Freedom and Form in Paradise Lost

In Satan’s speech at the beginning of Paradise Lost book IV, enjambment plays an important role in giving the verse a heightened sense of emotion, and the structural organization of the lines adds another dimension to Satan’s internal conflict over whether to submit to God or defy him. Of particular interest is how his speech is filled with enjambments that create a sensation of natural speech that is more like prose than poetry, and the frequent caesuras that break the expected rhythm of the lines with major pauses. In lines 73-86, Satan undergoes an internal struggle that will decide his future actions. His choices are to suffer “Infinite wrath and infinite despair” (74) as God’s enemy in hell, or repent and submit to the “Omnipotent” (86). During this internal dialogue, the structure of the lines reflects Satan’s agitated state of mind. The two phases of this argument begin with short phrases followed by exclamation points. First he considers his present condition, “Me miserable!” (73) and then he considers his one option, “O then at last relent!” (79). Both of these exclamations create major pauses in the poetic line, and are followed by enjambments that end in question marks. This creates a symmetrical structure and subconscious logic to the argument, but this symmetry is disguised under the seemingly chaotic stream of arguments and counter augments that flow from Satan’s dialogue.

After crying out, “Me miserable!” he continues by saying “which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair?” (73-74). The word “fly” is not followed by an end-stop, and this enjambment gives the sense that Satan is trying to flee, and has little time to stop and think. In the following line Satan answers his own question with a more logically structured line that clarifies his emotions: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (75). Structurally the enjambment in line 73 corresponds with Satan’s desire to flee, but the symmetrical structure and end-stop in line 75 reflects the sense that he is trapped within himself.

In the other outburst in this sequence of lines Satan exclaims “O then at last relent!” (79), having given up all hope of escaping the hell that is himself. The structural pattern is similar to that in line 73. It begins with an exclamation that ends in a medial caesura (at the “!”), and is followed by the enjambment “is there no place / Left for repentance, none for pardon left?” (79-80). Similarly to the enjambment on “which way shall I fly,” here when Satan asks if there is no place for pardon or repentance, the searching, almost wild sound of his voice is reflected in a line that spills over without stopping. Satan again answers his own question by admitting there is one way to save himself: “None left but by submission; and that word / Disdain forbids me” (81-82). The line structure here is similar to the one in line 75 (“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell”). It appears to be a rational response to a frantic question, and has a clear two part form divided in the middle by a semicolon. The difference here is that the line ends in an enjambment. Given the structural similarity of these two sequences – exclamation with caesura, question with enjambment, and two part response with a semicolon in the middle –  this structural difference seems more significant.

The fact that the symmetry between these two sets of lines is broken indicates that there is a difference between his imprisonment within himself, and submitting to God. The line “Which way I fly is Hell: myself am Hell” could be seen as form creating an inescapable prison, while the enjambment at the end of “None left but by submission; and that word” gives the sense that Satan (and mankind for that matter) have the freedom to chose, and that the personal choice of what “that word” is will determine salvation or damnation. Satan is the master of his own destiny, and while he cannot escape the hellish prison that God has confined him to, he can choose to submit and ask for forgiveness. The ending of the line 81, “and that word,” is the moment of choice. Satan breaks free from the formal constraints and parallelism that has been developing over the previous few lines, and leaves the reader in suspense as to what the word, and therefore his resolution, will be. By occurring at the end of the poetic line, there is naturally a slight tendency to pause even with an enjambment, and this heightens the suspense of Satan’s irreversible choice. “That word,” as it turns out is “Disdain,” which prevents the prideful Satan from submitting to God. The sense of free choice outside of the constrains of form continues once he has come to this conclusion. The following lines all use enjambments, and Satan’s free will is exercised to its fullest as he defies both God and formal convention:


Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame

Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d

With other promises and other vaunts

Than to submit, boasting I could subdue

Th’ Omnipotent. (82-86)


Here Satan concludes this part of his argument, and forever turns his back on the possibility of salvation. While Satan’s conversion to pure evil is expected and obvious in the text, the form seems to give a deeper meaning to his internal struggle. The structure which develops over these lines creates a sense of symmetry similar to the style of Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Man,” but Satan’s final choice breaks free from these formal constraints, and shows that even under the omnipotent power of God it is the individual’s free will which determines their ultimate fate.


One Response to “Freedom and Form in Paradise Lost”

  1. “Freedom and Form in Paradise Lost | Brian Register” was indeed a great article.
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