146. (John Milton)

Reading Paradise Lost with a student, the chance to see more than before, vicariously through fresh eyes, has been most thrillingly felt in the book where seeing with fresh eyes is the poet’s subject: the fourth, where Satan sees Adam and Eve for the first time, where Eve sees her own reflection, where Satan, dissembling the Angels, is exposed and learns that he is not seen in the glory he once possessed, lacking Eve’s self-reflection and doomed instead to his own self-involvement.

It might be the most overtly Ovidian book in the epic, in that Milton’s patterns and play with language consciously recalls Ovid’s Metamorphoses, perhaps in Eve’s paean to sleep, and certainly in Milton’s description of Eve as she sees her reflection in the still waters to which she wandered after waking from creation (the parallel is to the Echo and Narcissus episode):


…    and laid me down

On the green bank, to look into the clear

Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.

As I bent down to look, just opposite,

A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared

Bending to look on me: I started back,

It started back, but pleased I soon returned,

Pleased it retuned as soon with answering looks

Of sympathy and love; there I had fixed

Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire... (ll. 457-465)


But as the Ovidian scene unfolds, a word appears that, as it recurs through the book, will drive against the impulse to think Milton’s world, at least within the gates of Eden, as Ovidian. “Seem’d” concerns Milton as it cannot concern Ovid because there is a permanence to what is, such that what seems to be, when it does not align with what is, represents a danger or indicates a falling from God’s created perfection. In Book 4, the word “seem” works to two ends: it can represent what strikes the eye, not as a mere semblance or superficial appearance, but as an accurate gauge of inner essence; it can also indicate that something is superficial and false. In Paradise, the former occurs where there is a pre-lapsarian collapse between appearance and reality; where the what seems to be and what is are merged in a happy identity; when essence is naked to the eye. Hence Satan glimpses Adam and Eve for the first time:


Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native honour clad

In naked majesty seemed lords of all,

And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine

The image of their glorious maker shone,

Truth, wisdom, sanctitude sever and pure,

Severe but in true filial freedom placed;

Whence true authority in men; though both

Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed.      (ll. 289-296)


What seems to be the case is in fact the case: they are lords of all, and (for Milton) their sexes are not equal. Even here, we may suspect that because it is through Satan’s perspective that Adam and Eve appear, Milton affords us a glimpse of his doubt and inability to see what really is (“seemed” registers Satan’s assessment of the scene, on this reading). But the perspective hardly seems Satan’s entirely; the admiration is too hearty for us not to feel that Milton shares in it. What is admirable in the two is that, walking naked, they are honest to the eye.

Where Eve, on the other hand, looks into the still waters and sees what “seem’d” to be another sky, the word is tainted already by the temptation of vanity that the mirror presents; it is used in its “fallen” sense. (Milton plays, as is well known, with redeemed and fallen senses of language in the Edenic scenes).

When Milton praises Adam and Eve in their shameless nakedness, chiding future generations, the word returns in a fallen sense, but with a curious twist:


Then was not guilty shame, dishonest shame

Of nature’s works, honour dishonourable,

Sin-bred, how have ye troubled all mankind

With shows innate, mere shows of seeming pure,

And banished from man’s life his happiest life,

Simplicity and spotless innocence.      (ll. 313-318)


“shows of seeming pure” can be read in two ways: “shows of people who would seem pure, but her are in fact not pure,” in which case the word has fallen and refers to the deceptive cover for a corrupt state of affairs; but it can also be read “mere false impressions (shows) of what was once the pureness of seeming; mere imitations of genuine seeming, which is pure.” In the latter case, Milton jealously guards the words honest, paradisiacal sense, and he regrets that the word itself has been debased by false performance of pure, good seeming. He does not, then, begrudge seeming; he begrudges only what people do with it and make of it, just as he begrudges what fallen man and woman do with nakedness and sex.

Satan speaks insidiously when he says later in the book:


Yet let me not forget what I have gained

From their own mouths all is not theirs it seems:

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge called,   (ll. 513-515)


Does he doubt what seems to be, proving his mind to be fallen as he already doubts seeming; or does he too adhere to the pure use of the word, since what he says is correct, all is not theirs? The former seems the likelier alternative, but there is perhaps a sadness in that Eden’s inhabitants, naked and purely seeming to be what they are, find themselves so ill-equipped to disguise themselves from the deceiver.

