(This was my response to a comment on my ‘Metaphor & Reality’ Episode 004 – Coming to Terms with the Choices that Define Us. I’m posting it in the ‘Notes and Literary Reviews’ category of my website because it is something I want to keep in mind as a note on a piece of literature, and which I would like to have in a more convenient location for future reference.)
A fragment of the comment I’m responding to:
“…What is so fascinating to me is that Milton was a political rebel, a republican – fighting against the English monarchy in favour of a form of government which would hopefully be more democratic; to this extent, I think at an unconscious level, Milton somewhat identified with the arch-rebel, Satan, who was fighting against the perceived tyranny of God. The poet, William Blake, famously said of Milton that he ‘was of the devil’s party, without knowing it…
…The poem is endlessly enriching and capable of all manner of interpretations.”
It really is, and I think that is so also because of the political landscape at the time Milton wrote it, which was, as you highlighted, slowly laying the philosophical groundwork, in Britain, America, and France, for a revolutionary spirit of democracy, or at the very least individual sovereignty. It is a mistake to think that a great work of art is the achievement of a single individual: it takes a world; a history.
After recording this video, I thought a little more about what psychological or social roles I would have liked to assign, in the episode, to each of the principal characters.
Coming from the poet’s own reflection upon the immensity of the task in comparison to his ability, if we put ourselves in the position he was in right at the very beginning of his starting to compose ‘Paradise Lost’, I do think it fair to say that in a very real sense—given the fact that Milton believed the achievement would serve as proof for his successfully becoming a conduit for the Word of God—he looked upon the poem, in its as-yet-unrealized, final form, with the same awe he would feel when looking up at God Himself. The literary tradition, both pagan and Christian (including the Bible, of course), in which Milton had formed his poetic sensibility, could, at its best, in this view, be regarded as the approximations (pagan) and true (Christian) Word of God as passed down through the ages, and that the highest achievements within the canon of Latin and Greek poetry could be said to come nearest that Word. Milton set out to write a poem which would in fact be equivalent to the Word, and thus, if he were successful, the poem would serve as proof of the Divinity, as we, looking on, are left scrambling to account for the inspiration behind it.
All this to say, that, in this view, Satan seems a fitting conceptual vehicle not only for Milton’s own doubts, but perhaps also for those doubts in general, arising from his contemporaries and future generations, that anyone—any poet—could, at the height of their powers, have a direct access to this knowledge of God’s wisdom, this knowledge of Good and Evil, this knowledge of the grand, cosmic order, which the angel Michael reveals to Adam in those visions of Books XI and XII, and which Milton thus reveals to all. Adam is the character of Milton’s lost innocence; God, as judge, is the measure of the harsh difficulty of his work, but also the source of Faith and light within the darkness of doubt. Eve is something like the cause of Adam’s impulse to reach beyond his lot (in a very socio-sexual, or primal, sort of way), and Satan, first as Doubter, or Dissembler of his own inadequacy, is that same spirit of any age which scoffs at an individual’s attempt to live in faith and understanding of God’s wisdom.
At the culmination of his argument, Milton says it was the love and faith he had within his heart which enabled him to write ‘Paradise Lost’, while he also makes clear his Protestant belief that whatever work is done pales in comparison to pure, honest faith in the ultimate triumph of God’s mercy. It was a dangerous mission he set out upon, and I could see it being, as you say, an argument for the potency of individual sovereignty, an individual’s right to choose and face the consequences. Was there a waning faith in the monarchy—both England’s and that of the Church? But Milton still believed that there was some order, a Divine order, which held sway over all, and reigned too over his own poetry.