Post #3 in the blog series “I Read Dead People” on faith and great literature
Author Name: John Milton
Country of Origin: England
Genres: primarily a poet, though also known as a political controversialist (poetry, pamphlets, essays, political tracts)
Brief Religious Heritage or Association: Born to an upper-middle-class, deeply religious Puritan family, Milton owned a thoughtful faith unafraid to ask the big questions as a well-travelled scholar living amidst the turmoil of the Civil war.
Random Fact from the Author’s Life: Milton went completely blind in 1652. Lore has it that he dictated much of Paradise Lost to his daughters who recorded the lines on his behalf.
Focus Text(s) for Discussion Here: Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books (London, 1674)
Suggested Edition of this Text: I like the Norton Critical Editions, not only because they are scholarly with careful annotations of Books, line numbers and arguments, but they also include helpful resources for context, such as a good introduction, bibliography and critical discussions on the poem. The most recent (ed. Gordon Tesky) contains a glossary, too. Here are two much-established biographies of Milton I would also recommend: David Daiches, Milton (London, 1957) and Douglas Bush, John Milton: A Sketch of His life and Works (New York, 1964).
How this Text has Challenged/Inspired/Fed my Faith Walk:
John Milton’s great epic poem of the seventeenth century Paradise Lost recounts in more elaborate and imaginative detail the fall of man and its immediate consequences. His thesis is a bold one: “to justify the ways of God to man.” Not only is this masterpiece consisting of 12 cantos or smaller “books” one of the backbone pieces of all literature, it is, simply put, this is one of my own personal favourite works of all time. Yes, the language can be a bit difficult at first for us modern readers, but effort and patience are quickly rewarded. For once you enter the story – and the hypnotic telling of it in blank verse (or unrhymed iambic pentameter = 5 beats a line) – Milton’s choice of metaphor, diction and description absolutely draw you into the drama between man and Satan, and God’s enduring grace.
Milton makes Satan a charismatic, even sympathetic, character. He is far from the typical devil caricature or superstitious stereotype: rather, Milton paints a painfully identifiable being locked within his own pain and refusal to ask for forgiveness, to accept grace. “Lucifer” – or “light bearer,” formerly an archangel praising God – becomes Satan, “Enemy” or “the Opposer,” the one who fell from the highest place in heaven to the lowest depths of despair, or true hell. Satan’s every thought and deed are devised contrary to God’s will and in persecution of all God loves (us and the created order).
The epic opens with Satan and his fallen angels awaking in a lake of fire, surrounded by “darkness visible” and immersed in the stench of sulfur, the result of having been hurled to hell after losing their rebellion against God and His loyal angels. But Milton’s Satan is a complex and “new” version of a radical figure. He shows courage and resolve as he rallies his fallen troops, preferring “to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” As the epic continues, Satan’s utter sadness at what he has lost, followed by his utter envy of the humans’ beauty and God’s obvious love for them, shows a range of complex emotions which we, as fallen readers now ourselves, only too closely identify with. The fallen angel’s first glimpse of this new race amidst the indescribable beauty of Eden is one of the most poignant moments I have ever read.
In Book II, we see Satan leaving hell for Earth to gather information on God’s new creation, man and woman, and to devise their downfall. He encounters two figures who sit on either of the gates of hell. Milton chooses to personify Sin and Death, an especially apt literary device since it not only makes these otherwise “shady” concepts more concrete, but it also reflects how they are the result of our personhood. Furthermore, the strategy allows Milton to illuminate Sin and Death’s incestuous relationship on figurative as well as literal levels. It is a perfect example of how the metaphorical can be more precise than the literal. For we hear, over and over again, the Christian “clichés” if you will, in such phrases as “the wages of sin is death” (Rom.6:23) – but do we really hear them, really understand their import? Milton, through his personification of these two concepts actually shows how the relationship between them is toxic, degrading and, without the intercession of Christ, indeed eternally damning.
