Κύρια Inside paradise lost : reading the designs of Milton's epic

Inside paradise lost : reading the designs of Milton's epic

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Inside "Paradise Lost" opens up new readings and ways of reading Milton's epic poem by mapping out the intricacies of its narrative and symbolic designs and by revealing and exploring the deeply allusive texture of its verse. David Quint's comprehensive study demonstrates how systematic patterns of allusion and keywords give structure and coherence both to individual books of Paradise Lost and to the overarching relationship among its books and episodes. Looking at poems within the poem, Quint provides new interpretations as he takes readers through the major subjects of Paradise Lost--its relationship to epic tradition and the Bible, its cosmology and politics, and its dramas of human choice.

Quint shows how Milton radically revises the epic tradition and the Genesis story itself by arguing that it is better to create than destroy, by telling the reader to make love, not war, and by appearing to ratify Adam's decision to fall and die with his wife. The Milton of this Paradise Lost is a Christian humanist who believes in the power and freedom of human moral agency. As this indispensable guide and reference takes us inside the poetry of Milton's masterpiece, Paradise Lost reveals itself in new formal configurations and unsuspected levels of meaning and design.

Χρόνος: 2014
Έκδοση: First edition
Εκδότης: Princeton University Press
Γλώσσα: english
Σελίδες: 342
ISBN 10: 1400850487
ISBN 13: 978-0-691-15974-4
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Χρόνος: 2014
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Inside paradise lost : reading the designs of Milton's epic

Χρόνος: 2014
Γλώσσα: english
File: PDF, 23.72 MB
Inside Paradise Lost

Inside Paradise Lost

Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic

David Quint


Princeton and Oxford

Copyright © 2014 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540

In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TW


All Rights Reserved

ISBN 978-0-691-16191-4 (cloth)

ISBN 978-0-691-15974-4 (pbk.)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013938974

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

This book has been composed in Minion Pro

Printed on acid-free paper ∞

Printed in the United States of America

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Satan, we would have to say, is the victim of a course in “the Bible as Literature.”

—Nohrnberg, “On Literature and the Bible”








The Shape of the Catalog


Moloch and Belial 1


Moloch and Saturn 1


Moloch and Saturn 2: A Miniature Aeneid


Moloch and Belial 2: Libya and Sodom




The Catalog and Pandaemonium


The Logic of the Similes in Book 1


Raising Devils


Appendix: Demonic Swashbucklers




The Council


Moloch and Belial Again: Ajax and Ulysses


Mammon and Beelzebub: A Thersites Is Rebuked


Satan and the Doloneia


Meanwhile, Back in Hell …


Milton’s Telegony


Satan’s Odyssey


Whose Odyssey?




Icarus and Satan’s Fall Through Chaos


Virgil and Lucretius


Dante, Tasso, Ovid


Satan Voyager


Phaethon, the Son, and the War in Heaven


Flight and Fall


A Poetry Against Falling




Structure and Design


Universal Blank




The Sun


The Paradise of Fools


Sun Worshippers


Poetry and Science




Envy and the New Dispensation


Angels and Courtiers


Brotherhood versus Kingship in Books 11–12




The Seduction of Eve


The Second Adam as Second Eve


Adam’s Choice: “One flesh”


“Not vastly disproportionall”


Changing Places


Appendix: A Note on the Separation Scene




Virgilian Coordinates and the End of Satan


Creation and Anti-creation




The Triumphs of the Son


Satan’s Triumph


Adam and the Winds


The Recovery of Human Choice


Cherishing Eve


Dido and Armida; Creusa




The Exposed Matron




Deconsecrated Earth











I have been fortunate to have written this book in the company of many friends and scholars. I thank first of all my Yale University colleagues, a remarkable group of Miltonists to find in one place, and, much more, a group of exceptionally generous and caring people: Lawrence Manley, John Rogers, Annabel Patterson, Leslie Brisman, and Harold Bloom. They have read all or sizable parts of the book, including more than a few of its false starts. I am grateful for their incisive comments and encouragement, for the example of their own scholarship, and, above all, for their friendship. Other Yale friends, David Bromwich and Alexander Welsh, read and criticized the introduction and have helped me to make it more shapely.

Earlier versions of chapters and parts of chapters of this book have appeared in journal articles. They are reused here with the permission of the journals and their publishers. Chapter 1 appeared as “Milton’s Book of Numbers: Book 1 of Paradise Lost and Its Catalogue,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 13.4 (2007): 528–49, copyright © 2004, Springer, with kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media; chapter 2 as “Ulysses and the Devils: The Unity of Book Two of Paradise Lost,” Milton Studies 49 (2009): 20–48, copyright © 2008, University of Pittsburgh Press, by permission of the present publisher, Duquesne University Press; chapter 3 as “Fear of Falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius in Paradise Lost,” Renaissance Quarterly 57 (2004): 847–81, copyright © 2004, the Renaissance Society of America, Inc., by permission from the University of Chicago Press; chapter 4 as “ ‘Things Invisible to Mortal Sight:’ Light, Vision and the Unity of Book 3 of Paradise Lost,” Modern Language Quarterly 71.3 (2010): 249–69, copyright © 2010, University of Washington, by permission from the present publisher, Duke University Press; and parts of chapter 7 as “The Virgilian Coordinates of Paradise Lost,” Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici 52 (2004): 177–97, copyright © Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, by permission of the publisher. I am grateful to the journal readers—I wish to remember the late Richard DuRocher—and the journal editors, especially Paul Grendler, Marshall Brown, Glenn W. Most, and Sarah Spence. Their work improved my thought and writing.

I am also indebted to the larger community of Milton scholars in North America. I thank Gordon Braden and Joshua Scodel, who read the manuscript for Princeton University Press and offered me helpful and expert criticism. Charles Stanley Ross invited me to discuss parts of this book at the Newberry Library Romance and Epic Seminar; Regina Schwartz brought me to the Newberry Library Milton Seminar; Paul Stevens asked me to speak to the Canada Milton Seminar; and Jason Rosenblatt arranged for me to present my work at the Northeast Milton Seminar. I thank all four for their friendship and our ongoing conversations about Milton. I have other Miltonist friends to thank for reading earlier versions and more recent drafts. John Leonard’s criticism was vital to getting this project started; Jason Rosenblatt and Mary Nyquist encouraged me to complete it. Stephen Fallon persuaded me that one of my chapters did indeed need to be reworked and helped me to clarify a different, crucial part of my argument. I have benefited from the comments of Victoria Kahn, Ronald Levao, and Michael Murrin on specific chapters; they are cherished friends. I thank a list of distinguished Miltonists and friends from whom I have been privileged to learn: John Archer, Andrew Barnaby, Carla Baricz, Chimene Bateman, David Currell, Samuel Fallon, Angus Fletcher, Natalka Freeland, Thomas Fulton, Beth Harper, Brad Holden, Blair Hoxby, Andrew Kau, Michael Komorowski, Benjamin LaBreche, Seth Lobis, James Ross Macdonald, Tanya Pollard, Ayesha Ramachandran, Rebecca Rush, Sarah van der Laan, Andrea Walkden, Anthony Welch, and Emily Wilson. I have had the pleasure over the last decade of attending meetings of the Northeast Milton Seminar, and learning from its members: they are too many to list, but I want to mention Joan Bennett, Ann Baynes Coiro, Achsah Guibbory, Dayton Haskin, Laura Knoppers, Barbara Lewalski, Thomas Luxon, Nicholas von Maltzahn, Stella Revard, William Shullenberger, Nigel Smith, Gordon Teskey, and the late Marshall Grossman. As this book was nearing completion, my thinking was enriched by Samuel Bendinelli, Radhika Koul, Drisana Misra, Ryan Pollock, Michael Rose, Maria Alexandra van Nievelt, Alex Werrell, and Madeline Wong. I thank Carla Baricz, who formatted the bibliography and assisted me in preparing the manuscript for publication. I am grateful for the work of my copyeditor, Cathy Slovensky, and to Ellen Foos and Alison MacKeen at Princeton University Press.

This book is dedicated to James Nohrnberg, my teacher and friend.

Inside Paradise Lost


The message of Paradise Lost is: make love, not war. The poem that pretends to begin the epic tradition by retelling events that preceded those of all earlier epics would also end the epic genre by condemning its traditional subject matters, war and empire. The central human heroic act of the poem is Adam’s choosing love for Eve, his wife and fellow human being, over obedience to God. In making us think twice at all about this choice, in appearing even to ratify it, Paradise Lost revises its biblical subject matter just as radically as it revises epic. The Fall is fortunate not only because it allows the Son of God to offer himself to save humanity, but because it already anticipates the supersession of the Law by the Love and Liberty the Son will bring about by his example. Its obverse in the poem is Satan’s envious lust for power, his institution of monarchy in hell, and his readiness to enslave others. The Milton of Paradise Lost is a Christian humanist: his Christianity emphasizes the true empowerment of men and women as free moral agents.

These are the broad outlines of my reading of Paradise Lost, more and less familiar. In the broadest sense my argument has been anticipated by many commentators. Milton’s God, however, is in the details, and this book goes inside the epic by examining some of its intricacies: how verbal design and allusive conceit together shape its units of meaning. These are poems within the poem. The generic expectations of Renaissance epic that looked back to the model of the Aeneid required Paradise Lost to maintain over its vast length not only the loftiness of the high style but the semantic density and unity of a lyric. For this reason, few great epics like Milton’s were achieved, though many were attempted. This kind of epic was also expected to contain studied allusion in almost every verse, as Virgil was known to have imitated Homer, the Greek tragedians, and his own predecessors in Latin poetry. These expectations for the writer of the epic create expectations for the epic’s reader, who will hold in his or her memory word-patterns that form and repeat themselves through the course of the entire poem: the rustling wings of the fallen angels in hell in book 1 make a “hiss” (1.768) that already anticipates their final transformation nine books later into hissing serpents in book 10. The reader will also be responsive to the allusions embedded in the verses and responsible for integrating them into the poem’s meaning. That the outspoken angel Abdiel in book 5 is a version, via Girolamo Vida’s Christiad, of the Bible’s Nicodemus defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin characterizes Abdiel as a superior figure of zeal; it also allows us to grasp the larger analogy that Milton is drawing between Satan’s and the rebel angels’ refusal to acknowledge the Son and the understandable future skepticism and anger of the Jews with regard to the same Son. Such epic poems are preeminent examples of what Roland Barthes calls a “writerly” text, that is, a text that makes the reader do active and imaginative work in recomposing its meaning. Some assembly is required.1

The studies of Paradise Lost in this book show what such assembly can reveal about the poetic texture and pleasure of Milton’s epic. They uncover verbal arrangements and thought structures that bind together—in widening configurations—episodes, individual books, motifs that run through the larger poem, and motifs running through Milton’s still larger career. In many instances, I show how these designs are built by and through Milton’s allusions—to the Bible, to previous literature, particularly to the epic tradition (classical and modern), and to his own earlier poetry.2 Milton uses allusion to construct and unify the fictions of the poem: the discussion in chapter 2 of how allusions to the figure of Ulysses and to the myth of Scylla and Charybdis connect the various episodes of book 2 is perhaps the clearest, most systematic example. Such patterns have their own logic and tell their own stories, which complement and overlap with the larger narrative that embeds them. At times close to its surface, at others submerged, they can organize a whole book of the poem.3 Five of the eight chapters of my book (1, 2, 4, 7, and 8) demonstrate the poetic unity of single books at either end of the epic (1, 2, 3, 10, and the composite 11–12, originally a single book 10 in 1667). The other three chapters (3, 5, and 6) cover much of the poem that lies in between, and the book as a whole follows the narrative arc of Milton’s epic; I often return to its last books and ending. The second-order stories recounted through these designs—about poetry and idolatry, cosmology and materialism, envy and kingship, spiritual individualism versus loving community, death and choice, the status of women—turn out to be not secondary after all, but centrally constitutive to the meaning of Paradise Lost.

