The story of the Fall is one of opposition and conflict, centred around the battle of good and evil, faith and temptation. Michelangelo’s Fall of Man epitomises this opposition with its two separate depictions of Adam and Eve. On the left, Adam and Eve are shown in the throes of temptation, about to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; and on the right, Adam and Eve are shown in their post-Lapsarian state, banished from Eden by the Archangel Michael. These two opposing presentations of pre-Lapsarian and post-Lapsarian man are divided by the evil figure of the wily serpent, the manifestation of wickedness in the Genesis story. John Milton, in adopting this story as the material for his epic poem, likewise adopts this emphasis on opposition and duality, with two main conflicts highlighted throughout: firstly, and most importantly, the conflict between good and evil, and secondly, how that conflict manifests itself in the two different states of humankind, sinless and then, after ‘Man’s first disobedience’, sinful. And yet, Milton’s presentation of these conflicts is not so straightforward as we might expect – there are ambiguities throughout. With the dubiously heroic portrayal of Satan and the rather ominous and seemingly cruel portrayal of God, we are forced to question, as readers, whether the line between the abstract concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is really so finite. Likewise, with the hints at sinfulness and wantonness in Eve and in Eden before the Fall, and conversely, with the sense of man’s retained goodness after the Fall, Milton stresses the elusiveness of sinlessness and sinfulness, whilst also preparing us for the inevitable – first, the Fall of Man, and second, Man’s salvation through the death of Christ. In this way, Milton plays on these oppositions and conflicts in the poem and uses ambiguity to increase our anticipation and thrill as readers.
The epic poem begins with Milton declaring his intentions, to ‘assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.’ Less than ten lines later, we are introduced to Satan, first referred to as ‘Th’infernal Serpent… whose guile’ is ‘Stirred up with envy and revenge.’ Thus, the poem begins with the aforementioned opposition of good and evil, the just ways of God as Milton perceives them, contrasted with the envious deceptions of his foe, the fallen angel Lucifer. This conflict is repeatedly emphasised in the poem – Christ is presented to us as the archetype of goodness in whom ‘the fullness dwells of love divine,’ whilst Satan declares his mission in completely opposing terms: ‘To do aught good never will be our task, / But ever to do ill our sole delight, / As being the contrary to his high will…’ This conflict between good and evil is stressed again and again, as when Milton observes how all Satan’s malice will serve ‘but to bring forth / Infinite goodness,’ a direct reversal of Satan’s wish to ‘out of good still to find means of evil’. Indeed, throughout the poem, there are echoing phrases like these that serve to recall earlier lines and give emphatic poignancy to their contrasting sentiments. For instance, in Book I, Satan exclaims: ‘hail, horrors, hail / Infernal world…’ whilst Book III opens with Milton’s similarly alliterative interjection, ‘Hail holy Light.’
We might also see this contrast in the epic poem’s contrasting elements of creation and destruction in the poem. Whilst God (the representative of ‘good’ in the poem) is the force of creation in Milton’s cosmos, Satan is the force of destruction – having already ‘sought / Evil to others’, he is now pictured ‘In meditated fraud and malice, bent / On man’s destruction.’ This opposition between creation and destruction is made particularly potent in Milton’s beautiful description of God’s creative acts, with all aspects of this new world revelling in fresh life. For example, the mountains heave their ‘broad bare backs’ into the clouds and the rivers hasten ‘with glad precipitance’. When we first see Eden, it is described (through Satan’s eyes) thus: ‘In narrow room Nature’s whole wealth, yea more, / A Heav’n on earth, for blissful Paradise / Of God the garden was, by him in the east / Of Eden planted…’ Here, Milton is drawing on the teleological argument to highlight God’s goodness as it manifests itself in the beauty and harmony of the natural world. As Helen Gardner notes, these descriptions of Edenic splendour demonstrate God’s kindness and are ‘inspired by Milton’s passionate belief in the goodness of the natural world as it was created and his delight in the principle of life...’ And yet, Satan’s evil prevents him from appreciating that beauty and goodness: he ‘Saw undelighted all delight’. I also ought to mention briefly the contrast between Satan and Abdiel (perhaps a manifestation of Milton himself), whose heroism we cannot help applaud as Milton describes him: ‘Among the faithless, faithful only he; / Among innumerable false, unmoved, / Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified…’ There is, then, clearly an opposition created in the poem between good and evil, between creation and destruction, and between faithfulness and faithlessness.
