This is a collective blog produced by CCS students on the question of Milton's epic similes in Paradise Lost:
Milton and the Simile of the Belated Peasant
Between lines 780 and 788 in Book I of Paradise Lost, Milton creates an epic simile that first compares the fallen angels after changing size to “that pygmaen race/ beyond the Indian mount.” This comparison first provides the reader with a vague sense of scale of the transformed angels—the pygmies were generally supposed to stand about twenty seven inches tall. But more importantly, the simile also reveals the nature of the fallen angels, as the pygmies were thought to be a rather belligerent race, enmeshed in perpetual warfare against cranes. Also, in ancient Greek myth, the pygmies once attempted to tie up the god Heracles while he slept, only to simply fall off of his body when he awoke. Correspondingly, the angels have also fallen attempting to subdue a substantially more powerful being, so the juxtaposition of the two creatures is quite apt, and makes the mighty angels seem somewhat more pathetic than previously in the poem.
Milton then changes the comparison with the lines “or faerie elves.” This transition allows Milton to introduce a new image (which he dwells on for the remainder of the simile), but also acts as the first point of vacillation between conflicting details in the simile. This reluctance to offer the reader a single definite image adds a sense of uncertainty to the analogy, and leaves the reader unsure of the true nature and intentions of the angels.
Milton next refers to the “midnight revels” of the faerie elves, suggesting joyfulness on their part, but also sin, debauchery, and folly. This renders the elves at the same time friendly and sinister—a dichotomy that only emphasizes the ambiguity of the comparison. “Midnight revels” also recalls the antagonistic figure of Comus, creating a more heavily sinister impression.
The introduction of the “belated peasant” as a beguiled observer of the “faerie elves” recalls the sailor from line 205 who anchors in leviathan's “scaly rind,” or the “Tuscan artist” from another epic simile in line 288. Milton uses these outside observers in his similes to subtly pass moral judgments on the story. In this case, the observer represents those seduced by Satan's shallow sophistications; most specifically the reader, who Milton craftily entices to applaud his cultured charm. Milton adds that the peasant “sees/ or dreams he sees” the faeries, acknowledging the possibility that the peasant is simply superstitious. This line references Virgil's Aeneas glimpsing his lover Dido in the underworld which reads, “a man who sees/or thinks he sees, the new moon rising through a cloud,” though it also functions as an allusion to Midsummer Night's Dream, making the “belated peasant” Bottom—an obnoxious and ignorant buffoon. Thus Milton subtly criticizes the reader for siding with Satan by comparing him to a peasant charmed by the “jocund music” of elves. “Belated” here takes both its natural meaning of being out late and also its more archaic definition of “overtaken by darkness or night,” which through double meaning describes the dangerous seduction of the observer.
The presence of the “belated peasant” and his fascination with the faeries serves to elevate the simile from a simple comparison between the fallen angels and other diminutive creatures to a reminder of one of the whole poem's major themes: that a thing cannot be rendered sacred through mere aesthetics. Milton takes pains to inform the reader that Satan possesses great charisma (he rallies his troops with a single stirring speech after his leadership has resulted in the worst of all possible catastrophes for them) and great courage (he alone dares to brave the trials of Chaos). No one can say that the fallen angels--inventors of poetry, philosophy, architecture that “not Babylon/ not great Alcairo…/equaled in their glories,” and (in their consultations in pandemonium) political debate--want for culture. But even as Milton's narrative leads the reader to commit idolatry and back Satan by accentuating his positive qualities, he subtly reminds the reader that to admire the fallen angels as gods for their shallow charm is to be enchanted by faeries and made as foolish as a simple superstitious peasant.
However, Milton does not present this message with complete certainty. An aura of confusion surrounds this simile, exemplified by the use of the word “Or.” Milton states that the “midnight revels” occur “by a forest side/ or fountain.” Furthermore, as stated, in the next line the peasant sees “Or dreams he sees.” Milton does not let the reader know exactly which it is in either case. At first glance these small notes of ambiguity might only seem to denote a lack of care on the author's part, as if the images of the simile are presented in an off-hand manner and the question of whether the revels take place by a forest or fountain is unimportant. However, this interpretation does not accord with Milton's extremely deliberate style, and so it makes more sense to see the use of “Or” as Milton warning the reader that uncertainty exists regarding the nobility of the angels. The simile occurs in Book I—still early in the epic—so Milton does not wish to tip his hand by explicitly referring to the angels as villains too early. Rather, he subtly hints at their deceptive nature.
With this in mind, we may examine the inclusion of the moon in the simile. Milton writes “while overhead the moon/ sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth/ wheels her pale course.” The status of the moon as a heavenly body and the use of the word “arbitress,” naturally suggests the moon as a symbol for God, the ultimate judge. But the moon also recalls the epic simile of Satan's shield, where Milton compares that object to the moon. In that simile the “Tuscan artist,” an observer meant to represent Galileo, views the moon. For centuries, the moon was thought a perfectly smooth orb composed or ethereal quintessence. Galileo first discovered the mountains and valleys on the moon, and thus revealed its flaws. In that simile, the “Tuscan artist” exposes Satan's flaws as well.
Because of that previous comparison, the reader knows not whether Milton means a heavenly body when he refers to the moon, or as flawed an orb as the earth. The question of true or false divinity takes on particular relevance when applied to the angels, as many of them later masquerade as pagan Gods and are worshipped by men. The description of the moon, then, works not only as elaboration on the image of the nighttime faeries, but also as another layer of illusion added to a simile already dealing with the angel's deceptive glamour.
Milton then returns to a description of the activity of the elves. He writes, “They on their mirth and dance/Intent, with jocund music charm his ear.” This phrase makes more explicit the idea that the “belated peasant” is indeed charmed or seduced by the spirits he sees. The “jocund music” also recalls the “Dorian mood/ of flutes and soft recorders” to which the fallen angels march. This shows how the appealing refinement of the angels in the face of Hell is as joyful music used to charm the reader. Yet again Milton uses the simile to warn the reader that they have been seduced by the showy sophistry of the fallen angels.
