John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is an intense, passionate poem, and erotic poem. From the visual imagery to the descriptive language Milton uses to portray his lively scenes, there is no escaping the reality of the life force that moves his poem. Why, however, did Milton choose to write such a poem, and to whom was he writing and responding?
Is John Milton a man for our time or all time? The blind and pugnacious, indeed, radical, English poet arguably wrote the greatest epic in the English language. While claiming to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton’s remarkable poem is not only a window into the battles of early modern English civilization, it is a gateway into the mind of a prescient man who served as a precursor to the English Augustan age—an age that confronted the sterile mechanicalism and materialism of the emergent “Enlightenment” philosophy, an era duly remembered as the “Age of Passion.”
Eros, in Greek, does not singularly mean sexual passion as it does through our deracinated English inheritance. While eros does mean love, in ancient Greek from Homer down through Thucydides and Plato, eros could better be understood as the intensity of the passions which produce ecstasy—both sexual and non-sexual. At various points in the Iliad, Homer employs eros in non-sexual and sexual settings, and Thucydides incorporates eros in purely non-sexual ecstatic political contexts (especially in the Funeral Oration and Alcibiades’ speech advocating the Sicilian Expedition). We might better understand eros, then, as the passionate life force that moves affective creatures into “madness” or ecstasy—from which the intensity of the passions manifest themselves in sexual or non-sexual ways.
One might ask, then, why not consider Milton’s cosmos as “passionate” instead of “erotic”? To be sure, passion and passionate are more neutral terms that are not loaded with the potential negativity of eros and the erotic. However, passion and passionate fail to capture that august lebenskraft which eros and the erotic do. Moreover, at the end of Paradise Lost the love which the archangel Michael explains to Adam is more in line with the classical tradition concerning the connectivity of eros and theoria, which I shall return to at the end of this essay. So while I will use the terms somewhat interchangeably, know that the eros which I speak of is an ecstatic intensity of passion which the word eros more fully embodies and implies than does the word passion.
Milton’s grand epic is an intense poem, a passionate poem, an erotic poem. From the visual imagery to the very descriptive language Milton uses to portray his lively scenes to us, there is no escaping the reality of the life force which moves his poem. Why, however, does Milton choose to write such a poem, and to whom, or what, is he writing and responding?
By the time Milton was composing Paradise Lost, the Caroline era had come to a violent end in the English Civil Wars and the Restoration under Charles II was under way. Milton was a devoted nonconformist, an enemy of the “Popish” aspects of the Anglican Church but also a heterodox nonconformist rejecting the deterministic supralapsarianism of Cambridge Calvinism exemplified by men like William Perkins and William Ames. This is all reflected in his poem, which presents a theodicy of free will. The intellectual currents in philosophy are also important—if not overriding—for us. Francis Bacon had just published his Novum Organum and New Atlantis which charted out the modern scientific-materialistic outlook that would give birth to mechanical philosophy and utilitarianism. Thomas Hobbes had also recently published his Leviathan, which, among other things, continued the materialization of philosophy and denied Transcendent Morality altogether, strongly promoting (especially in the first part) a mechanical philosophy of causality. The emergent materialism of English philosophy was stripping the world of love, of passion, of eros, and turning it into a bland world of causality and motion without any zest. This intellectual reality must never be lost to the reader of Paradise Lost alongside Milton’s own political and theological radicalism.
The focus on the individual and the individual’s genius to understand the reality of the world through private revelation and the poet’s reinvention of genres was, for Max Weber, the great creative cultural enterprise of Protestantism. Freed from the constraints of the priesthood, intermediaries, and defined forms and traditions to which one needed to belong, the shattering of old norms and established hierarchies gave the Protestant poet—even if, perhaps, still a practicing Catholic like Alexander Pope—a new power to embark on his own adventure. In all respects, Milton is, then, the very embodiment of the quintessential Protestant poet of individual genius and reinvention which reverberates down to the present day even with postmodern criticism.
