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The Miltonic Dilemma

This was not the mighty world of 'eye and ear' of Romanticism,neither was it the lofty Ovidian era which had postulated sensual and erotic love as its centric force.This was the world of John Milton[1608-1674],now in his later years,and continuing the tradition of scholasticism  started by Thomas Aquinas.Scholasticism sought to blend the Classical with the Hebrew thinking as it searched out a determination of man's place in the universe.This was  part and parcel of ''the great chain of being theory'' which dominated English letters up to the mid eighteenth century.Milton,then,was trying to outdo himself,and now totally blind,his desire was to create a work of epic proportions that would undoubtedly place him in the annals of Poesy alongside the likes of Homer,Virgil,Spencer and Dante.Milton,though,in creating Paradise Lost ,was faced with a dilemma of sorts,in his presentation of Satan.Here,the theological and the poetic requirements each begged for its own consideration.

   Paradise Lost,in the mind of Milton ,was to be an epic of mythopoetic proportions.The Bible's account of the happenings in Eden and in Heaven was skeletal,to say the least.It was therefore left to the poet to flesh out the story in its details.

An epic cannot be written before a poet is sufficiently matured because it calls for a mastery of poetic craft and eruditeness.Milton already had an impressive oeuvre before Paradise Lost so that he stood in readiness in these two important areas.Centripetal to the inner form of  an epic were three main considerations. Firstly,the epic,because of its very nature,had to  present a milieu of the age.Secondly,it had to contain a full register of the concerns and thinking of man in the age spanning the political,social and theological domains.Thirdly,it had to establish a mode of human conduct worthy of emulation and endorsed  by moral values of the work.Milton found that all these criteria  and considerations posed little problems in the creation of his masterpiece.Even in terms of style and metre,the poet was little troubled in terms of their appropriateness.Here he chose unrhymed iambic pentametre which was slow,ponderous and pleasing to the ear.

   We begin to comprehend Milton's dilemma a little better in the summary by Dr.Roydon Salick in his introduction to Paradise Lost where he says:-

        the demands of epic poetry placed the Christian poet in a very delicate and compromising position.Satan has to establish his credentials to be a worthy opponent of God.In Books 1 and  11 Satan outdistances everyone and steals the show.

 J.B.Broadbent,in his essay on Satan comes straight to the pointwhen he says''Satan's mobility,his articulacy and muscularity make him the most vital character in Paradise Lost.''Indeed,the enormity ,scope and grandeur of Milton's Satan is starkly brought home as Satan strides to the edge of the lake to call his legion to order:-

                                                  his ponderous shield

                    Ethereal temper,massy large and round,

                    Behind him cast; the broad circumference

                     Hung on his shoulders like the Moon,whose orb

                     Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views

                      At ev'ning from the top of Fesole,

                      Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,

                      Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe,

                      His Spear,to equal which the tallest pine

                      Hewn on Norwegian hills,to be the Mast,

 

 Thus,Milton's Satan,mostly because of the poetic descriptions and less because of moral essence,outdistances with the shield even Goliath and Achilles as epic hero.No one had ever attempted to describe Satan,the arch-enemy of God and mankind,in such expressive and elaborate language before Milton.

  Milton's mythopoesis becomes even more remarkable and spectacular when one considers that the Bible,from which he based his story,proferred just a skeletal account of the events which had transpired in Heaven.There are,in fact, just two separate and scanty accounts of the heavenly gigantomachy.The first comes from Isaiah in the Old Testament;

       How art thou fallen from heaven,O Lucifer,

       Son of the morning! How art thou cast

      down to the ground,which didst weaken the nations!

 

     And the account in Revelations;

               And there was war in heaven:Michael and his angels

              fought against the dragon;and the dragon fought and his angels,

              And prevailed not;neither was their place

             found any more in heaven.

 

  How does a writer proceed,even while he is attempting to establish the credentials  of an arch-enemy like Satan?How gargantuan can he make him?Would he dare to cross certain moral parameters and risk total mischaracterization?Very likely,these may have been some of the questions Milton may have been faced with at the time of his great task.Of course,what may have comforted him,even though in a small measure,was the conceptualization that no matter how large or ponderous or mighty he might make Satan,yet God,because of who He is,would still be greater than the strongest Satan.No one,even a very powerful Satan,would be competent enough to match God's attributes of omnipotence and omniscience,among others.

  Broadbent,in his essay accuses Blake of reading too ''ethico-symbolically'',for ''the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.''Blake probably felt that Satan's response to environment is more progressive than the aristocratic theorising of the Father,the phantastic omnipotence of the Son and the passivity of Adam.''

  Indeed,Satan is the first epic hero to undergo a catabasis .Such is his fall that Milton has him falling nine times through the various dimensions of hell.Dante's The Divine Comedy may have thrown some light on this matter for Milton.Dante Alighieri, born in Florence in 1265,in his allegorical tale and representing under the symbolism of the stages and experiences of the journey the history of the human soul,descended into hell led by the Roman poet Virgil.Pursuing their way they soon arrived at the river Acheron and found the old ferryman Charon,who took the spirits over to the opposite shore[Canto 111,Argument].

     Virgil's Aeneas may also have been used by Milton,for in Book VI of The Aeneid,the son of Priam also experiences his catabasis .Satan's catabasis ,though,was forced upon him by his own rebellion,but true to form,he begins to reorganize his army and devise a plan of action.For ''Him the Almighty Power/Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky/with hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition.''His''Better to reign in hell,than to serve in heaven'' defiance  further underscores his unrepentant  attitude.He holds the stage for two thousand lines for Milton gives him first say.His energy pervades the first two books.Indeed,he may easily be seen as the most energetic character in the epic..He possesses a superb rhetoric which he uses to seduce Eve. He appeals to her beauty with his rhetoric,for he is not just the Anansi figure but the ''con man''. He is deceitful, fraudulent and full of guile.

       While God's rhetoric is pleading, Satan's is belligerent, so that God's rhetoric pales before Satan's:

              but O how fall'n! how changed

             From him , who in the happy realms of light

             clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine

             Myriads though bright: if he whom mutal league,

            United thoughts and counsels ,equal hope

            And hazard in the glorious enterprise,......

  Milton, in his quest to create a worthy opponent to God,also attributes to Satan a particular and herculean musculature and gigantesque.He is able,therefore,because of the endowment of this unique physiognomy,to easily carry a ''ponderous shield/the broad circumference/Hung on his shoulders like the Moon,/His spear,to equal which the tallest Pine/Hewn on Norwegian hills.''

      Of course,Satan's prodigiousness is in no way an obstacle from him being cast out of heaven by the ''thunder'' of the Messiah,''ponderous shield'' and'' mighty spear''  and other angelic accoutrements,notwithstanding.

Milton,also,according to Broadbent uses ''sun,moon,star,cloud,storm,vulture and wolf to lend him vitality and virility.Satan,therefore, is able to traverse Milton's cosmology quite easily.He moves then,from Chaos back up to earth to seduce Eve.