What is an allusion? In his classic essay on Lycidas, Northrop Frye writes that for a poet “the impulse to write can only come from previous contact with literature, and the formal inspiration, the poetic structure that crystallizes around the new event, can only be derived from other poems.”4 Poststructuralist thought, influenced by Barthes’s “death of the author,” conceives that a language or a tradition may write through a writer, and it labels this relationship with the catch-all term “intertextuality.” But the words on the page did not get there by themselves. Cutting a theoretical Gordian knot, Stephen Hinds has distinguished allusion from seemingly infinite intertextual connections and the reduction of such connections to so many commonplaces. Instead, Hinds defines allusion as a reference, chosen by the author, to an earlier text or texts in order to produce an intended effect. Hinds accepts that the author’s intentions are finally unknowable, and that “the alluding poet is ultimately and necessarily a figure whom we ourselves read out from the text” (50)—that is to say, allusion lies in the mind of the text’s interpreter. The latter may be a version of Barthes’s “writerly reader,” but Hinds asks us to posit a poet whose “dialogue with the work of other poets can be a very private, self-reflexive, and almost solipsistic kind of dialogue” (49), an individual author who is alive and well.5 The readings of Miltonic allusion that follow claim to recover the intentions of a poet who, in these specific cases, cites or imitates earlier texts for calculated purposes and results. My critical task is to persuade my readers that these are instances of allusion so defined. I also want to show how much of the power and thought of Milton’s poetry can reside in its texture of allusions, how many of the challenges and pleasures of reading Paradise Lost derive from puzzling them out.

Let us begin with one complex but manageably brief example. In a passage in book 2 whose degree of irony is hard to determine, the fallen angels bow down and reverence Satan as a god for his volunteering to voyage through Chaos to earth to seduce Adam and Eve, putting himself at risk for their general safety and deliverance from hell. (When we realize in retrospect, in book 3, that Satan’s presenting himself for the mission has parodied the Son’s offer, through his future Passion, to deliver humanity from that mission’s consequences, the irony or lack of irony becomes that much harder to pin down.) The narrator comments that the devils have not lost all their virtue, as this respect that they show for their leader’s own virtue testifies. He then goes on to make a parenthetical aside:

Oh shame to men! Devil with devil damned

Firm concord holds, men only disagree

Of creatures rational, though under hope

Of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace,

Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife

Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,

Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:

As if (which might induce us to accord)

Man had not hellish foes enow besides,

That day and night for his destruction wait.


The sense of this grand invective seems clear enough. It is a paradox that human beings, who have hope of salvation, wage wars with each other while their real enemy is the devil, whose followers, though damned, live in concord with one another.

The passage, however, carefully looks back into the epic tradition, the tradition that, as Milton will complain in the invocation to book 9, has deemed wars to be its only heroic argument (9.28–29). In twelve stanzas (2–13) of book 7 of his Os Lusíadas (1571), the Portuguese epic poet Luís de Camões denounces Protestant schisms in Europe, but more generally inveighs against the wars that Christians—“Ó míseros Cristãos”—wage among themselves, sowing the teeth of Cadmus in internal strife (7.9), rather than coming together against their common Muslim enemy who, the poet notes, are completely united—“inteiros observantes”—on the score of waging war upon them (7.10). In Richard Fanshawe’s 1655 translation, the poet enjoins Europeans to follow the example of his own crusading nation Portugal: “To scourge the arrogant Mahumetan / Your hands unite, your heads together lay” (7.13). The Camões passage, in turn, is modeled on an earlier, similar invective (17.73–79) in Ludovico Ariosto’s 1532 version of the Orlando furioso, where the poet-narrator urges the European peoples—Spaniards, French, Swiss, and Germans—who are now fighting among themselves in Ariosto’s war-ravaged Italy to turn their warfare against the infidel, to reconquer Jerusalem from the “renegades” who now possess it and recapture Constantinople from the Turks (17.75). If, he says to the kings of France and Spain, you want, respectively, to be called “most Christian” and “Catholic,” why are you killing Christians—“Se Cristianissimi esser voi volete / e voi altri Catolici nomati / perché di Cristo gli uomini uccidete?” (17.75)—when you could go fight against the Muslim threat?7 The heroes of the Orlando furioso are themselves engaged in such a war, the conflict fought by Charlemagne against Agramante, king of Biserta; Milton has already compared the devils to the latter’s forces in book 1 (585–87). These epic forebears of Milton condemn contemporary war between Christians, but they are nevertheless sedulous to indite and glorify war that has the religious alibi of a crusade.

Milton’s version of these earlier invectives substitutes the devil for the Mohammedan. It fits into a minor pattern in Paradise Lost that also finds Satan described as a Muslim potentate, labeled as a “sultan” (1.348; cf. “the soldan’s chair” at 1.764), and the council of Pandaemonium a “dark divan” (10.457).8 The most notable instance has appeared in the opening lines of the same book 2, again through the use of allusion:

High on a throne of a royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand

Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exalted sat …


These lines echo the description of the Calyph of Egypt, the main power against whom the heroes of the First Crusade in Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (GL; 1581) will fight for the conquest of the holy city.

Egli in sublime soglio, a cui per cento

gradi eburnei s’ascende, altero siede;

e sotto l’ombra d’un gran ciel d’argento

porpora intesta d’or preme co’l piede,

e ricco di barbarico ornamento

in abito regal splender si vede;

(GL 17.10.1–6)

[He on a high throne, to which one climbs by a thousand ivory steps, exalted (proudly) sits; and beneath the shade of a great heavenly canopy of silver, presses his feet on purple cloth interwoven with gold, and is seen to shine, rich in barbaric ornament and royal state (attire).]

With a one-upmanship that is frequent in Miltonic allusion, Satan’s pomp outshines the regal trappings of Tasso’s Calyph, who incidentally numbers among his subject allies the kings of Hormuz (GL 17.25) and India (GL 17.28). One should not make too much of this orientalizing conceit: Satan and the devils are much more often described in terms of imperial and papal Rome and of the Stuart monarchy. Kingship, in fact, more than Islam, seems to be the real target here. Milton suggests that all earthly kings take their model from Satan, before whom their power in any case pales, and that there is no distinction between so-called Christian kings and Muslim despots to whom they may pretend to be opposed—they are all opposed to true Christianity.9

Another erasure of the difference between Christian and Muslim, but this time in the name of their common humanity, takes place in Milton’s “O shame to men!” invective. These two allusive passages in book 2, which now appear linked to each other, group together Milton’s three major sixteenth-century Christian epic predecessors, Ariosto, Camões, and Tasso, whose poems recount conflicts between European Christian and African and Asian, mostly Muslim, forces, and appeal to the model of crusader warfare. But Milton evokes these poets’ alignment of the devil with the Mohammedan enemy in the book’s opening verses only to correct it in his subsequent invective. His imitation of Ariosto and Camões includes rather than excludes Muslims among the human beings—“men”—who wage wars against each other instead of attending to their spiritual enemy, the devil. God, Milton writes in On Christian Doctrine (1.4), may ultimately reject the unbeliever, but he nonetheless bestows his grace on all (Works 14:146; CPW 6:192). In keeping with the general revision of epic in Paradise Lost, the book 2 passage condemns all human warfare, including crusades, and substitutes spiritual combat in its place: it is diabolic fraud rather than Muslim force of arms that we should fear. Nevertheless, the allusion itself makes the devil remind us of the Mohammedan and vice versa.

Allusion functions in Paradise Lost as another layer of metaphor, or perhaps the better analogy is to Milton’s famous similes: it declares that a given description, action, whole scene is like, or just as often unlike, its counterpart in another text. This example demonstrates some features of Milton’s technique: the imitation of a passage from a poet that itself alludes to an earlier poet (Camões to Ariosto); its linking to another allusion, often nearby or in a structurally prominent position (the initial allusion to Tasso), to suggest a continuing conceit and formal arrangement; a rewriting, at times to the point of inversion, of the meaning of the work alluded to. The application of these earlier texts to his Genesis or pre-Genesis story, whose plot, of course, precedes theirs by thousands of years, is an instance of Milton’s frequent use of allusion to reverse his belatedness to his literary predecessors and to claim priority over them—a point well made by Harold Bloom.10 But Milton’s allusion, here as elsewhere, is more than a reaction of poetic anxiety. His address to contemporary men and women also brings the deep past up-to-date. By allusion, Milton places his poem within an ongoing literary history and a larger history, intellectual and political, in this case, the dilemma and contradictions that Christian thinkers, particularly sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christians who inherited the pacifist tradition of Erasmus, faced in confronting militant Islam and their own crusading past.11 This history seems, if anything, more timely at the moment of my writing this study than when Milton composed his epic. But without recognizing and taking account of the allusions—they are not noted in modern editions—we would miss it altogether.

