The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand?”

Posted on: July 27, 2007

O for that warning voice, which he who saw
Th’ Apocalypse, heard cry in Heav’n aloud,
Then when the Dragon, put to second rout,
Came furious down to be revenged on men,
Woe to the inhabitants of earth!

There is our dynamic opening to book 4 which sets the reader up for Satan’s descent to earth after he got directions from Uriel. However our beleaguered villain isn’t quite as animated as the dragon in the quote. He’s having second thoughts about his plan. The encounter with Uriel seems to have reminded him of happier days and loftier times. But don’t even think of feeling sorry for him. In lines that for the first time make the great Adversary sound implausible he explicitly explains to himself and the reader why God would not bother to offer him any olive branch. Milton attempts to keep the right balance between Satan’s familiar pride and a sincere regret that at the same time gives him and the reader no out from “[t]he Hell within him”.

O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for repentance, none for pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduced
With other promises and other vaunts
Than to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th’ Omnipotent. 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,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery; such joy ambition finds.

Not even his charismatic pride can obscure the pain and true sorrow he expresses here. The poignancy of the scene is heightened by the futility of his thoughts; God has already pronounced in book 3 that there will be no escape route for the outcast and, before Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice, was only going to grant humanity a reprieve before they got the basement suite down below. Milton tries to lessen our sympathy for the fiend by having him state that he would waste any similar chance for repentance.

But say I could repent and could obtain
By act of grace my former state; how soon
Would heighth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feigned submission swore; ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase dear
Short intermission bought with double smart.
This knows my punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace:

Uh huh. Let’s pretend that God didn’t block Satan’s path the possible righteousness and that this bit here veers dangerously close to Calvin’s predestination theology that Milton did not subscribe to (maybe it only applies to angels? But then I thought that angels and men were all free will beings, choose your own destiny blah blah? anyway) this reasoning still doesn’t hold up very well. In book 3 God acknowledged that many humans would refuse Jesus’ gift but that was their choice which sets up a precedent. That means we’re left with the somewhat infantile “well he started it first!” which doesn’t come off as very godly, but we all have our off days. Satan’s thought processes develop as though he concluded that God would not offer any compromise first and had to come up with a reason for it.

Milton’s problem is that he made the effort to humanize Satan. He’s not a faceless one dimensional villain, magnificent, yes, with his fiery pride, but unwilling to even consider giving an inch, too immersed in his hate and vicious nature. As mere humans who also fell we are far more inclined to understand Satan’s position than God’s. Subsequently it’s the lines where Milton is more declarative and inspired, before allowing Satan to say a word, that work more persuasively on a subliminal level and make the Adversary’s doomed nature more acceptable.

horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place

The repetition of “Hell”, its placement at the beginning, middle and the end of that claustrophobic description of how solidly he is within his dark nature’s grasp, and the description itself of Hell both at “the bottom…within…and round about him” are more effective at conveying how anaemic any regretful postures of his would be. Milton re-emphasizes this right before Satan considers what repentance would require.

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 threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Milton extends the thought even further here by cunningly reversing the order in the previous quote. Then it was from the internal to external, now it starts from outside himself to within, to an even greater abyss, a more cavernous, ominous space, beyond even the bottom of Hell Milton first described. (They’re my favourite lines from book 4.)

Satan eventually puts aside his misgivings and eventually finds Adam and Eve frolicking in Eden. Milton does not skimp on descriptions of the heavenly vegetation and it’s to his credit that they didn’t put me to sleep. Our favourite destructive villain wonders at their marvellous form, jokingly pretends that his plan to bring about their ruin is so he can have more fun company in his new digs. “Hell shall unfold,/ To entertain you two, her widest gates,/ And send forth all her kings”.

Now Adam and Even take centre stage. I don’t know what it means that I find Hell and its denizens more interesting than both the biddy ol’ angels (except Gabriel, he’s got gumption and personality) and these our bland, primitive ancestors. I don’t look forward to their lines unless they’re praying. Adam is sublime in his role as the superior being of all God’s creatures, including Eve, fond of his role as instructor and first made. Eve bends over backwards to establish her inferiority and subordination to this wondrous man oh to behold him just fills with her joy blah blah fuckin’ blah.

To be fair Milton is sure to have them praising God first and provide a convenient info dump about the forbidden “Tree of Knowledge” for Satan, listening close by in the form of a tiger. Then Eve gets started.

O thou for whom
And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my guide
And head, what thou hast said is just and right.

About a hundred lines later she sees fit to remind us and her husband where she stands:

My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.

I’m almost sure she never addresses him without first acknowledging how dumb she is in comparison to her “author”. In between these two quotes Milton saw fit to reiterate it again, in case we missed it.

So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half embracing leaned
On our first father;

I am only occasionally charmed out of my disgruntlement when Milton writes so warmly and lovingly about their nudity, their loving relationship, and how much they both love marital sex (the right kind!). More on their prayers and Satan’s awesome confrontation with Gabriel in an upcoming post.

1 Response to "“Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand?”"

[…] are my posts on “Persephone the Wanderer” by Louise Gluck and Paradise Lost by John Milton. (I may eventually list then in the sidebar but it’s too late to do that now.) I’m […]

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