Milton’s poem is a truly passionate poem. Passion bleeds through its pages from start to finish. The visuality of the poem, its ability to conjure up images in our mind, are intense. The poem begins with a sort of preface (re)stating the standard Christian theodicy of the Fall of Man and speaks of the promised coming of Christ, “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one great man / Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” The poem then shifts into its true epic narration beginning with the defeated rebellious angels having been expelled from heaven for their rebellion, the construction of Pandaemonium, and the parliamentary-like debates over their next course of action.
The debate in Pandaemonium begins to reveal Milton’s cosmos as being governed by eros, intense passion, through the speakers involved. Belial, one of the speaking demons whose advocacy mirrors that of the defeated Latitudinarians, gives an uninspired speech calling for submission and peace before God who has expelled them. Belial’s name, in Hebrew, means “Worthless.” He gives a truly worthless speech because it is not a passionate speech. The counterweight to Belial’s speech is the intemperate Moloch, who gives an impassioned plea, more than a speech, about trying once more to storm heaven with greater vigor and resolve than before. Beelzebub also speaks, advocating an “easier enterprise” by seducing the heart of the new race of man created on earth. Beelzebub’s speech is passionate but also seductive; Satan decides that Beelzebub’s course of action should be followed but he is the only fallen angel capable of making the ascent out of hell onto earth to see, with his own eyes, this new race created by God.
Satan’s “heroic” journey to Eden draws on many classical parallels. It is a journey of trial, visions, and encounters much like Odysseus or Aeneas. Milton was well-read in the classics and had a knowledge of not only the canonical classics like Homer and Virgil but also recently rediscovered poems of antiquity like Silius Italicus’ Punica. All of this influenced his rather scandalous re-imagination of the heroic journey/descent/ascent trope with Satan’s laborious struggle through the chaotic watery void of the earth and entry into Eden. Satan swims through primordial chaos and overcomes the dangers to eventually spot Adam and Eve perched in each other’s arms in paradise but not without first meeting Sin and Death, who ominously foreshadow the malevolent intentions of Satan. Satan is no hero; his journey is an inversion and cruel parody of the classical heroic sojourn.
The encounter with Adam and Eve sparks a sort of jealous love triangle. The real reason why Satan is so filled with resolve to destroy God’s new creation is because he beholds all the good things that the new world holds of which he is deprived. We witness, then, a passionate Satan, rather than some banal villain with plans of vainglory and egoism. The Satan who looks over Eden, Adam and Eve, and the beautiful world just created is a jealous figure, a figure filled with emotion and passion just like the rest of creation—but passions that are manifested through deprivation rather than fulfillment. And this is one of the remarkable achievements of Milton, for Milton informs us that evil and sin are the byproducts of the deprivations of our passions rather than mere attempts to fulfill them.
Satan’s spotting of Adam and Eve strike us as peculiar, perhaps thanks to our puritanical sentiment, but the image is very moving because it is scandalously erotic:
From this Assyrian garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living creatures new to sight and strange:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all.
The second image of our earthly parents is an equally sensual one:
So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid; he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles when he impregns the clouds
That shed May flowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained.
What we witness, with Satan, is an Eden—a world, a whole cosmos—that is teeming with radiance and life. The cosmos which Milton has just described, from the storms of primordial chaos to the wondrous and sex-filled Garden of Eden, is a world antithetical to the mechanical philosophers and scientists who see only material objects moving and bouncing off each other as predetermined laws of physics demand. The cosmos that Satan journeys through and sees, the cosmos which fills him with intense jealousy and envy, is an erotic cosmos moved by love, passion, and intimacy. The world in its ecstasy and radiance is Milton’s poeticized fruitio Dei. Milton’s material world is not dry or sterile but governed by the passions which bring life to the dirt, trees, and leaves, and, most of all, to our human father and mother.
Milton is confronting the sterile materialistic cosmos emerging from the proto-scientific intelligentsia which is stripping the universe of its mystery and beauty just as much as he is offering theological criticism. The world we witness is a steamy world of life, spirit, and zest. It is a world of grandeur and beauty; pleasure and erotica; intensity and intimacy.