To begin with, the subject of Milton’s condemnation: war. War comes first, to get it out of the way for love. Paradise Lost tells the story of two falls, which its reader is asked to compare and contrast. There is the unending fall of Satan and his followers, and there is the Fall—and spiritual regeneration—of Adam and Eve. The fall of the rebel angels, noisy and full of the martial paraphernalia and heroics of earlier epic, is over and done with at the poem’s beginning: the defeated devils themselves have no more thirst for fighting epic battles. The poet-narrator invokes a Muse who was present from the first, that is, from the first verses of Genesis and its account of the Creation, and then, surprisingly, asks the Spirit to “Say first” (1.27)—and tell what happened still earlier. His prequel to the Bible allows Milton to manufacture, through the contrast between the self-tempting devils and the man and woman whom Satan deceives, a theological safety valve for humanity, and to rehearse, in parodic form, scenes from the older epics his own poem supersedes. The first and last similes of book 1 note the similarity of its portrait of the devils to sailors’ yarns and fairy tales, and Raphael’s account weaves the War in Heaven—a subject that is not scripturally attested except in its anticipation/replay of the apocalyptic battles of Revelation—into the fables of Milton’s epic predecessors. The inset, retrospective form of Raphael’s narrative places the celestial war in a literary as well as a chronological past before the action of Paradise Lost begins. Raphael finishes the story of Satan’s fall at the end of book 6 and halfway through the poem, leaving its second half to recount the fall of the first human couple, Milton’s new epic subject, quieter if more talky. When Raphael recounts God’s creation of the universe in book 7, and Adam recounts his and God’s joint creation of Eve in book 8 (in 1667 these were both part of a single book 7), Milton’s poem has caught up to the Muse and to Genesis at the poem’s opening. By the end of Paradise Lost, however, when Michael tells of Eden’s being swept away by the Flood, it may seem that its story of the human fall is itself receding into poetic fiction.

Satan’s story is the old epic dispensation, the search for temporal power as a zero-sum game driven by envy and the desire for glory above one’s peers. It can only culminate, if not be satisfied, in kingship, war, and destruction—and in alienation from God in a literal or mental hell, the latter identical to remorse, the “restless thoughts” that return to torment the despairing fallen angels as the hellhounds sired by Death return to torment Sin. It may imply, in Milton’s century of astronomical revolution, the alienation from God of the universe itself, a destructive reversion to the infinite, random, and Babelic Chaos that surrounds but is kept outside the walls of God’s new, orderly creation in Paradise Lost: epic warfare extended to a warring cosmos, to noise and non-meaning. The fall of Adam and Eve tells the story of the new dispensation of Milton’s epic: of how love between human beings, here exemplified in marital love, enables (or is enabled by) the love of God; of the experience of spiritual goods that exceed finite temporal ones; of hope for an existence beyond the finitude of death, summed up by Adam as “peace of thought.” Such love, in its fraternal, charitable form, also implies the political equality and liberty of a republic. In book 11, Milton’s God takes credit for the reconciliation and renewal of their love that Adam and Eve have worked hard to achieve in book 10, and the Son’s charity—his promise in book 3 of a future sacrifice for humanity repeated to the fallen couple in his book 10 oracle about the serpent and the woman’s seed—appears to have made it possible. So, to the contrary, God hardens the heart of Satan, who refuses his grace.

The Christian God’s new creative intervention and the poem’s declared project of theodicy may provide the necessary conditions for, yet feel almost extraneous to, the foregrounded choices between power and love. (Or we could say that the theodicy itself depends on whether we see God as power or as love.) By their own exercise of charity, Adam and Eve can attain a paradise within in place of the one they have lost; and love seems to fulfill—and thus relegate to an older Law—the divine command of obedience. Paradise Lost restores to humans the freedom of the angels who obey God: “we freely love, as in our will / To love or not; in this we stand or fall.” But this freedom and love are now directed first of all to relationships between human beings.

Even as the devil tries to draw God and the angels into the old epic battles, the human heroes engage in the new, more limited household world of their garden. The first couple fight, too, among themselves: the marital squabble of hurt feelings that leads Eve to separate herself from Adam and head for the groves (where Satan lies in wait); the more serious exchange of mutual recriminations after they have both fallen. The War in Heaven, the biggest battle ever fought—so big that it mocks earlier epic and becomes mock-epic—is succeeded by battles of the sexes: these have their comical moments, too, in spite of their fraught circumstances. Milton changes his notes for tragic in book 9 when he must narrate the Fall, but, in spite of the bite that Death and his remorse take out of human existence, in spite of the prophecies in the last two books of the poem about war, kingship, empire, and misery in store for human history, Adam and Eve leave Paradise Lost cheered, officially by the happy ending of Christian promise, dramatically by the comic solution of marriage.12 No longer innocent, but now compromised human beings, they belong to the emergent world of the novel, the lower narrative genre of comic compromise that belongs to the subjected plain and domesticity to which they are headed, a literary world where small things must perforce stand in place of, and accomplish, great ones. Perhaps we are still in one kind of epic world after all: just as the Iliadic posturings of the devils in book 1 are replaced by their Odyssean fraud in book 2, so Milton’s larger epic may at its halfway point replace the little Iliad of the War in Heaven with an Odyssey of marital reunion; but the Odyssey, as James Joyce understood and proved, is the prototype of the novel.

Paradise Lost starts with the devil. My first chapter shows how book 1 metapoetically depicts its own role in raising the rebel angels out of their “bottomless perdition” (1.46), an act of poetic creation analogous to the divine creation of the universe described in the invocation—“how the heavens and earth / Rose out of chaos” (1.9–10). Framed by its first and last similes, which suggest the devils are the unreliable figments of human tales, book 1 plays on perspective and size by reviewing, along with Satan, their “stature” and “number.” After insisting on their gigantism, the similes, in order to count them, shrink the almost innumerable devils into infinitesimal units to make them fit into the human mind, no less than they themselves voluntarily shrink to enter their new home Pandaemonium. The profane temple Pandaemonium, raised by music that is hard to distinguish from the music of Milton’s own verses, is a first idolatrous counterimage of the poetic edifice that will be Paradise Lost. Its fallen architect Mulciber is the poet’s uncomfortably close double. The chief devils described in the catalog that occupies the center of book 1 and organizes its poetic figures and symbolic geography—Carthage, Sodom, Egypt, Babel-Babylon, Rome—are precisely those who will come to inhabit the pagan shrines that human idolatry will build next to or even inside the Jerusalem temple, profaning God’s house. If not merely the products of the human imagination, the demons take on the face and names that the imagination has granted them. This catalog—whose traditional epic function is to size up military force—instead suggests the force of spiritual falsehood, and it corresponds to the defeated devils’ own reluctance to pursue another direct war against God; they would rather resort to satanic fraud. Milton not-so-gently mocks their military posturing, which is going nowhere except to build their council hall in which to sit and talk, and the contrast to earlier epic appears to diminish the devils, much as does their shrinking themselves at the book’s end. But the switch from swords to words, from open force to lies, may make them more dangerous, not less, to their human victims.

In book 2, Milton continues this story of the demilitarization of the fallen angels and of his epic more generally when he bases all of its action around the figure of Ulysses, the hero of eloquence and fraud, whose own epic comes in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Chapter 2 demonstrates that the Odyssey, imitated and parodied in Satan’s voyage through Chaos to God’s newly created universe in the book’s last section, is just one of the classical stories about the career of Ulysses that Milton evokes as models for its different episodes. The various parts of book 2 are held together by this pattern of allusion, as well as by the Odyssean figures of Scylla and Charybdis, the emblem of bad choices, or of loss of choice itself. Unable to die, the devils have no real option but to experience the second death of endless remorse. Here the Doloneia, that unheroic, even spurious episode of the Iliad, in which volunteers are sought to go on spy errands from both Greek and Trojan camps, provides a central model in Paradise Lost, not only the model for Satan’s mission but for the Son’s subsequent offer to save humanity through his future incarnation and death. Thus, Milton’s epic inverts the idea of heroism itself. The hell constructed by the devils—what civilization looks like in the absence of God—is matched in book 2 by the Chaos through which Satan travels. This is a nature from which God has withdrawn his creative hand.

The next two complementary chapters turn to the confrontation of Milton’s poetry with cosmology in a century where earlier models of the universe had been exploded by a new science and astronomy. Chapter 3 shows how, through a complicated chain of intermediary texts, the depiction of Satan’s fall through Chaos in book 2, which invokes the myth of Icarus, and the Son’s successful ride in the paternal chariot of God at the end of the War in Heaven in book 6, which rewrites the story of Phaethon, both trace back to the De rerum natura of Lucretius. They counter the Roman poet’s depiction of an Epicurean cosmos ordered by chance and in a constant state of falling through an infinite void—the “vast vacuity” of Chaos. Through allusion kept beneath the surface of the poem, I suggest, Milton here faces his own deepest skepticism. The myths of these highfliers who fall are further countered in Paradise Lost by the motif of poetic flight. The shaping power of poetry itself and the epic high style counteract the specter of a universe without bound and dimension, or of the shapelessness of Death (“If shape it might be called that shape had none”). Poetry raises the poet over his fallen human condition, the sinking feeling of a Serbonian bog or slough of despond.

To the hell and Chaos of book 2, book 3 opposes God’s heaven and his new creation, the ordered universe, apparently presided over by the sun. But where the first two books describe their infernal realms by a kind of science fiction comparison to fallen human experience—here the epic tradition provided Milton with handy models—book 3 sets apart an invisible God and heaven from the visible universe, divine light from sunlight: “light” is the organizing term of the book. In doing so, my fourth chapter argues, book 3 points to a contrast between the internal illumination invoked by the blind poet and an Apollonian solar inspiration that motivates the poetry of paganism (reducible to the worship of a godless nature). It aligns the poet’s opening prayer for light with the Son’s faith that he will not be left in the dark of the loathsome grave when he offers to die for humanity. In the episode of the Paradise of Fools, the book further criticizes, with a particular eye toward Catholic practice, the tendency of men and women to read back through analogy from God’s and their own visible works to the invisible Creator, and to confuse the two: it parodies, and admits the impossibility of, the book’s own depiction of heaven. Yet, in distinguishing God’s lower works from God and his heaven, “things invisible to mortal sight,” Milton knows that he risks unlinking creation from Creator altogether, as do the book’s alchemical philosophers, and as Satan does when he later suggests to Eve that the sun, not God, is the power source that gives life, as well as light, to the universe. The work of poetry in an age of astronomical revolution and uncertainty, Milton suggests, is both critical and constructive: to reveal what was too bookish and poetical, all too human—a Baconian Idol of the Theater—in earlier accounts of the cosmos; and to assert, through the model of its own bookishness, the order and divine authorship of the Book of Nature, however difficult that book may be to read and however invisible the author may be.