An irony rises from the word like steam when Satan’s is exposed in his own disguise as a toad, touched by the spear of an eager angel on patrol:


So spake the Cherub, and his grave rebuke

Severe in youthful beauty, added grace

Invincible: abashed the devil stood,

And felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined

His loss; but chiefly to find here observed 

His lustre visibly impaired; yet seemed

Undaunted.                      (ll. 844-846)


Satan “felt” and then “saw” the shape of virtue, a lovely angel, and then “saw” again, as if looking twice, and realized his own loss, seeing that too as it were; but what he chiefly pined was his own being seen, and being seen with less luster than had clung to him in heaven; and then we are told he “seemed | Undaunted.” The first question is one of perspective–whether he seems that way to himself, to the angel, or to Milton. Unanswerable as that is, the confusion is perhaps the point; Satan has disrupted the faithful sensory purchase on the visible world for reader and angel and poet alike. The second question is one of sense, rather than the senses: does he only give the impression (to himself and others) of being undaunted, or is he in genuinely undaunted, and how much of a practical difference is there? There is no need to decide; that there is a question shows the word already to be fallen; but the question is not the normal one we would ask of someone who is said to “seem undaunted.” From our post-Edenic perspective, there is no possibility that what a person seems to be might necessarily or naturally be what they are; we might think that they are or are not undaunted, but we would think not think it normal or right that what they seem to be is in fact what they are. But in Eden, that assumption ought to be made.

In Eden, Satan’s identity, his self-identity, crushes him; he can only escape it through temporary disguise, but the transformations he undergoes are undone, and he cannot transform beyond himself. Hence the barren ‘rime riche’ in his speech as he surveys the scene:


Your change approaches, when all these delights

Will vanish and deliver yet to woe,

More woe, the more your taste is now of joy;

happy, but for so happy ill secured

Long to continue, and this high seat your Heav’n

Ill fenced for Heav’n to keep out such a foe

As now is entered; yet no purposed foe

To you whom I could pity thus forlorn

Though I unpitied.             (ll. 367-375)


“Your change approaches” he says–and we can think of Ovid and Eve’s Narcissistic self-discovery, and realize that though they will “fall” and change, their change is not, because of God’s promise a fate of damnation, whereas his own fate is to lack the capacity to change himself: when he boasts of Heavn’s being able to keep out such a “foe,” he cannot move beyond what he is, and arrives back at the word in the next line. They echo, ominously, with the “woe” several lines earlier; it is the “woe” that he will carry with him.

At the root of Satan’s desire to change and deceive is a desire to not only be other than he is, but to overcome his terrible solitude, which we might casually call his perpetual singleness; he can only procreate with the Sin that springs from his head, setting of a cycle of incestuous rape. His desire to deceive must be, in part, a desire to deceive himself that he can live beyond himself. Adam and Eve, though they remain essentially themselves, are not made to face that doom; seeming to be what they are, they nonetheless do live beyond themselves, because they live in one another. Eve is rescued from Satanic self-involvement in her image and introduced to Adam. Without seeming to be other than they are, they can be other than they are in their shared embrace. Satan’s greatest insight of the poem anticipates the failure of his scheme:


Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two

Imparadised in one another’s arms

The happier Eden….       (ll. 505-507)


If their arms are indeed the happier Eden (Satan might be wrong, but Milton does place great faith in the consoling powers of their marriage; that love between partners being sufficient to sustain humanity until Christ redeems….), then the exclusion from Eden will not be a loss of all paradise.

Those lines are of course a reversal of Satan’s knowledge of his own damnation:


Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And in the lowest deem a lower deep

Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.     (ll. 73-78)


The “is” in “which way I fly is Hell” and the “am” in “myself am Hell” stand in contrast to the “Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n”; that “seems” is fallen, Satan deceived and Satan deceiving himself, in so far as there is no truth to his own Hell genuinely feeling like, or being, a Heaven; it is an attempt to separate himself from the reality of his own plight, even as he acknowledges his continued terror, but really, in so far as he has admitted to being his plight, an attempt at separating himself from what he knows himself to be. Rather than “imparadised” in the arms of another, he is bound to his own self, which he would have seem to be other than it is, wresting “seem” away from its perfect, divine, naturally human use.

The most mysterious appearance of the word comes late in the book, where Gabriel accuses Satan of hypocrisy. Here the word is given its full fallen sense: to seem to be, rather than to be, is an act of hypocrisy. Gabriel accuses Satan of only seeming to adore God, as he “fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored | Heaven’s awful Monarch”:


And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem

Patron of liberty, who more than thou

Once fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored

Heav’n’s awful Monarch?                  (ll. 957-960)


Empson makes the point that Gabriel seems to be admitting how awful a place Heaven is, since fawning and cringing and servile adoration is expected of angels there. The rebuttal is that Gabriel describes only Satan’s false behavior, condemning it with his negative description, and that likewise he employs “seem” in the corrupted sense that is appropriate to Satan. The rebuttal might be simpler: “wouldst” not “seem” carries the burden of the hypocrisy, and Satan aspires to seem to be what he is not and cannot be, a “Patron of liberty.” But the moment is jarring because we know what “seem” will become; perhaps Milton could not have entered Eden except on the wings of Satan. Without his presence, we would not have known the difference between the “seeming” that was known before the Satanic intercession (a “seeming” that is “being”)  and the “seeming” that we live with, and that Wordsworth, among Milton’s passionate readers, made so much of in his poetry.



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