The simile concludes with the reaction of the peasant to his vision. “At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.” These conflicting emotions again recall the uncertainty of the piece. Milton does not want the reader to yet know whether to applaud or revile Satan and his followers, so he does not make the answer known. But by the use of simile he drops hints that the denizens of Hell may not be all that they appear.
John Milton and Epic Simile in Paradise Lost
John Milton furnished his epic poem Paradise Lost with perhaps equally epic similes. To put it the way he might, or to “pull a Milton,” I would say that the author saw the words “like” and “as” not as mere prepositions and conjunctions but as jutting stones perched tow'ring high above vast green pools of illustrative imagery and parallel meaning, aching to be climbed and dived forth from by purveyors of truth. But all joking aside, I'm obviously no Milton, since my poor attempt at an imitation-simile is not nearly as long as most of his are, nor is it as deeply meaningful or intentional. Milton's figurative comparisons often span tens of lines and perform a singularly clever trick: under the pretense that they divert the reader's attention away from the main narrative, they in fact strengthen and sharpen its visceral effect on multiple levels, some perhaps unconscious.
The specific instance that I have chosen to deconstruct in order to exemplify Milton's use of the epic simile comes early on in the poem, in Book I. The scene finds a freshly banished Satan lamenting his fall with his closest apostate-angel-buddy, Beelzebub, while floating in the fiery lake of Hell:
Thus Satan talking to his nearest mate
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
that sparkling blazed, his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' ocean stream:
Him haply slumb'ring 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 lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays:
So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay
Chained on the burning lake…
Since readers during Milton's time were assumed to be familiar with Greek mythology and the Christian Bible, the current reader must assume that same familiarity for him or herself in order to react properly to this comparison. Here the reader sees Milton begin with a classical reference to the Titans of Greek and Roman lore and then progress into another ancient image: that of the Leviathan, a sea monster whose legend originated in the Bible.
The comparison drawn between Satan and the mythological Titans is meant to do more than express Satan's mass; while the Titans were known for being, well, titanic, what's perhaps more important here is the parallel between Satan's fall from grace and that of the Titans. In Greek mythology, the Titans or Titanes (Okeanos, Kois, Krios, Hyperion, Iapetos and Kronos) were banished by Zeus (or Jove in Roman) from a heavenly place and bound to the terrible pit of Tartaros. Briareos (line 199), was a guardian of the gates of Tartaros and so a kind of ruler there, and Typhon (line 199) was called the father of all monsters in Greek myths. Does any of this sound familiar? By relating Satan to these creatures, Milton is not merely calling him titanic in size, but also titanic in predicament.
In his reference to the Leviathan, Milton is calling upon an image that can be found as far back as in Job, the oldest book in the bible. Job 3:8 shows its title character in anguish, cursing the day of his birth and wishing that the great sea beast would swallow it up: “May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.” The monster is referenced at multiple points throughout the Old Testament, and is depicted as formidable to all men, extremely powerful and unconquerable. Job 41:34 describes him as “king over all who are proud.” Need I ask again if this sounds familiar? This brings prolepsis to the surface of the simile, foreshadowing Satan's role as a symbol of pride, the tempter and utmost of proud beings.
Furthermore Milton describes the Leviathan as large enough to deceive sailors into thinking he is an island and anchoring their vessels on him. This furthers the prolepsis, alluding to the role we know Satan will come to play in deceiving men into believing that they can use his things (pride, selfish ambition, sinful pleasure) as a foundation, instead of turning to God. Events to come in the main narrative are right here before us in this parallel: we know that before long we will see Satan fool Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. However, Milton inserts that while the Leviathan is gigantic and foreboding, he was created by God . He reminds us that the Leviathan, though the largest earthly creature, still answers to God, and thus that Satan answers to God as well.
To reiterate, Milton is not simply harping on Satan's great size; he does mean to paint him as massive, but he also means to link him in our minds to other inherently satanic figures. This is not to say that Satan's size is not important to the passage, because it would seem that Milton, in comparing the arch-fiend (an unseen creature) to two strictly mythological creatures, intends to let the reader know that he or she can never know or even imagine just how huge Satan really is, and so can never be fully prepared to face him alone.
In conclusion, since we as current readers would take this simile at first glance to be nothing more than a drawn out and repetitive analogy, it's important that we remember how stupid we are: our first information (or misinformation) on Greek mythology very likely came in the form of Disney's animated Hercules , and very few of us could even quote John 3:16 if put on the spot. So while we might see the explained simile as overly dense and layered, we must keep in mind that the readers Milton wrote for would immediately understand the basic origins of his references, if not their entire significances. He certainly meant to direct the imagination of his audience to two extremely deep and loaded images, both with frightening and vivid portraits of size and strength with implications that can be closely related to the overarching narrative of Paradise Lost .
While this simile, at eighteen lines long, appears to subvert the main narrative for a span of many words, it actually expresses the essentials of the entire narrative in very few words. If by some revolutionary epiphany Milton had ever desired to be concise—a farfetched thought indeed—and had resolved to cut his masterpiece down to a mere eighteen lines, these could very well serve as those lines.
Satan & Spices: The Epic Simile in Paradise Lost
In Milton's Paradise Lost , the epic simile plays a prominent role in conveying the plot line in a detailed and poignant manner. These complex comparisons occur frequently and usually include either a Biblical, classical, or historical allusion. They work seamlessly as poetic devices meant to deepen the reader's understanding of character and plot action. In particular, the epic simile on pages three hundred eighty-nine and three hundred ninety of Book IV creates an elaborate parallel scene to describe the pleasant breezes in the Garden of Eden. Satan's first impression of Eden is illustrated at length from both visual and olfactory approaches, and compared to the aroma of spices on the coasts of Arabia.