Chapter 5 applies this question of visibility to the political argument of Paradise Lost by focusing on Satan’s envy, a condition associated with vision and first aroused, according to Raphael’s account to Adam and Eve in book 5, by the sight of the Son elevated to vice-regency in heaven, an alteration in celestial affairs that also initiates the difference of linear time from the sameness of cyclical eternity. Satan’s envy links vision to time, and to the finite goods of this world; at its end, the chapter suggests a scriptural parallel in Wisdom of Solomon 2–3. Satan’s refusal to bow down before what he takes to be a temporal image of God corresponds to the later historical rejection of the incarnate Son by the incredulous and envious Jews—while his adversary, the zealous Abdiel, plays the role of a fearless Nicodemus before the Sanhedrin. Satan further argues backward, from the apparently secondary, temporal status of the Son, to assert that the Father, whom the Son visibly expresses, is equally secondary and a purely temporal power to be opposed by temporal force. In his envy, the devil invents worldly monarchy by misattributing it to God and wanting it for himself, inventing war, too, in the process. Milton ties Satan’s envy to the proverbial envy of the early modern courtier in a royal court. In his meeting with Gabriel in book 4, where the two begin to fight a private duel, called off, as it happens, by God, Satan represents himself in the role of a feudal magnate, refusing to give up a former warrior existence for the cringing court servility to which he accuses Gabriel and the good angels of having subjected themselves. Loving Christian service and abject courtly servitude may indeed look alike. In the character of Gabriel, who briefly seems to rise to Satan’s bait, Milton comments on how difficult it may be to reconcile aristocratic honor with Christianity. Earthly kingship and the royal-aristocratic social order, Paradise Lost thus suggests (guardedly for the Restoration censor, but nonetheless clearly enough), are incompatible with Christian brotherhood. The political form best suited to achieve brotherhood, Milton maintained in The Readie and Easie Way, is the “proportioned,” that is, relative equality of a republican commonwealth. Michael’s narrative in books 11–12 traces how Cain’s fratricidal envy leads to kingship, which reproduces Satan’s envy and monarchical ambition in human history.

Chapters 6 and 7 turn to the human heroes of the poem, to the Fall in book 9 and its aftermath in book 10. Chapter 6 almost stands apart, and it makes my largest claim. It relates the separate falls of Eve and Adam in book 9, respectively, to deeply held wishes that Milton reveals in other writings throughout his career. The fall of Eve grows out of the desire to make trial of an otherwise cloistered virtue and to stand approved in the eyes of God: individual recognition, which Milton uneasily assimilates with the wish for fame. The model in Paradise Lost is Abdiel, but the zealous angel has good company in the Lady in Comus, the poet-speakers of Lycidas and Mansus, and the hero Jesus, as well as his exemplar Job, in Paradise Regained. Abdiel, the lone dissenter who stands up to the rebel Satan after the latter accuses him of sedition, is a clear autobiographical stand-in for John Milton, and he introduces a distinctly Miltonic third term that complicates the alternatives of power and love that shape the poem’s ethics and generic form: the imperative to prove oneself alone, to use one’s talents like the good servant in the parable, and to receive divine applause: “Servant of God, well done.” Such spiritual aspiration and the individual fame it wins in heaven may appear to be easily distinguished from the fame and renown sought by worldly conquerors and builders of Babels. It is harder to separate from the fame to which the Christian poet Milton aspires—to be equal in renown with Homer—a remainder, perhaps, of the will to power that lurks within piety and zeal.

Satan’s tempting rhetoric to Eve criticizes this wish by turning it into a quest to be the object of universal admiration. Adam, on the other hand, falls in the name of marital love, which the fiction of books 5–8 has made analogous to the communion and joy that Raphael tells Adam and Eve the banqueting angels experience in heaven, and which is reproduced in the meal Raphael shares with them in Eden. This is the sociable joy, the personified Euphrosyne, of L’Allegro and the unifying charity that builds the church in Areopagitica. Adam’s marital (and human) solidarity with Eve cuts him off from the larger community of God and his creatures. Both Eve and Adam have good reasons that go wrong when they disobey God, and their respective wishes—the proof, in Eve’s case, of one’s solitary spiritual worth and sufficiency, the remedying, in Adam’s, of one’s social deficiency through human love and companionship—survive and are ratified after the Fall when the couple appear to have switched positions. Adam at the poem’s end asserts his vertical dependence on the only God, while Eve declares her love for and inseparability from Adam. Michael’s supplement to Adam’s profession of creed, enjoining him to add charity, seems to announce a new Christian liberty that aligns the poem’s ending with Eve (who indeed gets its last word) and with the relationship of human marriage.

The restoration of the marriage of Adam and Eve in book 10, after their fall and mutual recriminations in book 9, is the dramatic climax of Paradise Lost, the event that brings them back both to each other and to God. Chapter 7 places this reconciliation of the first couple against the preceding first two-thirds of book 10, which have described the building by Sin and Death of their bridge over Chaos and Satan’s return to hell. Each of these appears to be a “triumphal act,” allusively associated with the triumph of Augustus depicted on the shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8, the chronological “ending” of Virgil’s poem. But allusion equally returns both demonic acts to the beginning of the Aeneid, the storm and shipwreck off of Carthage, and suggests the recursive shape of evil in the larger book 10, a book in which the narrative sequence of events seems to run in a loop. So these satanic acts of heroism are now understood as mock-triumphs that parody the real triumphs of the Son, true endings that foreshadow apocalyptic ones, at the respective ends of books 6 and 7. When the divine change of the earth’s weather unleashes storm winds that match the turmoil of the despairing Adam, he, too, seems to have been returned to the landscape, outward and internal, of the opening scene of Aeneid 1. Book 10 places the reconciliation of Adam and Eve, the modest but true heroism of Paradise Lost that ensures a future for humanity, against the grand enterprises of the devils and of earlier epics—the Aeneid’s epic of Roman power in particular—that ultimately go nowhere. Satan is left behind in book 10 and out of Milton’s poem, last seen in the same abject posture he was in at its opening. Eve raises Adam out of his despair, and he returns the favor, arguing Eve out of the course of suicide. But Eve’s realization that she and Adam can opt to die restores choice to the human couple, one denied to the deathless fallen angels of book 2. Adam and Eve choose to live by choosing love.

Eve initiates their spiritual recovery, and in book 10 seems more sympathetic than her desperate husband, who exposes her at the Judgment Scene and bursts out into a rant against women when she first approaches him. Milton’s celebration of marriage entails the rehabilitation of Eve as character and as representative woman, mother of mankind. The book rewrites other misogynistic myths and stories—Virgil’s Dido, Pandora, and the concubine of Gibeah in Judges—in a systematic pattern of allusion that parallels and contributes to the countering of its own misogynistic biblical myth. These allusions, too, hint at not-so-concealed autobiography underlying Milton’s depiction of the first human marriage.

A short coda to the book, chapter 8 examines the structure of the composite books 11 and 12, once the final book 10 of the 1667 edition, in which the prophesied destruction of Eden corresponds, antithetically, to the building of Pandaemonium at the beginning of Paradise Lost in book 1. After the Fall, Eden might become a temple, oracle site, a grove of pagan rites, goal of pilgrimage—it has already, at the moment that Satan invades it in book 4, been compared to the sheepfold of the Church, prey to thieves, a Church too rich to escape corruption. In books that predict the rise of empires, God dissociates his cult from power and wealth, closing down and eventually washing away Eden, lest it become another Pandaemonium, a haunt of foul spirits. Milton similarly closes down Paradise Lost, and the imaginative wealth of the epic tradition housed inside it, to exclude poetic successors. He turns against his own poetry the iconoclasm directed at Mulciber’s idolatry; Adam’s visions themselves cease shortly after Michael has predicted the Flood sweeping Paradise off its foundations.

Look for Eden now and you will only find living human temples containing a paradise within.

By the end of Paradise Lost, the prospect of an up-to-date globe from the Mountain of Speculation shows the earth overrun by rising and falling empires and by kings, whether they go by the name of king, khan, czar, sultan, or negus. Human power has triumphed, and, beginning with Nimrod at Babel, it has reduced language and meaning to noise, to the “din” also shared by Satan’s troops (first clashing swords against shields in hell, later hissing when they have been transformed into serpents), by the violence of the War in Heaven, and by the deafening roar of Chaos itself (12.61; 1.668; 10.521; 6.408; 2.1040). The same barbarous dissonance threatens to drown out the song of the poet-speaker, born perhaps into an age too late for poetry itself. He is surrounded, to transfer the terms that Satan will use in Paradise Regained, by a world that is all too “real” rather than “allegoric.” The light of the sun seen through Galileo’s telescope and the poem’s verses is the harbinger of an enlightenment that consigns Adam, Eve, and Eden—and perhaps the grand narrative of Milton’s religion itself—to “fables old.” All of this is acknowledged by Paradise Lost. The epic already participates in a skeptical modernity.

Milton’s new poem looks back on these old fables, however, not only with nostalgia but with hope. Its blind poet asserts that there is more to this finite “real” than the visible from which he is in any event excluded, and he provides the supplement of inner light and imagination. His poem’s center, the defeat of Satan and the creation of a new heaven and earth, took place at the beginning of history, was repeated spiritually at the Incarnation, and will occur again at the apocalyptic end, giving God himself a chance at a do-over, to improve what he tried before. God may be biding his time, but humans, the poem tells us, can always start over, and the last lines show Adam and Eve with the world all before them. They carry with them the knowledge of Eden, of Paradise Lost itself, an Eden that is now for them as for us as much a recreation of the imagination as of memory, and they have learned that love is better than power. The world, Milton’s great poem and all the fables of literature teach, need not be known to us, nor left by us, quite as it was given.


Milton’s Book of Numbers: Book 1 and Its Catalog

A great deal and nothing happens in the first book of Paradise Lost. Satan and his fellow fallen angels rise from the burning lake of hell and assemble into what appears to be the greatest army ever summoned up by epic poetry. In full battle array, what do these devils do? Having already been defeated in the War in Heaven by an army that was, in fact, twice their own size and that possessed a secret weapon that God finally unleashed in the exploits of the Son, the fallen angels know better than to try again. The devils decide to talk things over, and construct a council hall for that purpose in Pandaemonium. Milton has pointedly reversed his epic model in the second book of the Iliad. The council of the Greeks, in which Odysseus dissuades Agamemnon from giving up the war against Troy, comes first and is then succeeded by Agamemnon’s calling for a troop review to boost morale before marching on the city, the occasion, in turn, for Homer’s famous catalog of the ships. In Paradise Lost the catalog of leading devils is followed by the troop muster and the promise of military action, a promise that fizzles out into talk and the ensuing council of book 2. Milton goes so far in this pattern of reversal as to place Homer’s simile of the bees, which comes early in book 2 of the Iliad, describing the Greeks coming together for the council at verses 87–95, near the end, in verses 768–775, of book 1 of Paradise Lost. The order of Iliad 2—bee simile, assembly in council, muster, catalog—is repeated backward in Paradise Lost 1: catalog, muster, assembly in council, bee simile. Breaking their martial ranks, the fallen angels settle in to discuss their situation.

