So, is Milton of the Devil’s Party? In my last post, I explored my first impressions of Paradise Lost and the oddly attractive character of Satan. Many commentators have remarked that he is the most finely drawn, almost the most human, of Milton’s major characters; among them, Blake famously opined that Milton is “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it”. However, as I finished the epic poem, although my dissatisfaction with Milton’s characterization of God remained, I began to see that Milton’s treatment of the Devil is not an unmixed measure of support.
It is amazing how suddenly and completely Satan drops out of the poem. Paradise Lost starts in media res, with Satan rising from the stunned state in which his fall from Heaven had left him, full of grand speeches and burning rhetoric. The first half of the poem deals mainly with his struggles, almost his quest, to make his way to Eden and, in retrospect, his original fall. One might expect that the story would go on in this way, with Satan as the centerpiece and main character, the daring antihero leaping from daring exploit to daring exploit. Instead, Satan is barely mentioned in Books VII and VIII of Paradise Lost. He is given one last soliloquy before the temptation in Eden in Book IX, and a final appearance when returning to Hell. In the last two books Satan is entirely absent. If Satan were, indeed, the main character of Paradise Lost, the poem would have a curiously anticlimactic ending, with him slipping out of the story with precious little fanfare.
What I am tempted to say, after only one reading of a poem that would have unplumbed depths after twenty readings, is that Milton is not so much concerned with character for characer’s sake as with virtue—not so much concerned with sinners as with the sin. His main focus is not the play of delicately-balanced personalities, but rather the two choices—the only two choices—that can come after a creature has rebelled against its Creator. There is sin without repentance, as Satan chooses; and there is sin with repentance, as is the choice of Adam and Eve. Paradise Lost is not an allegory, but it is the first instance of sin and repentance such as has been played out again and again throughout the long, tragic course of human history. In Book X Satan is given the first taste of his punishment, when he and all his followers are forced from the “form [that] had yet not lost / All her Original brightness” into the shape of hideous serpents, but beyond this, he is not the center of interest. And, indeed, what more is there to say? He has made the irrevocable choice of rebellion, and in so doing has forfeited all his originality, and thus all his interest. As C.S. Lewis points out in Preface to Paradise Lost, Satan has one real topic of conversation—himself. Without his lies and rhetoric, he is only a weak, spiteful snake, whose feeble attempts to hurt God are turned into greater goods than he could have imagined. A more dramatic end to Satan would be unfitting—a nobility given to the undeserving.
Instead, Milton turns to Adam and Eve. Like Satan, they have lied to themselves with bold speeches about freedom; they have shaken their fists grandly at their Creator; but they are not so far gone that they cannot, in the end, admit that they have sinned. This second choice, that of repentance and forgiveness, is as important as the first choice of endless rebellion. It is this choice that can lead to a fit ending. Satan’s end is a sickening dwindling into atrophied death, but Adam and Eve, if sadder, are at least given hope.
In either hand the hast’ning Angel caught
Our ling’ring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
Led them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plain; then disappear’d.
They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happy seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fiery Arms:
Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitary way.