Clifford Olson Essay
December 9, 1998
Reflections of Milton in Milton
At a young age, John Milton was convinced that he was destined for greatness. He thought that he “might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let it die”. For this reason he thought that his life was very important to himself and to others. He often wrote directly about himself, and he used his life experiences as roots for his literature. In Paradise Lost and in a sonnet entitled “On His Blindness,” Milton speaks indirectly and directly of his loss of vision. Also in Paradise Lost, he uses the political situation of his time as a base for the plot, and he incorporates elements of his own character into the character of Satan. In “On Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three”, he speaks plainly about the course of his life.
In the latter part of his life, Milton lost his vision. This loss was very traumatic for him because he had not yet completed his mission of writing a memorable work of literature. Soon after, he continued his work with the help of his daughters. He dictated to them a sonnet he called “On His Blindness” in which he asks how God expects him to do his work blind. Milton’s ambitious side says that his writing talent is “lodged with him useless”. His religious side soon realizes that he is “complaining” to God and he takes it back. He discovers that God will not look down on him if he does not write a masterpiece. He granted Milton a great talent, and he expects Milton to be happy.
He has to learn to do his work in a dark world. This poem was not the last time Milton referred to his condition in his writing. In book one of Paradise Lost, while invoking the Muse, Milton said “what in me is dark illumine”. He asks to be granted the power to work through his blindness. He obviously thinks of his blindness as a major weakness. Later in the text, he describes Hell as having “no light, but rather darkness visible”. It is Milton’s way of almost subliminally implying that his condition is comparable to being damned to the underworld. His blindness was something that he constantly had to deal with and he managed to include it in most of his works.
At the prime of Milton’s life, the political situation in England was very unsteady. Charles I was overthrown, and the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell installed himself as the “Lord Protector.” Being a Puritan himself, Milton supported this new government, and he even held a job within it. But, England became tired of the strict Puritan rule, and Cromwell’s son was defeated, and hastily replaced by Charles II. Everyone who supported Cromwell and the civil war was sentenced to death.
Because of his standing in the community, Milton was allowed to retire in peace. As punishment he lost everything he had including his reputation. He would use the events of his life to help him form the story for book one of Paradise Lost. In his greatest work, Milton begins with a civil war in Heaven during which Lucifer and Beelzebub are defeated and banished to Hell. This event parallels the civil war within England with the Puritans as Lucifer, and the rest of England as God. The Puritans tried to take over England, but they were defeated after a number of years. Most of the Puritan’s were killed and Milton was banished from society. Lucifer was banished to Hell, and he would forever lose his reputation as an archangel. These similarities lead scholars to believe that Satan is Milton. Lucifer says that they should make a “Heaven of Hell”. This line shows that Satan had the will to work through the bad times and make the best of it. Milton acted the same way with his blindness. Milton seems to be a part of Satan’s character.
Milton’s Satan continues to fascinate critics largely because he is so complex than the Devil of the Christian tradition appears. Satan’s rebelliousness, his seeking of transcendence, his capacity for action, particularly unconventional action, endeared him to certain types of minds, even if their viewpoint might be considered theologically misleading. Milton often follows the road of intellectual definition for his characters, of reasoning demonstration. This serves well his theological and intellectual cohesiveness. However, when his thought becomes more conceptual rather than metaphoric, it falls trap to its own special kind of static imprisonment. Most of the images in Paradise Lost, however, have a substantial life of their own; they are properties rather than metaphors.
In the presentation of Satan, Milton is dealing with a special difficulty. He is not presenting a human intelligence, but an angelic one-a being the nature of which is almost impossible for the human mind to grasp. Milton simplifies the matter by making spiritual intelligences more highly refined versions of human intelligence. He is still left with one problem, that of introducing flaws in these refined beings. Because of the refined intelligence, these creatures should incline solely to good.
“So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear,
Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good;”
In this intensely dramatic statement, Satan renounces everything that’s good. His is not a lack of intelligence, or weakness of character, very simply an acceptance of evil. It almost justifies C. S. Lewis’ observation. “What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.”
Although the statement “Evil be thou my Good,” makes no sense on the surface, it has a symbolic meaning as an expression of Satan’s will to reject the hierarchy of values set before him. In doing so he creates an illusory world that reflects his adopted values, which he accepts as reality. His reality is based on hatred. His hatred makes him psychologically dependent on that he hates, thus making it all the greater. Throughout the epic Milton dramatizes this dependence among the devils- even the hatred that gives them their energy is based on that reality which they are bent on rejecting.
