Paradise Lost 3: What Caused That First Fall?

angnes on a wall
It’s natural to walk that line, isn’t it?

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that what I was interested in was what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

Paradise Lost is a poem written in a language that is foreign to me as a non-Christian, though  Christianity is a language of which I have a partial understanding. The poem’s subject matter, in the largest sense, is brokenness and the repair of  brokenness, and this is a  field of experience about which I  do know something. So, for me, reading Paradise Lost is like struggling to understand something personally important to me, spoken by someone I can’t properly understand.

Of course there is some help in the form of footnotes and so on.  Often, I find they don’t help very much, but I’m using the online edition offered by Dartmouth College which has good notes you might want to  turn to sometimes.

For beginners, one of the things to realise early on is that there are powerful rhythms, like tides, in the poem , and they help  me catch the meaning.  Often we’ll be reading sentences, and before that clauses, andd ofteimes individual words, but the large unit is what I call the paragraph  (though may be it is a stanza?)

What I’d do here is  read the whole paragraph through, to get a rough sense of what’s happening, then break it down into sentences, then build it back up again. So, let’s read it through and as you read, aim to breathe at the next bit of punctuation. last week we’d got as far as the second paragraph.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

Now I’m going to go slowly into the first sentence:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

It’s important to remember that Milton is talking to the ‘spirit’ he wants to inspire him. So when he says, ‘Say first, for Heave’n hides nothing from thy view’, the pronoun, ‘thy’ refers to the Holy Spirit. This spirit, one of the  three parts of the Christian God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is all-seeing, knows everything and is real, and really available to John Milton. I don’t have any sense that Milton doubts that this spirit will help him: Milton is the mouthpiece, his verse a vehicle for something which wants to  be spoken.

I slow it down a little more and look more  closely at the task with which Milton is calling for help. It’s not the spirit writing the poem, is it? It’s  Milton – he has asked this first question, he has chosen the order. The spirit knows and sees everything, but does ‘everything’ have an order? Milton sets the question – picks a starting place –  and the spirit answers. It is humans who need chronology, narrative, a beginning:

                                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]

The world is broken, humans are broken, yet in Milton’s universe we are creations of a perfect God. How can there be mess and  breakage in a universe created by a perfect God?  Go back down the human generations, each set of human beings messed up by the ones that came before and eventually we get to our ‘Grand Parents’, Adam and Eve.  There they were, more close to God than any subsequent generation, ‘Favour’d of Heav’n so highly’ , and yet they  fell off. How come? Let’s start there, Milton thinks.

Well, they were ‘favoured of heaven’, but they were also constrained;

                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

Apart from that one restraint, they were Lords of the World.  You can put the emphasis there, Lords of the World. Or you can  put it on the prior clause, ‘ and transgress his Will
For one restraint’.

As a human, I recognise this inability to accept restrain imposed by an external force.

Would you accept it ? To be a lord of the world? You think you might,  or you know you wouldn’t, depending on how rebellious or acquiescent you are, and perhaps also depending on what might be gained.  But whatever each of us reading might individually think, we  probably do recognise as deeply human the inability to accept restraint.

I’m thinking of my grandchildren – each at some each catching your eye while they do the thing you’ve told them not to do. ‘Shall I do this?’ the toddler glance asks, as they do it. And if I do it, as I am, what will you do? Is it a real restraint or can I break it? Is this the edge of the world or just you, making up a law?

But Milton seems to think that this desire to question the boundary is in itself a fall and  in a sense is a form of breakage:

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?

I looked up the verb ‘seduce’ in the etymological dictionary.

1520s, “to persuade a vassal, etc., to desert his allegiance or service,” from Latin seducere “lead away, lead astray,” from se- “aside, away” (see secret (n.)) + ducere “to lead,” from PIE root *deuk- “to lead.” Sexual sense, now the prevailing one, is attested from 1550s and apparently was not in Latin. Originally “entice (a woman) to a surrender of chastity.” Related: Seducedseducing.

Replaced Middle English seduisen (late 15c.), from Middle French séduire “seduce,” from Old French suduire “to corrupt, seduce,” from Latin subducere“draw away, withdraw, remove” (see subduce).

If God was a whole, the entirety of creation a Godly whole, how could our Grand Parents have fallen?  Some other element must have entered which could cause this state of partition, drawing Adam and Eve aside and away from the natural and right order of things.  That element, for Milton, is  ‘the infernal serpent’. And we will come to him next week.

The big question I am left with this week is: is bad part of God as well as good? If the whole thing, everything , is the creation, the being, the actual manifestation of God… then surely whatever  causes the leading astray, the corruption, is part of God too? We’ll come to this when we look at the  ways in which Satan turned from God.

But:  if bad is part of what always is,  is what always is ‘God’.

More next week.


One thought on “Paradise Lost 3: What Caused That First Fall?

  1. orientikate September 4, 2017 / 1:55 pm

    Intriguing read, Jane. I was drawn in particularly with your notion of translation/s between the believing and the non religious as that is very much a part of my experience teaching lit in Japan. Teaching Pullman in seminar was what first got me to pay mind to Milton and which put me squarely in those translation exercises!

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