Not only is the newly created world filled with great passion, Satan himself is filled with newfound passions—envy, jealously—in being deprived of the good things the world holds. As such, his new resolve is what propels him onward to destroy this truly beautiful and loving world. Yet in this juxtaposition we see a passionate villain tied to the passionate world he seeks to upend. Satan, again, is no cold, mechanical, or lifeless supervillain but a villain of flesh and blood emotion; Satan is a villain filled with the emotions of jealousy and envy which stem from the deprivation of his passions.
The Fall of Man, as Milton poetically describes, is the product of relational deprivation. When Adam and Eve were first created, Eve is nearly enslaved by her own voluptuous beauty when she sees herself in a puddle (reminding us of Narcissus), “As I bent down to look, just opposite / A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared / Bending to look on me: I started back, / It started back, but pleased I soon returned, / Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks / Of sympathy and love; there I had fixed / Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire, / Had not a voice thus warned me.” Adam saves Eve from herself. This brief moment is important for the reader to remember going forward because it establishes the precedence of loneliness and the impossibility of passionate embrace which would be tragic. In the intimacy of embrace, however, we find love and the fulfillment of the passions. Alone, we lack intimacy and can only embrace unreal distortions of ourselves which can never fulfill our passions.
Satan, if we recall, is in Eden—alone. Satan’s loneliness deprives him of the intimacy and passionate ecstasy of life and sensuality that he sees which drives him to jealousy and envy. He ventured alone into the world and is therefore deprived of the intimacy that comes with others. Alone, he tries to wreak havoc.
The passions which Satan exudes in his loneliness are really passions governed by deprivation. Here Milton is very Augustinian. Satan is not without passion in Paradise Lost. But the passions which govern Satan are negative ones because they are the result of a privation. Satan cannot love because he has no partner to love. Satan cannot make love, as he sees Adam and Eve doing, because he has no partner to make love with. Satan cannot rescue others, as Adam did to Eve as we just saw, because he has no one to rescue. Alone, the passions which govern Satan are necessarily reductive and destructive; hence he is gripped by envy, jealousy, and hatred, the ultimate passions born from lacking. Adam and Eve initially share a relational mutuality, thus they are completed in the presence of each other, and destroy this relational mutuality—thereby depriving Adam and Eve of the good passions they enjoy in each other’s arms and presence—is now the task of Satan. (The sympathy toward Satan among Romantics in the nineteenth century and onward is due to these readers and critics having been deprived of many things in their own lives, thus causing them to passionately yearn for love, restoration, intimacy, and naturally have sympathy for Satan because they lacked the same things Satan lacked; in their own lack, they haphazardly sympathized with the one character of the poem who is most like them.)
God, however, has seen the serpent and dispatched Raphael to warn Adam of the danger that faces them. This leads to a lengthy discourse on the War in Heaven and the intensity of that conflict, with great battles, duels, and heroes in arms reminiscent of the great classical war poetry of antiquity. Even these sections of Paradise Lost continue the theme of passionate governance over the poem—whether in heaven, hell, or Eden.
Nevertheless, the Fall of Man occurs when Eve separates herself from Adam. The “Refreshment, whether food, or talk between, / Food of the mind, or this sweet intercourse / Of looks and smiles, for smiles from reason flow, / To brute denied, and are of love the food, / Love not the lowest end of human life” is precisely what will be lost in the Fall. Here, however, Milton explicitly states that love is “not the lowest end of human life.” On the contrary, love is the highest end of human life. Eve’s request to divide their labor apart from each other, to separate and go alone just as Satan had attempted to achieve in planting the first false dream in Eve earlier in the poem, is the catalyst of our demise. Our Fall is predicated on separation, on loneliness.
What Milton suggests through the separation of Adam and Eve, whom we have seen together throughout the poem, is that love, pleasure, and enjoyment—all those good things we have in relationship—are lost without intimate mutuality. In other words, loneliness is the cause of evil because loneliness is the ultimate form of deprivation from the interconnected world we have beheld throughout Paradise Lost. The paradise lost is nothing less than the intimately connected world of relational mutuality from which love truly flows and smiles are manifested.
