Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea of the Spiritual Universe
What Tensions and Resolutions Emerge from a Survey of Paradise Lost?
: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790-93)
…What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
John Milton Paradise Lost 1. 22-26
If we follow William Blake in the supposition that Milton unwittingly sympathized with the devil as he wrote Paradise Lost we must conclude that there is a profound disconnect between Milton’s purpose as testified by the words first cited above and Blake’s assertion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In terms of modern psychology we might speak of a conflict between statements formulated by the author’s conscious deliberating mind and the undercurrents of emotion that find their source in the subconscious. Further there remains the question. Can the writing of Paradise Lost be attributed solely to his avowed aim within the scheme of Christian apologetics?
The subtitle refers to “tensions and resolutions,” the natural results of the discrepancy under consideration. It may prove enlightening to recall the period over which Milton composed Paradise Lost, namely one that began towards the end of Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule and ended in the third year of the reign of Charles II, which began in May 1660. This period spanned the brief interlude of Richard Cromwell’s fragile hold on power and the so-called “Anarchy,” when Britain was in a state of political limbo. It is reasonable to suppose that Milton’s concern with the loss of Paradise was reinforced by his sense of another loss, that of his hopes for the permanent establishment of a republican Puritan-led form of government on British soil. Milton’s increasing doubt as to the practicability of this project crept in even while Cromwell was still in power and led inexorably to the abandonment of any prospect that the Kingdom of Heaven on earth was imminent.
Did the writing of Paradise Lost spring solely from Milton’s avowed purpose of “Justifying the ways of God to men”? Those passages in Paradise Lost that specifically address this theological question present little more than a résumé of the controversy between Jean Calvin and Jacobus Arminius, the former upholding the doctrine of predestination against the latter’s belief in the limited scope of human free will. and from which it becomes clear that Milton defends the Arminian position and therewith the contention that a person possesses some measure of free will when accepting the gift of divine grace. Milton’s poem treats the nature of liberty beyond limits set by theological measures. What psycho-dynamic forces might then have sustained Milton in the year-long process of writing a masterpiece of English poetry despite the burden of his blindness and the buffeting of ill fortune, involving at one point his imprisonment in the Tower of London? The vast cosmic sweep of the vistas explored by Milton’s imagination and encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and classical mythology arguably results from an escapist reflex. Thus the seemingly urgent issues of Milton’s times fade and dwindle in importance against an immeasurable background. On the other hand, the exploration of zones that lie beyond the ken of human experience can well enhance awareness of the specific issues of a certain time, a phenomenon revealed by Dante’s Divine Comedy, so revealing as it is of the political events in Florence and Rome, some of which expose iniquities committed by the high and mighty in church and state.
Even if Milton had sought to exclude from his thought all concerns with contemporary issues, the zeitgeist of his age, the emergence of science in the modern sense of that word (here we recall Milton’s personal encounter with Galileo), the philosophical climate created by the works of Réné Descartes and Sir Francis Bacon, could he ever have done so? Academic research has pointed to the relevance of all such factors, some even to Milton’s putative awareness of ecologic issues to the point of presenting him as a proto-green in close connection with an interpretation of Eve in the light of Feminist criticism. .
In her monograph First “Mother of Science”: Milton’s Eve, Knowledge, and Nature,Jennifer Munroe departs from a citation of the following lines in stating her arguments in favour of her Feminist interpretation of Paradise Lost: The occurrence of word ‘science’ in the lines:
The Tempter all impassion’d thus began.
O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of Science, now I feel thy Power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest agents, deemed however wise.
Does the word ‘science’ tempt us to ponder whether Milton had the modern meaning of ‘science’ in mind when formulating the term ‘Mother of Science’? If so, then only on the strength of his intuition. Francis Bacon categorized physics and medicine as a ‘science’ but he placed other in our terms non-scientific subjects and fields of knowledge into the same category. If the term alludes to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, to which he refers several times by that name, he may have had the Vulgate translation of the Book of Genesis in mind where Scientia poses the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew original. Even in this case he deviated conspicuously from a word more familiar to an English reader. It is interesting to note the words ‘not only to trace things in their causes, but to trace the ways of highest agents’ as they could reflect Francis Bacon’s bid to discover laws of causation by observation and empirical analysis without denying that natural causes are ultimately subservient to higher influences that should be the subject of religious and theological modes of comprehension. Bacon’s empirical approach served his purpose of freeing modern thought from the normative force of the Aristotelian worldview. Descartes pursued the same goal but by a different means, abstract philosophy and mathematics, both of which were not reliant on some external statement of authority. Satan’s affirmation that the ‘mind is its own place’ finds a parallel in the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum proposition. Satan defended his right to rebel from God the Creator by recourse to the notion of self-generation or auto-creation. On the one hand Satan’s claim to total independence from God implied freedom but on the other also captivity and self-isolation and egocentricity inducing tyrannical narcissism. This aspect of Satan comes to the fore throughout the narrative of Paradise Lost, perhaps exonerating Milton from Blake’s charge that he was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it. In any case Blake distinguished between the Devil, the embodiment of amoral energy which had its place in the order of things, and Satan as the principle of stasis and spiritual captivity.
There was one aspect of Satan, however, that had a more lasting and affirmative power, which might be encapsulated by the term ‘originality.’ Milton was the godfather of the Romantic school after all. Goethe promoted the word “Wanderer” to a watchword that declared freedom from Aristotelian traditions, particularly with respect to the dramatic Unities of Time, Place and Manner. His newfound freedom led to a sense of insecurity so poignantly revealed in his early poem “Wandrers Sturmlied.” In this the Poet-Wanderer attempts to fly like a bird to the summit of Parnassus but stalls in flight and crash-lands into a muddy stream through which he must wade crestfallen to a humble hunter’s lodge or shelter. An interesting parallel to this so-described mishap is found at the beginning of the Seventh Book of Paradise Lost. The poets fears that he will be thrown off the back of winged Pegasus and fall to earth, there to ‘wander’ in disconsolate solitude.
If Satan is a wanderer in the guise of a mariner, so, in Paradise Regained is Jesus, but in line with earthbound Biblical tradition. The Muse to which the poets dedicated his work conflated the Muse of Greek tradition and the Holy Spirit of the Bible; in our secular age we might say, two perceptions of time and two states of mind corresponding to that of daytime awareness and that of dreaming and the unconscious mode of the mind’s operation. The interaction of these modes of consciousness is nowhere more consummately revealed than in Wordsworth’s poem known by its first line” “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” The ‘breeze’ which moves the daffodils which the poet encounters while out wandering is also the breeze which animates the daffodils generated by his wandering mind in pensive mood. To the same breeze the poet dedicates his long poem entitled The Prelude, which as the noted critic and scholar M.H. Abrams has noted, recalls the Heavenly Muse in Paradise Lost.