« PreviousContinue »
as in the days of prosperity they had conceived. The death of Samson was an episode in the great strife so constantly in the poet's mind.
In these four poems, then, in four different ways, does Milton bring before his readers the question which had such an insistent reality to him and to those of his time and of his way of thought. There is still one more point of interest in the matter.
Besides his poems, Milton wrote much prose. His prose writings are no longer read, except by students: they were of a temporary character, written chiefly for immediate effect, political pamphlets as one might say; they had not the eternal element about them, nor, we must add, was prose so much in the direct line of Milton's genius as poetry. Still they are the chief fruit of fifteen years and of Milton's life, and it becomes interesting to whether they have any relation to the great subject of his poetry. He has himself given us an account of his prose works and told us how they arranged themselves in his mind.
"When, therefore, I perceived that there were three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life; religious, domestic, and civil; and as I had already written concerning the first, and the magistrates were strenuously active in obtaining the third, I determined to turn my attention to the second or domestic species. As this seemed to involve three material questions, the conditions of the conjugal tie, the education of the children, and the free publication of the thoughts, I made them objects of distinct consideration.1 On the last species, of civil liberty, I said nothing; because I saw that sufficient attention was paid to it by the magistrates, nor did I write anything on the prerogative of the crown, till the king, voted an enemy by the parliament, and vanquished in the field, was summoned before the tribunal which condemned him to lose his head."
1 Areopagitica, 1664, On Education, 1644, Divorce Pamphlets, 1643, 1644.
in a passage too long to quote here, he goes on to speak of the pamphlets which he thought of as devoted to civil liberty].
Liberty then was the subject of Milton's prose, and the strife between Sin and Righteousness the subject of his poetry. It seems at once a little strange that a man should treat one subject in a series of prose works, and a wholly different one in a series of poems. It would be hardly possible in the space at hand to show just how Milton thought of these matters. But when we try to conceive of Liberty not as license to do whatever we please, but as a freedom even from temptation to do what we cannot do rightly, we can see that Milton's ideal Liberty was that to which man can only come when, in the heat of the strife between Sin and Righteousness, the Evil has been thoroughly burned and purged away, so that He reigns whose right it is to reign, and whose service is perfect freedom.
2. Relation of the First Two Books to the Whole Action.
Thus, if we think of Milton's work as a whole, we may readily see the part that "Paradise Lost" plays therein. And that we may be able to look upon our two books, not merely as a fragment giving an account of the deliberations of the Fallen Angels and the Flight of Satan, but as part of a great whole, we must know a little more of the poem of which it makes the beginning.
The subject of "Paradise Lost" is the Temptation and Fall of Man. That event itself, however, was the end of a long series of events which form the action of the poem. First in order of time is the rebellion of Satan against God. Satan, one of the chief of the Angels, but weak through his pride and ambition, is eaten up through his rage and envy, when the Father proclaims the Lordship and Power
of the Son.
He gathers together many disaffected ones and for two days wars against the powers of Heaven sent to subdue him. On the third day God gives commission to the Son to drive forth the rebellious ones, and Satan and his angels are cast out of Heaven, down to Hell, where, for a time, they lie chained and senseless on the fiery lake. Meanwhile, his glory being vindicated in Heaven, God turns to the Creation of this World, in part to make up the loss caused by the defeat of the rebellious angels. In six days the Universe is created, and Man is placed in the Garden of Eden.