The simile begins amid a general description of Eden, with its idyllic landscapes, foliage, and pure air, “able to drive all sadness but despair” [lines 155-156]. Milton then compares the pleasantness of this breeze to that of Arabian winds, which European trade ships catch scent of on their voyages around the Cape of Hope. He temporarily suspends the main plot to evoke this scene of trade ships as they bear northeast from Mozambique and the oncoming winds of spring carry fragrance from Saba, Arabia (Milton 389). The reader can almost taste the pungent traces of myrrh and frankincense spices. Upon sensing the familiar aromas, the sailors “cheered with the grateful smell of old Ocean smiles” [line 165]. Not only is the scent pleasant in itself, but it also acts as an indicator that the ships are indeed on course and safe from potential dangers at sea. Similarly, Satan may now take solace in the fact that he successfully traversed through the gates of Hell and past Chaos, finally arriving in Eden, with its pure air and verdant landscapes. Despite this, Milton's usage of the phrase “beyond the Cape of Hope” [line 160] implies that Satan is merely passing through this location of hope, and foretells Satan's plans for vengeance on God and his authority. Moreover, the idea of Satan travelling beyond Eden, in this case, suggests his eventual demise and return to Hell.
Throughout the narrative of Paradise Lost , Satan is repeatedly compared to a ship by Milton. Milton writes that “at last his [Satan's] sail-broad vans he spreads for flight” [lines 927-928] and, later, that he “then soars…as when far off at sea a fleet descried hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial winds close sailing from Bengala, or the isles of Ternate and Tidore, whence merchants bring their spicy drugs” [lines 634-638] This recurring imagery of Satan as a ship depicts him as itinerant and transient, far too volatile to remain in any place for too long. Satan is eternally woeful, whether indignant at the social strata of Heaven, or lamenting his defeat and grim prospects in Hell. As a fallen angel, he is a nomad, without any true home where he can cease to be detached from his surroundings.
Furthermore, the geographic location of the ship that Satan is compared to is significant—Milton explicitly chooses to place the ship within the context of the East Indies and Arabia. This area is renowned for its active spice trade, and is representative of Satan and his regime in that both are potent and fluctuating. The spice trade and colonialism in general is unstable, just as Satan and his voyage through Chaos was depicted. In this way, Satan can be seen as a colonist of both Hell and Eden, as he traverses to and from the two in impassioned flight, aiming to conquer and obtain vengeance.
During Milton's time period, the phenomenon of aromatic Arabian breezes perfuming ocean passageways was a commonplace expression of grasping at some remote knowledge (Milton 389). This idea may be extrapolated onto Satan, who thus far has been exiled in the horrid depths of Hell. The breezes serve as a faint reminder to him of those abundant gifts of God, which he previously enjoyed within the kingdom of Heaven. The elevated state from which Satan fell now seems closer than ever, yet still too far to ever attain again. Ironically, Satan is enjoying the loveliness of Eden as he is on the verge of extinguishing its beauty for all of mankind. Thus, Satan does not truly enjoy the splendor presented to him in Eden; it only reminds him of the joys God's wrath has denied him and his peers, and of the havoc he must wreak on the idyllic place he now stands in.
In addition to the comparison to Arabian winds, Milton includes another simile within that first simile. In it, he relates Satan's reception of the aromas in Eden to Asmodeus' reception of a “fishy fume.” This simile references The Book of Tobit, a book of scripture that is part of the Catholic biblical canon, but is regarded as apocryphal by the Protestants. In it, the demon Asmodeus murders seven of Sarah's husbands in the region known as Media. Sarah then marries her eighth husband, Tobias, who is the son of the blind Tobit. After seeking advice from the angel Raphael, Tobias drives off Asmodeus by burning the heart and liver of a fish. This causes Asmodeus to flee to Egypt, where the demon is captured and bound by the angel Raphael (Milton 390).
Milton writes that Satan was “better pleased” with the aromas of Eden “than Asmodeus with the fishy fume” [lines167-168]. In other words, he uses understatement to contrast the spectrum of responses to the most amiable and the most putrid scents known to the reader. The stark, somewhat amusing referencing of the “fishy fume” may also be seen as a kind of anti-simile. There is irony in the contrast because it is obvious to the reader that a rancid scent like fish would be contradictory and far less pleasing than the aromas of Eden. Within the simile, Satan is appropriately compared to the demon Asmodeus. Satan, like Asmodeus, fled hastily, though to escape the torments of Hell instead of the offensive fish fumes. Upon arriving in Egypt, however, Asmodeus is captured by the angel Raphael. This narrative may be an example of prolepsis, or subtle foreshadowing, of Satan's later encounter with Gabriel and the other angels guarding Eden at the end of Book IV.
Through the epic simile, Milton therefore begins by removing us from the original scene of Eden, introducing the image of trade ships rounding the Cape of Hope, and further extends the simile by adding the allusion to Asmodeus. In both instances, there is a sense of ominousness for Satan and his future, as he figuratively travels beyond a place of hope and is cornered by a rival angel. Yet before the reader can become completely immersed in the world of the simile, we are taken back to the original plot, where Satan continues to explore Eden and begin work on his wily deception of man.
Fenton, Mary C. Milton's places of hope: spiritual and political connections of hope with land . Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. Print.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost . Ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, Stephen Fallon. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random House, Inc, 2007. Print.
Morton, Timothy. The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Loss of Light
Throughout Paradise Lost , Milton follows the style of the classical epic. This includes the use of epic similes to provide the reader with an understanding of the great size, strength, or numbers that the reader encounters throughout the epic. However, the similes in Paradise Lost are used in a deliberate and surprising way that allows Milton to twist the reader's expectations into a new revelation. The example that I have chosen to discuss occurs in Book I lines 299-311 as Satan calls his followers to him.
Milton first compares Satan's fallen soldiers to autumnal leaves.
His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarched embow'r (301-304).
