It was of course William Blake who famously said of Milton’s Paradise Lost, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Blake’s provocative throwaway verdict has enough of a kernel of truth in it to have earned a permanent place in the corpus of Milton commentary.
But why should Milton, whose avowed aim at the outset of Paradise Lost is ‘to justify the ways of God to men’, have apparently gone out of his way to make God’s adversary such a persuasive and attractive individual? As a character Satan is admirable in strength of purpose, and wholly understandable in motive. In spite of the ‘bottomless perdition’ to which his followers have been consigned, he can still, without fear of contradiction, powerfully exhort them to the exercise of their ‘unconquerable will’. Milton does not attempt to denigrate his powers of leadership. The rebel angels, although ‘condemned/For ever now to have their lot in pain’ are movingly observed hanging on his every word:
Millions of spirits for his fault amerced
Of Heaven, and from eternal splendours flung,
For his revolt – yet faithful how they stood,
Their glory withered.
The explanation that has so often been given is that Satan must be seen as a worthy adversary of the regime in Heaven if his eventual defeat at the hands of a beneficent providence, resulting in humanity’s salvation through the crucified Christ, is to be fully savoured. In her recent book, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, published at the quatercentenary of her subject’s birth, Anna Beer went even further. For Beer the portrayalof Satan is a cunning ruse on Milton’s part to make us realise how fallible we all are.
Milton, far from losing control of his anti-hero, has designed him so that the reader falls for Satan’s lies, is solicitous for his psychological torment and is seduced by his charisma. Only at the end of the poem does the reader shamefacedly realise that this has been a misreading. That moment of realisation is also a moment in which the reader recognises his or her own sin.
This might just work – though I doubt whether even such a stout moralist as Milton would have been happy with quite such a prescriptive account of his art – if it were not for the fact that the Heaven Satan wants to have another go at subverting is such an unattractive, unkind place. We simply do not want to be there. For a start it is not – as Hell is – a democracy. (Did this at any point occur to the poet and faithful servant of England’s parliamentary republic?) No votes are cast there. Its angels are ciphers, ‘Minist’ring spirits, trained up in feast and song’, as Satan sneers to the angel Abdiel at the outset of the revolt in Heaven.
We first see Milton’s God dispensing ‘Beatitude past utterance’ to his angels. But within a few lines his mood has changed. He has no time for his creation once he is reminded that its flaws are shortly to be exposed to Satan’s guile. Man ‘will fall/He and his faithless progeny: Whose fault?/ Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me/All he could have; I made him just and right’. There is an unbecoming petulance in this. Even the Son shrinks from his father’s ill-tempered diatribes and nervously begs him for assurances that he will not destroy his soon-to-be-tainted Creation.
Revisiting Paradise Lost to write a study of the poem for the Greenwich Exchange literary series I was not surprised to find unaltered my recollections of the manner in which the Satan of Milton’s imagination undeniably escapes the bounds of condemnation that the moralist and man of religion prescribes for him at the outset. Milton’s Adam and Eve, however, surprised me afresh in the way that they appear strikingly in the poem to acquire an autonomy of spirit as the epic proceeds that their creator seems unable or unwilling to rein in. Eve is a particularly wonderful characterisation. Milton is at pains to establish her as the biblical mother of mankind, to associate her with the mother of Christ, ‘blest Mary, second Eve’, to emphasise her qualities of deference and ‘submissive charms’.
But it simply does not work. Whenever Milton is in the vicinity of Eve his poetry takes on an impassioned sensuousness that quite defeats his project. He is in thrall to her beauty. He cannot help reminding us of her nakedness. When we first see her, she
half embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses
When the Archangel Raphael visits the pair in Eden he is confronted by ‘Eve,/Undecked save with herself, more lovely fair/Than wood nymph’; and when Adam sits down to entertain his angelic guest, ‘at table/Eve ministered naked’.
When Eve tires of the metaphysical enquiry her husband is conducting with Raphael, Milton sends her out into the Garden for some fresh air.
With goddess-like demeanour forth she went,
Not unattended; for on her, as Queen,
A pomp of winning Graces waited still,
And from about her shot darts of desire
Into all eyes to wish her still in sight.
What is Milton doing with the Mother of Mankind, here? She has stepped out of her biblical milieu into an erotically charged classical landscape in which she undergoes apotheosis as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love. And we might say not merely figuratively. The detail is quite explicit. The Graces who attend on her are, in classical mythology, the three attendants on Aphrodite, though here their behaviour is more like that of a swarm of putti, or cupids. As if the sight of the naked Eve were not enough to arouse desire in all beholders, they have apparently been tasked with firing love darts at anything and anyone in the vicinity. It is a quite remarkable departure from the biblical story that Milton has undertaken to interpret for us.
Yet Milton is not in love merely with Eve’s physical beauty and vitality. She possesses an intellect which is more than a match for that of her husband. When the day of the Fall comes Eve’s arguments to Adam for wanting to be on her own are ones that Milton could not possibly have failed to recognise. She wants to double productivity in Eden by having them work separately. Adam wants to keep her by his side so as not to expose her to Satan’s blandishments. Her reply: ‘what is faith, love, virtue unassayed/ Alone, without exterior help sustained?’ is pure Areopagitica. Echoing the celebrated passage from her creator’s great treatise of 1644: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and uncloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary,’ Eve speaks, like him, as a militant crusader for freedom of action based on the individual conscience.
It was always going to be difficult for Milton the poet to reconcile his instinctive belief in the dignity of rational Man with the divine authority to which the believer and moralist in him was committed. As he wrote Paradise Lost he found spiritual grandeur in places he might not have expected it. As a poet he was too great a human being not to acknowledge it, and his earthly protagonists are, with all their flaws, imbued with imperishable dignity. Adam and Eve fall, as fall they must. But they go to their fate, dismissed from the gates of Paradise ‘hand in hand with wandering steps and slow’, as creatures of profound beauty of soul who draw our love after them.
Milton’s Paradise Lost, by Peter Davies, is published by Greenwich Exchange, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-906075-47-7