The anticlimax of Milton’s book 1 suggests that the great speeches of Satan that run through it, pledging immortal hate and eternal war, will only lead to more speeches, that the devils are all talk. No sooner has Satan marshaled and counted up his troops than he dismisses the option of battle. Recalling their defeat in the War in Heaven, he asserts that God

his regal state

Put forth at full, but still his strength concealed,

Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.

Henceforth his might we know, and know our own

So as not either to provoke, or dread

New war, provoked; our better part remains

To work in close design, by fraud or guile

What force effected not: that he no less

At length from us may find, who overcomes

By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

Space may produce new worlds; whereof so rife

There went a fame in heaven that he ere long

Intended to create, and therein plant

A generation, whom his choice regard

Should favour equal to the sons of heaven:

Thither, if but to pry, shall be perhaps

Our first eruption, thither or elsewhere:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But these thoughts

Full counsel must mature: peace is despaired,

For who can think submission? War then, war

Open or understood must be resolved.

(1.640–56, 1.659–62)

As Satan spells out the subsequent plot of Milton’s epic, he lets the air out of the preceding action that has raised up and mustered the “myriads of immortal spirits” (1.622) and “puissant legions” (1.632) whom he addresses.1 From its very beginning Paradise Lost moves away from the epic of Iliadic warfare, which, we will find out subsequently in books 5 and 6, has already been staged in the War in Heaven and is over and done with before the action of the poem begins. Whereas in his first speech to Beelzebub Satan had seemed to consider the options of “force or guile” (1.121), he in fact already knows that force will not work: in spite of his protestations here, the devils do have something to dread from new war, as Belial will argue in book 2: “this would be worse” (2.186). For his post-Iliadic situation, Satan revises his earlier formulation and proposes instead the epic of Odyssean “fraud or guile”—which, of course, are not alternatives despite the “or,” but the same thing.2 It is a fraud, moreover, that Satan characteristically justifies by attributing it first to God, who he claims tricked the bad angels by holding the Son and his war chariot in reserve: Satan will fight fraud with fraud. The council in book 2 may debate whether this war is to be “Open or understood,” but, in fact, Satan has already made his choice for the latter. It is Odysseus, the lying master of words, whom, as the next chapter demonstrates, Satan will repeatedly play in the pattern that unifies book 2. By dressing up his devils for battle and then giving them no place to go, Milton at once imitates the representations of earthly military power in earlier epics and satirically belittles them: by the end of the book, the devils will have shrunk to the size of bees and fairy elves. He also redefines the nature of the epic that is to follow: all epic poems are, in the final analysis, wars of words, wars, that is, made up of the words we read on the page, but this one will be explicitly, self-consciously so, a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. Action in this epic will be verbal, and conversely its poetry is a form of action.

The catalog of the chief demons from verses 376 to 521 at the center of the book illustrates this shift. It may appear to motivate the military muster that follows in the action, but, in fact, the weapons of these devils are not martial but the “falsities and lies” (1.367) by which they corrupted mankind to fall into idolatry. It is a catalog, not, as in earlier epics, of soldiers but of so many Odyssean liars. What had been the function of the traditional epic catalog, to number and measure the strength of contending armies and to give the epic poem its sense of grandeur, is taken up instead by the celebrated similes of book 1, which invoke vast military forces—the giants who warred on Jove, the Memphian chivalry of Pharaoh, the barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire, the armies of earlier epics and chivalric romances. The relationship of the similes is thus ironic to this catalog-which-is-not-a-catalog, a roll call of lying, noncombatant devils. Yet Milton also exploits the sense in which the ordering of the troops in the traditional epic catalog constitutes a miniature version of the epic poem’s larger attempt to give form and intelligibility to the violence of war, where battle makes ordered ranks fall quickly into disarray. His centrally placed catalog corresponds to and determines much of the action of book 1, as well as the landscape of hell, both in Milton’s physical descriptions and in the similes. It further controls the overall logic and sequence of these similes. The following discussion demonstrates the extraordinary symbolic unity of book 1, organized around its catalog, and of which the catalog, as an inset, organized unit, is a model and epitome. It suggests how the catalog of demons, whose idolatrous shrines abutted upon or even entered into the Jerusalem temple, relates to the construction of Pandaemonium, the temple-capital of the fallen angels built through music and poetry that is an anti-version of the poetic edifice of Paradise Lost itself. The book that gets the epic started is thus very much about its own writing: the Satan who first lifts himself and then his companions off the burning lake darkly mirrors his literary creator. In its consistent metapoetic argument, Milton’s representation of the devils at once demystifies and may itself be complicit with the human making of idols.

The Shape of the Catalog

Demonstrating the spectrum of diabolic evil, the catalog, in fact, possesses its own intricate structure and logic.3 “Say, Muse, their names then known, who first, who last” (1.376), the poet asks, and draws our attention specifically, self-consciously, to who stands first and last at either end of the catalog. It first lists “prime in order and in might” (1.506), beginning with Moloch and ending with Belial, the pagan gods of the ancient Near East who have biblical associations. They are followed almost as an afterthought by the classical Greek and Roman gods. The catalog thus ends twice: the first time with Belial, the second time with “Saturn old,” who fled first to Italy and then, it seems, all the way to England, the “utmost isles.” The analysis that follows considers different implications of the catalog’s inner pairing of Moloch-Belial and its outer pairing of Moloch-Saturn.


The pairing of Moloch and Belial will be repeated in the council scene of book 2, where the two demons will propose the diametrically opposite courses of open war and possible self-annihilation on the one hand and ignoble ease and getting accustomed to hell on the other. (These alternatives will also be played out in the activities of the devils that Satan leaves behind in hell later in the book, between those who go mad with “vast Typhoean rage” [2.539], and the “others more mild” [2.546] who build a civilization of poetry and philosophy.) The opposition between Moloch and Belial, between a demon who demands human sacrifice in the form of children and a demon “than whom a spirit more lewd / Fell not from heaven” (1.490–91) and who is responsible for the demands to rape guests in Sodom and Gibeah, pits violence against lust, though the difference may disappear when we consider that the matron exposed at Gibeah (Judges 19) was raped to death.4 This same opposition appears in the initial pairing of Moloch and Chemos, the Moabite god who was worshipped by “lustful orgies” (1.415). Chemos is, in fact, to be identified with Milton’s old friend, the seducer Comus, as he is by Gerhard Vossius; Jerome identified Chemos as well with Priapus and thus made his lascivious nature clear.5 His shrine in Jerusalem was, the poem tells us, next to “the grove / Of Moloch homicide, lust hard by hate” (1.416–17).

Chemos and Belial are also linked geographically, for the first extended his cult “to the Asphaltic Pool” (1.411), while the second was associated with Sodom: both, that is, are linked to the desolate region of the Dead Sea. This is one of the identities of the burning lake on which Satan is first discovered “Prone on the flood, extended long and large / Lay floating many a rood” (1.195–96). The “fiery deluge” (1.68) and “sulphurous hail” (1.171) that fall in hell recall the rain of fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:23–28) beside the Dead Sea. The saline Dead Sea was famous for keeping objects buoyant on its surface, and this is why Satan and his cohorts lie floating, “covering the flood” (1.312) of the lake of hell instead of sinking beneath its waves.


The contrast of Moloch to Belial as first and last of the prime devils is succeeded by the contrast of Moloch to the last of the pagan gods, the Roman Saturn, the beginning and end of the entire catalog.

First Moloch, horrid king besmeared with blood

Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,

Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud

Their children’s cries unheard, that passed through fire

To his grim idol.


Moloch was a god of Carthage, the Phoenician deity Baal-Hammon, whose cult was brought by Punic colonists to the North African city. The ritual sacrifice to Moloch of children, immolated in fire, elicited horror among Greek and Roman writers.6 The worship of this cruel god was also introduced, Milton goes on to record, into Israel under Solomon, then suppressed by Josiah (2 Kings 23:10): “And he defiled the Topheth, which is the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.”7 This cult site, “Tophet thence / And black Gehenna called,” Milton comments was “the type of hell” itself (1.404–5), and we may understand the flames of hell as one giant holocaust to Moloch prepared for humanity. It is appropriate that Moloch comes foremost in the catalog.

The Saturn who is mentioned twice in verses 512 and 519 appears, by contrast, to have been a beneficent pagan deity.

who with Saturn old

Fled over Adria to the Hesperian fields,

And o’er the Celtic roamed the utmost isles.


The lines refer to Virgil’s double version of Italian-Roman origins in the Aeneid: the Italian king Latinus is the descendant of Saturn in book 7 (45–49), while in book 8, in the passage primarily recalled here, Evander recounts to Aeneas how Saturn came as a fugitive to Italy, civilized its peoples, and founded a golden age (8.319–58). We are reminded of the glorious future Rome of its new founder Augustus, who, Anchises had predicted in the underworld of book 6, would establish a golden age again in place of Saturn: “aurea condet / saecula qui rursus latio regnata per arua / Saturno quondam” (6.792–94).

Is the evil, child-immolating Carthaginian god at the begining of the catalog thus contrasted to a civilizing, peaceful founding god of Rome at its end? No: whatever their appearances, everyone in this catalog is a devil, and these two are in fact identical. Saturn was also Cronos, the god who devoured his children, and it was the name that the Romans themselves gave to Moloch. The historian Quintus Curtius writes that during the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great, the Punic citizens considered “offering a freeborn boy to Saturn—this sacrilege rather than sacrifice, handed down from their fathers, the Carthaginians are said to have performed until the destruction of their city” (4.3.32).8 Lactantius similarly pours down Christian indignation in the Institutes: “Or what will they do in profane places who commit the most extreme crimes around the altars of the gods? Pescennius Festus in his books of history recounts fully how ‘the Carthaginians were accustomed to immolate human victims to Saturn, and when they were conquered by Agathocles, King of the Sicilians, they thought the god was angry with them; and so that they might more diligently make atonement, they immolated 200 of the sons of the nobles.’ ”9 In a passage of the City of God that Milton appears explicitly to have in mind here, Augustine similarly identifies Saturn with the child-devouring Carthaginian god (7.26) while he cites Evander’s speech in Aeneid 8 (7.27).10 Moloch and Saturn are thus one and the same horrifying deity/devil. By lending his catalog the shape of a ring composition with Moloch and Saturn at either end, Milton suggests that there is little to choose between the great opponents of antiquity, Carthage and Rome, whose conflict is enshrined in the Aeneid. In this respect, he may have been anticipated by the Aeneid itself, for the first “Saturnia” we encounter there (1.23) is Juno, the patroness of Carthage; already in Virgil’s poem it is difficult to determine the meaning of Rome’s Saturnian inheritance.


