I did a class on Milton when I was at university. The professor was this tiny, enthusiastic woman, clearly in love with Milton and excited for us to be in love with him, too. She would charge up and down the classroom gesticulating wildly and drawing stick-figure pictures of important scenes on the chalkboard. I have her in my head like a soundtrack when I read Paradise Lost. It was the best class I took at university, and the single piece of literature I most enjoyed reading and learning about. So hopefully I will not sound like an idiot when I write about it this month for Rebecca’s Milton in May reading project.
If there was one thing my tiny Milton professor was determined we students would all leave the class understanding, it was that Milton was not of the Devil’s party without knowing it. But you can see why Blake would think so. Paradise Lost is about stories, and Satan tells a compelling story, a seductive story, the story with himself as the proud, brave, warrior hero, down but not out, preparing himself to fight another day.
To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall…. Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce,
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
He’s Achilles, refusing to bend knee to Agamemnon! He’s Aeneas, defeated in battle but setting out to found a new, greater kingdom! When you come from the Iliad and the Aeneid, Satan’s rhetoric is pretty convincing. He’s the first character we meet, the first voice we hear, and there’s something stirring and admirable (to me, anyway) about confronting impossible circumstances with an unflinching determination to manage them. “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” says Satan.
Except, of course, he’s lying. And Milton’s not just paying lip service to the idea of Satan’s wickedness and deceit; he shows it to us over and over. As soon as Satan gets in front of his troops, he’s singing a different tune. “Who here / Will envy whom the highest place exposes / Formost to stand against the Thunders aim?” he asks them. Not so much of this better to reign in Hell business now, eh? Satan utterly lacks integrity; the stories he’s telling will change whenever he needs something new.
Like, check it out, this bit’s funny. In Book 2, Satan’s volunteered to go scope out the new world God’s invented for Man, when he gets to the gates of Hell and finds them guarded by Sin and Death. Sin, who is all covered in snakes and hellhounds, tells him how she was born out of his head when he first conceived of rebellion, and that they subsequently had sex and produced a gruesome son, Death, who promptly raped her to produce the hellhounds that are perpetually curling up in her womb and eating their way back out again. It is a nasty piece of imagery.
Dear Daughter [says Satan], since thou claim’st me for thy Sire,
And my fair Son here showst me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in Heav’n…
I come no enemie, but to set free
From out this dark and dismal house of pain,
Both him and thee.
Uh, sure, dude. You’re her knight in shining armor. We’ve seen these two, Sin and Death, they’re not dear or fair, and Satan was all set to bash them to bits five minutes ago. It’s a sham! If Sin were our friend we’d be telling her this guy’s bad news. But she’s picking up what he’s putting down:
Thou art my Father, thou my Author, thou
My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow? Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.
I have to say, I’m finding Satan far less appealing this time through. Not sure if this is down to my tiny Milton professor, or the years that have gone by since I last read Paradise Lost, or the fact that I like God better now than I did then, or what. I still feel sort of fond of Satan, if only for the swooping grandeur of his rhetoric and his trickster-god manipulation of the other denizens of Hell; but I am finding him fundamentally shabby, after all. The best plan he can come up with is to annoy God by wreaking havoc on something lovely and innocent that God’s created; even framed as guerrilla warfare against a tyrant God, that’s not a terrible admirably aim.
The character of God, on the other hand, is coming off rather better than when I was in college. At least part of the time: Milton’s always good on free will.
I made [Satan] just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Elegant antithesis there, eh, with God repeating stood and fell four times apiece in four lines? The problem is that wholly good characters are boring, and God and Jesus are too good to be interesting. Which they’d have to be, of course! Milton believes in them! I like them on the subject of freedom, but far less on the subject of their boundless mercy and goodness, and the ambrosial fragrance and new joy ineffable that fill’d all Heav’n every time they talk. I’d rather read about hellhounds gnawing through Sin’s uterine walls.
Except when I wouldn’t – Milton can be very effective. Here’s another good bit from the heaven scene. We have already seen Satan ask his demons who will risk the danger of going up to check out Eden, and they all stand silent. In a parallel scene, God tells the angels that when mankind sins, they have to die. Dye hee, or Justice must, says God (good line, eh?), unless someone will pay the price, and die in man’s place. The angels are as silent as the demons were, and then Jesus speaks up. Is it just because of the Aslan echoes that I find this passage kind of moving (and wouldn’t CS Lewis be thrilled then)?
Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye,
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage.
Milton is such a gorgeous writer. Shame about all the crazy thoughts inside his 17th century head.