Book 3 of Paradise Lost: the Symbolism of Light and Darkness
Part of Milton’s genius lies in his ability to stack motif on top of motif, theme on top of theme and image on top of image with high density, without losing any of the effectiveness of his words; in fact, that density increases the effectiveness. Throughout Paradise Lost the motif of light and dark recurs, figuratively contrasting God and Satan, Heaven and Hell. Book three begins with an invocation of Light as a muse, and from then on, the discussions between God and Christ and the decisions of Satan often use light and dark imagery to express contrast. Milton’s use of light and dark in the first 55 lines of Book three creates a static and blurred delineation between the two states, expressing that few things are completely one or the other; light can exist in the darkness, and darkness in the light.
By addressing his muse in this book as “holy Light” (3.1), Milton is asking God or rather one of God’s minions to aid him in a correct portrayal of God Himself. Using a reference to the Bible through John 1.5, which states, “God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all,” is a strong way to invoke both divine imagery as well as the popular reference of knowledge and thought as light. However, despite Milton’s strong religious beliefs, using such a strong statement from the Bible as a reference is actually an argument against that statement. Just as it is proven throughout the epic that even Satan is not a wholly evil figure, through the above Biblical reference, Milton is stating that even God does not exist wholly without darkness.
From there, Milton goes on to describe God as “th’ Eternal coeternal beam” (3.2) and “bright effluence of bright essence increate” (3.6), making God into not only a reflection of light, but the object of light itself. In doing so, Milton pays homage to the grandness of God and develops Him as a more active figure. That action is then reinforced by Milton’s description of God’s Creation. He shows that before the world was as it is now known, there was darkness, and even after God created form, the darkness remained.
Before the sun,
Before the heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite. (3. 8-12)
Despite God’s efforts to create, the waters he created remain “dark and deep” (3.11). This could be a reference to the imperfect state of man, but since at that point man had not yet been created, God’s singular presence shows that even God is not without a bit of darkness and a bit of depth.
Once the darkness of the pools has been established, Milton switches his descriptions to those of Satan and the underworlds. Words such as “escaped” (3.14), “long detained” (3.14), “obscure sojourn” (3.15) and “utter… darkness” (3.16), while not direct references to the contrast between light and dark, are definite allusions to what darkness entails. Through these descriptions, Chaos is created as a lonely, hopeless, treacherous place, and the final reference to actual darkness only serves to enforce this strong imagery. The “eternal Night” (3.18) again enforces the hopelessness of Hell; nothing can escape it. The absence of Satan in this description does not go unnoticed, however. Unlike the earlier description of Heaven, in which God is the object of light more than the location is, the darkness described in this passage is of Hell and all it entails, not solely its ruler. Through this omission, Milton is leaving Satan’s state of darkness somewhat ambiguous.
The narrator’s return to Heaven after this journey is not entirely jubilant. A taint of the darkness he encountered in Hell has remained. He was “taught by the Heav’nly Muse to venture down/ The dark descent, and up to reascend” (3.19-20), and the journey was long. However, despite the instruction he received from the “Heav’nly Muse” to sanction the journey, he returns to God less than he was before, desiring to:
Feel thy sovran vital lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veiled. (3.22-26)
Through his experience in the underworld, he has lost the ability to see the full light and revel in God’s good graces. This serves as foreshadowing for the fall of man later in the poem; Adam will no longer be able to experience the Paradise he had before because it will have been spoilt or “lost.” The phrase of “quenched… orbs” (3.25) shows the hopelessness acquired through the visit to the underworld. Darkness can be overcome by light, but when the orbs have been quenched, they are extinguished for good, with no hope of regaining the light they once possessed. The Norton Anthology glosses “a drop serene” (3.25) as what is presently known as cataracts and what was then the affliction that caused Milton’s blindness in his later life, including the time during which he composed Paradise Lost. Though purely speculative, it is possible that the frustration exposed in this part of the passage stems from a degree of self-hatred by Milton, blaming himself for the condition he was in. Whether that is true or not, however, does not change the fact that the darkness of Hell has tainted the light of Heaven.
The description of where the “Muses haunt” (3.27) reinforces the statement that even light is not all good, nor darkness all bad. They reside in a “clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill” (3.28). The shady grove evokes feelings of dampness and chill; the sunny hill evokes feeling of warmth. The contrast shows that muses also do not exist on one plain but rather in different ways, neither good nor bad.
Milton’s statement that “Nightly I visit” (3.32) seems based in irony. Because he is blind, all interaction is like at night, since all interaction is shrouded in darkness. His placement of himself into the poem in this part puts a positive spin on the darkness described. He cites those poets like himself who were besought with blindness. He then discusses the clarity that can come with darkness through the metaphor of a nightingale.
Feed on thoughts, that voluntary move,
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. (3.37-40)
The nightingale, revered for its beautiful song, is able to more clearly focus and tune its song without the distractions that light can afford. Through this metaphor, Milton shows that darkness is not all bad, in fact, it can be beneficial.
Milton’s bitterness resultant from his blindness is quite evident in lines 40-50. He rants that he will never see another day nor rose nor “human face divine” (3.44). He is “shut out” (3.50) of the light and condemned to the darkness. Pockets of Paradise Lost seem to reveal Milton’s general frustration of life, but his strength of conviction and his strong belief system bring him around to understanding even the most frustrating of situations. He realizes that the condemnation of darkness and blindness can only be enforced in the natural world. He called upon his muse in the first line, calling it “holy Light” (3.1) for he desires:
Thou celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (3. 51-55)
He invokes an inner light, one of knowledge. In the closing of this passage, Milton acknowledges that light and dark are in the eye of the beholder. Although knowledge and truth are associated with light, one can achieve light even with physical darkness.
Light and dark, though it may seem that their difference is obvious and distinct, are in actuality necessary to each other. Total and utter light and darkness rarely exist – in this passage utter darkness is mentioned but once – and their dependence on each other is a factor in their survival. Milton is using this comparison to explain that God and Satan are complex characters that cannot exist without one another and that each contains aspects of the other. Even these characters, who, by popular belief, are the epitome of good and evil defy the lines at times and exist without barriers. Through the blurring of the lines in his descriptions of light and dark, Milton disproves that light and dark are mutually exclusive entities.
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