“[Milton was] of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”—William Blake
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.
Sing, Heavenly Muse …
The paramount issue, since John Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost first appeared in 1667, is that his magnificent articulation of the myth of the Fall of Man should, for many readers, make a hero of the archangel Lucifer, the leader of the celestial rebellion that precipitates the legend. For attentive readers, notably William Blake, Satan overshadows the Almighty, in color if not in virtue. Whether or not Milton was the Devil’s unconscious partisan, Satan’s distinction in the poem remains controversial.
We are assured by the formidable critic and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis that it is a misreading of the poem to find Satan a more attractive figure than the God against whom he leads the rebel angels. But a recent rereading leaves me with the persistent impression that the issue is less easily resolved than Lewis supposed. Evil is always easier to evoke than its opposite—as Hamlet’s Ophelia understood when she contrasted “the steep and thorny way to heaven” with the more inviting “primrose path of dalliance.”
The mythic personification of evil has been around for a very long time, and our sense of its reality has not vanished with the steady march of rationalism. Contemporary analysis of the satanic is, admittedly, not likely to focus on the person of Satan but on psychological or neurological abstractions or innovative discoveries in brain anatomy. The mapping of brain topography offers new ways to pinpoint the evil within each of us, or its opposite. National Geographic recently published a piece on the seat of “empathy” in the human brain—a matter of vital interest, given the apparent absence of it in deluded young men armed with guns or captive airliners.
But John Milton flourished in a very different world. The 17th century in England was a revolutionary era when the relative stability of the Tudor age gave way to friction and “civil butchery,” in Shakespeare’s phrase, between Parliament and the Stuart kings. Charles I, second of the English Stuarts, ruled for more than a decade without calling Parliament into session, even as his extra-parliamentary “ship money” taxes roused opposition, as did companion issues of governance in church and state. He also quarreled with the so-called “Puritans,” whom his father tried to appease with the King James Bible translation of 1611, a gesture of peacemaking that failed, notwithstanding its success as a monument of the English language.
Milton, born in 1608, came of age politically as the animosity between king and Parliament soured into civil war. Charles Stuart was ultimately beheaded at the end of that war, in 1649, on the authority of a “Rump” House of Commons from which Cromwell’s soldiers had purged Presbyterian royalists.
This was the turbulent world in which Milton, working as Cromwell’s pamphleteer, justified the king’s execution, and scorned an allegedly autobiographical account of Charles’s penitence and suffering called the Eikon Basilike or King’s Book. Milton’s Eikonoklastes dismissed this best seller, exposing him to royalist vengeance after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Just how the poet escaped retribution has never been clear; he seems to have been in temporary danger of being grouped with those who had signed Charles I’s death warrant. But he was fortunate in his influential friends, including his fellow poet Andrew Marvell. After a period of concealment, he was left in peace to write Paradise Lost, a work he is thought to have begun in about 1657 and published 10 years later. Milton was clinically blind by the time he wrote his epic and T. S. Eliot, in a controversial essay, argued that it is deficient in visual imagery.
Milton aspired from youth to write a monumental poetic work on a historical or legendary subject—an early possibility was King Arthur—and Paradise Lost as initially projected might have taken dramatic form. No one before Milton, or since—with the exception of Edmund Spenser—had conceived epic narration in English on so magnificent a scale.
Milton installs Adam and Eve as innocents in a paradise of flower and fruit. Their enjoyment is circumscribed by a single rule: They may eat all the fruit in the Garden except that from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This exception is obviously significant, since Milton’s epic appeared at a time when certain forms of knowledge were dangerous in and of themselves. The temptation and fall, and its consequences, are preceded in the poem by the rebellion of a third of the angelic host. Satan’s followers are cast out of Heaven in a celestial war in which the divine son volunteers to rally the loyal angels. Satan’s expulsion, to the fiery waters and “darkness visible” of Hell, becomes one of the spectacular scenes of the epic:
Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf, …
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
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes …
The description of Satan’s expulsion is a vivid example of Milton’s masterly interplay of vowels and consonants, offering an auditory sensation of falling; and the plunge is earth-shaking—or would be, had our world existed then. That comes later in time, if not poetic sequence. Milton’s God excites Satan’s envy by creating a new and favored being, Adam, and sets him up in Paradise. The Creator stipulates a unique test of fidelity: the tree laden with forbidden fruit, deathly to the touch. God dispatches Raphael and other angelic messengers to counsel Adam and Eve about the penalties of disobedience—indeed, these angels harp upon the dangers of certain kinds of inquiry. The First Parents are admonished to content themselves with information of a more practical and earthly kind:
And thus the godlike Angel answered …
Such commission from above
I have received, to answer thy desire
Of knowledge within bounds; beyond abstain
To ask, nor let thine own inventions hope
Things not revealed, which the invisible King,
Only omniscient, hath suppressed in night,
To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
Enough is left besides to search and know.
But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind. …
Thus the perils of excessive learning! And here lies the heart of the mystery, for me, as for others before me.
