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Light and Vision in Paradise Lost

Alyssa Fazzino

Professor E. Leonidas

English 451: John Milton

7 May 2012

Light and Vision as Spiritual in Paradise Lost

When John Milton composed his epic poem Paradise Lost , he was blind. The invocation to Book III of this poem is very personal and relates heavily to the poet’s loss of sight. The fact that Milton’s eyesight had failed him forces Milton to consider light and vision in ways that are not purely physical. Instead, Milton expresses to his reader the need to understand light and vision as phenomena that are also spiritual and intellectual, rather than merely physical. He encourages this through the use of light imagery and his own personal references to and discussions about vision within the invocation of Book III, and elsewhere in Book III where the presence of light is not meant to be read as only physical light. By understanding what Milton is trying to express about spiritual and physical light in Book III, the reader is able to understand the devils and their actions in Book II more clearly as well.

One of the most important ways that Milton discounts physical vision is by proving its unreliability. At the end of Book III, Satan disguises himself as a cherub and encounters Uriel. It is critical to Milton’s purpose to understand who Uriel is. Uriel is the “regent of the sun” (3.690) and God’s eyes on earth, (3.650-651) and his name translates as “‘Light of God’” (Quint 232). Milton even goes so far as to describe Uriel as “the sharpest sighted spirit of all in Heav’n” (3.691). In this passage, Milton is stressing Uriel’s physical ability to see and the fact that his sight is the very best. Uriel is the angel of light and sight, and yet, even he is visually deceived by Satan. Satan’s cherubic disguise successfully goes “unperceived” (3.681) by Uriel because he did not suspect this “cherub” of some evil cause. Still, Milton chose to fill this passage with a great deal of visual images and references and then visually deceive Uriel. The vast amounts of references to eyesight and visual experience illustrates the heavy reliance placed on the sense of sight while Satan’s ultimate visual deception proves to the reader that physical vision is insufficient and unreliable. Even the eyes of angels can be misled. Vision is not where humanity should put its faith because vision is not always trustworthy. Instead, Milton encourages humanity to focus on a more spiritualized kind of vision. To do this, the reader must understand the significance of light within the poem and the way in which Milton wants people to perceive it. After all, “light, divine or physical, is the condition of sight” (Quint 246).

The invocation of Book III is literally directed at Light: “Hail, holy Light” (3.1). But it is not just any light; it is the light of God – the light that created all. When Milton introduces Light, he provides several examples of Light’s origins, implying that this kind of light is not easy to understand or perceive like physical light is, assuming the viewer is physically capable of sight. However, the reader could still mistake this light for normal sunlight. Milton makes it explicitly clear that he is not talking about the kind of light people see with their eyes when he states: “Before the sun, / …thou wert” (3.8-9). How could this invocation be to physical light if it came before the sun? It can’t. Therefore, it must be something else. It is also within the opening of this invocation that Milton signifies that this light is divine. He says that “God is light” (3.3) and therefore eternal. If the object of this invocation is both God and eternal, it can’t be physical light, since God later created the sun, which provides physical light. It must be something else, something greater than what can be seen with the eyes.

The fact that Milton requested inspiration from divine light is enough by itself to confirm its importance within both the poem and the poet. Yet Milton takes the significance of light so much further than this. Unfortunately, some critics belittle the importance of this invocation and ignore the fact that Milton is not invoking literal, visible light. John Diekhoff in his article “The Prologues in ‘Paradise Lost’” views this invocation as one of several “movements” within the poem. He sees it merely as a transition from the darkness of Hell to the “realms of light” (Diekhoff 701), which are earth and, more importantly, Heaven. However, this invocation is much deeper and more significant than Diekhoff makes it seem. It is not merely a literary device. It is an expression of Milton’s encouragement that people see light as something more than a physical phenomenon – something Diekhoff has not done in his discussion of this invocation.

Another critic, Dale Priest, interprets this invocation in a different way. He believes that the invocation is an entirely personal “accommodation” of Milton’s literal blindness and post-lapsarian human limitations with the fact that Milton desires to “see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight” (3.54-55). He reads and interprets the invocation as very personal to Milton, which it certainly is. However, he does not approach the significance of light and vision from a spiritual sense. Though what Priest argues may be true, it does not account for the fact that Milton has invoked divine light, not visible light. It is very personal, yes, but it is also a way of encouraging the reader to look at physical light and vision differently – more spiritually.