This conflation of Moloch and Saturn, of Carthage and Rome, governs or reflects the way that the topography and action of book 1 rewrites the opening of the Aeneid. As critics have pointed out, the scene that begins Milton’s epic in medias res—its discovery of Satan and his fellow fallen angels dispersed on the storm-tossed burning lake of hell and seeking in the words of the archfiend to “tend / From off the tossing of these fiery waves / There rest, if any rest can harbour there” (1.183–85)—recalls the begining of the Aeneid, the storm sent by Juno and the finding by Aeneas and his Trojan followers of a harbor, “portum” (Aen. 1.159), near Carthage.11 Like Aeneas struggling to the Punic shore, Satan manages to arrive at the “beach / Of that inflamed sea” (299–300). The hot sands of the Libyan desert, moreover, are suggested by the “burning marl” and “torrid clime” (1.296–97), the “burnt soil” of hell over which the devils march with “painful steps” (1.562), not so much marching as hotfooting it in a comic slap at their soldierly dignity. What ensues in book 1 is an Aeneid in miniature: by its end, the Aeneas-like Satan and the other devils have built their destined city Pandaemonium. Milton is probably making a joke on the proverb that “Rome was not built in one day.” Putting to shame the builders “Of Babel, and the works of Memphian kings,” his epic protagonists raise their city “in an hour / What in an age they with incessant toil / And hands innumerable scarce perform” (1.694, 1.697–99). The allusion to the Tower of Babel and to the pyramids, repeated at lines 717–18, “Not Babylon, / Nor great Alcairo,” also identifies Pandaemonium with Rome: the biblical Rome as the Whore of Babylon of Revelation 17 accompanied by her seven-headed beast. This Rome was a new Babylon, as the Babylon that held the Israelites captive was another Egypt. It is the great city of Revelation 11:8, “which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt,” and thus it brings together the three locales of earthly sin that define the geography of Milton’s hell. Satan and his cohorts have built a version of Rome where at the end of the book they will hold both a “consult” (1.798), a meeting of the ancient Roman senate, and a “conclave” (795), an assembly in modern, papal Rome. The Geneva Bible comments on the beast and the Whore of Babylon, “The Beast signifieth the ancient Rome: the woman that sitteth thereon, the new Rome which is the Papistrie, whose crueltie and blood sheding is declared by skarlat.”12 It has been suggested that the pilasters, pillars, and golden architrave of Pandaemonium recall the new Saint Peter’s in Rome.13 In this little Aeneid, the Church of Rome has been built in one day.

Just as Saturn and Moloch are one and the same, the demonic capital Pandaemonium conflates Virgil’s Rome with his Carthage, the demonized double and opponent of Rome in the Aeneid—“Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe / ostia” (Aen. 1.13–14; cf. PL 2.296–98)—and makes the two indistinguishable.14 Its roof of “fretted gold” (1.717) and the “starry lamps and blazing cressets” (7.728) that hang from it recall Virgil’s description of the palace of Dido: “dependent lychni laquearibus aureis / incensi et noctem flammis funalia uincunt” (Aen. 1.726–27). The swarming of Milton’s devils into their newly built capital, compared in simile to bees, evokes not only Homer’s simile in Iliad 2 but recalls as well the famous simile in Aeneid 1 that compares the Carthaginians to bees when they are building their new city (430–36); how happy, Aeneas exclaims in the next line, are those whose city walls are already rising, wishing that he were already founding his own city. In Paradise Lost, however, Rome is being built in Pandaemonium simultaneously and inextricably with its enemy twin, Carthage, the city that lost out in history and was repeatedly defeated and sacked. But the Roman Empire celebrated by Virgil also fell, and the suggestion is that this infernal city and its newly hatched empire will be destroyed, too, in the long run: Pandaemonium delendum est. The point is brought home in a simile that compares the fallen angels to the barbarians who descended upon the Roman Empire, hordes that “Came like a deluge on the south, and spread / Beneath Gibraltar to the Libyan sands” (1.354–55). The devils seem to be the destroyers of the very Rome they are about to build, and the barbarians end up in Libya to destroy Carthage as well, sacked still another time by the Vandals in 439; the devils appear to be their own worst enemies. Later the devils constitute an army greater than any ever assembled in classical or chivalric epic, and here, too, the final figures alluded to return us to Libya: those “whom Biserta sent from Afric shore / When Charlemain with all his peerage fell / By Fontarabbia” (1.585–87). Milton refers to the doomed invasion of France by the Libyan king Agramante in Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato and Ariosto’s Orlando furioso; his capital, Biserta, is sacked in the latter epic (OF 40.32–34). In this revised version of the story, the war also results in the fall of another Roman emperor, the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne, an updating into Renaissance epic’s fantasy Middle Ages of Virgil’s opposition of Carthage and Rome. Once again, the destruction is shared and, in this case, mutual.


Let us return to the inner catalog, which begins with Moloch and ends with Belial. The pairing of Carthaginian Libya, represented by Moloch, with Sodom, represented by Belial, will return to describe our final vision of hell in book 10. Here Satan returns to Pandaemonium, invisible for a while before he appears to his followers “as from a cloud” (10.449) recalling the cloud that surrounded Homer’s Odysseus when he entered into the city of Phaeacia, more pointedly, the cloud that concealed Virgil’s Aeneas before he appeared to Dido in Carthage in book 1 of the Aeneid, and, perhaps most pointedly, the cloud that surrounds the Turkish sultan Solimano in canto 10 of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, when he enters invisibly into the royal council hall inside Muslim-held Jerusalem (GL 10.16–49): Satan finds his “great consulting peers, / Raised from their dark divan” (10.456–57) to congratulate him on his return. Satan comes back as an “emperor” (10.429) to his waiting “legions” (427), and anticipates a Roman-style triumph that would imitate the triumph of the Son after his victory in the War in Heaven. Instead, he and his fellow devils are transformed into serpents. “Not so thick swarmed once the soil / Bedropped with blood of Gorgon” (10.526–27), the poem tells us, referring to the Libyan desert described by Lucan in the De bello civile (9.619–937), where the snakes born from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa wreak gruesome havoc on the soldiers of Cato on their harrowing march across its sands. Satan and his now fellow serpents are constrained to reenact the original sin in Eden, and to eat and spit out a parodic form of the forbidden fruit that tastes of bitter ashes, “like that which grew / Near that bituminous lake where Sodom flamed” (10.561–62). Our last glimpse of Satan finds him in a hell that is a combination of Sodom and Libya.

But this will also be our last vision of Eden. The archangel Michael takes the lingering Adam and Eve by their hands and leads them out of Eden (12.637–38), in an action that recalls the angels who led the lingering Lot and his wife and daughters out of Sodom (Genesis 19:16), for God is destroying Eden much as he destroyed Sodom, turning it into a torrid, uninhabitable area.15

The brandished sword of God before them blazed

Fierce as a comet; which with torrid heat,

And vapour as the Libyan air adust,

Began to parch that temperate clime.


It is a very dark moment in the poem. Paradise is not only being lost; it is being transformed by human sin and divine anger into the landscape of hell, a hell that is part city of the plain, part Libyan desert in the region of a fallen Carthage.


Halfway through the catalog come the Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis, and Orus (1.478); these deities took the monstrous shapes of animals, the “birds, fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” described by Paul in his definition of idolatry in Romans (1:23), a text that Milton paraphrases in verses 367–72. These bestial Egyptian gods had already aroused the skepticism of Cicero in his De natura deorum (3.19): “Then if the traditional gods we worship are really divine, what reason can you give why we should not include Serapis and Isis in the same category … We shall therefore have to admit to the list of gods cattle and horses, ibises, hawks, asps, crocodiles, fishes, gods, wolves, cats and many beasts besides.”16 The cattle that Cicero mentions first are connected to his naming of Serapis, the incarnation of Osiris as a bull, whose “lowings loud” Milton describes in On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (215); Milton will further mention Serapis by name when comparing Pandaemonium to the pyramids and other grandiose buildings of ancient Egypt (1.720). John Selden links this Egyptian cult to the golden calf in the Exodus story and Milton goes on in the catalog to make a similar connection of Osiris to this first lapse of the Hebrews into idolatry, “the calf in Oreb” (1.484).17 In another evocation of the Exodus, the poem relates how, in the last of the plagues visited on the Egyptians, the angel of death slew the firstborn not only of their children but also of their cattle (Exodus 12:29), and thus dispatched those of their “bleating gods” that the fifth plague (Exodus 9:6) had spared.

These Egyptian deities and their associations with the Exodus and its plagues correspond to the third symbolic complex that, in addition to Sodom and to Carthage/Rome, governs the geography of Milton’s hell and the similes of book 1. Still another burning desert, and one neighboring the burning sands of Libya, Egypt was, in the words of Deuteronomy (4:20) and Jeremiah (11:4) a “furnace of iron,” from which God delivered Israel, and hell is introduced to us from the very beginning, through the eyes of the fallen Satan, “As one great furnace” (1.62). When Satan manages to rise from the burning lake, and “on each hand the flames / Driven backward slope their pointing spires, and rolled / In billows leave i’ the midst a horrid vale” (1.222–24), the scene suggests an infernal crossing through the Red Sea, where the “children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry land” (Exodus 14:22) and as the Song of Moses in Exodus 15:8 recounts, the “floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.” The poem already puts in place the scenario of the Exodus that Satan will subsequently parody in book 2, casting him as a diabolic Moses who promises his companions “Deliverance” (2.465) from their Egyptian-like bondage in hell and who crosses the wilderness of Chaos to the Promised Land of God’s newly created earth and Eden.18

This Mosaic association is evoked, however, only to be belied by two similes of book 1 that, in rapid succession, compare the devils first to sedge afloat the Red Sea where the Pharaoh and his army once drowned as they pursued the fleeing Israelites, and implicitly to the Egyptians’ own “floating carcasses” strewn on the waves (1.304–11), then, in the second simile, to the plague of locusts that Moses summoned against the same Egyptians (1.338–43). The devils are identified not with the delivered Israelites but with their Egyptian oppressors, and the combination of similes suggests that they are a plague upon themselves.19 As is the case where the devils are depicted as Carthaginians, as the Carthaginians’ mortal enemies, the Romans, and as the barbarians who sacked both Rome and Carthage, the poem also indicates here the self-defeating nature of their sin. The locusts anticipate the plagues of Egypt mentioned in the catalog, and through the prophet Joel they will represent in Revelation 9 the apocalyptic armies of Satan—in Hebrew Abaddon, in Greek Apollyon—who will rise out of the smoke of the bottomless pit, “as the smoke of a great furnace” (9:2). These same armies will be cast back again into “the lake of fire and brimstone” at the end of time in Revelation 20:9–10. In addition to resembling the Dead Sea and the stormy waves outside of Virgil’s Carthage, Milton’s lake is a kind of Red Sea from which Satan and his crew may make a temporary exodus, but to which they are destined to make a final return, like Pharaoh’s army: “The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone” (Exodus 15:5).

