Ashamedly I admit haven’t been reading much poetry since my graduate student days over a decade ago. As chance would have it, I came across a PDF version of “Paradise Lost” recently and I remembered how that one small bit that we read in college, about Satan luring Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, was a revelation to me – mostly because I thought it would be boring, and because I didn’t think I would understand it even in my native language, let alone in English. But there I was, reading it in the original and wondering why no one ever told me that stuff was interesting. Why I read only what our professor assigned and not the whole poem, I can’t explain other than by stating the obvious – college students often have other priorities that don’t involve reading and studying.
So, since I didn’t seek the book, it sought me. And for the second time I marveled both at the fantastic plot of the book (he obviously knew, the same as Shakespeare, that the greatest sin for a writer is to be boring) and the poetic language that opens up to a reader and offers a rich reward only if the reader is patient enough. And I was patient, at least in the first 7-8 books, while Lucifer played a major part. I have to admit that the last two books that recount the history of mankind lost my interest.
“Paradise Lost” opens with that now famous opening line: “Of man’s first disobedience…” Like a neat college student paper, it first tells us what we are in for and those introductory lines are so compelling that we are immediately hooked. What’s interesting to me is that he aspires not only to “pursue things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” but also to “justify the ways of God to men.” That was the first hint to me that this is not only a blindly religious musing, but also a critique of our alleged maker.
Milton doesn’t dwell too long on the introduction, but very quickly and without mercy throws us into Hell to experience heat, chains and agony from up front. There we see angels who dared to rebel against God now serving their punishment in the darkest pit of the universe. Lucifer is among them, though Milton mentions his angel name only once during the whole poem. In “Paradise Lost” he is Satan. Nevertheless, I’ll call him Lucifer because whatever Milton’s purpose was, he only made it impossible for me to see him as a heartless villain. As William Blake wrote, “[Milton] was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” and P.B. Shelley agrees; he says that “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is far superior to his God.” Which is how I read the poem as well.
Milton’s Lucifer is the only character in the poem that experiences real struggles of the soul, and though he always ends up doing evil, somehow my disbelief is not suspended in that particular case. What starts out as a case of vanity, turns into a desire to do monstrous deeds? Yes, the Bible says so, but I don’t buy it. And this vanity… Later in the book Adam is told the history of the dispute between God and Lucifer. There are things that God does that are beyond questioning and reproach, suspiciously similar to what happens in authoritarian regimes. Isn’t it only natural that someone would rebel? The shiniest of all angels, at that. And later, when Lucifer manages to get out of Hell and visits the new prophesied world, he learns how he might be able to take his rightful revenge. He hears that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat off the tree of knowledge, and oh, is he surprised:
One fatal tree there stands of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
But he who dares think such thoughts and act upon them is fallen and forever cursed to be the epitome of evil.
Aside my sympathy for the Devil and lack of understanding for the ways of God (Milton obviously hasn’t succeeded there), “Paradise Lost” didn’t win me over only because of the fantastic portrayal of Satan. The books about Adam and Eve are equally wonderful, with beautiful descriptions of that mythical garden and even more skillfully crafted interactions between the two purest humans that ever walked the Earth. Seeing with how much tenderness, affection and kindness Adam and Eve converse and act towards each other, I can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia for that something that I never had – a world that is good in its entirety.
Milton masterfully took all that beauty and purity away from me when Satan entered a sleeping snake and with a sweet tongue manipulated Eve. But could she have been manipulated, if she didn’t have similar thoughts that Lucifer had in heaven? Let’s face it, though she loved Adam dearly and he was nothing but good to her, she was still his subordinate. I’d love it if there was a version of the Bible where we see how Adam manages the serpent. Would his loyalty to his maker prevail, or would Lucifer manage to trick him into eating the fruit as well?
We know what happens later. The Son of God volunteers to redeem the human race, so we don’t have it all that bad in the end. We only get the incestuous Death and Sin, wars, pain, cruelty, hunger, but also the possibility to join the creator in heaven or Paradise, if we prove our loyalty. O, God is just. Speaking of fairness, not only did he forgive his angels and not punish them for not preventing Satan to enter the world, because “how could they have possibly seen him and stopped him?” but he also punished the snake because Satan entered it while it was sleeping and wasn’t aware of anything that was happening. So, yes. Go ahead, forgive the incompetent, and punish the innocent.
In the end, we lose Paradise, just like Lucifer lost heaven – because we are vain, curious and never happy with what we have.
Yet, the ending is maybe hopeful. Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, and hand in hand, they start towards the world as we know it. “The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest,” goes the line. It is probably meant to be hopeful, but to me it has that double-edged sword sound to it, sort of like Satan’s pitiful consolation that “to reign is worth ambition, though in hell.”
Though “Paradise Lost” gave me a lot of joy and triggered some sort of a religious debate within me, it also made me aware (for the umpteenth time) how little I know. There were many references to mythology and history in the poem that I quickly read without any idea what they mean. So, next time I read the poem, it will have to be a densely annotated version. 🙂