Vallombrosa, which literally translates to ‘shady valley', is an abbey 30 km to the south of Florence, where Milton possibly stayed while he was in Italy. At this time, beech trees lined the brooks that run across the property, meeting overhead, and in autumn, the leaves would litter the brook as they fell. But Milton is including more than his own experiences in this analogy. Autumn leaves are very weak, and have no control over their own destiny. As soon as the tree lets them go, they drift in the control of the wind until they are dropped at a whim, losing their color, beauty and vitality. The tree however, lives through this season and renews itself in the spring. The angels differ from the leaves, in that they chose to disobey God, the one who created them. However, when God lets them go, they plummet through Chaos, with no control over what lies ahead until they plunge into the burning lake. They drift there, with no authority over their own movements, letting the fiery water direct their paths. But God, like the tree, survives this exodus of supporters, and works towards new creation and a renewing life. In addition, the tone throughout this passage is very dark and heavy. The use of the words strow, brooks, embow'r, and shades all work to slow the text down, emphasizing how slow time itself feels when you have nothing left to live for. They fell for 9 days through darkened Chaos, and lay another 9 days in a realm where even the fire is substantiated darkness. The reader feels the shade that shrouds the leaves' loss, and emphasizes the angels' knowledge of the loss of bright heaven. The tone and metaphor help the reader experience the timelessness of this despair at the death of beauty and the loss of light.
Milton next compares the soldiers to sedge, a rush-like plant that grows in we places, floating on the Red Sea after a storm. But then he does something curious. He pretends to go on a tangent, describing how the Egyptians chased the Hebrews as they fled from Egypt. I say pretends because he uses the sedge to connect this idea to the previous comparison, but when you look closer at the inclusion of this biblical story, you become enlightened and unsettled. In the book of Exodus, the Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh, refuses to let the Hebrew people leave his country and the bondage they suffer. In response to this continued enslavement of his chosen people, God unleashes a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. Some of the most notable among these are the plagues of flies, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn son. This puts the Egyptians through a unique Hell, characterized by darkness and death, but still Pharaoh refuses to release the slaves. Eventually, the Hebrew people flee and cross a path in the Red Sea, but the Egyptians who are chasing them drown as the pathway closes.
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carcasses
And broken chariot wheels. (309-311).
Pharaoh and Satan each chose to ignore God's edicts, although one continues to enslave people and the other professes to be fighting against enslavement, and both are left drifting in the water with their subjects, dead or wishing they were. What makes this comparison particularly troubling is the effect it has in the context of the rest of Book I. Throughout the book, we have been lead to see Satan as a very heroic figure who refuses to give up in the face of insurmountable odds. He struggles to inspire hope for a better future and an eventual victory first in Beelzebub, and later in all of his followers. His actions are very human and relatable. But anyone who was raised as either a Jew or a Christian grew up knowing, with the unshakeable certainty of youth, that the Egyptians were evil enslavers who deserved to be killed. These two images of Satan, the Odysseus-like hero of epic poems and the Pharaoh who defied God and was slain, begin to struggle against each other in our mind. It is the first time we are truly reminded of the darkness within Satan that caused his downfall. It forces us to reevaluate the situation and look on everything that follows in a new way.Milton uses the epic simile to maneuver the reader towards a new revelation that would be impossible to explain otherwise. He allows our knowledge and experiences to guide us to the conclusion that Milton wishes us to make. Without explicitly stating so, he reminds us of the evil in Satan that drove him to this place. Whether it is the peace and sorrow of dying autumn leaves floating on a brook, the mayhem of a storm tossed sea, or the death of the Pharaoh who doomed himself and his followers through his own actions, Milton expects us to remember how destructive Satan's actions are and that he doesn't deserve our pity. No matter how heroic he appears, his own hubris and anger led him in a revolt against Goodness. The simile leads the reader to a greater understanding of Satan's nature and his own than would have otherwise been possible.
A Wolf Among The Sheep:
Analyzing Epic Similes in Book IV of Paradise Lost
As a literal piece of poetry, the first five books of Paradise Lost tell a grand story of war, and the divide between good and evil. Yet more than just a means of comparison, John Milton's use of epic similes allowed him to allude to a variety of materials – Biblical, classical, and colloquial- and strengthen the overall impact upon the reader. In lines 183-201 of Book IV, Milton describes Satan's entrance into Eden through a side passage. Using an extended simile of Satan as a wolf and a thief, Milton reveals new aspects of Satan's character; he is not merely a two-dimensional character, but someone fueled by revenge and the desire to triumph from epic defeat. While it literally describes his deceptive means of entrance, the simile also alludes to the reader's vulnerability to Satan's persuasive skills, as well as the hidden strength all humans have against the influences of sin.
At first, it seems suspicious that Satan can so easily bypass Heaven's security with only a simple disguise to hide his identity. But through the epic simile, Milton constructs another layer of meaning to make readers doubt Satan's actual abilities. As he enters Eden, Milton compares Satan to “a prowling Wolf / whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey” (Milton 390.183). It is interesting that Milton compares Satan to a “hung[ry]” wolf, rather than avaricious or inherently malicious one. The driving need to sate hunger is fundamental for living, which turns Satan into a sympathetic character. While his hunger derives more from revenge than from literal deprivation, it still creates a different perspective on the character's evilness. Continuing the wolf metaphor, Satan watches “where shepherds pen their flocks at eve” (Milton 390.185). The most obvious Biblical connection to this image is the book of John, to which the footnotes make mention. In the tenth chapter of his book, Jesus states that he is the true shepherd of the flock of humans, and that others who claim to be divine authorities are merely frauds (John 10.7-8). Thus, the shepherd that Satan watches over is a direct reference to Jesus himself, who leads the sheep away from temptation. But Satan leaps the walls of Eden “with ease,” unaffected by any securities that God placed around the sheltered area (Milton 390.187). If God is omnipotent, how could Satan get in without notice? As it stands at this point in the poem, Satan so cleverly disguises himself that even God cannot recognize him in his own fortress. This may be a warning to Christian readers that sin can lurk in any image, and that it is vital to stay vigilant against intrusion.