The light that Milton invokes in Book III is divine, but it is also internal. David Quint argues that inner light and divine light are one and the same, (236-237) indicating that Milton believed faith and God (represented in this invocation by divine light) were expressly internal. When Milton asks Light to “Shine inward” (3.52) rather than outward (or physically) so that it may inspire and allow him to “tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight,” (3.54-55) he is implying that internal (divine) illumination is more valuable than outer (physical) illumination. It may be that Milton’s blindness has made him biased, but the language of the invocation does not support this. Milton does not refer to his blindness negatively. Halfway through the invocation, he points out his blindness and the fact that Light will “Revisit’st not these eyes that roll in vain” (3.23). He then explains that he will never again see a sunrise. He looks for “[light’s] piercing ray [but] find[s] no dawn” (3.24). This statement seems to express grief and sorrow for his loss of sight, but he follows it with “Yet not the more / cease I to wander where the muses haunt / Clear spring or shady grove or sunny hill…” (3.26-28). Apparently, Milton does not feel his blindness has deprived him from light or the joys associated with physical sight. His blindness has not stopped him from seeking out bright and sunny places even though he cannot see them. This is because Milton has internalized light.

David Quint suggests that Milton’s blindness is actually a catalyst for this internal illumination (239). He believes that the meaning of lines forty-five to fifty of this invocation support this claim. The “ever-during darkness” (3.45) that surrounds and isolates Milton has “Presented [him] with a universal blank / of nature’s works… expunged and razed” (3.48-49). By rearranging the syntax of line forty-nine, the statement can be interpreted to mean that the universal blank (or darkness) caused by Milton’s blindness has expunged and razed the works of nature from his perception. This has then given Milton the ability to focus on the internal illumination he asks for in line fifty-two (“Shine inward”).

Quint also argues that Milton’s blindness is a key component of his ability to compose a poem about God and faith. The spiritualization of light allows Milton to request this internal illumination of “things invisible to mortal sight” (3.55). Because spiritualized light, faith and God are all invisible, Milton’s blindness predisposes him to be able to express these invisible phenomena (Quint 241-242). He is providing his reader with an alternative to physical light, using his own experience to prove that spiritual and internal illumination is more valuable than external and physical illumination.

Milton’s blindness is not the only evidence in this invocation of divine light as internal light. Some of the images and metaphors Milton uses within the invocation also suggest this. He says that he can “feel thy [Light’s] sovereign vital lamp” (3.22). This image is interesting because it involves both divine light and physical light in the form of a sovereign lamp. The light provided by a lamp is visible light, but sovereignty suggests that Milton is talking about divine light. The fact that Milton has to revert to a metaphor about visible light to express divine light is significant. Divine light is not something that can be clearly expressed like as physical light (such as a lamp) can. Furthermore, this metaphor is used when Milton is explaining that he can “feel” the Light of God. How can the Light of God be felt? It can’t be felt physically, but the word “feel” refers to one’s sense of touch. However, it can also be used in reference to emotions. The way that Milton feels Light is not physical, but emotional – internal. Just as divine light cannot be physically experienced, it cannot be physically felt. It is internal light – spiritual light.

This image also expresses Milton’s belief that spiritual light is important and needs to be properly understood and experienced by all. This sovereign lamp is “vital” (3.22). Therefore, Milton must believe that spiritual light is mandatory; it is necessary to life. Now, the reader understands the full weight of what Milton believes about spiritual illumination. It is not only more important than physical light, but it is most important; it is essential to life itself.

This divine light is also associated with mental understanding. Michael Fixler astutely notes that “Milton’s Muse in Book III is that attribute of the divine power actually communicated as illuminative understanding” (956). It is both divine and associated with illumination in the sense of understanding and intelligence, not physical light. It is spiritual, internal and inspirational, but it is also a force of mental clarity. This is further suggested by Milton’s use of the word “illumine” (1.23) in the invocation of Book I. When he asks the muse of this first invocation to “what in me is dark / illumine,” (1.22-23) he is not requesting that the muse physically brighten him, nor is he suggesting that there is physical darkness inside of him. He is using light and dark imagery to represent intelligence and understanding. He has metaphoric darkness inside of him because he is not aware of everything he needs to know to accomplish the task he has set himself in writing this epic. When he asks for illumination, he is asking for mental clarity and understanding of the ways of God. This then suggests that the light of Book III also holds this quality of mental illumination that Milton felt was so important.

