Critical Appreciation of Paradise Lost Book 2

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      The Second Book of Paradise Lost is one of the highest triumphs of Milton’s imaginative art. The sad, silent, solitary and blind poet saw more in his blindness than it is possible for any man to see with his healthy eyes. God closed his physical eyes, but made his imaginative vision so clear and powerful that it was more than a compensation for his loss. The wonderful imaginative richness which is the chief distinction of Paradise Lost is no where so remarkable as in this book. The great ambition of the poet leads him to conceive and describe things, events, scenes and persons which transcend human knowledge and experience; and so amidst those superhuman beings and their extra mundane activities the only guide of the poet was his imagination. This wonderfully fertile imagination of the poet is most active in the Second Book.

      The Second Book may be divided into two equal halves. The first half describes the debates of the infernal council, and the second half gives us pictures of Hell and Chaos, Satan's passage through them and his encounter with Sin and Death at the Hell-gates. We may call the first part natural and realistic and the second part supernatural and imaginative. In the first part we are on firm ground and feel ourselves to be in the British House of Commons; but in the second part the ground is taken from under our feet and we lose ourselves in horrors, monstrosities and perplexities. What a splendid wealth of Parliamentary logic and eloquence we find in the first part! We are made to feel that we are all in the seventeenth-century British House of Commons where the great public leaders are devising ways and means to destroy the Stuart tyranny. The revolutionary spirit of the poet himself is seated "high on a throne of royal state" in the person of the proud and ambitious Archrebel. Moloch's brute bluster Belial's effeminate intellectualism, Mammon's sordid materialism, Beelzebub’s wise statesmanship are all pictures from real life. The strength and weakness, wisdom and eloquence, pride and prejudice that are displayed in the infernal council are so perfectly human that we forget for the time being that is a demon world.

      The second half of the book is a great achievement of Milton’s poetic genius. The descriptions of Hell and Chaos, Satans flight through the hoary deep and his encounter with Sin and Death are unique things in the history of the world’s literature. Stopford Brooke, referring to the various diversions of the fallen angels in Hell, wrongly says, "There is no true horror or pain in Milton’s Hell" That great critic, misled by the vivid personal narrative of Dante, fails to do adequate justice to the dim intimations of Milton. Not that there is any absence of pain and suffering in Milton’s hell, but that the infernal angels, unlike the poor human victims of Dante’s hell, struggle heroically against all adverse circumstances. His hell is a universe of death, a dark and dreadful region of unutterable woes. The howling of hailstorms, yelling of the condemned, fiery and icy torments and above all "gorgons and hydras, and chimeras dire" make that vast dolorous Antarctic region a concentrated essence of pains and horrors. Satan’s meeting with Sin and Death at the Hell-gates is finely conceived. Though Addison and Johnson object to this intermixture of story and allegory, we find nothing wrong here. The great artist has so deftly interwoven this allegory into the fabric of history that we are scarcely conscious of any impropriety; further, who would lose such a fine episode simply on such a technical ground? The grim phantom of Death, half substance, half shadow, is unlike anything we find in literature. The picture of Chaos which Masson aptly calls "a sheer inconceivability" is a triumph of Milton’s poetic art. It is an immense waste of matter full of accumulated horrors and perplexities. It is the very wild stuff of which the ordered universe was made Milton’s Chaos simply overwhelms us with a sense of immensity and profundity. In the second half of the book the poet concentrates all his force on the solitary and dauntless figure of Satan. Against the horrors of Hell and the confusion of Chaos his masterful and heroic personality stands out like a huge and unassailable tower. Death cannot daunt him; Hell cannot horrify him; Chaos cannot confuse him. Nothing can stand in the way of this firm, fierce and fearless adversary of God and man.

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