Satan and his followers in Paradise Lost are presented as being more evil than God and his disciples are good. God addresses the Son to be in the likeness of himself in Book three by saying, “The radiant image of his glory sat, his only Son.”(Bk. 3, 63-64). Although this implies that the Son is a model of perfection as is God, it does not clarify it by stating it outright. Milton definitely portrays Satan’s evil in Book four by asserting that Satan is hell and that evil is his good because good has been lost to him. (Bk. 4, lines 75, 108-110). Satan’s moral state further decays in Book nine as detailed in a soliloquy at the beginning of the book by Satan. Satan recognizes his descent into bestiality after once being in contention with the gods to sit on top of the hierarchy of angels. He is unhappy with this “foul descent” and in turn wants to take out his grief on humanity. Despite recognizing that revenge eventually becomes bitter, Satan wants to make others as miserable as he is. It is in destruction that he finds comfort for his ceaseless thoughts. (Bk. 9, lines 129-130, 163-165). Satan is described at length in an epic simile that compares his great size to that of mythical figures. This simile drags on for sixteen lines of direct comparison. This comparison to mythical figures makes the reader think more about the subject therefore invoking more thought about Satan’s powerful stature. Due to the drama and persuasiveness of Satan’s rhetoric, he is the most well developed character in Paradise Lost.
Both the angels and devils and heaven and hell can be contrasted along with Satan and the Son. Milton depicts the angels as being in a state of eternal joy by singing, “With jubilee, and loud hosannas filled Th’ eternal regions.” (Bk. 3, lines 348-349.) Nevertheless the angels are not being presented with as much intensity as the devils are in Book one. Despite having been cast to hell the fallen angels are still shown to continue on in their old ways as if nothing has happened to them. Mammon leads some of the devils to the hills to loot gold. (Bk. 1, lines 670-690.) Milton aptly describes the fallen angels by giving the names that they were worshipped with and a succinct description. Milton employs an epic simile in Book one to exaggerate the number of fallen angels and hence the amount of evil: “His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced, thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa.” (Bk. 1, lines 301-303.) Hell is described as the most appalling place in existence as it is “
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.” (Bk. 1, lines 61-64.) The devils build a palace for themselves called Pandemonium which means all-demons, in contrast to the Pantheon which means all-gods. This name demonstrates the absolute evil of the building as it mocks any sentiment of goodness while at the same time exhibiting the evil within. In terms of evil and detail, Satan’s subordinates are presented in much the same way as himself.
In book nine of Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of the temptation of Eve. Satan’s argument with Eve reflects beliefs of Milton. In deciding whether to convince Adam or Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge, he does not choose Adam because he has a “higher intellectual” capacity. At the time Milton lived, women were considered inferior to men. Milton obviously supported this belief. By modern standards he would have been considered sexist, by seventeenth century standards he was not.
Humanity falls in the Garden of Eden because evil eventually conquers good. Because evil defeats good in Paradise Lost it must be treated with more emphasis. When the fall of humankind is being described in Book nine, Satan is no longer described as a feeble underdog, he is now a powerful leader filled with rage. His rage is portrayed in Book nine after he overcomes how beautiful Eve is, “But the hot Hell that always in him burns, though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight.” (Bk. 9, lines 467-468.) At first Eve resists the allure of the apple and the knowledge that comes with it but she eventually gives in to the persuasive serpent, thus departing from the realm of the innocent and stepping into the evil. The simple act of Eve eating the apple serves as the climax of the book. Milton builds up to this epic event by constructing the sentence in a highly symmetrical manner. Two clauses and one periodic sentence precede the moment when Eve eats the apple. This style of construction results in the meaning becoming clear only at the very end when she eats the apple.
The fall in the Garden of Eden marks humanity’s entry into a world of sin forevermore. It is because of the severity of this sin that evil is portrayed in a much more convincing manner than good. When writing this poem Milton sought to coerce people into believing his view on the loss of paradise. He does not write it as a standard poem that is written in a non-bias way, instead he forces his view on the reader as if his opinion is the way it is. Also in book nine, concerning the forbidden tree, Milton emphasizes the great knowledge that can be gained from eating its fruit. Throughout his life, he thought that continually learning was very important. He spent part of his life living at home reading. Satan tells Eve that God does not want them to become as knowledgeable as he is. If she eats the fruit, he tells her that she will know “both good and evil”. Milton’s emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge implies that if he was put into Eve’s position, he would also betray God. Milton formulated an argument that would have convinced himself.
In the earlier part of his life, Milton was often worried that he would not do the work that he was destined to do. To express this feeling, he wrote a sonnet called “On Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three.” In it, he explains how he is getting older and he still does not have any work done. He was concerned because he did not have an idea for what to write. This work reflects his character because he could not think of anything else but his life-long goal. He was very focused. It also shows how he was egotistical. In his time, he was not well liked. Due to his Puritan background and his egocentric personality, he was not respected by more than a select few.
Throughout his life, John Milton believed that he would be remembered as great. He was so self-absorbed that he was a major part of a lot of his work. Also, he used his life and character to formulate Satan and Paradise Lost. He thought he would be remembered and he was correct.