Study Guide

Paradise Lost Language and Communication

By John Milton

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Language and Communication

Book 1

"If once they hear that voice, (their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers […] they will soon resume
New courage and revive" (1.274-5; 278-9)

The power of Satan's voice is an important theme throughout Paradise Lost. Here, the emphasis is on the actual sound of Satan's voice and how it renovates the fallen angels' despair. At other moments in the poem his voice is just as effective, though it achieves different results; he uses it to trick Eve, for example, in Book 9, whereas in the early books his speeches seduce us (as readers) into admiring him.

Book 2

"His thoughts were low,
To vice industrious but to nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful. Yet he pleased the ear
And with persuasive accent thus began" (2.115-8)

Much like Satan, Belial (described here) is a bad dude; he's just as dangerous too because he "pleases the ear" with "persuasive accent[s]." Milton often points out the way in which what is "pleasing" can cause us to ignore someone's love for "vice." The voice, not just Satan's but God's as well, is a very powerful force in Paradise Lost.

Book 5

"what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By likening spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heav'n, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?" (5.571-6)

Raphael uses similitude to give some idea of what Heaven is like, knowing full well that this is at best an imperfect approximation. Raphael seems a lot like John Milton, who must have faced the same exact problem of trying to explain "spiritual" things in earthly or "corporal" terms.

Book 8

"For while I sit with thee, I seem in Heav'n
And sweeter thy discourse is to my ear
Than Fruits of Palm-tree pleasantest to thirst" (8.210-12)

Adam tells Raphael how sweet is his words are. Satan is another guy whose words can be very sweet; Raphael is clearly not Satan, but we should think about what makes words actually sweet and what makes them problematically sweet.

"I named them, as they passed, and understood
Their nature, with such knowledge God endued
My sudden apprehension" (8.352-4)

The act of naming – assigning a word to something – is associated in Eden with understanding the "nature" of something. This suggests that names perfectly correspond with what name, that there is no gap or potential for ambiguity between word and thing as there will be after the Fall. The phrase "sudden apprehension" suggests how automatic or close the connection between word and thing is.

Book 9

"Language of Man pronounced
By tongue of brute, and human sense expressed?
The first at least of these I thought denied
To beasts whom God on their creation-day
Created mute to all articulate sound" (9.553-7)

"Articulate sound" is a distinguishing feature of humans, God, and angels; Eve is curious for a moment but then (fatally) forgets about this incredibly strange disruption of God's hierarchies. As part of their punishment in Book 10, Satan (and his angels) will be temporarily deprived of the ability to use "articulate sound" (they will become figuratively "mute"), partly because of his misuse of that gift here.

Book 10

"He would have spoke,
But hiss for hiss returned with forkèd tongue
To forkèd tongue, for now were all transformed
Alike, to serpents all as accessories
To his bold riot: dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the hall" (10.517-22)

Because he tempted Eve in the guise of a serpent, Satan and his associates are all transformed into serpents. They are deprived of the ability to speak. It is appropriate that their hissing (a word repeated three times) creates a "din," a word used elsewhere to refer to the unpleasant sound of war (6.408).

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