The next part of Milton's extended simile refers to Satan as a thief breaking into a “rich burgher's” home (Milton 390.189). Straightforwardly, Satan is trying to rob God of his cache –a pun on “cash” – of human followers. At the same time, the image of a thief is repeated in the Book of John, regarding Jesus as a shepherd. The aforementioned line “ he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber” seems to have directly influenced Milton's decision to compare Satan to a thief. The effortlessness at which he penetrated Paradise's walls may not have been because Satan was so powerful, but because he entered through a false entrance. Only one door (the way through God) is the correct gateway to the promised pasture. More than just a conniver, Satan is a thief that preys on the goodness of humans, yet cannot find the path to their shelter. God's doors are “ cross- barred and bolted fast,” both literally and figuratively; just as Satan cannot enter through the proper way, he cannot enter into the souls of devout believers (Milton 390.190). As Jesus states in the Bible, “ the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” His trust in humanity bolsters believers to hold out against the thief in their midst, and their faith in God is the greatest security from Satan's advances.
Along with classical and biblical allusions, Milton also makes contemporary political commentary in his lines. According to the footnotes, the reference to “lewd hirelings” is suggestive of self-serving clergy who only stayed employed as a path for pleasure (Milton 391.193). The barb relates back to Milton's disgust over the corruptness of the English church, a major issue that he fought against before the Restoration of the English monarchy. In his 1649 ‘A Treatise of Civil Power,' he mentions the gross injustice of clergy “hirelings” in spiritual governance, and how it is a direct offense to God. For peers reading his work, it was probably well-known that he was disparaging of dishonest religious figures. By drawing this simile in direct relation to Satan's actions, it almost seems like they are closer to sin than to God. After this comment, Milton re-imagines Satan in his cormorant disguise, climbing up the Tree of Life to get a better vantage point. By using such a symbolically significant tree as a perch for Satan to sit on, Milton subtly reminds the reader of the book of Genesis, and the fall of Adam and Eve. In Eden, the Tree of Life stands next to the Tree of Knowledge, the latter holding the understanding of good and evil. Sin's persuasive nature convinced both to eat the terrible apple, and subsequently released original sin into the world. But at the same time, Satan merely uses the Tree of Life as a seat, rather than as a divine marker. Satan finds no significance in it, and therefore does not experience the full potential of the “life-giving plant.”
His disguise is also notable as a cormorant, a large seabird with prized black feathers. This may be in reference to Satan's size, as discussed in the first book. Though he is first compared to Leviathan, a huge sea beast, Satan must shrink himself into a smaller creature when entering God's domain; Milton could be implying a sign of his lesser status and power. At the same time, the showiness of a cormorant's glossy wings may imply that he is difficult to actually disguise, and that with proper perception and awareness, the reader can see him for the evil that he is. There also is a strong classical connection between the cormorant and the raven, birds that both symbolize negativity and a black void. By being dressed in looming black garb, Milton shows Satan as a literal stain on Paradise. The cormorant has the potential to represent “true life,” but because Satan has lost his livelihood, he can only assume the cormorant's likeness as a disguise over his true visage (Milton 391.196). The footnotes say that the cormorant is a “large, voracious seabird; figuratively, someone insatiably greedy.” Though Satan was perhaps initially hungry out of actual need, his appetite for sin has become too great. Even with the space given to him in Hell, he is bent on conquering all dimensions to defeat God. As he prepares to move further into Eden, Satan stands as a character unaware of his own impotence in the face of God's power. Even though he believes himself to be well-concealed and well-planned, he is blinded by his own greed to comprehend the consequences.
Milton's use of the epic simile allowed him to condense multiple allusions into a single line of poetry, transforming the literal meaning into motivational commentary. By initially comparing Satan to a wolf and a thief in the seemingly vulnerable land of Eden, Milton puts readers on guard to the potential treachery that hides in our midst. Yet through the similes and resulting allusions, any fears raised by Satan's deviousness are quickly assuaged by the knowledge that God's protection is mightier than any deceitful plan. With the correct awareness, Milton implies, true Christians should be able to see through the disguise and protect oneself sufficiently.
Paradise Lost and the Epic Simile
Throughout Paradise Lost , Milton utilizes the “epic simile” to describe aspects of the book of Genesis that are so great and unfathomable it is difficult for the reader to understand or visualize, such as God, Satan (and his motives and actions), hell, heaven, and the Garden of Eden. These similes make deliberate comparisons and contrasts to stories and figures in ancient history, Greek mythology, and other books of the Bible. Milton is able to do so effectively thanks to his extensive knowledge of the Bible, mythology, and writers and historians. A crucial setting in Paradise Lost is the Garden of Eden – literally, the “paradise” that is lost. Milton uses a kind of anti-simile to describe Eden as unlike other mythical paradises.
The simile begins with, “Not that fair field/ Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flow'rs/ Herself a fairer flow'r by gloomy Dis/ Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain/ To seek her through the world;” (IV, 268-272). The field of Enna is a Sicilian grove, a place of perpetual spring, as described by Ovid in Metamorphosis . According to classical Greek myth, this is where the “gloomy” Dis (Pluto/Hades) abducts Proserpine, the young, innocent goddess of spring's bounty, to marry him and live in the underworld. To quell the anger of Demeter (Ceres), who searches the Earth desperately for her daughter, Zeus (her father) orders Pluto to release Proserpine from hell. Before doing so, Pluto makes her eat 8 pomegranate seeds (food of the underworld), which means she is forced to stay in hell for at least 6 months of the year. The other months, she can return to her mother on Earth. This myth illustrates the changing of the seasons, for when she is in the underworld, it is winter, and Earth is barren, and when she returns to Earth it is springtime and the crops blossom. After the fall of Adam and Eve, the earth has seasons. It is no longer perpetual spring. The corruption of paradise and the simple, innocent Proserpine by Dis, parallels Satan's plan to enter the Garden of Eden and corrupt Adam and Eve. Satan and Dis are both gods of the underworld and seek out a virgin female. There is also an association between Ceres and the son of God who are both “cost all that pain” due to the corruption of paradise and the sins of humanity.
