Here’s the first entry in my attempt to read Paradise Lost, with a degree of attention, in one month.
Today I reached Book 1, Line 330
Milton begins by invoking the Muse to help him with his song, which will pursue “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” His Muse is Jesus, but an address to the Muse brings to mind the traditions of both Greek and Roman verse, and it will be interesting to evaluate Milton’s mixing of these traditions as the poem continues.
Milton then summarises the story of the Fall, highlighting the role of the serpent, Satan, who had raised himself up against God and was cast down into the abyss. Milton describes it:
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,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell
TS Eliot dismissed these lines as “impossible to imagine”, which seems an odd opinion to me. Yes, flames that give darkness rather than light are no ordinary flames, but this is clearly no ordinary place. We can surely envisage the possibility of such flames even if they stretch beyond the imagination. I thought it was a great conception.
Then Beelzebub, ‘Lord of the Flies’, arrives and Satan hatches his plot. He is deluded, in that he thinks he can overcome God by force, as if God rules by force in the first place. His speech lasts 41 lines, the same number of lines as his final speech in Book 1 – numerologists have had a field-day with PL. Beelzebub is dubious, as God defeated them before and might do again, but Satan reckons that:
If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Satan is cool, crafty and single-minded. He even senses an advantage of being so far from God in this terrible place – all the better to plot against him in peace. In lines 249-264, he comes up with some astonishingly lyrical stuff, the kind of blank verse you just can’t beat:
Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever 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.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.
Fantastic stuff! Again Satan is deluded in thinking that God's glory derives only from his “thunder”, but the self-possession he has in his mind (“the mind is its own place”) is chilling. He and Beelzebub raise themselves from the fiery sea they’ve been cast into and go in search of their defeated army. Satan rouses them, asking them ironically if they’re sleeping (“to repose their wearied virtue”) or are abasing themselves so as “to adore the conqueror”. He tells them to get up or God’s forces will soon arrive to trample on them and finish them off.