All this precedes in time the opening of the poem, although it is recounted in later books.1 The poem begins with Satan and the fallen angels on the burning lake. He rouses them, gathers them together, and inspires them with renewed zeal against the Almighty, proposing to them as an insidious attack on his glory, the Temptation of Man. He himself assumes the task of spying out the possibilities, and, escaping from Hell, he flies through Chaos to the Earth. Eluding the vigilance of the angelic guards, he makes his way to Paradise, and there, in the form of the Serpent, he leads Eve to venture disobedience. His task accomplished more successfully than he could have hoped, he flies back to his palace of Pandemonium. Adam and Eve, having sinned, are judged and condemned. Yet not to take away all hope, Michael, who is sent to cast them
'The poem begins upon the twenty-second day. The whole time covered by the action from the Proclamation of the Son to the Expulsion from Eden, would seem to be somewhat more than thirtytwo days, as may be seen from the following passages: v. 618, 642, 700; vi. 699, 748; vi. 871; i. 50; iv. 1015; ix. 67; x. 846; xi. 173. No time is given for Satan's flight to the Earth, although Milton has otherwise been very definite. It took nine days to fall the same distance, but if we may believe Moloch (ii. 80), that fall was really a stubborn and hardly-contested rout. Raphael made the journey in a single day (viii. 228-246). Whatever time be allotted to Satan for the flight must be added to thirty-two days to give the time of the action.
out of Eden, is bidden to show to Adam in a vision the final Redemption of Man and the triumph of righteousness. Such is the poem; it may practically be divided into six parts, as follows:
Books i., ii. The Council of Fallen Angels and Satan's Flight to the Earth.
iii., iv., v. 1–562. The Scene of the Temptation. v. 563-907, vi. The Revolt of Satan and his Adherents. vii., viii. The Creation of the Universe and of Man. ix., x. The Temptation and Fall.
xi., xii. The Vision of Future Suffering and Redemption.
We see, then, the place which the subject of our study holds in the scheme of the whole. In some respects Books i. and ii. are the best books of the poem to rea if one does not read the whole. We are all, probably, familiar with the antecedent and subsequent events, so that we can read this episode with a full idea of its setting. We know that Satan and his angels had rebelled against the Highest. We know that he succeeded in tempting Man to his fall. Between the two comes this powerful effort of the Miltonic imagination. These two books Milton himself created; they are characteristically his own. And, although they have their place in the series of events nearer the end than the beginning, it was well thought of to put them first, and we can read them by themselves with thorough enjoyment.
In fact, for one reason we can read them with more thorough enjoyment than any other considerable part of the poem, except perhaps the last two books. The account of the rebellion and fall of Satan has in it much that we can hardly think of except as an absurdity. The attempt to describe a war against the Almighty carried Milton into his account of angels discomfiting each other by volleys of cannon and burying each other under the hills of heaven. The presenting of a theological question like the origin of evil in the Biblical form led him to speculations
which, whatever be our religious opinions, we can hardly consider poetic. The account of the actual temptation, of the actual eating of the apple, can hardly seem to us nowadays other than an attempt to clothe in the garb of reality things which we endeavor to realize in thoroughly different fashion. When Milton's poem deals with matters on which we have actual beliefs, there is a sort of jar, the moment we cease to think of it as an imaginary narrative. But the account of Satan in Hell is an imaginary narrative, and nothing more, and we accept it and enjoy it as such. The fiery lake, the fallen angels, Pandemonium, and the council of the great Seraphic lords, Satan's battling flight through Chaos, all these have frankly no foundation but poetic imagination. In these two books we have the true Miltonic power, unhampered by the inevitable drawbacks which here and there interfere with our highest enjoyment of some of that which comes after, whether it be the logic of the Almighty, the warring of the angels, or the fascinations of the Serpent.
III. THE CHARACTERS AND THE SCENE OF ACTION.
1. The Character of Satan.
The chief character, the chief figure in Books i. and ii. is Satan; and this brings up a matter of some little interest, namely, the place he holds in the poem as a whole. We shall understand him better in our two books if we know how Milton conceived his character throughout.
The critics of the last century, who were always a little more desirous than are we of measuring this or that according to a pretty definite standard, were at some pains to determine who was to be taken as the Hero of Paradise Lost." Their minds presumably moved in this way: an epic poem must have a hero; "Paradise Lost" is an epic poem; therefore "Paradise Lost " must have a hero. That an epic poem must have a hero was a view natural enough,