This is revealed to us in Eve’s eating of the fruit, “Greedily she engorged without restraint,” Milton writes. She eats without control and with no relationship to the world—life is just about her. The images of passion which tickled our fancies and made us fawn so lovingly over the splendid world of Eden in the earlier books are now images causing revulsion and disgust. Lastly, she falls into idolatry by praising the tree rather than God as Adam and Eve had been doing earlier (note, here, that when Adam and Eve were together they praised God but now alone Eve falls into idolatry). As Eve realizes her death in disobedience, jealousy—an emotion previously only tied to Satan—enslaves her. As she says to herself, “I shall be no more, / And Adam wedded to another Eve, / Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct; / A death to think. Confirmed then I resolve, / Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe.” The loss of mutuality and relationship is what caused the Fall in Milton’s poetic rendering.
With this as our understanding we can now fully realize the gravity and romance of Adam’s decision to die with Eve. As our mother and father reunite and have sex, they are overcome with guilt, shame, and humiliation. The negative passions, the emotions wrought from deprivation, are now enslaving them both. This too, however, is a grand achievement by Milton. Given the reality of his erotic cosmos—a cosmos governed by passion—the cosmos, even after the Fall, is still governed by passion and remains an erotic cosmos. But the cosmos after the Fall is a cosmos where passion no longer leads to enjoyment but to hatred, jealousy, and envy. The passions of deprivation now rule over the world.
Why, then, given the chance for reconciliation, does Adam instead choose to die with Eve? On the one hand, Milton’s hand is forced by the biblical narrative to include the fall of both sexes. Adam and Eve must die together. On another hand, we realize that Adam’s decision to die with Eve rather than live alone is what must transpire in a cosmos of mutuality. Alone, Adam would be miserable. With Eve, however, he still has a partner, a wife, and a lover. To choose loneliness would be to choose damnation. To choose togetherness, even in the Fall, paradoxically brings salvation—and this is what must transpire for our own salvation and the coming of Christ. Adam’s choice to die with Eve rather than live alone in paradise is the ultimate act of love. (Something a handful of Church Fathers saw in seeing Adam’s decision to die for his beloved as prefiguring Christ and the Church.)
The archangel Michael then appears and informs Adam of the future of the human race as he presents the grandest theoria (vision) in the poem. In yet another great achievement by England’s greatest poet, we receive a spectacular retelling of the biblical story from Cain and Abel through to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. When Michael informs Adam of the terrible stories of sin, Adam grows despondent and is governed by fear and sadness. When Michael informs Adam of the goodness of God, the triumph of love and the coming of Christ, Adam rejoices and is governed by happiness.
With these revelations now complete, in faith (and in love) Adam rejoices and together with Eve leave Eden on “their solitary way.” The end of Paradise Lost contains the greatest erotic image—eros, again, in that classical understanding linked to ecstatic visuality. The revelation parted unto Adam of the future of the world and human race fills him with joy; he is overwhelmed by the great love of God before departing the garden and is so governed by happiness instead of despair.
The end of Paradise Lost also foreshadows salvation and love in its fullness. Adam and Eve are reunited, “hand in hand,” and embark on their pilgrimage beside each other. The intimate and passionate world which Milton created and has defended against its critics, is also the bridge to our own journey in life. Solitary, he writes, their journey may be—but they are not truly alone upon closer inspection. They are together and “Providence with their guide” is also beside them:
They looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of happy rest, and Providence with their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Love, intimacy, and togetherness remain the final image of Milton’s splendid poem. We just need to know where to look. And when we do see that reality, we shall understand how love binds all things together and keeps us from separating dissolution, the separating dissolution which causes us to be governed by the deprived passions bringing misery, jealousy, and envy in its wake. The beauty and paradox of Milton’s ending is that while Adam and Eve are said to begin their pilgrimage in solitude, they are together just as they were before the Fall, and they have “Providence [as] their guide” which they previously did not have in the garden. God was always at a distance and working through angels, but now, in the final sentence of Paradise Lost, we are told that Providence is with them as their guide. The journey Adam and Eve now begin, having been expelled from Eden, is a journey guided by the very intimacy of love which we had glimpsed all along: “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow” they begin their pilgrimage with “Providence [as] their guide.”
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The featured image is “Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve” and is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.