The poet says, “I now must change [these] Notes to Tragic,” for now comes the story of disobedience and alienation from Heaven. While invoking his muse, divine wisdom, he mentions her nightly visits to him while he sleeps. The story he has to tell is more important than the usual epic heroic deeds.
Satan returns secretly to earth, rising as a mist at night from the river near the Tree of Life. He disguises himself by entering the body of a serpent, and struck by earth’s beauty, sings a hymn of praise to it: “O Earth, how like to Heav’n.” He appreciates God’s creation and especially Man, the sum of all. He is tormented by all this good and only destroying it eases him. He knows however, that revenge is bitter and recoils on the revenger.
After their morning hymns, Eve proposes to Adam that they separate for their morning labors of tending the garden. Adam is full of doubt because of their danger. Eve argues that virtue must be tested. Adam explains the danger is not without; it is within them. He lets her have her way against his better judgment.
Eve meets Satan in the guise of a serpent near the forbidden tree. He is so charmed by her beauty and goodness, that he momentarily forgets his purpose. She looks like an angel “fit Love for gods.”
He slithers up to her, then stands on his coils and begins speaking to her words of praise as though she were a goddess and he a beast. She is surprised a snake can speak and reason like a man. He tells her he ate of a special fruit in the garden. When he shows her the tree, she says, this is the fruit forbidden by God to men, on pain of death.
The serpent argues that he did not die. Shall knowledge be open to the beasts and forbidden to men? How can you know good without knowing evil? Why does God want to keep you down? If you eat, you will be as gods. Look what it did for me, a mere beast.
Through Satan’s lies and flattery, Eve thinks she would like to have more knowledge than Adam, so she plucks and eats the fruit. The moment she tastes, Nature groans and the serpent slinks away. Eve sings praise to the tree, for now she will have experience as her guide rather than heaven. Suddenly, she realizes that if she has to die, she wants Adam to die with her.
Adam comes looking for her with a garland for her hair. When he sees what she has done, he drops the wreath and laments. She begs him to eat too so they can be together. He does, with eyes open to his sin, because he cannot bear to lose her. Earth trembles again.
Intoxicated by the fruit, they make love like beasts, afraid afterwards to meet God: “Thir Eyes how open’d, and thir minds how darken’d.” Their passions begin to rise, Reason is lost, and they argue bitterly, each blaming the other.
The poet tells more about how he received the poem from a divine source in his sleep. The epic poet is a sort of seer or prophet, telling visionary history that includes events in both heaven and earth, so he must account for his knowledge.
In Satan’s praise of the earth we get a continuation of the masterful unfolding of Satan’s character. He is the villain who is at the same time able to appreciate the good, since he was one of the highest in heaven. But he is so hardened that even when his heart melts at the sight of beauty, he will not back down. Like all egotists, he goes by his will power rather than his heart; therefore, he must destroy what he can’t have, or rather, what he pushes away from himself. The portrait fascinates because it describes our own human nature when it is obsessive and self-destructive.
Eve, though blameless and charming in her innocence, suddenly appears to have some Satanic traits herself, convinced by Satan’s flattery and argument for more knowledge and status (“you will be as gods”). Eve falls through pride and lack of discrimination, and Adam, through attachment.
The lesson is that free will means one may choose in any direction. Humans have all possibilities open to them, but Satan activates their desires in a lower direction that will lead to suffering. Too late they understand that God forbid the knowledge of duality (good through evil) because it leads away from Heaven.
As we see from their behavior after they taste the fruit of sensuality, Adam and Eve quickly lose their capacity for good. They begin to see that death is not just physical annihilation; it is the loss of their higher nature.
It is thus clear that the “fall” refers to a fall in faculties. Though humans were spontaneously connected to heaven and God through their Reason, they lost this focus and began to act from ego and passion. Satan represents that temptation for humans to use their lower nature rather than their higher nature. Man was made in the image of God but now is acting like a beast. All Nature trembles because humans are supposed to be the parents, the caretakers.
Paradise Lost: Book 9