And yet, it’s hard to deny that, at some points, that good/evil division becomes blurred. Indeed, though in the first book Milton’s vocal interruptions colour our view of Satan as evil, Satan is still one of the most charismatic and apparently heroic figures in the poem, if not in the entirety of English literature. Who has ever read the aphoristic line ‘Awake, arise, or be forever fall’n’ without feeling an overwhelming sense of admiration for Satan’s heroic ambition and ‘fierce passion’? As Hazlitt remarks, we cannot help applauding Satan and his Promethean valour: ‘After such a conflict as his, and such a defeat, to retreat in order, to rally, to make terms, to exist at all, is something; but he does more than this – he founds a new empire in hell, and from it conquers this new world…’ Satan’s charm and irresistibility may come, in part, from the fact that his speeches were the first of the work to be written, originally part of Milton’s plan for a dramatic tragedy – hence, Gardner comments, ‘The intensely dramatic handling of the figure of Satan is a main cause of the extraordinary hold he has on the imagination.’ Moreover, we often find ourselves agreeing with Satan’s view of God as a cruel monarch who ‘Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.’ After all, when God is first introduced, he is seen ‘High throned above all heighth’ and he later ‘Commands all the angels to adore him’. Given Milton’s own religiously individualist and politically republican stances, it is no wonder, really, that he ‘wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God’ – in the words of Samuel Johnson, Milton had an ‘envious hatred of greatness,’ ‘a sullen desire of independence’ and a ‘pride disdainful of superiority’. Thus, the beginning of the poem, whether intentionally or not, tempts us to agree with Satan that it is ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n’. The lines between good and evil are blurred, and though we know that Satan’s speeches only ‘bore / Semblance of worth, not substance,’ we cannot help being attracted towards him.
There are similar oppositions in the presentation of Adam and Eve as they are seen before and after the Fall. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are
‘Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shone,
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom placed…’
They are presented to us as the image of perfect innocence – even their sexuality contains in it a certain pure nobility, repeatedly described with the word ‘mysterious’ which, in Milton’s time, had more to do with divinity than secrecy. Indeed, Milton even defends their open sexuality, saying that ascetics and Puritan hypocrites often defame ‘as impure what God declares / Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.’ Moreover, before the Fall, there was no sense of ‘guilty shame’ or dishonour in embracing sexuality. This pre-Lapsarian innocence is explicitly and immediately reversed after Adam and Eve eat the divinely prohibited fruit, when they engage at once in the ‘carnal pleasure’ against which Raphael warns them in Book VIII. They are described ‘As with new wine intoxicated both,’ the fruit inflaming in them ‘Carnal desire’. Adam casts ‘lascivious eyes’ on Eve, and ‘in lust they burn’. Likewise, Eve’s ‘eye darted contagious fire’. These repeated references to heat and fire highlight not only the sensuous and wanton nature of these desires, they also recall the burning fires of Pandemonium, and thus implicitly link this sexual depravity to the evil of Satan. And it’s not just in their sexuality that their post-Fall corruption reveals itself – they also grow blasphemous and proud, ‘and fancy that they feel / Divinity within them breeding wings…’ After eating the fruit, Eve even contemplates how the fruit may ‘render me more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior; for inferior who is free?’ The final question here again recalls Satan’s rhetoric when, in Book V, he questions how unequals can really be free. Not long after, the two are filled with ‘high passions, anger, hate, / Mistrust, suspicion, discord, and shook sore / Their inward state of mind, calm region once / And full of peace, now tossed and turbulent.’ Thus, Milton is keen to highlight the immediate change in his two human protagonists after they commit their first sin.
