Well over 150 times, more frequently than a dozen times per book, Milton uses the prime adjective (and adverb), “first.” Some uses are familiar, as (most suitably!) in the poem's first line, “Of Mans First Disobedience …” Some are simply so Miltonic as to seem familiar, as “When Adam first of men / To first of women Eve” (4.408–9). There is a logic and there is a decorum operating in the placing of things first. That is, to be first logically implies other things in a group that come after that first, whether in time, distance, or quality. There is only one character in the poem who is utterly singular. Or, as Raphael tells the attentive Adam, “one Almightie is” (5.469). In Milton's monotheism, the logic of divinity requires a special care in superlatives. Our first parents show their awareness of the fact in their first prayer on the first day we see them in Eden:
Circle his Throne rejoycing, yee in Heav'n, On Earth joyn all ye Creatures to extoll Him first, him last, him midst, and without end. (5.163–65)
In such matters, the logically appropriate is also the rhetorically decorous, as Milton acknowledges when introducing Adam and Eve's prime hymn:
such prompt eloquence Flowd from thir lips, in Prose or numerous Verse, More tuneable then needed Lute or Harp To add more sweetness. (5.149–52)
In traditional “eloquence, ” the superlative was the province of amplification (auxesis, amplificatio). Decorous amplification sometimes posed problems. To speak in grammatical terms, once a given superlative became established, it might turn into something like the positive degree, so requiring yet grander superlatives— and endangering credibility. One means to avoid the problem was to use the comparative degree for essentially superlative ends, and in Excursus 2.921 there will be found Milton's versions of traditional comparisons of great to small. That is a specific topos, however, whereas the concern here is rather with the logic and the rhetoric necessary to establish, for various categories, that which is the first. In one important instance, it has proved difficult to establish what the logic is.
Appropriately enough, the problem involves Satan, the chief source of trouble in the poem. In facing off against the archangel Michael on the first day of the War in Heaven, Satan finds himself in dire difficulty.
the sword Of Michael from the Armorie of God Was giv'n him temperd so, that neither keen Nor solid might resist that edge: it met The sword of Satan with steep force to smite Descending, and in half cut sheere, nor staid, But with swift wheele reverse, deep entring shar'd All his right side; then Satan first knew pain. (6.320–27)
In itself, the last line poses no difficulties: for such a sword, such a result. But the three words are special in themselves and pose a difficulty together.
In one sense, that problem is owed to the expectation Milton cultivates in his readers that, however rhetorical his style becomes, it is also logical. In the unusual conditions of Paradise Lost, however, pain is an exceptional matter. Before the Fall, there is no logical reason for pain to exist. Milton requires subtle ways to assure us that the world of Adam and Eve has a kind of immunity. The luxuriant garden of Eden abounds yet is never rampant with plants, and the plants include the quintessential English flower under special circumstances: “Flours of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose” (4.256). The delicacy of the matter is shown by the dream poured into Eve's ear by Satan. In spite of the rule of painlessness before the Fall—or as an exception to it, or possibly even somehow along with it—Eve first feels something very like pain in enduring the dream Satan had whispered to her. Recognizing the implicit rule that the sinless can feel no pain in Eden, and yet that there is “This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear” (5.98), Adam explains (5.95–98) that she is blameless: sin requires more than a situation or conception of evil. Since Eve's reason has not accepted sin, and her will has not led her to act, she has committed no guilty action. His assurances are welcome: