PARADISE LOST the printer to the reader
Courteous Reader, there was no argument at first intended to the book, but for the satisfaction of many that have desired it, I have procured it, and withal a reason of that which stumbled many others, why the poem rhymes not. S. Simmons
The measure is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Vergil in Latin; rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have expressed them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note have rejected rhyme both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and all good oratory.
1. The defense of blank verse and the prose arguments summarizing each book “procured” by Milton’s printer, Samuel Simmons, were inserted in bound copies of the first edition beginning in 1668, with this brief note.
This neglect then of rhyme so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.
Book I The Argument
This first book proposes, first in brief, the whole subject, man’s disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was placed: then touches the prime cause of his fall, the serpent, or rather Satan in the serpent, who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many legions of angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven with all his crew into the great deep. Which action passed over, the poem hastes into the midst of things, presenting Satan with his angels now fallen into Hell, described here, not in the center (for heaven and earth may be supposed as yet not made, certainly not yet accursed) but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest called Chaos. Here Satan with his angels lying on the burning lake, thunder-struck and astonished, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in order and dignity lay by him. They confer of their miserable fall. Satan awakens all his legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; they rise, their numbers, array of battle, their chief leaders named, according to the idols known afterwards in Canaan and the countries adjoining. To these Satan directs his speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new world and new kind of creature to be created, according to an ancient prophecy or report in Heaven; for that angels were long before this visible creation was the opinion of many ancient Fathers. To find out the truth of this prophecy, and what to determine thereon, he refers to a full council. What his associates thence attempt. Pandaemonium the palace of Satan rises, suddenly built out of the deep. The infernal peers there sit in council.
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
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
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the highth of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep tract of Hell, say first what cause
Moved our grand parents in that happy state,
Favored of Heav’n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
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 equaled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God
Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
1. The first line’s introduction of an exemplary man recalls the epics of Homer and Vergil. Milton’s theme, however, is neither martial nor imperial but spiritual: humanity’s disastrous failure to obey God counterpoised by the promise of redemption. Of man’s: The proper name Adam is also the Hebrew word for generic man or humankind. He is both an individual male and, with Eve, the entire species: “so God created man . . . ; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1.27). Of man translates the Hebrew for “woman” (Gen. 2.23). fruit: Its dual meanings (outcome, food) are put in play by enjambment, a primary formal device by which Milton draws out sense “from one verse into another” (The Verse).
4. one greater man: Jesus, second Adam (1 Cor. 15.21–22; Rom. 5.19). Cp. PR 1.1–4.
5. blissful seat: translates Vergil’s epithet for Elysium, Aen. 6.639.
6. Sing Heav’nly Muse: the verb and subject of the magnificently inverted sixteen-line opening sentence. By invoking a Muse, Milton follows a convention that dates from Homer. Yet Milton’s Muse is not the muse of classical epic (Calliope) but the inspiration of Moses, David, and the prophets (cp. 17–18n). secret: set apart, not common. When the Lord descends to give Moses the law, thick clouds and smoke obscure the mountaintop, and the people are forbidden on pain of death to cross boundaries around the mountain (Exod. 19.16, 23).
8. shepherd: The vocation of shepherd is a key vehicle for Milton’s integration of classical and scriptural traditions. Moses encounters God while tending sheep on Mount Horeb (Oreb) and later receives the law on Sinai, a spur of Horeb (Exod. 3; 19). (Or the doubling of names may simply acknowledge the inconsistency of Exod. 19.20 and Deut. 4.10.)
9. In the beginning: opening phrase of Genesis and the Gospel of John.
10. Chaos: classical term for the primeval state of being out of which God creates, also referred to as “the deep” (as in Gen. 1.2) and “the abyss” (as in l. 21). Sion hill: Mount Zion, site of Solomon’s Temple, “the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 6.1, 13). Adding to the persistent doubleness of the invocation, Milton requests inspiration from two scriptural sites associated with God’s presence and prophetic inspiration. Both sites receive dual designations: Mount Horeb/Sinai and Mount Zion/Siloa’s brook.