The sentence continues in the second layer of the simile with, “nor that sweet grove/ Of Daphne by Orontes, and th'inspired/ Castalian spring, might with this Paradise/ Of Eden strive” (IV, 272-275). The Grove of Daphne was a garden and sanctuary of Apollo near the city of Antioch. It was a sacred place of great natural beauty, including a Cypress grove of 4 -5 miles. The myth is that Apollo was chasing the nymph, Daphne (meaning “laurel” in Greek), after being shot by an arrow from Cupid, and when Daphne prayed for help from her father, he turned her into a laurel tree to escape Apollo. Apollo then took a branch of the tree and planted it where the Grove of Daphne grew to be. Milton concludes that “Not” the field of Enna and “nor” the Grove of Daphne “might with this Paradise/ of Eden strive”. Here, “strive” means to compete with, or rival, meaning that the Garden of Eden's beauty and perfection is superior to these other legendary paradises. Satan also parallels Apollo here in that he almost feels lust and sexual desire for Eve and her innocence.
The next comparison is made to “that Nyseian isle/ Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham,/ Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Lybian Jove,/ Hid Amalthea and her florid son/ Young Bacchus from his stepdame Rhea's eye;” (IV, 275-279). The story Milton is referencing comes from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in his history of the world. He writes that King Ammon (identified with Libyan Jupiter and Cham) fell in love with the virgin Amalthea while he was married to Rhea, sister of Saturn and the Titans, and had by Amalthea a son. Fearing Rhea's jealousy, he hid Amalthea and the baby Bacchus (Dionysus) in a cave atop the island of Nysa, surrounded by the river Triton. Diodorus' description of this island bears a resemblance to Milton's description of Eden: “pleasant meadows watered by abundant streams from springs, and possesses every kind of fruit-bearing tree and the wild vine in abundance […] the sun never shines at all through the close-set branches but only the radiance of its light may be seen. […] the whole place is meet for a god.” And similar to the field of Enna which remains in a state of perpetual springtime, “not a flower or leaf is to be seen which has fallen” on the island of Nysa (3.62-74). Even this island “meet for a God” is a lesser place than Eden.
The phrase continues with the last layer of the simile, “Nor where Abassin kings their issue guard,/ Mount Amara, though this by some supposed/ True Paradise under Ethiop line/ By Nilus' head, enclosed with shining rock,/ A whole day's journey high, but wide remote/ From this Assyrian garden,” (IV, 280-285). Mount Amara is also known as Mount Abora, located in the Abyssinian empire (Ethiopian empire). It is the meeting of the headwaters of the Nile (Nilus is the Greek god of the Nile river). This could be why some consider it to be where the Garden of Eden was located on Earth. Milton is making the point that this is only a “supposed/ True Paradise […] wide remote/ From this Assyrian garden”. The “Assyrian garden” refers to the Garden of Eden.
The mythical paradises that Milton compares Eden to all share the characteristic that they are protected, safe places. They are also fragile and are easily corrupted and impermanent. The effect that the anti simile has on the reader is poignant and associative as opposed to logical and specific, like other epic similes in the poem. The different comparisons work together to evoke emotions and associations in the reader that ultimately illustrate the fragility of Paradise. The simile ends with the image of Satan, “the fiend”, in the Garden of Eden, where he “[sees] undelighted all delight” (IV, 286). The fact that Satan bears witness to this unsurpassed beauty, perfection, and goodness, as is illustrated by the epic simile, and still decides to corrupt Adam and Eve and fight against God reveals his true evil nature. This is an important idea that Milton expresses in Paradise Lost . Adam and Eve are simple, innocent creatures at this point; they do not know “good” because they do not yet know “evil” in relation to each other. Evil and sin do not exists in their world. But by sinning and eating the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, they become aware of “good” and “evil”.
One of the greatest achievements in John Milton's Paradise Lost is his characterization of Satan. Most villains that populated the literature preceding his were two-dimensional paragons of evil: blood thirsty and lacking pathos. Though vain and self-serving, Satan's role as the underdog in the battle of good versus evil made him more sympathetic to readers than the average villain. But where does this sympathy come from? For one thing, the God of Paradise Lost commands unwavering respect and subservience, which is a daunting notion for many readers to consider. So it comes as little surprise that, in the grand scheme of God's universe, a being would revolt against the established order. Milton takes this heavenly hierarchy, essentially glossed over in the Bible, and expands upon it to suit his telling of the Fall of Man. After Satan gathers the fallen angels in Hell, he convinces them to gather for their counsel, a scene in which the narrator describes them as bees. Through this epic simile, Milton undermines the senses of renewal and optimism, classically associated with bees, with an attack on the Catholic faith.
The description of the fallen angels entering the counsel evokes hopefulness, particularly the images related to springtime. After the citadel is completed, the narrator describes the demons as “Thick swarmed, both on the ground and in the air,/ Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings.” (767-768). Here, the words “Thick swarmed,” initially make the reader recall pestilent imagery, such as the locusts and toads that populate the pages of Exodus. The other words that conclude this sentence, “hiss” and “rustling wings”, communicate the menace that one would expect from demons. Once Milton begins an epic simile in the next lines, however, the intimidating façade disappears. The hissing, swarming wings transform: “As bees/ In springtime, when the sun with Taurus rides,/ Pour forth their populous youth about the hive/ In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers fly to and fro” (768-772). This passage is a jarring diversion from the previous “fire and brimstone” depictions of Hell. Suddenly, the demons become “bees/ In springtime” that mingle “among fresh dews and flowers”—surprising given that most people consider Hell to be a place of darkness, fire, and suffering. But why would Milton use such innocuous imagery to describe demons? On one level, it better serves the story to have a narrator that is capable of penetrating the psyche of both good and evil characters. So, the words “springtime” and “fresh dews and flowers” can be understood as the demons' point of view in how they set about their work: with a sense of renewal and optimism. On a purely aesthetic level, the airy and light qualities of this passage are a break from the dark and dreary imagery that fills the rest of the first book. This passage also contains a trope that Milton cannot resist: mythological allusion. The astrological sign Taurus is considered a fire sign, and is aligned with the sun in the passage. This alignment reinforces the notion of Hell as a fiery place, which is otherwise absent in the simile. Also, according to Greek legend, Taurus is the form that Zeus took when he seduced Europa. Though Milton might include Taurus simply because it is a sign that occurs in spring, its deceiving role in Greek lore may foreshadow future deceit in Paradise Lost —take Satan with Death or Eve, for example. As the simile continues, it is apparent that there is more to the bees than meets the eye.
