In the middle of my journey, I picked up Paradise Lost. I did so out of embarrassment, a dutiful feeling that I must at least try to read it, finish it even, before the dark evening of my life. It had sat for years on my bookshelf, a pristine copy of the Norton Critical Edition, its purple cover framing a Renaissance-era portrait of Adam and Eve in front of the Tree. Having fallen sadly out of the habit of reading serious literature, I needed an easy goal as an inducement to begin, so I promised myself I would read one page a day. As it turned out, it took me six months to finish, the longest and most intense period I had ever committed to any book.

As I learned, Paradise Lost may be sui generis, but Milton demands that one write about it; that one acknowledge, not in a merely celebratory, but in a collaborative way, its profound greatness. Indeed, until I read Paradise Lost, I had not encountered true genius.

I use the word confidently, yet hesitantly. Milton’s first lesson to me was that all words and expressions must be stripped down to their essentials, used like jeweler’s tools, fitting exactly and only into their true meanings, yet not thinly or spartanly. His words are precise, but also full, ripe, bursting with power.

Title page of the first edition of Paradise Lost

The late Scott Elledge, the editor of the Norton edition, cautioned in his introduction that, because the blind Milton composed by ear, his poem had to be read out loud, so as to fully experience his cadence and rhythm. So I read Milton aloud, often no more than a handful of pages at a time. And in doing so, a world unfolded, merging ear and mind in a way that was entirely natural and yet also a complete, almost physical, shock. As I read, I could more and more feel the clarity of Milton’s thought; it seemed almost physical, innate in the writing, and at the same time a portal directly into his words. However Milton wrote, with whatever primal energy he poured into Paradise Lost, he enveloped my mind in a way no other author ever has. It is for this reason, for the almost inconceivable perfection of his words and their direct accessibility, that I use the word “genius.”

We live in a self-referential age, where it is all but expected that I should gauge Milton by his effect on me. If his poem speaks to me, then it must be a great poem and he a writer of genius. But we must reject such narrowness of vision, even while recognizing that Milton’s goal, “to justify the ways of God to men,” indeed reaches our deepest thoughts and emotions.

The very opening of the epic leaves one breathless, dropped by Satan’s side, “rolling in the fiery gulf,” as the archdemon awakens in Hell after his rebellion has been vanquished.

The opening in Hell is a signal from Milton that the powers he deals with are not merely of the body—a simple recounting of the actions of his principle players—but of the mind also. It is the inmost thoughts of Satan, and soon of the father and mother of mankind, that bring astounding shape and texture to the words. And the overriding emotion that those thoughts engender is one of pity.

There can be no book more compassionate than Paradise Lost, no writer more giving than Milton. A reader—or at least this reader—cannot quite believe his own reaction. He is sympathetic to Satan! He recognizes himself in the archfiend. Who cannot but vibrate in like frequency when Satan so skillfully dissects his own rages in Book IV?

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.

And

say I could repent and could obtain
By act of grace my former state; how soon
Would highth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feigned submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.

Has there ever been a fiend so apparently self-aware, so tortured? Satan is no deluded Raskolnikov, thinking that the basest acts can prove his greatness. No, he is crafted far more in our image than we want to admit. And worse, is he not admirable? For Satan fights, like all of us, for his dignity and freedom: “I ’sdained subjection, and thought one step higher/ Would set me highest.” He will not serve in Heaven, but he is tormented by the knowledge of what he gave up. He therefore decides he cannot but act the way he does, for it is his fixed character, a fatal flaw for which he blames God Himself. And so his bitterness is complete, and we feel it with him:

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my good.

Today’s culture urges us to champion self-acceptance, to get comfortable in our own skin. But that’s just the perverse acceptance that allows the archfiend to justify his nefarious plans for our biblical parents, and by extension for each of us. Having comforted himself that he cannot be reconciled to justice—let alone God’s mercy—he wallows in jealousy, as when he first espies Adam and Eve, so in love:

Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.

It is unbearable to Satan that he himself, through his failed heavenly rebellion, is responsible both for his punishment and for the creation of the objects of his rage:

Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe

To take a dispassionate stance, to be a mere observer of Satan’s words cannot be done. I felt the impending doom personally and with anguish, for Milton had brought me into Adam and Eve’s world as completely as he had into Satan’s. Their innocence is absolute, and again Milton’s brilliance breathes life into a word so hackneyed—“paradise”—that one truly understands it for the first time. One might think that Eden’s perfection would be boring, devoid of the passions of life. But Milton’s compassion makes it just the opposite. With sweet heartache, for we can never know it ourselves, we tour through the Garden:

Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock, or the flow’ry lap
Of some irrigous valley spread her store,
Flow’rs of all hue, and without thorn the rose:
. . . meanwile murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringed bank with myrtle crowned,
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.

And the beneficiaries of this creation are as naturally a part of their world as we are cocooned from ours, in our great concrete and steel blocks and on our asphalt streets.

So hand in hand they passed, the loveliest pair
That ever since in love’s embraces met,
Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.
Under a tuft of shade that on a green
Stood whispering soft, by a fresh fountain side
They sat them down . . .

Now Milton must bring his crisis, and destroy this world as thoroughly, as powerfully, as he has created it. The moment of choice, brought about by Satan’s rhetoric and Eve’s self-delusion, is no less devastating for being so familiar. Thanks to the paradise that Milton has brought forth, Eve’s decision goes beyond the merely tragic. It resonates in the deepest wellsprings of our own minds.

