Light and Sight in Paradise Lost

March 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Metaphysics, Aristotle creates a series of dualities which are intrinsically “male” or “female.” Included in this original set of oppositions are light and darkness and good and evil – the former of each duo being inherently associated with the male, and the latter associated with the female. In many of his works, including Paradise Lost, John Milton not only draws from these opposing dualities but creates a relationship between them. In his first Prolusion, “Whether Day or Night is the More Excellent,” Milton clearly associates light with both God and goodness: “I regard Day as Heaven’s first daughter, or rather as his son, whom he is said to have begotten to be the consolation of humanity and the terror of the deities of hell” Day is not only a relation to Heaven, but also terrorizes the “deities of hell,” such that day (and therefore light) must be good, as opposed to Night (and therefore darkness), which must not only be bad, but also related to Hell’s occupants. In Paradise Lost, Milton expands upon this relationship between light and good and darkness and evil to include the human faculty of sight as it relates to the first humans’ relationship to good and evil, which are embodied in God and Satan, respectively. The human ability to see is a thematic centerpiece in Milton’s epic narrative and, intertwined with the presence of light (or lack thereof) as such a presence relates to God, this narrative creates a motif which links books throughout the work as a whole. As the epic poem progresses, the abundance of light and vision which the reader meets in the beginning of Book III becomes obscured when Satan enters the Garden of Eden and prevents Eve from being able to “see” his true intent; in the final books, Adam and Eve’s sight is restored when Michael physically lifts the barrier from Adam’s eyes which has prevented him from fully seeing the implications of Original Sin. The ability or inability of Adam and Eve to see, therefore, is reflective of the general course of action in Paradise Lost as a whole, and through examining the motif of the human faculty of sight, the greater theme of the relationship of light and darkness to goodness and evil emerges as an avenue through which the epic narrator links separate books together within the poem as a whole.The invocation and following text of Book III serve as an introduction to God and his role in the light-darkness duality which is important in the subsequent foreshadowing of Adam and Eve’s fall. Known as the “Book of God,” Book III begins with the epic narrator’s invocation to the muse of Light, which reaffirms Milton’s relationship between light and God: “Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born,/ Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam/ May I express thee unblam’d? since God is Light,/ And never but in unapproached Light/ Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in thee,” (PL III, 1-5). After the first two books of Paradise Lost set in Hell, this immediate and unwavering proclamation by the epic narrator that Light is “offspring of Heav’n first-born,” leaves no doubt that since “God is Light,” and God is good, then light is good.The epic narrator also introduces the faculty of sight in Book III, foreshadowing its relationship to Adam and Eve’s fall within the personal experience of the epic narrator. Regardless of whether Milton created the epic narrator as a reflection of himself, the narrator is blind and uses his blindness to create a solid relationship between sight and goodness before Adam and Eve are introduced in the poem. The first time the narrator establishes his inability to see, he tells the Muse “thou/ Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain/ To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn” (PL III, 22-24). By having his eyes “roll in vain to find thy piercing ray,” the narrator expresses his desire to find light but also acknowledges his inability to do so. However, the narrator also recognizes that his physical sight is not necessary to relay the story of Adam and Eve: “So much the rather 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” (PL III, 52-56). By asking for the Muse’s “celestial light” to “shine inward,” he can be inspired without the physical faculty of sight, and the epic narrator can tell of the plight of Adam and Eve and the consequences of Satan’s guile, “things invisible to mortal sight.” By creating such a pointed emphasis on the motifs of sight as associated to light and goodness, the epic narrator creates a relationship central to the poem such that when Adam and Eve are introduced later, the theme seamlessly transitions to apply to the characters.Satan’s arrival at the Garden of Eden in Book IX not only brings with him the obscurity which impedes Eve’s ability to “see” goodness from evil but also reaffirms the centrality of the light-darkness duality in the poem. Although Satan is previously introduced within Paradise Lost as an evil entity, in the invocation to Book IX the epic narrator draws on his own suffering and blindness to create an invocation for a tragic, not epic, poem. In the process, the narrator reiterates Satan’s mission and associates him with darkness: “By Night he fled, and at Midnight return’d/ from compassing the Earth, cautious of day” (PL IX, 58-59). Comfortable with the night, Satan’s caution toward day – and therefore light – clearly serves as an early indicator in the book that the epic narrator intends to maintain the relationship between God and Satan to the duality of light and darkness. Satan’s own existence is framed by a series of