Paradise Lost 6: In Which I Resolve Not To Argue with John Milton

chaos taking hold in the front garden
Chaos taking hold (or nature asserting itself) in the front garden

I’m continuing my weekly Sunday reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

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 I was interested in 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’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

But to Hell, my friends, let us now turn. Last  week in PL5 I’d been thinking about the difference between being in Hell, or being dead, and being alive or with the possibility of hope. in Hell, ‘hope never comes that comes to all’. Let’s pick up at line 70.

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.

First thing I want to think about is ‘Eternal Justice’, which I think really means ‘God’. Can it really be just that a place should be prepared  in which ‘hope never comes that comes to all’? I’m going to reread that sentence –

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.

Prepar’d, ordain’d, set… this was made in advance for something  God knew would happen. A God who acts like this can seem  merely punishing, ungenerous, lacking compassion.  He creates everything, some of it bad and then creates a punishment for that bad stuff.

I need to translate such a thought into something I am able to accept, if I am to accept this God Milton paints for me. And I want to do that rather than argue with Milton, so I am going to think  of  God and hell as something like opposing states – that if there is one and it is natural, the given, then the other must naturally follow.  Let me try again, then.

God creates something imbued with freedom to be alive in any way it wants.  There is a natural order – God at the centre,  the most powerful light in all the regions of light,  but adherence to this order is not compulsory, it is not fixed. Everything in  creation can choose how it wants to be. But those that choose to be ‘rebellious’ will find themselves in a place where ‘hope never comes that comes to all.’

Of course there is something in me that is rebellious: I don’t want to do what I am told by God or anyone, so a part of me, even as I am writing, is very  angry on behalf of Satan and the rebel angels.

But I’m trying not to think in that simple way.  I’m trying to think about  how things are: in my experience, when I have done bad things I have felt bad. I don’t need a God the Father to make me feel bad, it just is that. I ask myself , is Hell then a bigger version of this? If you try to take God’s place -as the most powerful , the all powerful- then naturally you fail and fall into despair? Hhm, the introduction of power makes me feel rebellious again. I try to start my thought again. I really do not want to fall out with John Milton.

I need to understand what he  means by God and to try to translate that into something I can understand.

I ask myself, is there anything in the poem so far that can help me with that?  I reread, going quickly through the lines looking for clues to Milton’s idea of God:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

First I notice the fourth word of the poem, ‘disobedience’, and note that  this is a universe in which ‘disobedience’; is a key factor. I ask myself what I think of that.  The angry  anarchic child in me wants to say, no! I don’t accept any rule of law. But  another part of me does believe that there are underlying laws (of love or  the good, I don’t know what to call them) at play in the life I have experienced.  And if there are laws then of course there may be disobedience.

I’m thinking of what may seem a weird analogy.

Say someone was  doing a violent crime , a rape or murderous attack. In the moment of the doing, in the time leading up to the moments of the doing, the  attacker might well feel a kind of power. In a sense this person is rebelling against human being – the law – instinctive as well as civil, most of the time, being: we don’t kill or hurt each other. But for some reason, the attacker wants or needs or chooses to so attack. He feels powerful and as if he is in control, or that the act of violence will give him some kind of control. (I’m thinking of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment but also of real murderers, real rapists).

If there were no human kind-ness (assuming this to be the basis of human law) the attacker would  continue to feel powerful and in control after his attack. But  there is human kind-ness, and growing from that, in most places, there is civil law. When you have attacked someone you have violated those laws. They exist even in a place, such as a war zone, where there is no rule of law. They exist whatever you as the attacker think.  Your state of mind does not change the outer reality.

Later, the fact of having done the bad act becomes its own punishment – as  it does for Raskolnikov. If, for a murderer, for an attacker, that act never becomes bad, we would say, the murderer is mad, the rapist is a psychopath. And by that we would mean: he does not share our sense of human kindness. He has created – in opposition to human kind –  his own, false, reality.

Using such an analogy to translate Satan and Hell and God helps me see them in a different way, so that I stop wanting to protect and forgive Satan’s rebelliousness.  Do I want to protect and forgive a murderer, rapist, attacker while they continue to  shout their right to do such harm because they are so powerful?

I might argue back to myself, saying: but all Satan has done is challenge God. But isn’t that possible at many levels? The initial challenge  (do you accept a greater law than your own desire) is the basic  question the poem asks me to ask myself. We’ll come back to this when we see  Eve’s fall. (My mind has jumped to AA and the requirement to acknowledge a power greater than yourself. Thinking of some of the self-justified damage alcoholics and other addicts do and have to re-frame in order to recover).

Second I notice, ‘And chiefly thou, O Spirit that dost prefer/ Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure’, which seems a clue to the place God might take in Milton’s heart (is this a different kind of thing to the story we are getting in the poem? Did Satan  have access to a spirit in his heart? Does the murderer?)

Thirdly I notice ‘eternal providence’, which seems connected to the  thing I started with today, the ‘prepar’d, ordain’d, set… ‘  provision of Hell as a place for the rebellious. Providence is a word to do with seeing ahead, providing for what may be ahead, fore-seeing and preparing for what is fore-seen. Milton believes that  God has and does fore-see everything. Everything that may possibly be is already known, as if God could see time and space and action and possible action all at once.  The result of being the murderer is hell, and it exists, as it were, before the crime is committed. It’s always there, whether I commit the crime or not. The fact that that hell is there does not mean anyone or anything made me do it.

So now I am thinking, I need two (or more!) lenses for reading the poem. The first is the immediate – I’m in a dramatic story, and Satan, its huge anti-hero, is about to speak for the first time.  But also I need the  long distance lens of attempts to understand the God Milton shows me (is God the right word? or perhaps ‘universe’ – no, not big enough!, ‘the creation’? No, not big enough, God is bigger than that. It is the all, the everything? The reality?).

But we’re out of time.

I’m just going to finish this morning’s reading by reading this first speech of Satan (to Beelzebub)  and we’ll come back and start here next week:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.



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