Milton’s inventive power is nowhere more dramatic than in the sequence in which Satan, stealing into Eden as a toad and then a serpent, spies Eve at a distance and is smitten by her beauty. His malicious resolve briefly falters. The temptation of Eve is open to a suspicion of misogyny; during the first of Milton’s three marriages, his young Royalist wife fled his household at the outbreak of civil conflict, returning only when the parliamentary side was clearly winning. Eve pleads with her distrustful lord and master Adam to be permitted to work alone one morning, and Adam reluctantly grants permission—till lunchtime. So “hapless Eve” is pictured as easy prey for Satan’s sophistries:
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or least action overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.
That space the Evil One abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge,
But the hot Hell that always in him burns,
Though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight,
And tortures him now more, the more he sees
Of pleasure not for him ordained; then soon
Fierce hate he recollects.
Satan offers arguments that, we are to assume, Adam would have seen through and dismissed. The serpent leads her to the tree of knowledge, and boastfully plucks and eats without the penalty of death. The benefits are lavish:
“O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of science, now I feel thy power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest agents, deemed however wise.
Queen of this Universe, do not believe
Those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die: …
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue … ?
The grievance, absorbed and echoed by Eve, is that humankind should enjoy at least the same privileges as the beasts. Eve elaborates her own fallacious rationalization:
How dies the Serpent? He hath eaten and lives,
And knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discerns,
Irrational till then. For us alone
Was death invented? or to us denied
This intellectual food, for beasts reserved?
And so Eve falls, with cosmic effect, as the poet returns to the universal calamity in third-person narration:
… in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat,
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty Serpent, and well might, for Eve
Intent now wholly on her taste, nought else
Greedily she ingorged without restraint,
And knew not eating death. Satiate at length,
And heightened as with wine, jocund and boon …
Disobedience, as promised, brings death into the fallen world, but the effect is not immediate. Adam, dismayed by Eve’s lapse, administers a husbandly tongue-lashing but then chivalrously joins in her death sentence. The immediate consequence is an abrupt surge of sexual lust and self-conscious nakedness.
Despite the warnings of C. S. Lewis and others, I am left echoing Eve’s question: if the beasts, why not man? Why, having armed his new creatures with intellectual curiosity, should their thirst for intellectual adventure become the paramount sin and its exercise a cosmic catastrophe? This prohibition seems especially odd because it contradicts what we know of Milton the lifelong scholar and polymath.
The warning communicated by angelic messengers is so categorical that it trivializes the original evil. Myths of overweening curiosity—forbidden knowledge—are plentiful; they neither began nor ended with Faust. But God’s ban in this case seems to call for an elaboration that the archangels don’t provide. Because God said so, is what it amounts to—the eternal edict of parent to child. Odd, too, is the sudden loss of sexual innocence, which Milton elaborates with as much relish as he describes the couple’s earlier, innocent connubial rites. The role of sexuality in human folly can never be slighted nor minimized, in Eden or elsewhere; it is as persistent as the daily news. But given the cosmic stakes, we are entitled to resist the thundering catastrophe that follows the all-too-human violation of the arbitrary rule that Raphael makes no very diligent attempt to justify. Given Eve’s state of ignorance and naiveté, the sin she commits seems a lightweight trigger for the cosmic plunge into evil, mortal sin, and death. Perhaps the time is ripe for questioning C. S. Lewis. His classic A Preface to Paradise Lost asserts that readers of Milton’s era would be armed against one error that I am evidently making: They had learned from childhood that Satan, even if Milton draws a flattering picture of his cleverness and craft, is eternally the father of lies. Still, Lewis does concede a difficulty:
In all but a few writers the “good” characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions, which in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action.
Perhaps, as A. E. Housman wrote, it is ever true that “malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God’s ways to man.” We no longer live in an age in which ancient moral and scriptural truth may be taken for granted. But there is also what could be called an autobiographical aspect, flowing from Milton’s role as political propagandist and pamphleteer under Cromwell and the Commonwealth: Milton paused from poetry for the duration of the civil conflict, exercising his formidable rhetorical power in the republican cause. Might we then detect a hint of shadowy autobiography between the lines of his epic?
If it was easier to personify the underhanded Satan than his austere and autocratic God, that would hardly be surprising, whether or not the result of conscious reflection. But as Cromwell’s chief republican propagandist, who boldly rationalized the execution of an anointed king, Milton surely felt only qualified sympathy with a heavenly monarch who seems—judging by Milton’s text—as arbitrary as omnipotent.
If Paradise Lost were a novel or a play, and if we knew the author as a critic of ecclesiastical hierarchy and ceremony, we might more easily conjecture that Milton’s reading of sacred legend is tinged with personal experience and emotion, conceivably unconscious. We do not imagine that War and Peace bears no traces of the life of Tolstoy, or Hamlet of Shakespeare’s. Traces of the polemical republican show through in Milton’s anti-Royalist Lucifer. Was Milton then “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”? Not by design, perhaps; but ambitious poetic works are rarely free of the shade of unintended autobiography.
As for Milton’s overarching theme, that fallen angels aspire to godlike knowledge, against which Adam and Eve are warned. Here, superbly articulated, is one analog of the enduring personification of evil. The fiends and devils of the modern age—whose names and records we know—one and all embraced godforsaken ideologies, with effects costing millions of innocent lives. In those who stretch out their hands for godlike command, as Eve did, there is always a sense of personified evil in Satan, beguiling as he is to Eve and even to us. And there is no scientific way around it.