Saturday, January 23, 2010

Paradise Lost 2: Satan or God?

Hell has many pains, but Heaven has no pleasures: that, greatly simplified, is what's wrong with this poem. The poetry of Satan and Hell is dramatic and interesting, the poetry of God in Heaven is self-righteous and boring. See for yourself. Here is Satan, picking himself up off the mat in bk 1:

                        What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. 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; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe
Who now triumphs, and in th'excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

And here is God, in bk 3, talking to his son and watching from afar the movements of Satan:

Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desperat revenge, that shall rebound
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall
Hee and his faithless Progenie: 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.

It was courageous of Milton to lay so bare, and so baldly present, the central paradox or contradiction of free-will and predestination in his Calvinist theology.

Paradise Lost was written over a period of about ten years and published in 1667. In 1793, William Blake remarked casually, in a foot-note to The Marriage of Heaven And Hell that "the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet  and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Milton criticism and scholarship in the 20th century can be described as a series of attempts to prove that Blake didn't know what he was talking about. Blake's one-liner still stands out, for me, as a brilliant insight.

1 comment:

  1. Heaven has no pleasures. Milton did not know how to describe eternal bliss. Writers are good at tragedy, not as good at comedy, and helpless when trying to write about Heaven.
    Dante's "Inferno" is a work of genius; his "Purgatorio" is intereting; his "Paradiso" is a failure.
    I think you're correct about Blake, Piers. I think that both Milton and Dante had hidden agendas attacking the idea of eternal torment, which nobody could deserve except for a Hitler. Hell is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the idea in Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 16:19-31.