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Paradise Lost, Book IV, An Introduction
O For that warning voice, which he who saw
Th' Apocalyps, heard cry in Heaven aloud,
Then when the Dragon, put to second rout,
Came furious down to be reveng'd on men,
Wo to the inhabitants on Earth! that now, [ 5 ]
While time was, our first-Parents had bin warnd
The coming of thir secret foe, and scap'd
Haply so scap'd his mortal snare; for now
Satan, now first inflam'd with rage, came down,
The Tempter ere th' Accuser of man-kind, [ 10 ]
To wreck on innocent frail man his loss
Of that first Battel, and his flight to Hell:
Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
At the end of Book III, Satan, having taken on the disguise of a cherub, has deceived the Angel Uriel. Bursting out from their meeting in 740-741 in "many an Aery wheel," Satan makes his way to Mount Nipates in Syria/Armenia, whence he will make his assault on the Garden of Eden and mankind in Book IV. The phrase "many an Aery wheel" in III. 741 has caused a division among commentators over the years. Is Satan sportively playing here? Is he "jumping for joy," so to speak? Or, in fact, is he just speeding his way along, aiming for the Garden? I think the most noticeable contrast here is between the speed of Satan in getting the heck out of there after deceiving Uriel and the slowness with which he then approaches the Garden in Book IV.
Satan is still moving quickly at the beginning of Book IV. He came "furious" down to be reveng'd on men," IV. 4. When once we get to line 13 in Book IV, though, we have the indication that Satan is slowing down: "Yet not rejoicing in his speed, though bold..." Later on we are told that his movements are "pensive and slow," IV.173. The slowing of Satan is suggestive of a number of changes which will come on him in Book IV: from cherub to wolf/thief to cormorant to toad; from confident and bold to conflicted and guilt-ridden; to resolved in his plans to indurated in his sin. Satan is a most interesting character in Milton's presentation here. Indeed, Satan's repeated transformations should make us wary about celebrating any philosophy or theology of transformation; if we do so, we must seriously contend with the possibility that the transformation we face is for the worse..
The Connection with Revelation 12
Before we get to the character of Satan and the mental torment he says he endures (IV.87-88), we have Milton's lofty introduction to the Book. Unless you know the text of Revelation 12, you don't really understand what Milton is doing in the first ten lines. In a nutshell, he is expressing a wish that our first parents had been warned with some such similar warning as accompanied the coming of the Dragon (Satan) a second time, recorded in Revelation 12. In that passage we have the Dragon ready to consume the child (obviously Christ) who was about to be born. A war broke out in heaven, the Dragon was defeated, but his defeat was not final. Thus, the text says, "Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and the sea, for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath," Revelation 12:12 (KJV). Thus, Milton infers from reading Revelation 12 that at least there was a warning to the inhabitants of the earth in this later "coming" of Satan, at the birth of the child; people were warned of the woe that the Dragon would bring. Sometimes a warning does you no good; but Milton believes that such a warning, had it happened, would have helped our first parents.
Now we are ready to understand the first line of Book IV: "O for that warning voice..." That warning voice was the loud voice in heaven at the Devil's "second coming." Would that there had been another such voice "while time was" (line 6; i.e., when there was still time for our first parents to act faithfully). But why not look at Genesis 2 as equivalent of that warning, where God himself told the first couple that they could eat from any tree of the garden except the tree in the midst of it? In any case, Milton suggests that there was no warning when Satan, in the form of a serpent, appeared to our first parents.
But there is something a little more dramatic than even this in that first word, "O." For in that "O" is the longing of the universe itself, a yearning that all the pain, woe, and suffering which flowed from that first sin would not have happened. The world suffers, too, in travail because of that first sin. Would that things were different--not only that our first parents had been warned, but that the whole mixed and enormously complex painful future that flowed from it would not have happened. Would that time could have been reversed! Would that we could rerun the video and have a different result this time. So deep is the feeling behind the "O."
One Other Note from Revelation 12 and a Literary Note
Revelation 12 stays with Milton as he continues to develop the passage. When Satan, or the Dragon came down this first time it was as "the Tempter ere th' Accuser of man-kind," line 10. In Revelation 12, this Dragon is referred to as the accuser (12:10):
"And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, "Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night"
In the story of Genesis 1-3, the serpent is a tempter as he approaches Eve. "Has God said?" is his modus operandi. He tempts, reinterprets, gives a plausible explanation for God's word, and attempts to deceive the woman.
Finally, one of the pleasant features of Milton's style in PL is his use of words in one line that are repeated in the next, either in the same or reverse order. It serves as a method to link sections as well as to gives us a rhetorically and aesthetically pleasing description. I will show many as the book proceeds, but let's close with his use of "'scap'd" in lines 7-8 and "now" in lines 8-9. "And 'scap'd/ Haply so 'scap'd" and "For now Satan"....and then "now first inflam'd." In fact, his use of this device, called anaphora, helps us memorize the text, for if you tell yourself while trying to memorize that certain words are repeated, you naturally think back to them, and then you get both lines down cold. Thus, Milton does us a favor as we try to master his brilliant and incomparable poetry.
Satan's coming is "furious" here. Our first parents had no warning like those in Revelation 12. Would that they had it. But now the inflam'd Tempter, the Dragon, is on the loose, and he is set to wreak on "frail innocent man" the loss that Satan experienced. He loses; now we wants to implicate us in that loss. So, the drama continues, and we leave Satan, bold though not rejoicing in speed. In fact, we will now see Satan slowing down enough to consider the problems he faces. His mind is overactive in the next 150 lines; let's try to understand a few of his words and thoughts.