Milton forced me to face my own weakness, reflected in Eve, my own willingness to risk all due to nothing more than dissatisfaction, greed, jealousy, and desire. These flaws sound prosaic, but Milton limns the evil they spawn. I saw through Eve how I lack the grace of gratefulness. Paradise is a state of mind, and only when distempers already exist can such temptation as that offered by Satan triumph. As Eve’s hand reached for the forbidden fruit, my own destructive passions guided it.

Eve’s rebellion is thus mine, and I share in her guilt when Milton destroys their place in paradise so ruthlessly and unsparingly. But at the same time, Milton has drawn the perfections of Eden so joyously that I now recoil from its fallen taints and perversions. Nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the decay of Adam and Eve’s natural and innocent physical love:

Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn.

“Mistrust, suspicion, discord,” the dark rivers of the suddenly released psyche now begin to wreak their havoc in the world, their minds “now tossed and turbulent.” Could even Satan have envisioned how complete his victory would be? And what sadness it brings forth, a sadness so unexpected that I suffered vertigo, and felt as though I were falling while I read of a world gone dark.

Perhaps it is because I am a middle-aged reader that I felt all too clearly the contours of Adam and Eve’s fallen world. Disappointment, grief at what I have lost, frustration with what I may never have, all are numbingly familiar. I walked next to them, seeing the same landscape, crushed by the knowledge of the trials I have faced and will continue to face. Their world had become mine, its sweetness had rotted. I became impatient in my reading, waiting for the inevitable, the casting out from a paradise already lost. But I was to be denied the simplicity of the deserved end. For Milton had yet another gift to give, a final flashing of his genius.

To understand that last gift, one must first be reminded of Milton’s entire scheme. Paradise Lost offers a striking difference between an original idea and its exploration. The reader of the third chapter of Genesis is presented with the mere sketch of the story of the Fall. Our progenitors transgress, they are exiled, and the story of man begins. The Hebrew Bible treats its events as the necessary beginning to the story of divine revelation. It must take us from the Garden to Abraham, and from him to Joseph, and finally to Moses. Revelation is a key part of Milton’s scheme, too. It is the balm with which the Archangel Michael salves Adam’s psychic wounds, showing him in Books XI and XII the subsequent history of the human race through the Resurrection. It is the comfort that Adam and Eve need to begin their own history: life outside the Garden.

Yet even were Milton simply to excavate and rebuild the Genesis episode by providing both the inner thoughts of the protagonists and their antagonist, and the revelation that grounds true faith, his poem would still be unsatisfying. Nor would it seem to matter much to us in our own journey through life. Milton knew this, for in completing his scheme he takes us another step and grants us that last flash of his genius, the last gift given in the book. He gives redemption.

Revelation, of course, is utterly out of our hands. Redemption, by contrast, is partly in our hands. It is the true mark of our humanity: acceptance of one’s place, owning up to one’s mistakes, seeking and granting forgiveness, and having the courage to change, to walk a new path. In a way more powerful than any author I had read, Milton made redemption palpable, moving me beyond a simple intellectual acceptance of its beauty or my need for it.

The loss of their love and the opening of a chasm of distrust between the two after their eyes are opened must be repaired for our primal mother and father to beget our race and ultimately bring about its final salvation. Of the ways in which Adam and Eve redeem themselves, two struck deep in my breast. The first was one I understood, or thought I did, as a parent. Having become individuals, the first selves, Adam and Eve both now learn selflessness. Adam’s selflessness is born out of an acceptance of his failures, of taking responsibility. In Book X, it manifests itself in a desire to redeem his children, and his entire line, from paying the costs of his mistake:

On me, me only, as the source and spring
Of all corruption, all the blame lights due;
So might the wrath.

Adam cannot bear the thought that all his children, through time, will pay for his transgression. The feeling gives birth to the pardon. Adam having so redeemed himself, God allows Michael to give him the revelation he needs to begin the arduous path that will lead mankind to the regaining of paradise with the Messiah.

By contrast, Eve’s redemption is closer to the heart, less world-historical. It is the selflessness born out of love for Adam, and a wish to repair that which has sundered them apart. She, too, is willing to carry the onerous burden in order to free the one she loves from her error. She says she

to the place of judgment will return,
There with my cries importune Heaven, that all
The sentence from thy head removed may light
On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe,
Me me only just object of his ire.

Eve’s wish to shoulder all blame provides the portal to the second form of redemption Milton provides.

And so their apotheosis is reached, as they learn that an individual is completed only with another, that the course of their labors can be eased when love is fully shared by two persons responsible for their actions. What is true happiness is finally understood: that Eden without each other is no paradise at all. So remarks Eve in Book XII,

[W]ith thee to go,
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,
Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me
Art all things under heav’n.

And it is this knowledge, arising from redemption from their selfishness and hatred towards each other, that gives them the strength for their strongest trial, the fated exile.

My vision blurred as I saw Michael take them by the hand and walk them out the eastern gate of Eden, gently enforcing the stern divine edict. I looked with love and pity and hope on those two, who are now at last human. I wanted to reassure them, as “They looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld/ Of paradise, so late their happy seat.” But they did not need me to do so; they each had been told already of the glorious end that they must now begin. It was, instead, I who needed to accept the fallen Adam and Eve as potentially greater paragons than when they bestrode the Garden.

My tears mixed with theirs at the contemplation of their loss, but their strength buoyed me, for

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.

Compassion and acceptance and hope. Those are the gifts Milton gave me, and through those I, too, seek redemption.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 27
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