extremes, much like the authoritative dualities: “the more I see/ Pleasures about me, so much more I feel/ Torment within me, as from the hateful siege/ Of contraries; all good to me becomes/ Bane” (PL IX, 119-123). For Satan, then, anything good in his immediate vicinity fuels the rage within him and confirms his own inability to see the implications of his ejection from Heaven. In Satan’s perverted mindset, anything good turns sour, so his resolution to bring any remaining creation of God down with him to Hell is a logical one. Milton’s genius, however, is apparent in the fashion in which he guides Satan to do so as he relies on a character who thinks in solely visual terms.Throughout Paradise Lost, Eve is established as a character who thinks in visual terms and relies on sight to understand her surroundings. By obstructing Eve’s ability to see his true intent, Satan pulls a metaphoric cloak of darkness over her eyes such that her own shortcomings ensure his victory. By incorporating the motifs of light and darkness with good and evil, Milton transfers these themes – previously reserved for God and Satan only – to Adam and Eve, and incorporates the frail faculty of human sight as a vehicle through which humans can understand why light is good and darkness is bad. Satan understands the importance of human sight and uses the body of a snake to hide himself because “his dark suggestions hide/ from sharpest sight” (PL IX, 90-91) within the snake, which Satan calls a “Fit Vessel, fittest Imp of fraud” (PL IX, 89). Satan knows Eve’s loyalty to God, and knows the only way he will be able to trick her is if he shields his true identity. Satan knows he can use his rhetoric to convince Eve to eat the apple, but before he can do so, realizes that he must appeal to her visual senses to get her attention: “Of the bow’d/ His turret Crest, and sleek enamell’d Neck,/ Fawning, and lick’d the ground whereon she trod./ His gentle dumb expression turn’d at length/ The Eye of Eve to mark his play” (PL IX, 524-528). Eve is a victim of sight from her first introduction in Paradise Lost when she is mesmerized by her own reflection in a pond, and Satan’s sensuous actions here do not fail him in attracting Eve. When he turns to rhetoric, Milton maintains sight as a theme in Satan’s attempt to exploit Eve’s narcissism: “Who sees thee? Who should be seen/ A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d/ By Angels numberless” (PL IX, 546-548). By capitalizing on the similarly-female quality of emotion, Satan deceives Eve into believing that she should be adored by Angels who do not see her – when in reality, it is Eve who cannot see that Satan’s rhetoric is empty and unfounded. Nevertheless, “into the Heart of Eve his words made way,” (PL IX, 550) and Eve falls into Satan’s trap. Milton, therefore, directly relates Original Sin to the authoritative duality of light and darkness by creating a relationship between the ability to see and light as being good – whereas the inability to see and darkness are evil.The end of Paradise Lost not only maintains the credibility of Milton’s plot as juxtaposed with the Biblical version, but also retains the theme of sight as it relates to the light-darkness duality to examine the post-lapsarian existence of Adam and Eve. One of the first things Michael does after leading Adam out of the Garden is to physically remove the film which was obscuring his ability to see clearly: “Michael from Adam’s eyes the Film remov’d/ Which that false Fruit that promis’d clearer sight/ Had bred; then purg’d with Euphrasy and Rue/ The visual Nerve, for he had much to see.” (PL XI, 412-415). Ironically, however, by doing so Michael simply encourages Adam’s existence as a visual creature by physically removing the “film” so Adam could see what was rendering him metaphorically blind. Once able to “see,” Michael orders Adam to, “ope thine eyes, and first behold/ Th’effects which thy original crime hath wrought/ In some to spring from thee, who never touch’d/ Th’excepted Tree” (PL XI, 423-426). In the same visual manner which Satan used to convince Eve to eat the apple, Michael attracts Adam’s attention by showing him visually what will become of the generations which would follow him. After witnessing the murder of Abel by Cain, Adam cries, “But have I now seen Death? Is this the way/ I must return to native dust? O sight/ Of terror, foul and ugly to behold,/ Horrid to think, how horrible to feel!” (PL XI, 463-465). In the last book of Paradise Lost, however, Adam fails to see – not because of an evil intercession, but due to his own human shortcomings. Consequently, Michael must dictate the remainder of future history to Adam through words, not visual images: “thou hast seen one World begin and end;/ And Man as from a second stock proceed./ Much thou hast yet to see, but I perceive/ Thy mortal sight to fail.” (PL XII, 6-9).The authoritative dualities of light and darkness materialize in multiple motifs in Paradise Lost, but clearly the most obvious theme in which the opposing sides matter most is the relationship of human sight to the fall of Adam and Eve. All of Paradise Lost is highly visual and filled with descriptions reminiscent of Renaissance paintings; Milton, not coincidentally, in portraying the most fatal mistake of humankind, shows the readers that such an event was essentially born from visually-dependent characters. In addition, Milton’s audience is no less visually-dependent than Eve as she is portrayed in the poem. One could argue, then, that ultimately, we are all just as vulnerable as the first humans were in the Garden of Eden – always threatened by darkness.

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