John Milton, the 17th Century poet, wrote his two most celebrated works, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’, in the mid 1600s after he had become both blind and impoverished. Milton had written a vast amount of poetry before this period, but ‘Paradise Lost’ is Milton’s work that stands out the most. The poem, like ‘The Aeneid’, is comprised of 12 books, and was inspired by the likes of Homer, Dante and Virgil. Epic poetry was considered to be the highest form of the era, and for that reason Milton tried to imitate the great epic poets in the hope that his poem would be compared to the likes of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’.
Milton, described by William Hayley as the “greatest English author”, based his epic on the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. He took the story of ‘The Fall’ and elaborated it, both expanding and elucidating its meaning. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic novel, holds a lot of comparisons with ‘Paradise Lost’, and indeed Frankenstein’s monster is depicted reading the book on his journeys. The epic has two narratives: one is of Satan; one is of Adam and Eve.
William Blake, the Romantic poet best known for his poem ‘The Tyger’, described Milton as being “of the devil’s party without knowing it”. Milton tells the reader in Book I that the purpose of his poem is to “justify the ways of God to men”. From this alone we can conclude that Milton was not actually “of the devil’s party” in that he was a Satanist, although that idea can, on occasion, come across in the poem. Inevitably this does pose the question of what Blake really meant by what he said.
We can immediately infer that Blake believed Milton’s description of the devil and Pandemonium to be so unbelievably vivid and authentic that it implied Milton had, in some way, experienced the devil. To the contemporary reader this may seem somewhat preposterous, but it was not uncommon for theists of the time to claim to have had experiences of both God and of Satan. Figures such as Giuseppe Tartini and Jonathon Moulton are rumoured to have had dealings with the devil during their lifetimes.
Milton seems to enter Satan’s mind and, to the somewhat superstitious and devoutly religious reader, seems as if he has conversed with Satan himself, ascertaining his true feelings and thoughts. Satan’s words, “Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven”, can be interpreted by the reader as Milton’s own opinion. Blake, also an extremely inspired, creative poet, was truly amazed at Milton’s mind and the vividness of Satan’s narrative. Blake himself designed his very own mythology and world to work cohesively with the principles of Christianity, and in his prophetic books he describes characters such as “Urizen” and “Luvah”. Blake was an extremely devoted and ardent Christian, and it is also clear that he let the characters of the Bible (as well as those of his mind) come alive in his own world. Perhaps Blake was suggesting that the devil was in the room with Milton, influencing him as he dictated his epic. Blake’s imagination was so vivid that he conceivably envisaged Milton, in a state of blind obliviousness, dictating his poem to the devil himself. However, to the secular person this quotation simply serves to emphasise the intensity and vibrancy of John Milton’s writing.
When Milton portrays Satan he glamorises him in a way that is not seen when he is portraying God. Whether this is intentional or not will remain unknown, but Blake concluded that Milton wrote more “at liberty when of Devils and Hell”. In Milton’s masterpiece, Satan is such an effective and slick leader that it is hard not to be deceived by his evil trickery. C.S. Lewis compared creating an evil character to releasing the Mr Hyde in all of us – this is why, he says, Milton’s depiction of evil is more effective than his depiction of good. Despite the poem being described as Milton’s “defence of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil”, we do question Milton’s intentions in painting such a charming and appealing Satan.
Milton’s tempting devil suggests that Milton himself had tendencies to be tempted by the ideas of individuality that can be found in Hell (“One who brings a mind not to be changed by place or time”), and he clearly sees the advantages of Hell over Heaven. He understands that, because anybody is allowed to enter into Pandemonium, then in Hell “we may reign secure”, and not in fear of being thrown out by this almighty power that is God. Milton also sees the potential freedom that can be found in hell, saying that “He who is now sovereign can dispose and bid who shall be right” and “in my choice is worth ambition though in Hell”. Both quotations imply that in heaven there is a restriction on freedom, but that in Hell, all are equal and free to do as they please. We are not forced to “envy” Satan, as we are with God, and we are not restricted by traditional values of honour and virtue. Finally, it is possible that Milton saw Heaven as a continuation of life trying to please God and fulfil his expectations. The conclusion is obvious: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
Milton was not only attacking the ideals of Heaven and an eternity under “celestial light”, but he was attacking the Church. Another Romantic poet, Shelley, praised Milton for presenting the Devil “as a moral being far superior to his God”. Shelley is right; the promotion of liberty and non-conformism is surely a more moral act than repression and institutionalisation. Did Milton do this intentionally?
Milton is promoting quite radical ideas of freedom and individuality, and he clearly has issues with many aspects of organised religion – the hierarchy, the restrictions. Milton would perhaps rather spend eternity in Hell (where “at least we shall be free”), rather than spend eternity in a world of conformism. Blake himself was liable to many of these beliefs, and himself was a non-conformist and a rather radical individual. He described himself as a ‘liberty boy’ and supported the French Revolution. His poetry often reflected his beliefs; for example William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ was written to convey his radical social ideas, with Jesus as a saviour fighting against oppression and helping the poor. However the Church completely reinvented Blake’s poem, turning it into the hymn we know and love today, and obliterating its original message. Moreover, Blake’s poem “The Garden of Love” contains the provocative lines: “Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,/ and binding with briars, my joys and desires.” The poem depicts the Church taking over and restricting all that Blake loves; this idea of restriction is very similar to that of Milton; both loathed the constraints of organised religion and conformism. It is interesting that, notwithstanding their differences, Blake and Milton also had a lot in common when it came to how they portrayed religion through their art.
Given that Blake’s views about religion show a remarkable consistency with Milton’s, his accusation that Milton is “of the devil’s party” is a curious one. Blake, in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, writes that “a system [the Church] was formed, which some took advantage of and enslav’d the vulgar… thus began Priesthood… And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.” Blake is not rejecting belief in God, but he is rejecting the institutionalisation of religion by the Church, and the repressive nature of authoritarianism. He also writes that both “Love and Hate are necessary” and that good and evil are both needed; he says: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Blake’s views are almost synonymous with those of Milton, and this makes the reader wonder why Blake said Milton was “of the devil’s party”.
Finally, as Milton was a republican, it is possible that Blake was referring to the political views expressed in ‘Paradise Lost’. In Book II, the fallen angels are depicted holding a Parliament in Pandemonium and “spouting republican sentiments” (Caroline Moore), whereas in Heaven, God is the absolute monarch describes as “Heaven’s perpetual King” – nobody even questions his right to rule. Is Milton again choosing Hell over Heaven? And is he, therefore, “of the devil’s party”?
There is, of course, a danger of reading too far into Blake’s words; perhaps, as aforementioned, he was simply praising Milton’s poetic skill. Milton, in the same quotation, says that “Milton was a true poet”. It is also possible that Blake saw himself as “of the devil’s party” since he rejected the repression of the Church; perhaps Blake saw Milton as, like him, an intellectual bastion of individuality and freedom of expression.