By Charles Matthews

Thursday, March 3, 2011

4. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 60-83

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesBook III
One reason why so many think Milton was on Satan's side is that once he's off-stage and the Father and the Son start discussing theology, things slow way down. (Dante had the same problem: A lot more people read the Inferno than the Paradiso.)

Book III starts rather magnificently, however, with Milton's invocation to Light and the poignant acknowledgment that he can no longer perceive it: "thou / Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn." Even in the invocation, there's a recognition that the origins of light are unknown: Was it "offspring of Heavn'n first-born" -- i.e. the first thing God created -- or is it the essence of God and therefore "Coeternal" with him, "Bright effluence of bright essence increate"? Perhaps the question is unanswerable: "pure Ethereal stream / Whose Fountain who should tell?" Did it exist before Creation, "before the Sun, / Before the Heavens"? 

In any case, he welcomes the opportunity to escape "the Stygian pool" of hell, and prays for a compensatory inward light because his blindness prevents direct experience of external light:
                                              Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer's Rose,
Or flock, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledge fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to me expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. 
So we ascend to Heaven and a scene that corresponds to the one that just took place in Hell. God is seated on his throne, addressing the angels as Satan addressed the devils, and with the Son as his right-hand man, just as Satan had Beëlzebub. Of course, God has an advantage over Satan in that he not only sees what's going on -- i.e., Adam and Eve "in the happy Garden plac't, / Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love," as well as Satan making his way upward from hell -- but also knows what's going to happen next. Milton's choice to make God a speaking character in the narrative has been rightly criticized, especially because in the first things he says he sounds rather peevish, especially with regard to Satan:
                                                     So will fall
Hee and his faithless Progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
The repudiation of Calvinist predestination is also a little overdone here, too. He admits that he knew Satan was going to rebel and fail, but "if I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault."

For many modern readers, the elaborate superstructure of Christian theology is a wearisome imposition, but Milton feels compelled to have Father and Son discuss it, because the Son is bothered by what he knows is about to happen, that Satan is going to tempt humankind into disobedience:
                                         wilt thou thyself
Abolish thy Creation, and unmake,
For him, what for thy glory thou hast made?
So should thy goodness and thy greatness both
Be question'd and blasphem'd without defense. 
In short, why bother creating Paradise if you already know it's going to be lost? It seems like a bad PR move, if nothing else. But God reassures him that "Man shall not quite be lost" and that he has already chosen some "of peculiar grace / Elect above the rest," and that the others will have to work for their salvation. What he really needs is for someone to volunteer to atone for their sins, "Some other able, and as willing, pay / The rigid satisfaction, death for death." And he calls on the "Heavn'ly Powers" for a volunteer. (The scene, of course, parallels the one in which Satan describes the task of going out to check on the world God has created and volunteers himself.)

"He ask'd, but all the Heavn'ly Choir stood mute." Anyone? Anyone? Okay, I'll do it, says the Son.
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 glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleas'd, on me let Death wreck all his rage;
Under his gloomy power I shall not long
Lie vanquisht
It is, of course, a truly heroic act, unlike Satan's blustering posture of heroism. The problem is that it doesn't have the heroic ring that Milton was able to give Satan's defiance. And this dramatic weakness in the narrative is the poem's central literary defect. We have to remember, however, that Milton wasn't thinking literarily here, but rather religiously. He couldn't have known that the kind of Christian orthodoxy he was dramatizing would fade into irrelevance for many of his future readers.
The Son agrees to atone for humankind's sins, by William Blake, 1808

And so God commissions him to become both human and divine: "Be thou in Adam's room / The Head of all mankind, though Adam's Son." Everything will turn out fine, God assures the assembled angels, who then burst out in cheers and music, accompanying themselves on the harps that have become a cartoon accessory for angels ever since.
The angels rejoice at the Son's decision, by Gustave Doré, 1866

But while they are spending "Thir happy hours in joy and hymning," Satan is steadily making his way to the new world, alighting like a vulture on the outermost sphere of the new universe.where Milton has located a "Paradise of Fools," a kind of limbo for "all things vain, and all who in vain things / Built thir fond hopes of Glory or lasting fame, / Or happiness in this or th' other life." These will eventually include the builders of the tower of Babel, suicides like Empedocles and Cleombrotus who take their lives with the expectation of achieving divinity, and of course a whole host of "Eremites and Friars / White, Black and Grey, with all thir trumpery," especially the Dominicans and the Franciscans, particular targets of the Protestants.
A violent cross wind from either Coast
Blows them transverse ten thousand Leagues awry
Into the devious Air; then might ye see
Cowls, Hoods and Habits with thir wearers tost
And flutter'd into Rags, then Reliques, Beads,
Indulgences, Dispenses, Pardons, Bulls,
The sport of Winds
The Paradise of Fools, by Gustave Doré, 1866
Now he sees the stairway to Heaven, which is sometimes drawn up like a ladder, and "Looks down with wonder at the sudden view / Of all this World at once." So he begins his flight down to the Earth at its center -- or perhaps near it: Milton waffles about whether this universe is geocentric or heliocentric. Along the way he passes "other Worlds, / Or other Worlds they seem'd" -- Milton isn't over-concerned about whether these worlds are populated, and neither is Satan: "who dwelt happy there / He stay'd not to enquire." He sees the sun, but it's "hard to tell" whether it's at the center of this universe or not. And he finds a spot to land "like which perhaps / Astronomer in the Sun's lucent Orb / Through his glaz'd Optic Tube yet never saw" -- as the note tells us, Galileo had used his telescope in 1609 to discover sun spots.
Satan in disguise tricks Uriel into pointing the way to Paradise, engraving by Simon Francois Ravenet after Francis Hayman, 1749

There "he soon / Saw within ken a glorious Angel stand," and recognizes the archangel Uriel, whose back is turned, giving Satan time to put on a disguise as "a stripling Cherub." (We think of cherubs, or cherubim, as chubby little baby angels, but those are putti, merely decorative figures in Renaissance and Baroque art; the cherubim of Judeo-Christian tradition are the second order of angels, after the seraphim.) In this disguise, Satan is able to trick Uriel into giving him directions to the Earthly Paradise, "For neither Man nor Angel can discern / Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks / Invisible, except to God alone, / By his permissive will, through Heav'n and Earth." (God seems to permit the oddest things, while banning others that seem less consequential.)
Satan on his way to Earth, by Gustave Doré, 1866

And so Satan makes his fatal way to the top of Mount Niphates.

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