“. . . he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”

So while skulking around IMDB.com the other day, I made a possibly horrific discovery. Currently a film adaptation (I believe the first) is in the pre-production stage for Paradise Lost. With Alex Poyas (The Crow, IRobot, and Knowing) at the helm, this film, as according to the plot blurb, will take a Byronic reading of John Milton’s epic poem, portraying Satan as the much maligned tragic hero. Honestly, though, a dramatic adaptation of PL is not completely absurd; Milton originally conceived of what would become the greatest epic poem in English as a play. The 1667 edition divided the poem into 10 books, suggesting more of a 5 act play structure; it is not until 1674 that the poem appears in 12 books, more in keeping with the classical convention of epic poetry. 

                Readers of PL have argued this perennial question of Milton’s problematic depiction of Satan. As William Blake so beautifully puts the pro-Satan reading, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In The Satanic Epic (2003) Neil Forsythe actually takes this reading, which was popular among such Romantic poets as Byron, Keats, and Percy and Mary Shelley, to another level, arguing that Milton fully intended Satan to be the hero of the poem.  (For those fans of Animal House, you’ll recall that Prof. Jennings [Donald Sutherland] suggests this reading to his class of undergrads, before confessing that he finds Milton to be as dull as they do. Blasphemy, I say!)

               The best reading against seeing Milton as writing essentially a satanic epic comes from Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Essentially Fish’s interpretations boils down to this: the poem lures the reader into admiring Satan only to yank the rug out from under in pointing out that this is only due to the reader’s own sinful state. Or as my friend, Bob Kilker, brilliantly summarized at a party: “The poem has you start to like the character only to say, ‘No, you idiot. He is Satan!’”

                It is a shame, I suppose, this film wasn’t released three years ago, during Milton’s quadricentennial. Yes, the boy of Bread Street, nicknamed the “Lady of Christ’s College” by his classmates at Cambridge, turned 400 years young on December 9, 2008.

The "Onslaw Portrait"

To commemorate his birthday, numerous books were released, offering new perspectives of the poet who claimed to explain the ways of God to man. In anticipation of the quadricentennial, Laura Lunger Knoppers and Greg M. Semenza edited a collection of essays entitled, Milton in Pop Culture (2006). The topics range from examining PL’s influence on horror films to exploring His Dark Materials as a re-imagining of PL.  Let’s face it, though: Milton has a long way to go before catching up to Shakespeare’s currency for pop culture.

                What I have found really interesting in looking back over the scholarly literature that has come out since then is how our generation looks at Milton. Two excellent biographies have been published since 2008, each giving complementing picture of the English Virgil. Anna Beer’s Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2008) situates Milton in the turbulent world of London during the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration.  For Beer, Milton was first and foremost a denizen of London. Milton’s life really was contained to a just a few blocks. As Beer points out,

“Back in 1608, [Milton] had been born in Bread Street; his school, St. Paul’s, was his nearest grammar school, just a few yards from his home; even when he returned from the transformational journey to Italy, he only moved to lodgings in St. Bride’s Churchyard, at the other end of Fleet Street, less than a mile from Bread Street. His first children, and his first pamphlets, were produced in Aldersgate Street, north of St. Paul’s, also the home of the Simmonses, the printing family that had been so important to his writing.” (388)

Beer does touch on such issues as Milton’s complicated marriages (he was three times a husband) and his strained relationship with his daughters, Mary, Anne, and Deborah (while Milton essentially cut them out of his will, they did steal their blind father’s books to sell). However, the thrust of Beer’s biography is directed towards contextualizing in the 1640s pamphleteering and his position as propagandist to the Cromwellian government. Beer rightfully remarks that “John Milton almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist, of writing as a political vocation” (121). Milton found the times apt for his belief in the power of the writer. In 1642, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber, the state body that censored the presses.  For a piece writing to be published, the king had to grant the printer a license to do so. Now that this was no longer the case, London saw a flood of pamphlets, the modern day equivalent of the blog. This was Milton’s moment: he would go on to write pamphlets promoting ideas like divorce based on irreconcilable differences (The Doctrine and Disciple of Divorce [1643]), the moral necessity of the freedom of the press (Areopagtica [1644] ), and the right of the state to execute a monarch (Eikonoklastes [1649]). Eventually on March 20th, 1649, Milton took up the position of Sectary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s regime, his responsibilities being translating the government’s correspondence and defending the government in print.

                In John Milton: A Hero of Our Time (2009), David Hawkes focuses on Milton’s own belief that he was destined for greatness.