11–12. Siloa’s brook . . . God: spring whose waters flowed through an underground aqueduct, supplied a pool near (Fast by) Solomon’s Temple, and irrigated the king’s lush garden (cp. 4.225–30). Jerome says it ran directly beneath Mount Zion (A. Gilbert 1919, 269). Scripturally, it symbolizes David’s monarchical line (Isa. 7–8, esp. 8.6). In opening the eyes of the man born blind, Jesus sends him to wash his eyes with its waters (John 9). Cp. 3.30–31. oracle of God: the holiest place in the Temple, the tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 6.19). The classical Muses haunt a spring (Aganippe) on Helicon (cp. 15n), “the sacred well, / That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring” (Lyc 15–16). In identifying the spring near the “Holy of Holies” as similarly a site of inspiration, Milton again links scriptural and classical prophetic and poetic traditions.
14. no middle flight: Milton will go beyond middle air, whose upper boundary is as high as the peaks of tall mountains, and soar to the highest Empyrean, the abode of God. His soaring ambition recalls the myth of Icarus, whose failure to follow a middle flight caused him to tumble into the sea (cp. 7.12–20).
15. Aonian mount: Helicon, Greek mountain favored by the Muses (cp. 11–12n). Hesiod says that while he tended sheep on Helicon (like Moses on Horeb), the Muses called him to sing of the gods (Theog. 22).
16. Translates the opening of Orlando Furioso (1.2) and is reminiscent of Masque 43–45; cp. similar claims by Lucretius (De Rerum Nat. 1.925–30) and Horace (Odes 3.1.2–4).
17–18. 1 Cor. 3.16–17, 6.19. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit (l. 21). In Milton’s theology, the diverse functions of the Holy Spirit derive from “the virtue and power of God the Father,” in this case “the force or voice of God, in whatever way it was breathed into the prophets” (CD 1.6, p. 1194). The site of revelation progresses from Horeb/Sinai to Sion hill/Siloa’s brook to, finally, the individual human heart.
21. brooding: Milton thus renders the Hebrew word translated as “moved” in the AV (Gen. 1.2) but as incubabat (brooded) in St. Basil and other Latin patristic authors (see also 7.235). Cp. Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici: “This is that gentle heat that brooded on the waters, and in six days hatched the world” (73).
24. argument: subject matter; cp. 9.28.
25. assert: take the part of, champion.
26. justify: vindicate; cp. Pope, Essay on Man: “Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,/But vindicate the ways of God to man” (1.15–16). Milton’s word order permits dual readings: either “justify (the ways of God to men)” or “justify (the ways of God) to men.” Cp. SA: “Just are the ways of God,/And justifiable to men” (293–94).
27–28. Milton introduces the narrative with a query, an epic convention; cp. “Tell me, O Muse, the cause” (Vergil, Aen. 1.8). Homer also depicts the Muses as all-knowing: “Tell me now, ye Muses that have dwellings on Olympus—for ye are goddesses and are at hand and know all things” (Il. 2.484–85).
29. grand: great, original, all-inclusive; cp. line 122.
30. fall off: deviate, revolt (as in l. 33).
33. Cp. Il. 1.8.
36. what time: when; cp. Masque 291, Lyc 28.
44–49. Him . . . arms: “God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness” (2 Pet. 2.4; cp. Jude 6).
45. “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10.18); cp. Homer’s Hephaestus “hurled . . . from the heavenly threshold . . . headlong” (Il. 1.591–92).
46. ruin: a fall from a great height, from the Latin ruina; cp 6.867–68.
48. adamantine: unbreakable (Gk.); cp. Aeschylus’s Prometheus, clamped “in shackles of binding adamant that can- not be broken” (Prom. 6). The myth of adamant persists today; the indestructible claws of the Marvel Comics hero Wol- verine are made of “adamantium.”
49. durst: dared.
50–52. The rebel angels regain consciousness after nine days falling from Heaven (6.871) and nine days rolling in the fiery gulf. Hesiod’s Titans fall nine days from heaven to earth and another nine from earth to Tartarus (Theog. 720–25). Milton, like many Christian mythographers, deemed the Titans’ rebellion a pagan analogue for Satan’s fall.
Copyright © 2008 by John Milton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.