John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is remembered for two things, the famous quote from Satan after having been expelled from Heaven, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n,” (i.263) and for creating the fiery depiction of Hell dramatically juxtaposed to the cold and frozen hell of Dante’s Inferno.
Milton’s poem, though written over various stages of his life, was published after the Restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England (with significant “Romish” elements to it), is a rich and dense poem that tries to do many things and contains within it several contradictions which many commentators have long seized on. This is not the discussion for that. However, I do wish to explore, however, succinctly, the various levels to reading Milton’s epic.
In its most simplistic, or exoteric, reading, Paradise Lost is a grand poem of the Christian imagination. It is a work that imagines the War in Heaven, the fall of the angels, the rise of Satan, and the Fall of Man. Taking biblical inspiration, Milton takes poetic and imaginative license to ‘fill in the gaps,’ so to speak, creating an awe-inspiring and wonderous depiction of what Cotton Mather called the ‘wonders of the invisible world.’ In attempting to “justify the ways of God to men,” (i.26) Milton not only does battle with Satan, his defense of the free-will of Adam and Eve is clearly a challenge—in the form of poetic theology—the supralapsarianism of the Cambridge Calvinists (William Perkins and William Ames in particular) and the emergent hyper-Calvinist wing of English non-conformist Protestantism.
The exoteric reading is obvious enough. While this reading also highlights the genius of Milton, as well as his infinite imagination, this reading is well-known and elaborated on, so I do not want to tread on already familiar ground. Instead, I want to look at some of the deeper episodes of the text which bring out Miltonian irony in addition to the other, esoteric, or deeper, readings of the text which include Paradise Lost as a work of political allegory and philosophical commentary.
Miltonian Irony and Political Allegory & Satire
The poets have always been gifted in their use of irony and how irony is often tied to allegory. I wish to highlight for the gentle reader one of the funniest moments of irony in the poem: The speech of the fallen angel Belial in Book II.
Book II is undoubtedly one of the great literary achievements of Milton and, in my view, probably the greatest literary achievement of Milton in the whole of Paradise Lost. The book can be broken into two movements. The first movement is the speeches of Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub in Pandaemonium. The speeches are wonderfully crafted and dialectically paired in their own rights. The second movement, and arguably the greatest achievement of Milton in the whole poem—perhaps second only to the glimpsed vision of the future of mankind and history the Archangel Michael gives to Adam when being expelled from Eden—is Satan’s heroic ascent to Eden while braving the winds and storms of chaos alone akin to the classical heroes of literary antiquity like Odysseus and Aeneas.
Moloch, who advocates for war, is dialectically paired with Belial, who advocates a pious fatalism in accepting their newly fated reality of being residents of Hell. They are paired together, as Mammon makes clear in the beginning of his speech, because of the futile vanity entailed in both positions. To try to war with Heaven again will fail (Moloch’s advocacy) and to simply accept their defeated state of being is equally futile vanity as it accepts the victory of the Tyrant (God); the fallen angels should have remained on their backs staring up to heaven following their initial expulsion rather than journey to lord over Tartarus. While Mammon and Beelzebub are the dialectical contrasts to each other, as both advocate—in their own ways—to make a sort of paradise and heaven (in hell or earth), I wish to explore Miltonian irony about Belial and the Latitudinarians in this episode of political satire and allegory.
Regarding political allegory, it is rather clear that the fallen angels are, in this case, the expelled commonwealthmen who faithfully served Cromwell and the Protectorate prior to the Restoration. As John Leonard makes clear in his introduction to Paradise Lost, Milton’s poem is one of civil war in an era of civil war in England. But Milton was a steadfast republican and supporter of Cromwell and the moderate Puritans seeking to purify the Church of England but also not a supralapsarian Calvinists like Perkins and Ames whose influence was growing among the Puritan-wing of Anglicanism and especially among the non-conformists.
This is visibly seen in several ways. First, Pandaemonium is structured like a parliament. There is the Speaker of the House who keeps order (Satan). The fallen angels take turns deliberating their position, much like in parliament. Moreover, each of the fallen angel who speaks represents an identifiable position among the commonwealthmen and clerics who suffered under the Great Expulsion. Included, at least initially, in that expulsion were the latitudinarian theologians who advocated acceptance of the Restoration and the sovereignty of Charles II to not cause any more trouble.
And this is the case of Belial. Belial’s speech reflects the position of the Latitudinarians. Furthermore, Milton considers the Latitudinarians worthless. Now here is the great kicker in Miltonian irony. Milton was a gifted linguist who mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac, among other languages. Belial, in Hebrew, means “worthless.” Like the Latitudinarians, Belial rises and is seen as “more graceful and humane,” in comparison to Moloch who is advocating rash war, “A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemed / For dignity composed and high exploit: / But all was false and hollow” (ii.109-112). Milton highlights, through his satirization of Belial in his speech before the Stygian Council, that appearances are deceiving much like the expulsed Latitudinarian who, in appearance, seem like godly and humane men but who, like Belial, are otherwise worthless as they are going to accept the Restoration of Charles II and the ‘Romish’ Church of England.
