I’m skipping Book III, the one where the Messiah vows to sacrifice himself to redeem mankind, because I didn’t really like it. Maybe at some point I’ll explore why that was but, in the meantime, SATAN.
I know that Milton’s Satan is famous for his long, passionate speeches but this soliloquy is definitely my favourite. For once, he is using language for introspection rather than manipulation (of the angels in Heaven / the angels in Hell / Uriel / Eve).
yet all his good proved ill in me / And wrought but malice
My annotations just say WHOLE SOLILOQUY ON POINT. (Did you know there was such a thing as a colloquy – a soliloquy between two or more people? Yes, that is just a conversation but I like knowing it.)
It’s Book IV, lines 32-112. Satan’s just arrived on Earth. He looks over Eden and he looks up at the sun, “like the God / Of this new world”, and there begins to direct his diatribe:
I hate thy beams / That bring to my remembrance from what state / I fell
(On such occasions as these, the Head of English at my school would remind us that she was a member of the Society for the Appreciation of Enjambment.)
Reflecting upon his questionable life choices, he gives a glorious, “Ah, wherefore!” – love a good ‘wherefore?’ – because, actually, God created him in “bright eminence” even better than the sun’s, which Satan rejected in disdain of “his service” – “praise, / The easiest recompense”. (Lucifer does indeed mean light-bringer. Alas, to my annoyance, this does not denote his former role in Heaven, which was actually to attend God in his throne room. It could, however, connote brightness in the sense of intellect, in which Lucifer was superior to other angels.)
I…understood not that a grateful mind / By owing, owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged
It’s interesting that he comes to this point of anagnorisis so early on in his quest, like – to draw on an all-too-familiar, English A level point of reference for a sec – King Lear, who proclaims, “I did her wrong”, in Act I, as opposed to Edmund, who doesn’t realise until he’s on his deathbed in Act V that “Edmund was beloved”. It’s also very early on in the soliloquy so, unlike Lear, whose thought is drowned out by his infuriating Fool (“Dost thou know how the oyster mak’st his shell?” etc.) or Edmund, who is carried off-stage to die because, directly or indirectly, he’s already caused the death of everyone who might’ve cared about him, Satan’s train of thought is continued. This is how it goes:
- If I’d been a lowly, run-of-the-mill sort of angel, I would never have dared to aspire. Maybe I would’ve been swept onto the winning side of a war engendered by someone else.
- But no other angel of my rank fell to the same temptation I did. So fate has nothing to do with my present circumstances.
At this point, adorably, he chastises himself by asking and answering a rhetorical question, just like an angsty parent:
Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand? / Thou hadst: whom hadst though then or what to accuse, / But Heaven’s free love dealt equally to all?
- Petulant outburst about “Be then his love accursed…” which is quickly amended in this second wave of anagnorisis:
Nay, cursed be thou; since against his thy will / Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
As far as I can recall, this is Satan’s first acknowledgement that God’s law is just because he has done something worthy of punishment. His later temptation of Eve relies upon her readiness to believe that gaining knowledge is not a crime against God, even in the light of his strict prohibition to eat from the tree. Alas, her crime is essentially the same as his: ambition above her station in God’s natural order.
- A more emotionally honest version of his statement in Book I:
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
Something I’ve learned about Milton from what I’ve read so far (Books I-VI and Book IX): he likes to get two scenarios or images or concepts which belong on different scales and push them together like repelling magnets so that we are forced to look at one of them from a new perspective. In this case, he wants us to understand why Satan is overwhelmed, all of a sudden, by the immense terribleness of his doom. The opposing concepts are The Vast Physical Distance between Heaven and Hell and A Limitless Capacity to Suffer through a Never-ending Cycle of Emotion and Destruction, I think. In zooming into Satan’s mind, we are actually panning out infinitely, as highlighted by the balance and repetition of “Infinite… and infinite…” and “…is Hell; …am Hell” – and the way the superlative “…lowest deep” is contradicted by an even “lower deep” (comparative). Even the arrangement of that line defies the expectation of a neat and tidy ‘positive, comparative, superlative’ progression. The clause ends with the phrase “opens wide”, which couldn’t summarise better Milton’s metaphysical, distortive magic.
- Contemplation of repentance.
- Decision not to repent because (a) ew, submission (frustrating how easily he reverts to the same point of view he overcame not five minutes ago – almost like an amnesiac – showing his incapacity to change or progress without repentance) (b) saving face with regard to the troops in Hell, “whom I seduced / With other promises and other vaunts / Than to submit”.
- Lamenting the less-than-perfect reality of leadership:
“Ay me! They little know / How dearly I abide that boast so vain, / Under what torments inwardly I groan, / While they adore me on the throne of Hell… Such joy ambition finds.”
- Assertion that any reconciliation would be short-lived. He even argues that God knows this and anticipates a “heavier fall” and “double smart”, and so “as far / From granting he, as I from begging, peace”.
- So God has made mankind to replace us. There’s no hope left. I guess I’ll just settle on the forces of evil as a means of power.
It’s not a victorious conclusion; ironically, it stinks of defeat.