the imaginative conservative logo

apollo-belvedere1The concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian are famously invoked by Nietzsche in the context of Greek drama, but not in such a way that we can transfer them directly to poetry and prose. Let it suffice to say that Apollo is typically represented as restrained, orderly, and logical; Dionysus is erratic, spontaneous, and emotive. Nietzsche also associated Apollo with individualism and Dionysus with a universality born of insanity.

Needless to say, Christ is neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. The Triune God, whether He exists or not, contains elements of both. If we may leave aside the Dionysian (at least for this essay), considering John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the context of Nietzsche’s theory of duality will shed light on a number of the interpretive difficulties facing readers of Milton’s epic masterpiece.

William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, noted that, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” And right he was. Blake isn’t, of course, suggesting that Milton was an unwitting agent of Satan, nor that for purely literary purposes he set up Satan as the hero of his epic—which may amount to the same thing. Blake simply observed that Satan is given a better literary treatment than God. One can never say for absolute certain to whom a man’s soul is truly loyal, yet the pained depiction of God in Paradise Lost suggests Milton was intending to be faithful to God’s party. When the Father addresses the Son in Book III, he does so with excessive theological precision:

O Son, in whom my soul hath chief delight,
Son of my bosom, Son who art alone
My Word, my wisdom, and effectual might,
All hast thou spoken as my thoughts are, all
As my eternal purpose has decreed…

We may well speculate that Milton binds himself in these fetters exactly because he’s as aware as we are that Satan is the more well-developed character, literarily speaking. A number of speeches by the “anti-hero” are recognized as being among the finest moments in English poetry. For instance, in Book I, Satan and his outcast followers lie stunned in Chaos’s lake of fire. He calls to

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr

(beautiful creatures!) to again siege God’s throne, asking, “Or in this abject posture have ye sworn/ To adore the Conquerour?” If we aren’t roused to action ourselves, we ought at least to wonder why Satan seems to be a finer rhetorician than God. The Devil himself admits their cause is useless—the weight of evidence is against his case—yet he makes the case so well that the fallen angels rise again to attempt—and fail—to best God. The theologically orthodox answer may be that had God attempted to do so, He would easily have swayed the fallen angels to repent, or never to revolt in the beginning. But then why have God speak at all? Milton’s God the Father is unbelievable, plotting with all the vigor and cockiness of an embattled general, the only combatant who doesn’t seem to be aware of His own inevitable victory.

Again, as Blake observes, Milton is a finer poet than he is a Christian apologist. This stems from a misconception of God: The deity in Milton’s epic isn’t the God of Abraham, but an Anglicized Apollo.

Martin_PandemoniumIn Paradise Lost, the symbol of God is light. This is not in itself unheard of, as it echoes John 1:5: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The Gospel also declares that, “if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.”(John 11:10) But both Christianity and the Bible have maintained an inability to identify God only and unequivocally with light. Doing so would stunt His being and impose limits on His omnipresence. Psalm 139 declares: “Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” We mortals have darkness aplenty, and we need the light God offers. But God isn’t unknown to darkness, either. He’s our light, but not merely light.

Milton’s God is unbelievable for being too predictable. He’s too comprehensible, too one-dimensional. He isn’t absent in Hell because Hell is the absence of God (as Hell is traditionally understood), but rather it seems that God is incapable of encroaching on that place called Hell. Milton says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” That’s not theologically correct. God can make a Heaven of Hell by appearing in Hell, or a Hell of Heaven by departing from Heaven. Indeed, in the traditional understanding of the Harrowing of Hell, not only does God arrive in Hell, but He sets the worthy souls of Old Testament personages free from imprisonment therein. One might expect a logical, dispassionate Apollonian to consider “Hell” a condition of the mind, and yet the story of the Passiontide makes it clear that only the Gospel may free one from Hell. (Again, we needn’t believe all of the above to be literally true, but there’s certainly some disjunction between Milton’s narrative and the traditional Christian one.)

Or we may simply consider this from another angle: Had—impossible as it is—Satan overthrown God, Heaven would have become Hell, indeed, and where God was “cast down” to would’ve been Heaven. Satan’s folly is in believing one can occupy Heaven without God. Heaven is the pure domain of God.

Yet, we should not blame Milton for characterizing Satan as he did. Satan, as a finite being, may be characterized. He may be given physical features, cloaked in dramatic symbols, and afforded those personality traits that make epic characters so intriguing: doubt, hatred, envy, etc. And so Milton triumphs in creating a plausible, well-composed character of Satan.

On the other hand, God, being infinite, is too vast to characterize. The interactions between the different Persons of the Trinity fall flat because Milton attempts to de-mystify the Trinitarian mystery. Of course, this can’t be done: It’s beyond human conception. Milton, likewise, struggles and fails to depict the Almighty God as one combatant in an epic war, when God possesses none of the qualities that lend themselves to an epic hero: perseverance in spite of doubt, courage in spite of fear, fury ignited by loss, noble defeat in the face of insurmountable odds, etc. And so Milton naturally fails to create a plausible Jehovah character. His Divine Being suits a semi-Christianized Apollo—He acts logically, is meticulously plotting, and exists purely in the domain of Light—but not the Christian God Himself.

146839-004-3C436FE2Milton, we may conclude, had too much of a vested interest in conceptualizing God for Paradise Lost to be plausible as a Christian poem. It succeeds unequivocally as a poem qua poem, but not as a didactic theological poem, as for instance Dryden’s. If we lived four hundred year earlier, we might suggest Milton pit Satan primarily against St. Gabriel or St. Michael, who as finite angelic beings like Satan might offer at least the pretense of dramatic struggle, even with the ironic presence of Heaven’s victory looming in the back of our minds. But, as no poem can be perfect, and certainly no poem of the unequalled scope and ambition as Paradise Lost, we may forgive Milton his over-eagerness.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. While I certainly appreciate many of the author’s insights into this excellent poem, the central argument seems to focus far too much on the depictions of both God and Satan in the first three or four books. As Satan becomes unraveled over the course of the poem, it is hard to sustain the thesis that he is the poem’s hero. It seems to me the poem intentionally upsets that idea even through Satan’s own words. Even by the time he reaches the gate of Hell on his way to Earth and his relationships with Sin and Death are revealed, his romanticization begins to look a lot like the Emperor’s clothes.

Leave a Reply