 Turning to Milton’s youthful poetry, Hawkes finds a young man essentially writing his own autobiography.  Particularly in “Ad Patrem,” Hawkes argues that the young Milton attempted to convince his father that the investment that he has made in John will return many times over. (At 32 years old, Milton was still shiftless a bit, living in his family’s home and visiting the books sellers at St. Paul’s. By this point, Milton had really only produced one memorable poem “Lycidas,” a eulogy to his dead Cambridge classmate, Edward King, and Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle for the Earl of Bridgewater.) As Hawkes reads the autobiography that Milton constructs for himself, his intellectual legacy – his poems and prose – Milton had already foreseen. While lamenting that fact that “Milton is now read mostly by reluctant undergraduates and studied in detail by their tutors,” Hawkes adroitly demonstrates the relevance that Milton’s writings have for the modern rise of religious fundamentalism and the phenomenon of paperless currency (how money is rapidly losing its materiality and possessing an almost “magical” quality). For one considering delving into Milton’s bio, I would recommend these two biographies: where Beer gives us a Milton who is a product of his time, Hawkes allows Milton to speak to our own.

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12 Responses to “. . . he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”

  1. Shall I start the comment train?

    I wrote a report on Paradise Lost when I read it as an undergrad (as one of the few who proudly read the entire thing) and thought I was being so clever for writing about how sympathetically Satan was portrayed. Then, a year later I found out that everybody likes Satan more. But that’s the kind of thing that tends to happen in all works of fiction it seems like. The bad guy is hilarious, and witty, and maybe has a British accent. The good guy never does anything wrong and is totally boring.

    Even if a villain is completely twisted, don’t people tend to identify with characters that reflect us? And in a strange way, don’t some villains tend to reflect us more than the heroes? Also, villains get to wear considerably cooler costumes.

    Then again, I might be talking nonsense. But it’s the internet, I’m allowed!

  2. Of course you are not talking nonsense. It is really fascinating to me that I have yet to read of any of initial readers of PL ever finding Satan to be a sympathetic figure. Really, it is not until the early 18th century that people start to find Satan a sympathetic character: he actually starts to make appearances in some of the literature of this period. He’s Mary Shelley’s fiend, Percy’s Prometheus; and William Blake sketches those incredibly powerful images of Satan in his illustrations of PL.

    Personally, I’ve two theories on why modern readers are drawn to Satan. First off, he embodies the capitalist hero: one who sees himself as self-made and proclaims that his rise to power is entirely due to himself. It is really an eery experiment to read PL against Horatio Algers’ “Ragged Dick.” It always cracks me up when Satan denies that God created him, saying something to the effect that he couldn’t have been created because he does not remember it. In other words if I don’t remember being born then I wasn’t.
    Also, let’s be honest, we love a rebel, that dark, brooding guy/gal in the corner disdaining everything corporate or conforming. Underneath that exterior, we believe lies something true, authentic, even tragic.

    I can’t help but agree with Fish and see Milton as just reminding us how truly screwed up we are.

  3. Two other thoughts came to me last night on this topic. As much as I have a hard time reading PL as intentionally portraying Satan as the hero of the poem, Neil Forsythe makes some strong points as to why such is the case. First, as I mentioned in the post, the second edition of the poem was expanded into twelve books, suggesting a more classical epic poem structure. Forsythe argues that in doing so Milton was placing Satan in the same position as Virigl’s Aeneas. Indeed, Satan does appear very similar to Aeneas, especially in Book II when he looks to rally the fallen angels’ courage.

    Secondly, there is a persuasaive argument to be made for Milton’s sympathetic depiction of Satan on the basis of the “felix culpa,” or the “happy fall.” This is a doctrine that sees the original fall of Adam and Eve as a positive thing for humanity, since it allows for God to prove his love by sacrificing his only son for our salvation. In other words, by disobeying God, Adam and Eve gave Him the chance to show how powerful his love is. Satan’s temptation then plays a crucial role in humanity’s redemption.

  4. I wrote a term paper on “The Vilification of Eve in PL” way back–I’ve always loved that poem! Thanks for alerting me to the forthcoming film–I hadn’t been aware of it.

    Welcome to the world of Renaissance blogging!

  5. What a great web log. I spend hours on the net reading blogs, about tons of various subjects. I have to first of all give praise to whoever created your theme and second of all to you for writing what i can only describe as an fabulous article. I honestly believe there is a skill to writing articles that only very few posses and honestly you got it. The combining of demonstrative and upper-class content is by all odds super rare with the astronomic amount of blogs on the cyberspace.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I am glad that you are enjoying the blog. If you have any questions about the Renaissance in England, I would love to hear them and dedicate a post to them.

  6. David Hawkes is my professor. Brilliant man

  7. hmm great discussion. but i am really confused that can we regard Milton as ‘of the Devil’s party’?

  8. Well, piscean, the suggestion that Milton could be of the “Devil’s party” was one promoted by the Romantics. As Blake would read PL, he saw Satan as becoming the most interesting and central figure. (Something about this baroque figure appealed the Romantics, see Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.) Anyway, given Milton’s being a Puritan, Blake thought that PL exposes Milton’s unrealized sympathies for Satan. I personally find this to be a misreading of the poem, that Blake and other Romantic poets are anachronistically projecting their own desires into the text.

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