After the counsel building itself is constructed, the bees are colored with religious undertone. As the bees fly to and fro, the narrator says “on the smoothed plank,/ The suburb of their straw-built citadel,/New rubbed with balm, expatiate and confer/ Their state affairs” (772-775). In this passage, the phrases “smoothed plank”, “citadel”, and “rubbed with balm” all reinforce the sense of majesty of the counsel building. In particular, “rubbed with balm” communicates holiness, in that many Christian rites (such as Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick) involve a balm-like substance. Here, it seems important to include a footnote at the bottom of the page: “When Milton was in Rome , the seemingly ubiquitous insignia of Pope Urban VIII was a bee, and his followers were called bees” (pg. 321). Because of this section's imagery, it does not seem far-fetched to read the citadel as a parallel for the Vatican . Operating with the knowledge that Milton believed the Catholic Church was a corrupt institution, it is appropriate that he would compare the Pope's followers (“bees”) to the fallen angels. When considered together, these images seem to form an attack against Catholicism, but one must infer which aspect of the Church Milton is critiquing. Is it the buildings' ornate features (St. Peter's Basilica, anyone?), described in the passage as “straw-built”? This simile does not offer much for the reader to infer within reason. However, the other simile that precedes this one allows more insight into Milton 's religious beliefs.
By initially describing the counsel as a hall fit for armed warriors to fight before a pagan king, Milton subtly critiques the Catholic Church's corrupt leadership. Milton sets the scene for the counsel: “Chief the spacious hall/ (Though like 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)” (762-766). In this passage, the demons are represented as “champions bold/wont ride in armed”, which conveys both their vanity and their violent nature. Milton also adds an exotic and heretical element to this description by including a sultan's chair—a symbol of absolute monarchal power, which Milton vehemently opposed. Furthermore, the “paynim [pagan] chivalry/To mortal combat or career with lance” reinforces the blasphemous nature of the demons. Though this might be a stretch, the pointed end of a lance brings to mind a bee's stinger. Surely, Milton is too deliberate and purposeful a writer to incidentally let this image segue into an epic simile about bees. He could have conjured up any number of weapons for the champions to wield, and a lance seems too fitting to dismiss as mere coincidence. Because the reader can assume that these imagined fights are spectacles for a pagan king's entertainment, Milton critiques the leadership of the Catholic Church, inasmuch as the leaders use and abuse their followers.
Why would Milton spend so much time characterizing the fallen angels' gathering for the counsel? In one sense, the demons are an extension of Satan and symbolize his ability to persuade the masses to achieve his vain goals. The “hive mind” associated with bees, in which their singular goal is to generate honey for the hive, reinforces the symbolic notion that all sin essentially furthers Satan's own perverted desires. But that's only one sense. It is hard to dismiss the footnote that implicates the Catholic Church throughout the entirety of the bee simile. This knowledge causes the device to implicate more than a mere allegory for good versus evil. The demons, or bees, become something much more human and relatable for the average reader. They become Catholics, a group of people that a contemporary audience would probably regard as relatively harmless in their religious beliefs—if at all. This passage indicates that Milton laces the entirety of Paradise Lost with divisive critiques on politics and religion.
In the Garden
Like many other authors of the age, Milton strove for a reconciliation of classic mythology with Christianity. Paradise Lost is heavy with mythical and biblical allusions. A related feature of Milton's style, in accord with his classical sympathies, is the epic simile. The interplay of mythical-biblical reconciliation is evident within Paradise Lost , and Milton's exploration of this—among other—themes is a central motif of his epic. More though than reconciliation, Milton uses corruptions of a mythology his audience is familiar with to add the poignancy of innovation to the solid foundations of a myth. The corrupted myth is a particular approximation of classic myth to Christian narrative by departing from the myth at a critical point. The implications of the departure are left to be resolved. Before any lengthier explication, a few curt glances at other “corrupted” myths will give some context.
To begin with a mere parallel, the construction of Pandaemonium recalls, not only St. Peter's Basilica, but the Parthenon and the construction of Solomon's Temple. Here, the parallel with Solomon's Temple is particularly striking. Milton has previously mentioned the “uxorious king” ( Paradise Lost , 1.444). King Solomon was said to be so wise and righteous that he could command demons by God's grace. Admittedly, this is not an orthodox Christian tale, but neither is it something ill-fitting the image of the king. Islamic narrative in particular features him with supernatural talents, although medieval mythology also acknowledges the occult in relation to him; grimoires such as the Key of Solomon are likely the source for such colloquial mythologicalizations. Now, the corrupted myth presents itself in Sin's birth. Sin is born full-bodied from the head of Satan, an obvious allusion to Athena sprung from Zeus. However, while the classical myth recounts the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom, Milton's adaption of it gives us Sin, the ultimate folly. The contrast of results here is sharp and striking while familiar. The corruption in this case is the result of something sprung from the mind of a lesser being than God. In other places, the incorporation of this device within the epic simile produces appropriate complexity:
Beyond th' horizon; then from pole to pole
He views in breadth, and without longer pause
Down right into the world's first region throws
His flight precipitant, and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique way
Amongst innumerable stars, that shone
Stars distant, but nigh hand seem other worlds,
Or other worlds they seemed, or happy isles,
Like those Hesperian gardens famed of old,
Fortunate fields, and groves and flow'ry vales,
Thrice happy isles, but who dwelt happy there
He stayed not to inquire: above them all
The golden sun in splendor likest Heaven
Allured his eye:...( Paradise Lost , 3.560-572)
The two allusions here are to the Hesperian gardens and the Isles of the Blessed. The Isles of the Blessed are the reward of heroes, the home of the virtuous. Satan overlooks these blessed lands; “but who dwelt happy there/ he stayed not to inquire:..” ( Paradise Lost , 1.570-71). Rather than explore the regions of the virutous, Satan, characteristically crooked, is drawn in envy toward the sun. He turns from virtue to value the brightness and glory. This image of the round golden sun is interesting in concert with the Hesperian conceit, which is itself complex.
