First-time readers of Paradise Lost are often surprised by how relatable Milton’s Satan is. Seriously, it is jarring to realize how vehemently one can find oneself nodding along in agreement–with the devil himself. But Milton the wrote arch-fiend that way on purpose. As human beings, readers have something essential in common with the fallen angel: they too are fallen.
Satan appeals to readers, and to others in the poem, by masterfully interweaving darkness and light to the point that, at times, the two feel inseparable.
I wanted to explore this idea further: How does Milton portray darkness and light in Paradise Lost? What does it tell us about Satan, yes, but also about who we are as readers?
To answer this question, I turned to the literary data.
Creating a Data Set and Simple Topic Model
To begin my exploration, I prepared a data set from the epic that tallied the frequencies for all 9,057 unique words Milton uses across the poem’s twelve books. Then, to examine the data, I manually created a simple topic model. All this means is that instead of analyzing how often one word appeared in the poem, I took a bunch of words that all related to the same topic and added them up.
As I scanned the text, I identified 43 words that related to the topic Light: azure, beam, beaming, beams, blaze, blazed, bright, brightened, brightening, brightens, brighter, brightest, brightness, dawn, dawning, fiery, fire, fired, fires, flame, flamed, flames, heaven, heaven’s, heavenly, heavens, light, lighted, lighten, lighter, lightest, lightly, lightning, lights, lustre, shone, star, starry, stars, sun, sun’s, sunny, and suns.
Next, I reviewed the text for words that related with the topic Darkness, identifying these 45: black, blackest, cloud, clouded, clouds, cloudy, dark, darken, darkened, darkens, darker, darkness, darksome, dim, dimly, dimmed, dole, doleful, dusk, dusky, hell, hell’s, hellish, moon, moon’s, moons, murky, night, night’s, nightly, nights, pandemonium, shade, shaded, shades, shadest, shadier, shadiest, shading, shadow, shadowed, shadowing, shadows, shadowy, and shady.
Doubtless there are other words that could be added to these lists. But my goal is not to be exact, rather it is to create a sufficient sample based on my subjective reading that makes the exploration fruitful.
With this aggregate data set now in hand, I turned to the visualization.
Visualizing Darkness and Light Data
Since Paradise Lost is a narration of the dramatic battle between good and evil, light and darkness, I thought I would dramatize the data visualization as well. So I created this moving line chart, tricked out with heavenly and hellish background graphics and celestial details. Press play and watch what happens to the word frequencies over the course of the epic.
A Light in the Darkness
As I watched (and re-watched!) the visualization, I was struck by two observations.
First, it seemed odd to me that the diction of light always out performed the diction of darkness. On the one hand, one might expect Milton’s writing to emphasize goodness and holiness. On the other hand, there are books in Paradise Lost that center pointedly on Satan. You would expect that in those books Milton’s diction would skew dark. But that doesn’t happen. (Again, look at the motion chart to see how lightness is almost always above darkness.)
For instance, consider this excerpt from Book 1 where Satan rallies his troops after falling from heaven:
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace… (Book 1, 59-65)
Book 1 is all about Satan’s fall and his impressive efforts to organize the other fallen angels under the banner of revenge. These are not “light” kinds of topics. However, the excerpt gives us a clue as to what is going on.
You see, there are words that can be thickly associated with both lightness and darkness simultaneously. For example, the word “flame” suggests fire in both its heavenly and hellish forms. I suspect that Milton embraces these kinds of words precisely because he is trying to convey the complex interplay between good and evil
Second, I was struck by how words associated with both darkness and light are used equally in Book 12. Throughout the poem, the language of light always outperforms the language of darkness. Why does the play end with the two topics on even ground, quantitatively?
For example, Adam says says to Archangel Michael,
Oh goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (Book 12, 469-473)
Here, we see Milton making use of antithesis, which is when an author uses opposing words or images in quick succession to achieve a poetic effect. In Book 12, the words of darkness and light overlap syntactically because, well, Satan succeeded: Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and they were banned from Paradise. It makes sense, then, that in Book 12 the frequency of dark and light words come into such close proximity. Lucifer won (temporarily), and readers of Paradise Lost themselves serve as postlapsarian proof.
The Fruitful Fall
In Paradise Lost, readers witness two main falls: the fall of Lucifer and the fall of Adam and Eve. But by visualizing the literary data and setting it in motion, we get to observe another more fruitful (pun totally intended) fall. Exploring literary data, especially with motion charts, provides readers with new ways of inquiring into texts. It offers new ways to create literary knowledge, ways that are as humanistically wondrous as they are literarily sinless.
To see how other words in Paradise Lost interplay for yourself, head over to the Paradise Lost page and plot away! And if you need some help, read this walkthrough of how using quantitative data can deepen one’s reading of literature.