Our poem is an extract from the epic poem ʼParadise Lost’ where Milton explores Adam and Eve’s spectacular mucking up of a lifetime in paradise, while also giving us his insight into the primordial war between God and Satan.
In this section, we are presented with a resplendent image of dusk, which in its majesty calms and soothes the world to sleep. Milton’s Adam reflects upon the nature of day and night and basically tells us that we need to enjoy our slumber as in the day we need to be working hard to maintain the perfection of God’s creation.
As well as giving us a reflection upon this specific part of the Bible, there is a general message that permeates about how we should live our lives.
sober livery – plain clothes;
clad – dressed up in;
slunk – crept quietly;
descant – melody sung above another song;
firmament – heaven;
Saphirs – sapphires;
Hesperus – another name for Venus (the planet);
repose – a state of rest.
Now came still Evening on, and Twilight gray
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompanied; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale.
She all night longer her amorous descant sung:
Silence was now pleased. Now glowed the firmament
With living Saphirs; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the Moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light,
And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw;
When Adam thus to Eve: “Fair consort, the hour
Of night, and all things now retired to rest
Mind us of like repose; since God hath set
Labour and rest, as day and night, to men
Successive, and the timely dew of sleep,
Now falling with soft slumberous weight, inclines
Our eye-lids. Other creatures all day long
Rove idle, unemployed, and less need rest;
Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his dignity,
And the regard of Heaven on all his ways;
While other animals unactive range,
And of their doings God takes no account.
Tomorrow, ere fresh morning streak the east
With first approach of light, we must be risen,
And at our pleasant labour, to reform
Yon flowery arbours, yonder alleys green,
Our walk at noon, with branches overgrown,
That mock our scant manuring, and require
More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth.
Those blossoms also, and those dropping gums,
That lie bestrown, unsightly and unsmooth,
Ask riddance, if we mean to tread with ease.
John Milton (1608-1674)
I read an excellent, detailed overview of Paradise Lost that you can read here for some good context. It is a bit thick and wordy though, so you may want a quick synthesis, which I will offer here. I’ll give you a bit of background about Milton and explain how this section fits into the whole.
Milton is one of the names in poetry and sits atop many people’s lists of greatest poets (I believe the youth would refer to him as a GOAT). He had a privileged upbringing, which included a live in tutor – who first introduced him to radical religious ideas. Originally studying to become a priest, his religious ideas led to several controversial moments in his life beginning with being suspended from university for quarrelling with his tutor over their respective religious ideas.
His Puritan beliefs in reforming the Church (dealing with its excesses and riding it of political meddling) put Milton on the Parliamentarians side during the English Civil War (1642-1661) and he served as a propagandist for Oliver Cromwell’s government. His religious ideas remained a fundamental part of his life even when he fell from influence after Cromwell’s death.
Paradise Lost expresses many of Milton’s religious convictions as it explores man’s fall from Eden and the war between God and Satan. However, despite mankind eventually screwing up and being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Milton does not condemn our species, but instead presents Eden as being a bit of an unrealistic gated-community that didn’t serve mankind or God as it did not give us the freedom to worship him effectively and enjoy our own freedom.
This section of the poem positions the night as a time for peace and rest, but positions this as being the prize for man’s daily toil, which is presented as being focused around dedication and worship of God.
The imagery of the evening creates a reflection on the role of sleep and rest in our lives. The magnificence and regality of the description indicates the power and importance of sleep.
However, the rest of the poem hints that this need not simply be a literal interpretation of the night, but also could be a representation of what awaits us after we reach the end of the daily grind. If we have worked hard to lead a worthy life there is a promise of the peace and rest of the night/heaven.
Although this is all organised into one mega stanza in the collection, for the sake of ease I am going to refer to stanza one (the first twelve lines creating imagery of the evening) and stanza two (Adam’s reflections on the importance of the evening/its role).
Before that though, let’s look at the title. Paradise Lost refers to the fall of both Adam from Eden and Lucifer from Heaven. However, our little sub-title, Evening in Paradise tells us something interesting too.
