Milton introduces his subject: “man’s first disobedience” against God and its sorrowful consequences. In the first line Milton refers to the consequences as the “fruit” of disobedience, punning on the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, which Adam and Eve will eat against God’s commandment. This single act will bring death and suffering into the world, until “one greater man” will come to restore humanity to purity and paradise.
In this opening, Milton condenses and summarizes the subject of his poem – he is trying to write a great epic for the English language, in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid. Milton is even more ambitious than these classical poets, however, as his subject is not just heroic men, but the struggle and tragedy of all humanity. Already in this first sentence Milton points to the scope of Christian history, from Adam to Jesus (“one greater man”).
Milton then invokes a Muse, but clarifies that this is a different Muse from the inspirational goddesses the ancient Greek poets called upon – he asks for the Muse that inspired Moses to write Genesis. This Muse is greater than the classical Muse, so Milton hopes that his poem will achieve “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” He associates his Muse with the Holy Spirit, which is part of the Trinity and a force in the creation of the universe. He asks for this divine inspiration that he might “assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.”
In this invocation Milton sets the pattern for the whole poem. He points to his classical forebears, respecting them and seeking to enter into their epic canon, but at the same time he wants to soar beyond them in terms of ambition and truth. Milton’s Muse is the Holy Spirit, and his subject the Fall of Man, so his epic will be more fundamentally true (to the Christian worldview) and more sweeping in scope than the epics of Homer or Virgil. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the traditional Christian Trinity, but Milton did not consider the Holy Spirit as equal to God.
After this prologue, Milton asks the Muse to describe what first led to Adam and Eve’s disobedience. He answers himself that they were deceived into “foul revolt” by the “infernal Serpent,” who is Satan. Satan was an angel who aspired to overthrow God, and started a civil war in Heaven. God defeated Satan and his rebel angels and threw them out of Heaven. They fell through an abyss for nine days and then landed in Hell, where they lay stunned for nine more days.
Milton includes not only Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but also the original disobedience in Heaven – Satan’s rebellion against God, which is the ultimate revolt of creature against creator. Much of the poem’s plot will come from the first books of Genesis in the Bible, but the parts about the war in Heaven are based on various scattered Bible verses and Milton’s own conjecture.
The poem then focuses on Satan as he lies dazed in a lake of fire that is totally dark. Next to him is Beelzebub, Satan’s second-in command, and Satan speaks to him, finally breaking the “horrid silence.” Satan laments their current state, and how far they have fallen from their previous glorious state as angels. He admits that he has been defeated, but he does not regret his war against God (though he never calls God by name). He claims that his heavenly essence cannot be killed, and as long as his life and will remains Satan vows to keep fighting against the “tyranny of Heav’n.”
Like all epics, the tale begins “in media res,” or in the middle of the action, and the backstory will be explained later. Milton inverts tradition by beginning with the antagonist, Satan, instead of a protagonist. One of the great debates about Paradise Lost has been just how much of an “antagonist” Satan is, however, as he is the poem’s most dynamic and interesting character. Some critics have felt that Milton subconsciously sympathized with Satan even as he tried to “justify” God.
Beelzebub answers, saying that God (whom he also avoids naming) seems to be omnipotent as he had originally claimed, and he may have let the rebellious angels live just so they could suffer forever. Satan doesn’t contradict this, but he remains resolved to “ever do ill” and try to pervert God’s works into evil, especially when God “out of our evil seek[s] to bring forth good.” Satan then suggests they leave the burning lake and find shelter on a distant shore.
Satan’s is the first and greatest revolt against the hierarchy of God’s universe. God arranges all his creation according to rank, and Satan upset this order by trying to do battle with God himself, the supreme monarch of all. Satan accepts that he has been defeated, but his pride is still too great to ask God for repentance. He will continue to suffer inner turmoil over this decision.
Milton describes the terrible size and appearance of Satan’s body, which is like a whale or a Greek Titan floating on the waves. Slowly Satan drags himself from the “liquid fire.” Beelzebub follows, and they spread their wings and fly over the lake to a place of dry land. They are pleased that they can do this of their own strength and “Not by the sufferance of supernal power.”
Like the greatest of epic poets, Milton’s language is rich and grandiose. The critic Samuel Johnson commented on Milton’s power of “displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful.” The devils like to think they can act of their own agency, but Milton will show that nothing in the universe happens without God’s consent.