The Catalog and Pandaemonium

Papal apologists proclaimed that Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill was the successor and true version of Solomon’s temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem; this may partly explain why Pandaemonium, “Built like a temple” (1.713), with its “gates / And porches wide” (1.761–62) and its “infernal court” (1.792) bears a parodic resemblance to the Jerusalem temple.20 But here, too, the catalog is closely connected to the action of book 1 and the ensuing construction of Pandaemonium. It lists the neighboring gods of the Israelites whose cults were introduced into Jerusalem itself. They

durst fix

Their seats long after next the seat of God,

Their altars by his altar, gods adored

Among the nations round, and durst abide

Jehovah thundering out of Sion, throned

Between the cherubim; yea, often placed

Within his sanctuary itself their shrines,

Abominations; and with cursed things

His holy rites, and solemn feasts profaned.


Moloch’s temple was introduced by Solomon himself “right against the temple of God” (1.402) and the same “uxorious king” (1.444) built a temple of Astarte for his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:5–7). In one of his visions, Ezekiel sees women weeping for Thammuz “in the sacred porch” (1.454) of the temple (Ezek. 8:14) and views the abominations (Ezek. 8:17) taking place in its inner court. King Ahaz put up an altar to Rimmon in the temple (2 Kings 16:14–15), “God’s altar to disparage and displace / For one of Syrian mode” (1.473–74).

The fallen angels thus build in Pandaemonium an already profane version of the Jerusalem temple that the devils of the catalog will later infiltrate and defile. The ending of the catalog with Belial is again particulaly significant, for Belial, who lacks a temple, represents the spirit of ecclesiastical corruption itself.

to him no temple stood

Or altar smoked; yet who more oft than he

In temples and at altars, when the priest

Turns atheist, as did Ely’s sons, who filled

With lust and violence the house of God.

In courts and palaces he also reigns

And in luxurious cities …


In Pandaemonium, both temple and city, Milton intimates not merely his revulsion at the Roman church, but his distrust of any and all established churches, too easily contaminated by pagan, carnal influences, by the world of kings and cities; his distrust, especially, of the physical buildings that house such churches. Paradise Lost begins by calling on the Spirit, “that dost prefer / Before all temples the upright heart and pure” (1.17–18), already replacing the earlier invoked “Sion hill” (1.10) before the ensuing fiction of book 1 builds the devils’ temple. In book 11, Michael tells Adam that “God attributes to place / No sanctity” (11.836–37), as he shows him in a vision the washing away by the Flood of the mount of Paradise, which earlier in the same book he remarks might have been “Perhaps thy capital seat,” a Jerusalem or a Rome with a temple at its center.21

As the capital of hell, Pandaemonium is to be contrasted to Milton’s heaven, where the angels described by Raphael in book 5 dwell camped in “pavilions” and “tabernacles” (5.653; 5.654) on the vast plain around the mountain of God, evoking the scenery of the wilderness around Sinai.22 The contrast is scripturally inspired by Stephen’s diatribe in Acts 7 against the temple after he has been accused of prophesying its destruction (Acts 6:14), the speech that earns him martyrdom. After mentioning the golden calf (7:41) and the tabernacle of Moloch (7:43), Stephen suggests the continuity of these idolatrous cults with the temple itself, opposing the worship of the Israelites in the wilderness to the subsequent cult center in Jerusalem.

44. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.

47. But Solomon built him an house.

48. Howbeit the moste High dwelleth not in temples made with hands, as saith the prophet.

The Geneva Bible comments on verse 44, “They oght to have bene content with this couenant onely, & not to haue gone after their lewd fantasies,” and on verse 48, “He reproveth the grosse dulnes of the people who abused the power of God in that they wolde haue conteined it within the temple.”23 Calvin’s own commentary on Acts, translated into English by Christopher Fetherstone in 1585, notes that “This was almost a common error in all ages, because men thought that cold ceremonies were sufficient enough for the worship of God. The reason is, because forasmuch as they are carnal, and wholly set upon the world, they imagine that God is like to them.”24 The pastoral layout of Milton’s heaven and the building project of Pandaemonium contrast the sojourn in the wilderness that the Israelites experienced close to their God to the institutionalization of their worship in the temple in Jerusalem, a temple that seems to have been already unsanctified by ritual religion and pomp before the devils cataloged by Milton would have their idolatrous cults placed alongside and within its spaces. The building of Pandaemonium is the beginning of priestcraft.

The Logic of the Similes in Book 1

The catalog at the center of the book also governs the sequential logic of Milton’s similes in book 1. Milton’s catalog, we have seen, is an anti-catalog that describes the spiritual force of falsities, lies, and idolatry, but it nonetheless bears the imprint of the traditional epic catalog that lists the size and strength of the contending army, and it thus feels connected to the ensuing muster of the devils who march in formation before their leader, Satan.

he through the armed files

Darts his experienced eye, and soon traverse

The whole battalion views, their order due,

Their visage and stature as of gods,

Their number last he sums. And now his heart

Distends with pride, and hardening in his strength

Glories: for never since created man,

Met such embodied force, as named with these

Could merit more than that small infantry

Warred on by cranes:


Much of the ensuing epic will depict the progressive hardening of Satan’s heart, which here takes pride in the “embodied force,” the sheer physical violence that is at his disposal in this review of his troops. He first looks at their stature and then counts them up, and it appears to be this second act, his numbering them, that makes his heart swell. In so doing, Satan imitates—and the poem again self-consciously points to—the shape and sequence of book 1 itself. Its similes first look at how big the devils are, and then describe how many they are.

This army, the passage tells us, makes all human forces look like pygmies, whose war with the cranes is recorded by Homer in the Iliad (3.537). But book 1, which begins by comparing Satan to a Titan or a giant, and then to a sleeping whale (1.196–208), will end by likening the devils, who have shrunk themselves to fit into Pandaemonium, to those very pygmies or to fairy elves (1.780–88). Milton belittles the fallen angels—he allows us to watch them belittle themselves. But this change in his reader’s perception of them is prepared for and integral to his book’s moving from the question of “monstrous size” (1.197) to the question of number.

The distinction becomes clear in the similes that rapidly succeed one another between verses 287 and 311. Milton has continued the gigantism of his description of Satan by comparing his shield to the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope and his spear, which would make a shipmast look like a mere “wand” (294), similes that also, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, seek to diminish earlier epics—Homer had compared the shield of Achilles to the moon and insisted on the weight of his spear that no other hero could handle (Iliad 19.374–88)—much as Satan’s forces will later be said to dwarf those of Milton’s epic predecessors, beginning with the giants of Claudian’s Gigantomachy (576–87).25 But then Satan calls on his fallen companions, and the perspective shifts from size to quantity, and the similes that follow compare them to “autumnal leaves” and the “sedge” of the Red Sea. I am less interested in how the first of these similes reaches back through the epic tradition to Dante, Virgil, and Homer than in the way in which they both suddenly diminish the size of the devils.26

When we think in numbers, and when the individual becomes a number without a name, the units become very small: leaves or sedges. The same thing happens in the ensuing simile that compares the fallen angels who rise and fly above the burning lake to a swarm of locusts: “So numberless were those bad angels seen” (1.344). The devils have, in fact, lost their individual identities through their sin: “Though of their names in heavenly records now / Be no memorial blotted out and razed / By their rebellion” (1.361–63). Evil is ontologically privative, and the devils neither have names nor, as Satan will learn, a recognizable “shape” (4.835), and they are last seen in the poem in a state of metamorphosis in book 10. The catalog that follows in book 1 puts a literally human face upon them as they inhabit the idols that men and women have made. But the same diminishment returns in the book when the “multitude” (1.730) comes to pay a tourist visit to the newly completed Pandaemonium—“they anon / With hundreds and with thousands trooping” (1.759–60)—and are now compared to bees. When the devils, already shrunken to insects in the simile, now shrink themselves in order that all may fit “without number” (1.791) into Pandaemonium, the action comments metapoetically upon the poem’s own procedure and logic. At the same time, the poem itself self-consciously comments: “they but now who seemed / In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons / Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room / Throng numberless” (1.777–80). Milton made the devils big five hundred lines earlier, and now he makes them little, as if one has to think small in order to make the numberless fit into the confines of the imagination. The very greatness in numbers that the traditional epic catalog counts up and celebrates only miniaturizes the devils, a sardonic enough deflation of the military subject of previous epic: “Wars, hitherto the only argument / Heroic deemed” (9.28–29). These devils, as we have noted, are not going to fight in any case: their shrinking to get into the council hall goes hand in hand with, and is the image of, their unheroic abandonment of force for fraud. But even in their former battle on the plains of heaven, the poem suggests here, the vastness of their army had already diminished them. The infinite become the infinitesimal.

These issues, in fact, crop up again during Raphael’s retrospective narration of the War in Heaven, at the very center of the poem in its original ten-book version of 1667. Raphael suggests the difficulty of retelling feats performed by “Army against army numberless” (6.224); he states that “deeds of eternal fame / Were done, but infinite” (6.240–41), and thus acknowledges that the modern massed warfare of Milton’s time, armed with the canonry whose satanic invention Raphael will subsequently recount, cannot be narrated in terms of individual heroes. It will take the Son’s entrance into the battle on its third day, wielding a different kind of power, to end this melee and to reintroduce a kind of epic heroism: “Number to this day’s work is not ordained / Nor multitude” (6.809–10), the Son tells the loyal angels.27

More pointedly, the Son’s prowess has already been anticipated at the end of book 5 by the zealous witness borne by the lowly Abdiel against his aristocratic angelic betters and their vast numbers in Satan’s camp:

Among the faithless, faithful only he;

Among innumerable false, unmoved,

Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified

His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;

Nor number, nor example with him wrought

To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind

Though single.


Abdiel’s keeping his faith in spite of the massive pressure of his peers has individuated him and earned him a place in the story, and in the ensuing book 6 he will be acclaimed by God himself: “well hast thou fought / The better fight, who single hast maintained / Against revolted multitudes the cause / Of truth, in word mightier than they in arms” (6.29–32). Here, too, verbal combat, in this case the words of reasoned truth triumphing over devilish fraud, replaces traditional epic warfare. Abdiel’s fight is a very Miltonic combat in which the captain of the debate club triumphs over the football team. It is, nonetheless, the spiritual equivalent of the Son’s victory and may be said to explain its true nature.