There is duel meaning here. Do we consider every evening to be a kind of paradise based on the stillness and rest that accompany it? Or are we considering Paradise as a conceptual place that we are striving to reach in the evening of our lives? I believe this is deliberate and we have both a reflection on the beauty of the night and a suggestion that a state of permanent Paradise and rest can be achieved at the end of our lives should we lead a worthy existence.
Stanza one begins with a piece of figurative imagery describing how the personified Evening dresses the world in calming, dull gray to signal the time for rest. As the animals retreat to their beds, we are left with only the beautiful loving song of the nightingale above the silence. The world surrenders to silence and stillness, but this is presented like an audience settling down at the theatre in anticipation and respect of the magnificent spectacle to come.
Indeed, Milton presents the evening in terms of regality and even divinity. With the stars painted as heavenly sapphires and Venus (Hesperus) even brighter still decorating the stage before the Moon arrives with the air of royal majesty. The sparkle of sapphires upon the silence of the evening is complimented by the silver cast from the Moon over everything.
If you read this opening part of our section of the poem and didn’t get a clear image of a beautiful, clear night sky making everything in the world seem somehow mystical and special, then I think you need to revisit it. This imagery is extremely powerful and contains within it Milton’s judgements about what we should appreciate in life and anticipate in heaven.
The second stanza moves away from describing the evening and onto Adam’s reflection upon its role. He tells Eve that they must embrace the night and get their heads down. While animals may still be sneaking around, hooting or doing God knows what in the evening, Adam suggests that mankind is different and needs to rest as we have spent our days labouring in God’s name.
We then get a more detailed account of the type of labour mankind should be employed in during the day, which basically equates to tidying up and making everything look pretty to keep God happy. Now I am sure this doesn’t just mean that God enjoys horticulture, but really suggests we should be sprucing the world up through spiritual actions and living our lives in the right way. Basically creating an earthly paradise through our actions.
The last line seems to imply that if man is not doing this then he might not be able to reach this Paradise either on earth or after death. I will explain more in the next section.
Language and techniques
Okay, let’s deal with the title first.
The title of this section indicates that the evening is some sort of paradise. This could simply be hyperbole to emphasise the beauty of restful night, but also connects the description to heaven through association with the whole of Paradise Lost. This title of the wider poem focuses on Adam and Eve’s departure from the paradise of Eden and Satan’s fall from heaven and thus the paradise described in our section has the very same connotation.
Therefore we have dual meaning throughout the description of the evening. We should see it as both beautiful in its own right and as a representation of the peace and rest promised by heaven at the end of our long toil. Notice that the ‘Evening’ is capitalised as if to suggest that it is something specific and important rather than an every day event and thus it may represent the evening of our lives – i.e. after we have snuffed it.
‘Silence’ and ‘Twilight’ are personified and presented as being of some status as their arrival is a cue for wildlife to rest and one that is followed without grumbling. These form a sort of welcome committee for the yet more important guests in the form of the ‘living Saphirs’ (stars), ‘Hesperus’ (Venus) and the ‘Apparent queen’ the Moon. Evening and Twilight transform the world to make it a fitting place for such exalted figures.
Notice the way Milton uses absence of colour and to do this. The world is made ‘still’ and restful by being covered by the ‘sober livery’ of Twilight’s ‘gray’ cloak, as if all colour and liveliness is subdued. ‘Sober’ here means unexciting or uninteresting and thus it is a deliberate attempt to make the world a more boring place in order to bring peace. In addition, ‘Silence was pleased’ as this recolouring of the world is automatically obeyed by all life. Animals retreat to ‘nests’ or ‘couch’ suggesting that they are settling and becoming still. Even the verb used to describe their motions toward their places of slumber, ‘slunk’, has connotations of gentle, lethargic movements as if everything is slowing down.
On the one hand, Milton has used multi-sensory imagery to set up a peaceful natural scene in his readers’ mind’s eye, but we could also consider this to represent death as it is almost reminiscent of a respectful funeral scene.
