Paradise Lost

Happy New Year, friends!

I’ve been reading (off and on) from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s wonderful, and I mean that in the classical sense that it provokes wonder within me.

I hated Milton in college. Hated him. He bored me because I didn’t understand him. I can tell I didn’t understand him because I’ve been reading my handwritten notes on the pages of my college text, and they’re completely off. And now, because I’ve read so much and so broadly over the last few years (although I haven’t written much about it) I hardly need any of the real footnotes as I read.

His poem flows. I’m reading it aloud to hear its rhythm and its lushness. It is both beautiful and touching, and I can see how it influenced C. S. Lewis. I believe he based Screwtape on this poem, and I know he wrote a preface to Paradise Lost that forms its own book. I know this because I have that book. But I haven’t read it yet.

The story starts in the middle, as good stories do. Fallen archangel Satan and his fallen angel warriors are in hell and recounting their battle with God and heaven. They are debating whether or not to force war again, given that it seems impossible to defeat God, or if they should try subtler means. By Book Two, the pandemonium (a word Milton made up — it means demon council) has agreed that they will go find a new creation they’ve heard will happen and see if they can convert its creatures to their side so as to gain revenge upon God. The creation is Earth, and its creatures are humans.

Satan is the only one willing to take on the task. He secures his leadership by doing so. Beëlzebub is second in command — he is not synonymous with Satan. The other leaders are the early gods Baal, Mammon, Belial, and the gods of Olympus, because Milton saw them as leading mankind away from the one true God.

The demons’ perverted logic is present throughout. Satan says, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” What he says to support his argument is that everyone in heaven will want to be the king because the higher up one is, the greater the glory, and so the desire for glory will create internal strife among the angels. Meanwhile in hell, the higher up one is, the greater the torment, and therefore no one else will want to supplant his leadership. Ergo, reigning in hell is superior.

I love lines 249-255 from Book One, so much so that I want to commit them to memory. Satan justifies his fallen state. He will be creator within his own dominion.

…Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and then, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. How many times have I thought that? Externally my life is good, and yet so often I have lived in hell within my mind, so much so that I’ve wondered if torment exists only here on earth and that we don’t need a parallel dimension for that. My thoughts on the afterlife is that it’s all or nothing, literally. We are with God or we refuse him and turn away, and the opposite of God is nothingness, not torment.

I don’t think my opinion aligns with Catholic doctrine, and my opinion is subject to change.

In the first two books of Paradise Lost there are negative parallels to the positives of the trinity and Creation. Satan pulled his own daughter out of his body, which parallels Eve from Adam. He has an only son by his daughter, a perverted parallel to Jesus from God. The power of threes: one third of the angels of heaven are fallen. And there are others, but I can’t remember them specifically.

Milton says there are nine kinds of angels, with top being the archangels and bottom being cherubim and seraphim. I can’t remember all the in-betweens, and I don’t really know what the difference among them is. Some are guardians of Heaven, and others are guardians of people on Earth, I think.

Milton originally studied to be a clergyman in the Anglican Church. He studied broadly and in at least four languages: English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He traveled throughout Europe in his youth and got to know, among others, Galileo and Cardinal Barberini, a friend of Galileo’s who later became Pope. Milton was profoundly anti-Catholic in his later adulthood, and I don’t know why. He became a lawyer and then a politician, and wrote many treatises, mostly in Latin. His poetry was in English.

I think it’s interesting that his one epic poem came out of him after he went blind, which means that he wrote it entirely orally. And of course, traditional epic poems were all oral. That may be why the sound of it is so beautiful. It doesn’t rhyme, usually, and the meter is all over the place, and yet the meter corresponds to the lyrics and gives them greater power. It is its own music. And I can see it, when normally I only hear what I read.

That’s what I’m getting out of Paradise Lost through Book Six. The entire piece is twelve books, but the Fall doesn’t happen until Book Nine. I plan to venture into Eden and witness the Fall in the near future.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

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  1. new myth, old god (and the origin of heaven and hell on earth) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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