Also consider the content of Belial’s speech. Belial is advocating ‘peace’ in the name of submission as defeated and vanquished opponents—but the fallen angels, departed from the serenity and serendipity of heaven, can never have ‘peace.’ Rather than valiantly, though vainly, try to storm Heaven again as Moloch advocated, Belial argues that the fallen should just accept their lot and get on with their now miserable lives. His speech is worthless, just like how his name means worthless in Hebrew. So, not only is Belial worthless and living up to his name, the Latitudinarian perspective, which is allegorically represented by Belial, is also worthless.
Milton was philosophically active, and not just politically and linguistically active during his life. Well-read and studied, Milton’s many works, poems, including Paradise Lost, also incorporate his own philosophical reflections into them. In 1660, when the poem was published, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes had both published their works which advocated for mechanistic determinism and reductive materialist physiology. Beyond Bacon and Hobbes, Descartes had just published his Meditations and the mind-body split was becoming a major debate throughout Europe’s intelligentsia. Milton had already entered this fray by offering, in De Doctrina Christiana, his personal theology for Christianity, a synthetic divine monism which attempted to avoid the passionless materialism of the mechanical philosophers and resolve the mind-body split arisen by Descartes and the Cartesian philosophers.
In this respect, Milton was a spiritual father to Romanticism. And like his successor, Jonathan Swift, Milton was an ardent critic of the soulless materialism emerging from the early Enlightenment thinkers. Love would be destroyed if the mechanical philosophers won the day. And Milton detected a strand of mechanical philosophy which threatened love—Eros—from Aristotle to the Scholastic to now, more dangerously, the philosophy of Bacon and Hobbes.
If Paradise Lost is remembered beyond Milton’s depiction of Hell and Satan, it is almost certainly for his graphic depiction of the sexual relationship of Adam and Eve prior to their Fall:
So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
That shed May flowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained (iv.494-504).
Milton’s Eden, and Milton’s humanity, is filled with love. More than just “love,” it is specifically filled with erotic love. Adam is taken captive by Eve’s naked and captive charms. Her eyes, her breasts, her nipples, her stomach, her hair, everything about her Adam passionately covets. Likewise, Eve loves Adam—though she also loves herself. For part of the Fall occurred, in Milton’s reimagining, because Eve wanted to retain her sense of self and self-beauty from the near suffocating presence of Adam’s erotic love for her. But just after her creation, in an allusion to Narcissus and his beauty, Eve looks into a lake and is startled by the reflection of herself to herself, but she soon gazes into the watery image because of its pleasantness (iv. 460-464).
In Eden, the naked bodies and glorious and majestic body which their nakedness embodies, are not the soulless and dead bodies of the modern physiologists who eliminate thymos from the human body and reduce love to the mere stimulation of certain atoms in the body which cause the reproductive glands to copulate or open-up to copulation. Rather, Milton’s majestically naked Adam and Eve are living bodies, loving bodies, indeed, divine bodies. For God is Love, and Adam and Eve are the creation of God and made in the image of God—so therefore are made for love. (Even more-so considering the high likelihood of Milton’s personal view of creatio ex Deo (creation from, or out of, God) whereby the love that is God is directly infused into that which emanated from him like divine sperm.)
Milton’s philosophical commentary, the third visible reading and, perhaps, the most esoteric of the readings, is a grand and glorious rebuttal of the ‘dead body’ philosophy of Bacon, Hobbes, and the coming mechanical philosophers and their future heirs like Julien Offray De La Mettrie and Baron d’Holbach in France, or even the contemporary ‘nothing-but’ reductionists who strip all soul, all passion, all spiritedness out of life in claiming that life is just randomized clumps of matter which, when acted upon, stimulate certain neurons which fire up neurotic chords which give the feeling of love which is nothing but the simulation of certain atoms and neurotic chords in the body. It is precisely this bleak and dour worldview that Milton is also challenging in Paradise Lost through his steamy depiction of the erotic love and charged up, spirit-infused, bodies of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Reading Paradise Lost
There are, as briefly outlined here, many layers to Milton’s grand epic. The poem is tragic and heroic, steamy and sexy (literally!), and intellectual in its criticism. One of the greater joys of the work is synthesizing everything together; which is something the readers, defenders, and critics of Milton, have been doing ever since Patrick Hume’s 1695 commentary on the epic poem.