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3. Introducing Paradise Lost
The purpose of this essay is to try to provide an "overview" of the whole of PL. Considering that this one essay precedes more than three dozen essays on Book I alone, such a purpose may seem a bit ludicrous. But one should be able to say in around 1300 words, in general terms, what a great work is about. I attempt that here.
Barbara Lewalski (Harvard) argued that "Milton's epic is preeminently a poem about knowing and choosing," a work that "foregrounds education" (The Life of John Milton, p. 460). John Rogers (Yale) argues in his online video lectures on PL that the dual themes of freedom and hierarchy capture not simply the relations of man and woman, and humans and God in PL, but the poem as a whole. Already in these two assessments we see the peril, as well as promise, of broad generalization.
For what it's worth, I propose that the major theme of PL is education or learning, but that the theme cannot be separated from the dramatic narrative of sin or fall into which it is placed. The learning that goes on is both explicit and implicit. Adam and Eve are explicitly taught by the angel Raphael in Books V-VIII about things that happened before the creation of humans; Adam is taught by the angel Michael in Books XI-XII about what will happen in years to come. Thus, almost half of the epic is taken up with teaching our first parents about the past and their future. But learning is also implicitly the theme of the rest of PL. We, the reader, learn of the the Rebel Angels' fall and misery (Book I), their desire to rebel again against God (Book II), the consultation in heaven leading to the Son's willingness to offer himself for humans (Book III), and the wrenchingly beautiful and pathetic narratives of Paradise and the Garden of Eden (Books IV, IX). Education and learning is the focus of the epic.
But why so much emphasis on learning? Milton gives us a hints at an answer (XI. 360-65):
"thereby to learn
True patience, and to temper joy with fear
And pious sorrow, equally inur'd
By moderation either state to bear,
Prosperous or adverse: so shalt thou lead
Safest thy life..."
The ultimate "pay off" of all the education is to "lead/ Safest thy life," or to have a humble and quiet life that 'works' for us. But, in the meantime, there are what we might call the interim goals of education--to "learn true patience," to learn to "temper" our emotions and live "By moderation" and so "either state to bear," that is, to bear "prosperous" or "adverse" circumstances. This is a tall order and one that demands the best of what we have over the space of many years to learn.
The Content of PL
But why this specific content? Why not just introduce the Homeric fables or the myths of Greece and Rome? If "moderation" is the theme, why not just take a course in Aristotelian or Stoic philosophy and be done with it?
Milton ties the educational task with Christian faith in his final words of the epic. After describing the final victory of the "Saviour" and "Lord" in "dissolv[ing]/ Satan with his perverted World" (XII.545-50), Milton has Adam describe what he has learned from all this, and how he will then live. Adam says (XII.557-59):
Greatly instructed I shall hence depart,
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can contain."
Learning is for the sake of obtaining the safe life or the life in "peace of thought." By anchoring Adam's mind in an explanatory paradigm of world history, Adam is free to live in peace and safety. Yet it took almost the entire epic to get Adam to this place of equanimity and moderation.
Paradoxically, as soon as Adam gets to this place, he now realizes the limitations of knowledge. Thus, the quintessential book describing the beauty, power and necessity of knowledge in order to live with safety and peace in the world ends with Adam's awareness of the limitations of knowledge (XII.560-64).
Beyond which (knowledge) was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with the fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend."
Other passages earlier in the epic stress how Adam's knowledge, though vast, is not only limited but should be limited. He has enough, more than enough, knowledge to understand the world. Now his task is to obey, love, fear God and "on him sole depend." The reader cannot expect that their task in life ought to be any different than it was for Adam. We, too, have aspired to the wrong type of knowledge, have thereby been hurt, and have had to bear the punishment for unwise use of knowledge. In Milton's mind we need to come to our senses and embrace obedience, love, and fear of God. That will be our peace and our safety.
A Word on the FLow of PL
One of the difficulties of reading PL, which will not fully be cleared up here, is that there is a difference between the chronology of the narrative as we read in order from Books I-XII and the chronology of the action in PL. In brief, PL as we read it, begins with the Rebel Angels in Hell trying to get their bearings in the land of utter darkness. It takes them two books (I and II) to do so, and then they send Satan on a mission out of Hell and through Chaos to earth to try to subvert, by guile, God's plans for the universe.
But this narrative chronology is not the action chronology assumed by PL. Indeed, in order for Books I and II to make sense, we have to know that there was originally a revolt of these Rebel Angels in Heaven and a subsequent battle between them and the Good Angels/the Son in Heaven. These events are described by the angel Raphael to Adam in Books V and VI--as part of Adam and Eve's first "seminar." Thus, the real chronology of events in PL would begin with Books V, VI and VII before reverting to Books I and II. Then, even though Eve is tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden to eat of the forbidden fruit in Book IV, she actually doesn't do so until Book IX. The narrative of earliest things occurs in between.
Milton has used the epic convention of beginning his work in medias res (in the middle of things) in Book I in order to make the action more vivid and immediately to plunge us, with the Rebel Angels, into the hideous recesses of Hell. This is the epic convention initiated by Homer in Book I of the Iliad, depositing the reader in the midst of the Trojan War. We have to read, learn, be patient and alert in order to have the pieces of the puzzle gradually begin to fall into place for us. But, come to think of it, that is Milton's overall goal in PL--to educate or teach us. Thus, even the order of events in PL makes us go slowly, learn how to "hold" our questions, but then gradually be educated so that we can learn and appreciate why Satan, for example, is so injured in his mind at being passed over by God in favor of the Son. It will all become clear to us as we patiently work through the epic. And, along the way we will be treated to some of the most delectable words ever penned in English.
This, in a nutshell, is what PL is about. It isn't pure pleasure, at first, but it approximates that as time goes on. May these essays help to make that come true for you as you read Book I.