Paradise Lost: Book 1
The first book begins with an overview of the whole poem and its subject “Man’s Disobedience” and loss of paradise through the temptations of Satan in the form of a serpent.
The poet, in the tradition of epic poetry, invokes the muse to help him explain these high matters. In this case, he requests a “Heavenly Muse” like the one who inspired Moses because his aim is to “assert Eternal Providence,/ And justify the ways of God to men.”
He asks, what could cause the Grand Parents (Adam and Eve) in the happy state of Eden to transgress the will of God? Who first seduced them?
The “infernal Serpent” out of envy and revenge deceived the mother of mankind, he answers. Satan’s pride had caused him to be cast out of heaven with the rebel angels. They were “Hurled headlong flaming from th’Ethereal Sky.” Nine days and nights they fell until “the horrid crew lay vanquished” on the burning lake of hell.
Satan suffers for the lost happiness of heaven and “lasting pain” of hell that only cements his “obdurate pride and steadfast hate.” Though chained to fire, he is in a place that gives no light; hell is “darkness visible” because it is as far from God as possible.
The first person he sees next to him is Beelzebub, his fellow conspirator in the rebellion. Satan is unrepentant and blames God for having injured his pride. He declares that all is not lost as long as he has his unconquerable will. He will find a way to revenge himself and pledges “eternal War.” Though bragging loudly, he is “rackt with deep despair.” Beelzebub says God must be almighty to have done this to them; they are still his slaves even in the deep.
Satan rebukes him for weakness and declares their aim is to turn good to evil. He believes he rules in hell, but he only does so with the permission of heaven. He flies over the landscape with Beelzebub and accepts his new kingdom: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan calls all the devils to arise.
The names of the bad angels have been erased in heaven, but the poet now lists their infernal names, many of which are the names of pagan deities on earth (Moloch, Dagon, Mammon, etc). Satan asserts himself as the leader, speaking the semblance of truth, rousing his army with trumpets and ten thousand banners. Mammon digs riches from the ground of hell, and the devils build a capitol, Pandemonium, to which all are called to council.
Milton uses many epic traditions in his poem, including the invocation of the muse and starting the action, not at the beginning, but in medias res, in the middle of things. If the story were told from the beginning, it would start in Book 5 when God proclaims Christ as his vice-gerent. This is what makes Satan jealous and initiates the war in heaven.
By starting with the fallen angels already in hell and with Satan’s rebellious state of mind, the audience is reminded it is pride which divides one from God. Some of Satan’s best speeches occur in this book. He is very good at twisting his defiance into a plea for liberty and freedom. “Freedom” is a word he uses to mask his desire for power.
As with Shakespeare’s characters, Satan is a well-rounded villain, revealing to us his complex emotions, and for that reason, he has always been admired as one of the more interesting portraits in the poem. His speeches were so convincing to Romantic poets like Blake and Byron that they took him as a model for the freedom-loving and misunderstood poet. Yet as the story unfolds, we see Satan’s self-deception, his belief that he is “self-begot” and not connected to God.
The landscape of hell with its dark fires is symbolic of Satan’s mental state; in fact, Satan knows that hell is his own mind when later he admits “Myself am hell,” because everywhere he goes he takes it with him.
Milton writes in blank verse as Shakespeare did, but the effect is quite different. His verse is famous for its organ tones and powerful rhythms that sweep us along without end stops for many lines. He frequently inverts word order for the sake of rhythm (“battle proud” “dungeon horrible”). It is best read aloud to catch the sense and drama.