All of the qualities and importance that Milton instills into light and vision in the invocation of Book III and elsewhere are useful for interpreting the devils and their actions presented in Book II, both during the debate and after Satan has made his way out of Hell. The often chaotic and frivolous actions of the devils in Hell seem more understandable if the reader interprets the devils as beings that do not have this spiritual, mental, internal illumination that Milton felt so strongly about. It becomes arguable that the fruitless actions and decisions made by the devils are a result of their lack of divine light.

The most prominent actions of the devils in Book II of Paradise Lost is their debate. This debate is a series of proposed ideas that are proven to be flawed and replaced by other ideas that are also flawed. The debate begins with Moloch’s proposition of “open war” (2.51). His speech relies on brute strength and headstrong determination, but there is no mental illumination in what Moloch suggests. His attempt to reconcile the fact that they have just fought and lost a war with Heaven by saying that no worse punishment than confinement in Hell can now befall them. This argument, however, is flawed in several ways, as Belial points out in his following speech. Belial points out that a second rebellion would lead to an end of their existence (2.145-146) and would, in the end, be fruitless, for “who [can] deceive His mind, whose eye / Views all things at one view?” (2.188-189). The devils cannot sneak up on Heaven, and they cannot win another war; instead, a second war would result in their utter destruction and demise. Moloch’s plan is foolish. He has no internal, mental light, and it shows through the suggestions he gives at this debate.

Though Belial successfully proves and points out the flaws of Moloch’s suggestion, his proposition is also flawed and illustrates his own lack of divine light. He advises the devils to do nothing – don’t prepare for a second war and provoke God into dealing out some worse punishment, regardless of what Moloch may believe. Belial’s evidence against Moloch seems (and arguably is) sound, but he also suggests that:

Our supreme Foe in time may much remit

His anger and perhaps thus far removed

Not mind us not offending, satisfied

With what is punished, whence these raging fires

Will slacken if His breath stir not their flames. (2.210-215)

This supposition illustrates Belial’s flaw as well. He too has lost the illumination of divine light. Yes, God may relent upon their punishment one day, but that is not going to be sufficient for the devils. As Mammon points out in the following speech, the devils will never be able to face God in Heaven again (2.239-241). Mammon states that it would be false and “wearisome” (2.247) to worship God – “whom [they] hate” (2.249). Belial is overlooking important details about himself and the characters of the devils around him when he suggests that the devils may be able to enter Heaven again as friends rather than foes. However, this may not have actually being Belial’s suggestion at all.

Mammon may be reading too deeply into Belial’s speech when he denounces the notion of reuniting with God in Heaven. Never does Belial actually propose this. Before examining the actual content of Mammon’s suggestion, it is already clear that he lacks divine light; he has confused, misinterpreted or exaggerated Belial’s actual proposition. He has assumed an argument that was never explicitly suggested, and from there, moves on to suggest that they can make Hell into its own Heaven. He greatly overestimates the capabilities of the devils and underestimates the power of God when he asks and affirms that they can “His light / imitate when we please” (2.269-270). He is implying that the devils can recreate Heaven in Hell – that they can imitate God with ease (“when we please”). It is incredibly significant that he assumes they can imitate “His light,” which can be read to mean divine light – the light Milton later devotes an entire invocation to. This, perhaps more than any other statement of the entire debate, proves the degree to which the devils have fallen away from the divine light Mammon suggests he can so easily imitate. He belittles its power and, by extension, belittles the power of God. Even after such a terrible defeat in Heaven not long before, Mammon assumes he can easily do as well as God if not better. This just isn’t true, as God has just proven in defeating them. Mammon is confused by his own arrogance; divine light is not shining within him.

When the debate comes to a close with Beelzebub’s argument, again the level to which the devils have fallen from divine illumination is clear. They come to a consensus on Beelzebub’s (Satan’s) decision to corrupt God’s favorite creation: mankind. He admits that this plan is a plot for revenge, (2.370-371) which comes across as both frivolous and childish. Their ultimate decision is not to try to reconcile with God or improve their situation, but to hurt God (if that be possible) by corrupting his greatest creation. Ultimately, the decision is not sensible, logical, practical or impressive. It illustrates a distinct lack of that spiritual light Milton held so high. Before even reaching his powerful invocation in Book III, Milton has proved the importance of divine light through the devils’ debate and the foolish decisions made by beings who do not have it.

After Satan departs from Hell on his quest to destroy humanity, the devils embark on several unproductive and useless endeavors after a period of complete disorientation, with each devil “wand’ring… his several way” (2.523). They are confused and lost. They don’t know what to do or where to go. Perhaps this is because Satan has left, but it may also be the result of their loss of divine illumination. They don’t have a clear understanding of themselves or their world, which leads to their disorientation and “wand’ring.” Milton then provides snapshots of some of the activities the devils occupy their time with. These actions represent not only a lack of internalized divine light, but also a reliance on insufficient physical light and vision.