In the Garden of the Hesperides, golden apples grow which grant the gift of immortality. To keep mortals away, a dragon watches over the tree. As evidenced by the name, the gardens are associated with Hesperus, the evening star, who is either identified with the morning star or is his brother. Here, identification is the best fit, for Satan is known as Lucifer, the morning star, before his rebellion. Afterwards, he is variously called Satan and the dragon. The association of Satan with the Hesperian gardens is a cunning show of the implications in corrupted myths.
First, Satan eyes the other world, those worlds of a blessed state he himself had had. Lucifer, the brightest angel in heaven, the morning star, the immortal! He retains the blessing reputed to the golden apples of Hesperides even after his downfall—yet Satan turns from these other worlds; they do not arouse his curiosity. Instead, he is drawn to the golden apple of the sun, “in splendor likest Heaven” (Paradise Lost, 1.571). Satan forsakes the Isles of the Blessed to wage war on heaven, and even now he is on a mission to despoil mankind.
As readers, we are already familiar with the events in Genesis. The serpent tempts Eve, who in turn tempts Adam. They partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are cast out of Eden. A second detail which we often forget is that Eden also holds the Tree of Life. In one sense, Satan is still the dragon defending the apples of immortality, though now by seducing man into forsaking God's grace and the immortality therein. Satan has led man from immortality and provided for their grave. Not only does he aim to lead men astray, but Satan as rendered by Milton has fathered mortality itself in the persona of Death. This is an example of another set of articulations in Paradise Lost —Satan's efficacy versus God's. It is also a further characterization of Satan as the adversary, the antithesis, the undoer. However, the vein of the garden's gold remains untapped.
The allusion to the Garden of the Hesperides also serves as an image of prolepsis and an alternative vision of the corrupted myth: Satan entices mankind to take from the tree which he is to protect according to the original myth. This reading requires a deviation from the fine points of the myth, both the myth of Eden and the myth of the Hesperian garden. Persons less familiar with the biblical myth involved, inclined only to see the Greek, would see the image of a dragon (Satan) giving away the object he is to defend. We anticipate the events to come and see them in a brighter lens. By this I mean that the Bible is something taken for granted; classical myth isTurning from the more esoteric value of Satan as the dragon despoiler, the description of the Hesperian groves is redolent of Eden. “Fortunate fields and groves and flow'ry vales” is very much how we might describe the garden of plenty ( Paradise Lost , 1.568). As another note regarding Eden, God sets a cherub with a flaming sword to guard Eden after man's expulsion, yet it is as a cherub that Satan approaches God's new creation.
This epic simile suggests several things from a cursory reading, and plenty more at a second glance. Satan is alternatively the guardian or its antithesis; the garden is Eden or the Garden of the Hesperides. The figures resolve themselves with scrutiny. To an audience familiar with the lore of Greece and the Bible, the more in-depth examination is the one that takes into account the two trees in Eden and Satan's looser identification as a jealous guardian of immortality, the profferer of death. However, the initial impressions as an anti-guardian, tempting man to the treasure, resonate. One also wonders whether Satan has chosen the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as the more valuable of the two trees, for he is already immortal. Truly, one might say that this was the choice of his rebellion, for he knows Good in the form of God whom he served in Heaven and he knows evil for he is Evil. Likewise, by encountering Satan in the garden, mankind was already coming to know evil. All conjecture aside, the initial impressions of the simile are ones of foreshadowing. The dragon will enter the garden. The apple s (immortality) are in danger. In further relation to the larger narrative, this passage is a stunning characterization of Satan, elaborating on the ever-present contrast between Satan and God.
Satan is Lucifer fallen. The morning star has become the evening star with the onset of night. Satan begins his rebellion in open war, obvious and in full view; after his fall, he tempts, corrupts, and beguiles. He dissembles. In heaven, he gives birth to Sin, but it is only in Hell that he begins to master the craft of lying and deception. In the passage above, we see how Satan was at first straight, falls straight (“his precipitant flight”) and now moves crookedly ( Paradise Lost , 1.563). He “winds””his oblique way” like a snake ( Paradise Lost , 1.564). The diction here is proleptic, for we know he will tempt Eve in the guise of a serpent. He is covetous; the sun “allured his eye” ( Paradise Lost , 1.572). It is apparent in the last four lines of this section that he is not enticed by the blessed isles of virtue. He is covetous of the sun, so similar to heaven. This section shows Satan's surreptitious and greedy ways, but his characterization is most apparent when in contrast with God in the larger narrative.
Satan covets the glory of the sun, of heaven, of the throne of God; the simile perfectly portrays his avaricious nature as a dragon guarding golden apples. God is magnanimous; he has created a paradise for man in Eden and provides for all his needs. Satan is powerful, but not all powerful; he cannot trump Death, nor can he easily navigate Chaos or the newest aspect of God's creation. God, on the other hand, is master of Death and Satan, for he can give immortality and he has already defeated Satan. He is also master of Chaos, for from Chaos he wrought the creation. Satan only “creates” the negations, Sin and Death; God has created everything. Satan's works are a mockery in comparison with God's and the particulars throughout Paradise Lost set this out time and time again.Through this entanglement of narrative with two strains of mythology, Milton succeeds in bringing forth a gem of many facets. The epic simile enriches the narrative and the allusory details expound upon the role of the characters as well as foreshadow future events. This is but one of many heavily textured passages which contribute to the poem, and each of the details are interrelated in a web of allusion, association