Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary

By Earl Miner; William Moeck et al. | Go to book overview

Excursus 3.19


Although the predominant imagistic pattern in Paradise Lost involves light and darkness, other patterns also hold importance. Since the poem's cosmology (see Excursus 8.136) involves a high Heaven and nether Hell determined by our earthly perspective, movements between them naturally lead us to assume directions of both literal and figurative kinds. Descent and fall convey loss, ascent conveys gain, and standing implies spiritual as well as physical behavior. In what follows, the ample imagery of ascent and descent will first be shown in range and kinds of use. With those terms established, attention will go to Milton's development of three identifiable and meaningful patterns. The first concerns the additional pattern of “scale, ” the second a very meaningful pattern derived from Virgil's Aeneid Book 6, and the third an ontological with spiritual ascent.

Even when no pattern of repeated like images draws attention, there may still be patterns of a kind. A conspicuous example is furnished by the proems to Books 1, 3, 4, 7, and 9. Not all are invocations, but all are proems in the sense of suspension of plot narration for initial reflections or descriptive set pieces. The proem to Book 3 begins with a paean to light as both a divine attribute and as the first creation. It ends by pondering the poet's own blindness of mortal sight. As he addresses light, we observe a shift to images of descent and reascent (3.13–21).

Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing, Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight Through utter and through middle darkness borne With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night, Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down The dark descent, and up to reascend, Though hard and rare.

With that example as a kind of marking, we may look at passages in the other proems, now with less of their contexts. The resemblances are hardly likely to derive from an inadvertence of the poet.

Book 1.13–15

… my adventrous Song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th' Aonian Mount …

23–24 What is low raise and support; That to the highth of this great Argument …

28 the deep Tract of Hell

Book 3.11

The rising world of waters dark and deep … (See also 13–21, quoted above.)

56, 58 Now had the Almighty Father from above … High Thron'd above all highth …

Book 4.3–4, 9 … when the Dragon, put to second rout, Came furious down to be reveng'd on men … Satan, now first inflam'd with rage, came down …

Book 7.1 Descend from Heav'n Urania… 3–4 … above th' Olympian Hill I soare, Above the flight of Pegasean wing. 6–7 … [thou] nor on the top Of old Olympus dwell'st, but Heav'nlie borne, Before the Hills appeerd … 12–13 Up led by thee Into the Heav'n of Heav'ns I have presum'd … 15–17, 19 … with like safetie guided down Return me to my Native Element: Least …

Dismounted, on th' Aleian Field I fall … 25–26 … though fall'n on evil dayes, On evil dayes though fall'n …

Book 9.71–75

Tigris at the foot of Paradise Into a Gulf shot under ground, till part Rose up a Fountain by the Tree of life; In with the River sunk, and with it rose Satan …

It is striking that so many of the most conspicuous examples appear in the proems. These show, as it were, a natural movement of Milton's mind which, especially when assisted by a pause to reflect, leads his attention to turn from lower to higher things (as, on larger scale, from Books 1 and 2 to 3), or to turn from higher to lower (as from Book 3 to 4). Yet the descent-ascent motif is not confined to the proems. Here are examples from later sections.


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Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface 9
  • Acknowledgments 11
  • Introduction 15
  • Early Comment 31
  • Book 1 - The Rebel Angels Awaken to Hell's Flames 51
  • Book 2 - Sin Opens the Doors of Hell 97
  • Book 3 - Satan's Hypocrisy Deceives Even Uriel 135
  • Book 4 - God Creates Adam and Eve 165
  • Book 5 - Adam Rids Eve of Satan's Dream 203
  • Book 6 - The Son Expels the Rebel Angels 237
  • Book 7 - Adam and Eve Listen Intently to Raphael 269
  • Book 8 - Raphael Departs After Warning Adam 287
  • Book 9 - The Fall 305
  • Book 10 - The Son Judges and Clothes the Human Pair 335
  • Book 11 - The Vision of Cain Slaying Abel 367
  • Book 12 - The Expulsion 393
  • The Illustrations 421
  • Excursus 1.50 427
  • Excursus 2.921 435
  • Excursus 2.967 439
  • Excursus 3.19 447
  • Excursus 5.791 451
  • Excursus 6.327 457
  • Excursus 6.616 461
  • Excursus 7.126 467
  • Excursus 7.594 471
  • Excursus 8.136 479
  • Excursus 9.512 489
  • Excursus 10.425 495
  • Excursus 11.385 499
  • Excursus 12.553 501
  • Bibliography 505


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