Why, you may well ask, does Silence allow the nightingale to sing on? If we are considering this as simply a scene, the nightingale is renowned for the beauty of its song, which is soft and melancholic and thus compatible with creating a restful environment. While the nightingale also has association with unrequited or lost love, which could mean Milton is using its ‘amorous’ song to represent the impact of our death: all problems are resolved and conflicts ended, but possibly leaving behind a lover or partner mourning their heart’s loss. Its ‘wakeful[ness]’ representing the fact that this is the only issue that death fails to resolve.
In the middle of line 7 we begin with the real show. From calm and peaceful, Milton builds resplendent and sparkling imagery of the night sky filling with ‘living Saphirs’ and ‘Hesperus… [riding[ brightest’ as a kind of jewel in the crown. By comparing the stars and Venus to jewelry, Milton elevates their worth and beauty making them desirable and suggesting the scene is of unspeakable value. Topping this off, the Moon casts her ‘silver mantle’ over the scene, thus transforming the imagery from being peaceful to being magnificent and grand. Setting the Moon as ‘apparent queen’ and describing her ‘clouded majesty’ further implies the splendour of the imagery Milton is trying to create.
You may make a point about how the Moon is also referred to as giving off a ‘peerless light’, which would suggest this scene is not to equalled in the daytime or if we are considering the whole imagery of an analogy of heaven, that life on Earth cannot match the magnificence of life in heaven.
What is interesting about the use of such grandiose terms in Milton’s depiction of the evening, is that these associates stand in contrast to the reality of the image. Really we have a perfect scene of natural beauty and splendour, yet the only way Milton can communicate an equivalent beauty is to compare it the absolute highest pomp and regality of human existence.
Moving onto the second section, Milton uses Biblical Adam to examine the role of the night for mankind. As with animals, the night seems to compel us to bed. The ‘timely dew of sleep’ gentle forces our eyelids closed with ‘soft slumberous weight’, suggesting a gentle compulsion to bed. The evening and ‘rest’ are juxtaposed with the ‘labour’ of the day, again highlighting the soothing role of the night.
In my mind, from line 7 onward, we move more firmly into the evening serving as an analogy for heaven. Milton makes a distinction between the ‘idle, unemployed’ animals and mankind whose ‘pleasant labour’ ‘declares his dignity’. Rather than referencing the physical labour of man, this relates to worship offered up to God as Milton position this labour as ‘reform[ing]’ the ‘wanton growth’ of the world. In other words, through worship and following the way of life set out by the Bible, we set about making the world a better place. As mankind has ‘the regard of Heaven’ watching over everything we do, the way we live our lives and our level of spirituality will determine whether we are on the naughty or nice list when we finally bite the dust.
The analogy of labouring in an overgrown garden continues until the end of the poem and may represent the new Eden that Adam and Eve attempted to nurture on Earth. Regardless the imagery serves to show that the work is continuous and ‘require[s] more hands than ours’ suggesting that worship must be ongoing and a key part of our lives. Only if we attend to the ‘unsightly and unsmooth’ aspects of our existence can we ‘mean to tread with ease’. This final line implies that this lifelong labour will eventually be rewarded with a state of paradise, which is surely meant to be represented by heaven in the role of night to our lives’ day.
Make sure you mention the contrast between the gentle splendour of the night/heaven in the opening section and Adam’s picture of continuous labour during the day. This contrast serves to demonstrate what Milton feels a spiritually good life will be rewarded with.
Within the poem there are many examples of alliteration, particularly used to achieve a soft and calming atmosphere when Adam describes the role of night and the life of the faithful. In the evening, life is ‘retired to rest’ and the ‘soft slumberous weight’ of sleep upon our eyes. While in the day, we ‘declare [our] dignity’.
You could also mention the overall pace of the poem, which is slow throughout thanks to many caesuras. This contributes to the overall mood of reflection and the imagery of the evening as a still, calm and relaxing environment.
From the outset we have a tone of admiration for what the night represents. Even when Milton switches from narrative to Adam’s voice, the tone is one of devotion to a higher power with a link drawn between what our lives should consist of and what awaits the faithful when our day finally comes to an end.