But there are ambiguities in this shift, too. Even before the fall, there are suggestions of sin and wantonness in both Eden and in man, prophetic suggestions of what is to come. This is largely insinuated through Milton’s descriptions of Eve’s hair, and as Jason Scott-Warren argues, ‘Milton makes Eve’s naturally curly hair indirectly responsible for the Fall of Man.’ Eve’s hair is described as ‘Disheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav’d, / As the Vine curles her tendrils’. This directly links Eve with the serpent, who is described as both ‘sly’ and ‘insinuating’ even before Satan has adopted the serpent’s form (demonstrating the evil already present in Eden before the Fall). The word ‘insinuating’, as Scott-Warren points out, comes from the Latin word ‘sinuare’ (notably containing the word ‘sin’) which means ‘to bend’ or ‘to curl’, thus linking Eve’s curling tresses to the serpent’s curling body. Thus, we are here given a premonition of Eve’s temptation and her eventual sin, highlighted in the word ‘wanton’ as used to describe her ‘ringlets wav’d’. This word is also used to describe the trees of the garden, which require ‘More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth…’ And finally, the river of Eden is described as curving and curling in ‘mazie error’. All of this combines to insinuate from our very first sighting of Eden that sin and the possibility of sin is indeed already present, despite the apparently innocent purity of Adam and Eve.
Milton also highlights the retained goodness in Adam and Eve even after their fall – unlike Satan, who knows there is ‘no place / Left for repentance’, Adam and Eve commit themselves to penitence and remorse. Milton describes how they ‘fell / Before him reverent, and both confessed / Humbly their faults, and pardon begged, with tears / Watering the ground, and with their sighs the air / Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign / Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.’ This repentance is wholly ‘unfeigned’, distinct from Satan’s false and superficial protestations of sorrow in Milton’s sequel, Paradise Regained. As Johnson says, Adam and Eve are ‘amiable’ after the Fall ‘for repentance and submission.’ But it is not just in their repentance that we sympathise with them. It is also in the pure and wholly virtuous love that they show towards one another – for example, they both wish they could take all the punishment on themselves (Eve wishes ‘that all / The sentence from thy head removed may light / On me’). But it is Milton’s beautiful expression of their love that leaves us most sympathetic: Adam says to Eve, ‘How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined, / To live again in these wild woods forlorn? / Should God create another Eve, and I / Another rib afford, yet loss of thee / Would never from my heart…’ Eve reflects these sentiments when she tells Adam in such honourable terms, ‘thou to me / Art all things under Heav’n…’ Thus, as Waldock argues, we cannot help sympathising here, not only because they are now imperfect, mortal humans like us, but also because they are ‘following here the highest moral value we know – Love.’ And finally, we can only admire their dignity in accepting the loss of their paradise and embracing the ‘Paradise within’ as they ‘Through Eden took their solitary way.’
So it’s clear that Milton was keen, in this poem, to employ established oppositions and conflicts, whilst also manipulating them and making us question their validity. Just as Satan and God are held up against each other and yet both presented relatively ambiguously, so pre- and post-Fall humanity are explicitly contrasted though depicted in a nuanced way, with both sin and honour present before and after the Fall. Milton did this for a number of reasons, but it is largely due to the fact that the story of Paradise Lost was universally known, so Milton plays games with this idea of foreknowledge throughout. Satan is presented as tempting and almost admirable in Book I not only as an indication of Eve’s later temptation and seduction, but also as a warning to us to demonstrate how easy it is to be charmed by rhetoric, thus encouraging us to sympathise with Eve in her Fall.
In the same way, the descriptions of Eden and pre-Lapsarian Adam and Eve are littered with subtle insinuations of their future wantonness, thus preparing us for the Fall that we know is already inevitable. Because we’ve been prepared for the event by all these subtle references to sin, the simple climax of the poem needs no adornment to give it weight: ‘So saying, her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat…’ As Gardner points out, ‘When at last we come to it, with the weight of the poem behind it, the undramatic presentation of this simple act of disobedience is profoundly dramatic.’ And finally, Adam and Eve are shown to retain their goodness after the Fall in order to prepare the Christian reader for what was to come – not only the goodness of Noah and Moses, but more importantly, the redemption and salvation of man through Christ’s death, as narrated by Michael. It is perhaps in this sense that Coleridge referred to Milton as ‘the deity of prescience,’ in that Milton is recounting a story that all his readers knew, and thus he fills it throughout with portentous and fateful hints to add to the story’s unfolding excitement. So, by blurring these traditional lines of opposition, Milton not only surprises his readers, he also makes his poem more dramatically effective. He has indeed fulfilled his wish that he might ‘leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die.’