The scene I’m referring to can be found in Book II, approximately lines 629-920, from where Satan first meets Sin and Death, to when he passes through the gates to stand on the brink of hell, pondering his voyage across the abyss to earth. I suggest you read the lines for yourself. I certainly cannot do justice to the power of these personifications. Here’s my oversimplified summary:
It is interesting that Satan doesn’t recognize Sin or Death as his offspring at first. Sin greets him as “Father,” and as she tells her woeful tale, he slowly begins to recognize her as his daughter. She took her genesis from his first thought of rebellion while in heaven – an ironic inversion, if you will, of Venus having sprouted fully formed from the head of Jove, and, more intimately, of Eve’s creation from Adam. Born of Satan’s hubris and malice, Sin was then raised by his free will and set loose by his rebellion. Initially she had been beautiful. But he notices that she has changed; while Sin is an enticing woman on top, she is a hideous serpent from the midsection down, “armed with mortal sting.” Her waist is encircled by hell-hounds, which bark and yell and burrow into her womb unceasingly. She comes like a witch, lured with the “smell of infant blood.” She holds the keys of hell, “which none can pass/Without my op’ning.”
The effect results in a sort of sinister mermaid. It also poses the perfect image of sin: something that “seduces” you with its apparent attraction at first, but then deceives you with its monstrosity. This becomes only clearer as you continue to “mate” with it – that is, Satan impregnates Sin’s womb as sin takes your heart from God, as your heart succumbs to the endless cycle of wanting to only please itself. Innocent bystanders get drawn in as you prostitute yourself to yourself, losing your God-ordained worth in the mire of moving away from the One who created it. The act essentially involves the breaking of the first commandment. It also suggests the adulterous “Bride of Christ.” For pride involves preferring self to others, even the ultimate Other of God, which holds (ironically, since we kick ourselves) home to all selves.
Milton presents Death as an indistinguishable “shape” and a “monster” (for how does one even begin to “describe” death?). Fierce and terrible, it shook a “dreadful dart” and wore the “likeness of a kingly crown” – for of course, any of his ultimate power is only “seeming.” Death is a mockery of the true King, even down to the crown of thorns Jesus wore in bearing the cruelty of a sinful world.
It takes Sin informing Satan that Death is the result of Satan having raped his own daughter. This bastard son, or this “hate child,” results from Satan’s violent pursuit and degradation of Sin. And now Death pursues her as well. It’s hard to miss yet another of Milton’s potent ironic perversions. The unholy trinity of this incestuous family bent on each other’s destruction rings in loud contrast to the pure and sacrificial love demonstrated by the holy three-in-one represented by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which Milton will relieve us with shortly in the next book.
So how would I sum up this song and dance of personified but profound proportions? My version, I fear, wouldn’t be as poetic as Milton’s, but I have a feeling he would agree:
- Sleep with sin, and you get – quite literally – *******!
- Sin IS incestuous. It is all relative. Each sin I commit has repercussions far, far from where I might ever imagine. And we are all in this together.
- Physical death is far from the only death, and as Christ’s own death and resurrection shows us, not necessarily final.
In fact, physical death is relatively quite simple and reliable and relatively out of our control: it only happens once and in many ways it represents the line in the sand by which we live according to faith (or not). But spiritual death occurs whenever we choose to sin – on a daily basis. It is momentous because it happens in the moment, and the consequences are expansively significant, no matter what we’d like to tell ourselves. To sin, we must cut out a part of our hearts out, we must “deaden” ourselves to God, and to others. We do this by excuses, by self-justifications, by denials, by a myriad of ways that are only various forms of deadening parts of ourselves that would otherwise be truly alive, as a whole, in Christ.
I will always treasure John Milton for reminding me how sin kills you long before you die.
And for reminding me how the perversion of true marriage with Christ can only result in relations that doom us to despair, regardless of how much we try to forget, or deny our involvement and “adultery.”
Book II draws to a close with the devil launching the first satanic voyeur upon an unsuspecting earth. But as he hangs there suspended, a raptor upon the abyss, Book III (after only Satan’s perspective for the first two books) opens with God’s plan for our redemption, and His Son offering himself freely as ransom for our reconciliation. All we have to do is turn the page.
There is no hope in hell (as Dante reminds us – alas, that’s another blog). But, as Milton points toward, our every earthly hope is in Christ, and our reunion – the deepest joy that exists – will, indeed, be in heaven.