suggests a journey through a labyrinth of text and memory. The result may be a clear, referenced argument; this writing aims to share the hike.
Now it takes two books and the Bible to explore the idea that Adam and Eve were heroes and not just responsible for everything wrong with the world. The book entitled Paradise Lost is a Norton Critical Edition, edited by Gordon Teskey. Spelling is modern, and the supporting material is designed to introduce undergraduate students to basic scholarship on Milton and the epic. I did not meet this poem until graduate school, and that with a background in theater, not English Literature. Studying it the first time was torture, so I am happy to find material for the uninitiated. When my gleanings lead to more questions, I will find more specific criticism, knowing that any insights I gain from the poem will not be new to anyone who studies Milton. Graduate students and scholarly professors have probably written tomes about Milton’s every word, but I will still use my box of crayons in the presence of masters. Why? Because it is fun.
This personal study of Paradise Lost goes against everything I ever taught about conducting research. I created the diagram below for a ninth-grade English class and often used it with my college students. It gives a general idea of my method, which is probably standard for most English teachers. For this project, I am neglecting all those steps and sharing the journey before knowing where it leads. Perhaps the blog format is more forgiving, letting writers send out small pieces of a whole in search of like-minded readers and people who ask challenging questions. At any rate, I plan to stay with this method for now. Please share your ideas, impressions, challenges, and questions. (One post on the poem itself is finally almost ready for you to see.)
Calling the Spirit in Book I
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