The poem parallels the two acts and places them at the end of their respective books, lending the 1667 Paradise Lost two centers. Abdiel separates himself from the “revolted multitudes”; the Son separates and drives those multitudes out of heaven. In many respects, Abdiel’s feat is more impressive, since he is not fitted out with the Chariot of Paternal Deity, and Abdiel, in fact, occupies and hinges the very center of the poem’s original version, defeating Satan in debate at the end of book 5, striking Satan to his knees at the beginning of hostilities in book 6 (111–98): his spiritual heroism is paralleled not only to the Son’s military heroism but to his own battlefield heroism as well. But it is the first kind of heroism, the spiritual one available to every man, that counts in this epic: the war of words and the interiorized, reasoned choice of faith, a choice that is necessarily individual and that resists being incorporated into the numbers of the epic catalog.

Raising Devils

Reduced to numbers without names, diminished in size, the devils become unreal in the final simile of book 1, a simile that makes them very little, into the little people, the fairies, just as the book’s first simile had made them very big, like a sleeping whale, and perhaps no more real. The two similes frame the fiction and are meant to be paired and compared, “who first, who last.”

or that sea-beast

Leviathan, which God of all his works

Created hugest that swim the ocean stream:

Him haply slumbering on the Norway foam

The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,

Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,

With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,

Moors by his side under the lea, while night

Invests the sea, and wished morn delays:


or faerie elves,

Whose midnight revels, by a forest side

Or fountain some belated peasant sees,

Or dreams he sees, while overhead the moon

Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth

Wheels her pale course, they on their mirth and dance

Intent, with jocund music charm his ear:

At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.


The best readings of these similes, by Geoffrey Hartman and Patricia Parker, emphasize their slowing down of the action and the figure of the onlooker, the pilot or the belated peasant, whose fate is suspended.28 Will the dawn come up in time for the pilot to get his anchor out of the whale he mistakes for an island, or will the whale wake up first, dive, founder his ship, and drown him? Will the peasant be made a lunatic by his vision of the fairies? This suspense corresponds to the larger plot of the epic as it approaches the Fall of Adam and Eve, which it presents as anything but inevitable; at any moment their human choices might have turned out differently.

The onlooker, to push those readings further, is also a figure of Milton’s reader confronting the satanic evil the poem represents. In both similes, the whale and the fairies are minding their own business, the former asleep, the latter “on their mirth and dance / Intent.” The drama takes place in the onlooker’s reaction: the failure to recognize the threat in the motionless, dormant whale; the potential fascination with the dancing fairy elves.

The similes have an additional dimension of demystification. The first is a sailor’s yarn (“as seamen tell”), the second is a fairy tale, and possibly a dream; both are staged in the darkness and uncertainty of night. Framing book 1, the similes call into question the very reality of the devils it depicts—perhaps not the existence of the devil per se, attested to in scripture, but of the forms in which the human imagination has clothed him: the names by which the fallen angels now go in the catalog at the book’s center.29 The example of the myth of Mulciber—“Men called him Mulciber” (1.740)—which seems to contain its own etiological explanation of how a falling star might have been erringly converted by fable into a falling deity, fits into this pattern.

Book 1 already provides a generic home for the devils as make-believe fairies by means of two similes in its later section that evoke the romances of chivalry. The first, in verses 579–87, passes from epic precedents (Claudian, Statius, Homer, Virgil) to invoke “what resounds / In fable or romance” (1.579–80) and refers to Arthur, “Uther’s son” (1.580), as well as to the heroes of Carolingian romance who “Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban / Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond” (1.583–84); the second, in verses 763–66, picks up both this tournament figure and its switch between verses from Christian to pagan (Muslim) locales, and compares the spacious hall of Pandaemonium to “a covered field, where champions bold / Wont ride in armed, and at the soldan’s chair / Defied the best of paynim chivalry / To mortal combat or career with lance.” These are the “gorgeous knights / At joust and tournament” (9.36–37) that Milton, again conflating epic with romance, will reject as a heroic subject in his calling upon his Muse in book 9, the stuff of the poem on King Arthur he had himself once considered writing. Of course, there was already such a poem in English, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and fairies such as Morgan le Fay were protagonists of the chivalric legends. By the end of the book, the devils and their world seem to be consigned not only to the pagan, rather than Christian side of the romances, “at the soldan’s chair,” but to the romances themselves into which the book’s epic fiction seems to be turning, or from which it may have never indeed been distinct: to the popular genre that Renaissance literary theorists routinely disparaged for its mere fictionality—“fabled knights / In battles feigned” (9.30–31), Milton dismissively comments.30

The final comparison of the devils to dancing fairies is an instance, moreover, of Miltonic self-citation. The ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Milton’s first major poem that opens the Poems of 1645, describes how the new light of truth at the birth of Christ drives out the pagan gods from their shrines and oracles. All but one are gods who reappear in the catalog of book 1, which is consciously rewriting the earlier poem. The Nativity Ode similarly concludes with the diminishment of these gods to fairies: “the yellow-skirted fays, / Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze” (1.235–36). If there is something elegiac in Milton’s vanishing fairies, whose maze refers to the patterns of their dance and the rings it leaves behind in the fields, they are not entirely innocuous, for they are part of a folk belief that Reformers tied to Catholicism. So the Anglican bishop and poet Richard Corbet (1582–1635) wrote in his ballad, “The Faeryes Farewell,” which describes an expulsion similar to the one carried out in the Nativity Ode, and contains a similar hint of elegy or, in this case, nostalgia.

Witnesse those Rings & Roundelayes

Of theirs, which yet remaine,

Were footed in Queene Maries dayes

On many a Grassy Playne;

But, since of late Elizabeth

And later Iames, came in,

They never daunc’d on any heath

As when the Time hath bin.

By which we note the Faries

Were of the old Profession;

Theyre Songs were Ave Maryes,

Their Daunces were Procession.

But now, alas, they all are dead,

Or gone beyond the Seas,

Or Farther for Religion fled,

Or elce they take theyre Ease.


Milton’s dancing fairy elves in Paradise Lost may thus carry with them the remnants of Catholic ritual and of the idolatry of the demonic pagan gods listed in the catalog with their “gay religions full of pomp and gold” (1.372). Their music could be associated with the same gods in the Nativity Ode—with the “dismal dance” around the idol of Moloch (210), the “anthems dark” that accompany the worshippers of Osiris (219)—as well as with the crypto-Catholic “rites” of Comus and of his “foundation” in Milton’s Comus: “And on the tawny sands and shelves / Trip the pert fairies and the dapper elves” (117–18).

These associations with paganism or with a paganizing popery notwithstanding, the predominant idea of the endings both of book 1 of Paradise Lost and of the Nativity Ode seems to be the reduction of the face of the demonic to the level of fairies, that is, to unreal figments of the human imagination at its most vulgar level of ignorance and superstition. At this level, the fairies—precisely because they are make-believe—nonetheless have their charm: they are the stuff of poetry. “I may never believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys,” says Shakespeare’s rationalist Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.2–3), as he goes on to discuss how the poet gives “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (5.1.16–17), turning airy into fairy.

The fairy elves of the last simile thus offer a final, skeptical comment on Milton’s own fiction-making in book 1. The contrast between the inert whale of the first simile and these elves dancing to their jocund music adds another layer to this metapoetic argument. The action of the book has raised Satan and his fellow devils into action from their chains and immmobility. The poem has similarly animated them, and it has done so through the music of its verse. Beelzebub tells Satan that the fallen angels will respond to their leader’s “voice, their liveliest pledge / Of hope in fears and dangers” (1.274–75), and it is in answer to “their general’s voice” (1.337), reminiscent of the war-shouts of Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad, which calls on them to “Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen” (1.330), that the host of demons swarm up out of the burning lake; this invocation closely parallels the poet’s own calling upon his Muse to catalog the chief devils, “Roused from the slumber” (1.377), those whose names have been “razed” (1.362) from heavenly memory, but who rise again here. The diabolic army begins to move through music, first when the imperial ensign is displayed “at the warlike sound / Of trumpets loud and clarions” (1.531–32), which occasions a collective “shout” (1.542), then “to the Dorian mood / Of flutes and soft recorders; such as raised / To highth of noblest temper heroes old” (1.550–52). We are told of “the soft pipes that charmed / Their painful steps o’er the burnt soil” (1.562–63): the commonplace Latinate pun on “charm” and “carmen,” suggests that this music that propels them is a kind of poetry, perhaps identical to Milton’s own poem that we are reading. Similarly, Pandaemonium is built to the sound of music: it “Rose like an exhalation, with the sound / Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet” (1.711–12), and this recollection of the lyre of the poet Amphion that built Thebes also directs attention to the poem itself and its self-conscious fiction-making. The simile of the dancing fairies who “charm” the ear of the peasant onlooker completes and glances back upon the book’s procedures: the power of its words and music has raised the devils into motion and raised their capital city, a poetic creation that parodies the work of Milton’s Spirit-Muse, who is asked “what is low raise and support” (1.23) in the poet, and who taught Moses the story of the Creation itself: “how the heavens and earth / Rose out of chaos” (1.9–10).

Book 1 of Paradise Lost thus dramatizes the part its own poetry plays in creating the devils it places before the reader and suggests how idolatry itself is a kind of poetry. The demons of the catalog were “wandering o’er the earth” (1.365) before they became fixed in their cult sites as pagan gods, and the “falsities and lies” by which they corrupted the greatest part of mankind have originated as much with mankind as with them. The same chapter of the City of God in which Augustine discusses Virgil’s Saturn concludes with his judgment that the whole of pagan polytheism “is occupied in inventing means for attracting wicked and most impure spirits, inviting them to visit senseless images, and through these to take possession of stupid hearts” (7.27).32 The idea here seems to be that man proposes and the devil disposes: that real demons rush in when human belief creates imaginary gods. It is a critical take on the Middle Platonism expressed in such works as the Hermetic Asclepius, which Augustine cites and criticizes in the following book 8 of The City of God. The Asclepius piously describes how the Egyptian priests were able to attract benign demons to inhabit the statues of their gods: “they added a supernatural force whereby the images might have power to work good or hurt, and combined it with a material substance, that is to say, being unable to make souls, they invoked the souls of daemons, and implanted them in the statues by means of holy and sacred rites” (37).33 Augustine seems to agree that the pagan idols were indeed animated, but by unholy devils who took advantage of human superstition and led it still further away from the true God: “For although man made gods, it did not follow that he who made them was not held captive by them, when, by worshipping them, he was drawn into fellowship with them—into the fellowship not of stolid idols, but of cunning demons” (8.24).34 Milton’s self-conscious poetic animation of his fictional devils points historically forward to, and seeks to denounce, the future