As they fly Satan laments the desolation of Hell as compared to the glory of Heaven, but he accepts that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” so he would no longer be satisfied in Heaven anyway. He resolves to make the best of the situation, and declares that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Beelzebub then suggests that Satan summon his armies, as they will answer their leader’s voice.
Satan makes this comment rather glibly now, but he will later feel its full implications when he realizes that he carries the pain of Hell within him even in Paradise. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” becomes something like his life motto, as he steadfastly refuses to accept God’s rulership, and struggles against his creator in whatever way he can.
Satan takes up his terrible armor, and he calls to his legions to join him on land and take up the fight again. The rebel angels obey and pull themselves from the fiery lake despite their pain and shame. Milton says that all these angels have had their names erased in Heaven, but they are later given new names by humans and some will be worshipped as false gods.
Milton describes Satan’s magnificent size and terrible appearance through many epic similes, but the overall picture of him is still vague – in such grand, imaginative places like Hell and Heaven, size is relative. The devils can change their size and shape, and Satan will gradually become smaller and lowlier in his incarnations, showing the corrupting effects of his disobedience, and Milton’s Biblical idea that with goodness comes power.
Among these more prominent devils are Moloch, who later becomes a god requiring the sacrifice of children, Astoreth (the ancient fertility goddess called Astarte), the sea-monster Dagon, the animal-headed Egyptian gods, the ancient Greek gods, and lastly Belial, a lustful and violent god who will corrupt places like Sodom. These fallen angels are given hope by Satan’s strong appearance, and they flock to him. They are still dressed in their war gear and have their banners raised, and they create an awesome spectacle as they form ranks and lift their spears.
Milton’s list of warriors echoes similar lists in the Iliad and the Aeneid, but he also reminds us that no matter how magnificent the devils appear, they just lost the war in Heaven. Milton reinforces the truth and ambition of his epic by casting all other gods – including the Greek and Roman gods of earlier epics – as merely fallen angels, lesser powers leading ancient nations away from God’s truth.
Satan is encouraged by the sight of his glorious army, which is far more magnificent than any of the famous human armies of later wars. Satan feels a moment of remorse for causing the suffering of so many millions by leading them into rebellion, but then he is strengthened in his resolve. He addresses his legions and commits himself to continue his fight against God – his only question now is whether to go back to open war or use more deceitful tactics. He mentions that God had spoken of creating a new world, and that the devils might escape there and make a new home.
Milton will often compare his characters and spectacles to famous examples from human history or other epics, but he almost always places his subjects (in this case the devil army) as “more than” these – more magnificent, more beautiful, huger. Satan acts as a “democratic” sort of leader, asking his devils for their opinions, but in reality he has already decided his plan – he assumes that the rebellion against God will continue.
At Satan’s words the rebel angels all draw their flaming swords and reaffirm their defiance against Heaven. They then fly to a nearby hill and begin to dig into the earth, unearthing gold and other raw minerals. They are urged on by Mammon, a vain devil who even in Heaven kept his eyes always on the ground, admiring the golden pavement. Milton warns the reader about admiring the rich minerals of Hell, as they are nothing but vanity.
Satan’s great power is his persuasive words, as he convinces the devils to continue their revolt even after he led them into a hopeless war against God. “Mammon” basically means “riches,” which Jesus warns against on the Sermon on the Mount, but Mammon itself is often personified as a prince of devils.
With their supernatural powers the devils construct a massive temple in a short amount of time. This temple is larger and more magnificent than the pyramids of Egypt or any temple humans ever built. The architect is a devil called Mulciber, who will become the Greek god Hephaestus, thrown by Zeus from Olympus. The devils call the temple “Pandaemonium” (“all demons” in Greek). The devils can change in size and shape, so they shrink from giants into dwarfs and then all the hundreds of thousands enter Pandaemonium. They sit on golden seats and then begin their debate.
Milton was a radical Protestant opposed to the corrupt hierarchy of the Catholic and Anglican churches, and many of his critiques are leveled at their vanity and concern with earthly riches. Pandaemonium then becomes a grotesque parody of the most magnificent churches, all glitter and no substance. The devils shrink in size to enter the structure, but we had no clear idea how big they were before, as size is relative in Hell. Milton again associates a beloved Greek god with a devil.