Some of the devils begin playing games reminiscent of the funeral games played for Patroclus in The Iliad . They ride chariots, fight in the air and throw rocks and hills around (2.531-541). The devils are so confused that Milton has to resort to classical epic convention to describe their actions – the devils themselves have resorted to classical epic conventions! Divine illumination does not exist in these classical conventions. They are pagan activities – not the way creations of God should occupy their time. The devils are clearly no longer Heaven’s beings, nor do they possess Heaven’s divine light. Other “more mild” (2.546) devils sing of their fate and doom, wrongly concluding that fate “enthralls” “free virtue… to force or chance” (2.551). Their fall from Heaven has become a complaint rather than a consequence to this group of devils. They do not assume any responsibility for their doom, but attribute it to fate. They don’t understand their error in rebelling against God, and they don’t see Hell as the consequences of their actions. Instead, Hell is some horrible place fate destined them to. Their thoughts and conclusions about their situation are those of beings who do not possess divine illumination.

Other devils take the second group’s foolish complaints about fate and free will a step further. Milton suggests that this group of devils retire “In thoughts more elevate and reasoned high / Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, [and] knowledge absolute” (2.558-560). Even reading these lines sounds confusing and disorienting. They repeat themselves in different ways, suggesting that elevated and high reasoned thoughts are not actually what the devils are producing. In the end, the devils “found no end in wand’ring mazes lost” (2.561). Their attempts at philosophical thought about these complex ideas lead the devils into mental mazes. They can find no clarity in their thoughts, no matter how “high reasoned” Milton suggests they are. They lack mental clarity because they lack divine light. They are truly fallen beings, and it shows through their attempts at sophisticated philosophical thought and their resulting confusion.

A final group of devils decides to explore Hell. The flaw of this group is not only their lack of divine illumination, but their reliance on physical vision and light. They truly believe that they can seek out an area of Hell that “Might yield them easier habitation” (2.573). Instead, their travels along the four rivers of Hell yield only more Hellish areas. They find areas of extreme climates and have to “hurr[y] back to fire” to escape the icy lands. They gravitate towards the fires of Hell – their source of physical light and vision. They find a certain familiarity and comfort with it, but they are seeking solace from the wrong kind of light. They should be seeking out divine light and the comfort it brings through mental clarity and spiritual illumination, not the material comfort of physical light and sight. In the end, they find no area of Hell less Hellish. Their attempts to do so are fruitless, and had they any internal illumination, they should have been able to assume this without actually searching for anything.

When looking at the actions of the devils in Book II as a whole, it is undoubtedly clear that they are beings that do not possess divine illumination. They do not make wise decisions, their thoughts are confused, and their activities are parodies of epic conventions and pagan ways. They have fallen from God, from Heaven and from all divine spirituality. They find comfort in physical light rather than seeking out the superior light of the divine. Milton’s encouragement that the reader focus his or her attention on finding spiritual illumination instead of relying on insufficient physical vision and light can also be reinterpreted after analyzing the devils in Book II. The devils are prime examples of beings who do not possess divine light. Perhaps Milton is indicating that humans who do not possess divine light are synonymous to these devils. They are physically and mentally lost. In Milton’s view, humanity needs divine illumination to have both mental clarity and a spiritual connection to God. Finding this illumination was incredibly important to Milton, and it is very personal to him. It is a quality that should not be overlooked or belittled within the epic, as some critics have done. Without it, it is possible that Milton may not have been able to successfully craft Paradise Lost.

Works Cited

Diekhoff, John S. "The Function of the Prologues in Paradise Lost." PMLA. 57.3 (1942): 697-704. JSTOR. Web. 12 April 2012.

Fixler, Michael. “Plato’s Four Furors and the Real Structure of Paradise Lost.” PMLA. 92.5 (1977): 952-962. JSTOR. Web. 16 April 2012.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. Print.

Priest, Dale G. "Toward a Poetry of Accomodation: The Invocation to Book III in Paradise Lost." The South Central Bulletin. 41.4 (1981): 112-114. JSTOR. Web. 13 April 2012.

Quint, David. "'Things Invisible to Mortal Sight': Light, Vision, and the Unity of Book 3 of Paradise Lost." Modern Language Quarterly. 71.3 (2010): 229-268. Web. 12 April 2012.

DMU Timestamp: May 03, 2012 23:39

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