Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paradise Lost and Politics

This post doesn't connect so directly with the reading for this week, but I just wanted to comment on something that I had been thinking about this week and had done a little research on.  Specifically, I was curious about looking at Paradise Lost in the context of the the Interregnum (after Charles I was executed) and the Restoration (after Charles II was reinstated as monarch).  Milton, of course, had been a vocal proponent of Republicanism and had played a part in the government under Cromwell.  He had lived to see a revolution against the king that resulted in the king's beheading, the setting up of a republic, the downfall of those republican ideals, and the restoration of the king to the throne.  Looking at PL, it's hard not to look at it and see connections between the earthly monarchies and legislatures that Milton saw and the supernatural ones (both heavenly and devilish) depicted in PL.

In looking for material related to this topic I ran across an interesting article called "'Warring Chains of Signifiers': Metaphoric Ambivalence and the Politics of Paradise Lost" by Peter C. Herman, which focuses on the ambiguity behind many of Milton's metaphors, especially in describing Satan.  I think this ties into the question:  Is Satan the "hero" of Paradise Lost?  While this article doesn't answer that question directly, I believe it provides some insight as to why this remains such a long-standing and divisive question.

Herman, in his essay contends that PL "includes a fundamental, unresolved incertitude, whether conscious or not, about the Republic, kingship, Cromwell, and the tenability of rebellion" and that Milton "invokes comparisons that disperse certainty and provoke mutually exclusive interpretations" (268-269).  Herman gives several examples of metaphors used in describing Satan that seem to have disparate connotations depending on how you look at them.  For example, Satan is compared in Book I with a Titan from classical mythology called Briareos, who (depending on the source) was either an evil character that was rightly thrown out of power by Jove or a hero who actually fought on the side of gods (271-272).  This throws into confusion what is Satan exactly in this metaphor--is he a "hero" or is he a villain?

Oliver Cromwell
Milton furthermore describes Satan in Book I as being "Shorn of his Beams... / In dim Eclipse," which Herman points out is similar language Milton had used in describing Charles I.  Milton had described Charles I as "an impotent, darkened sun" (274).  This idea of Satan as representing Charles I is complicated, however, by the fact that Satan could also be seen as a representation of Oliver Cromwell.  Herman writes:  "Milton puts ito Satan's mouth Republican sentiments, thus turning Hell into a parliament of sorts and Heaven into a monarchy" (275-276).  While Herman's point is that the interpretation is purposefully ambiguous, personally I'm partial to the idea of Satan representing Cromwell.  Cromwell, after all, began a revolution that was meant to bring republican democracy to Britain and then quickly established himself as "Lord Protectorate" of the nation (much like how Satan established a kind of legislature in Book I and then quickly set himself up as leader).  Cromwell is also both a hero and villain of British history, depending on who's telling the story.

Herman closes the article asserting that the ambivalence behind interpreting the character of Satan is Milton's way of trying to work through his experiences.  He writes of Milton:

Having witnessed the Republic betray its principles and collapse, then having to endure both the Restoration and the ensuing danger to himself, Milton created a text in which he inscribes the terrible oscillation between assertions and subversions of principle that results when everything has unraveled and one is left trying to make sense of the ruins. (285)

This is just one article, so I'm definitely interested in pursuing this line of thought.

Herman, Peter C.  "'Warring Chains of Signifiers': Metaphoric Ambivalence and the Politics of Paradise Lost."  Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40.3 (Fall 1998):  268-292.  Electronic Version.
(A copy can be found on JSTOR at

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't really thought about the historical context and how it might relate to characters within Paradise Lost. I guess it's pretty easy to get into allegory mode and only address those aspects that are most apparent, but as you've proved, there are lots of different ways to look at things, and literature (expression in general) is an on-going conversation that builds upon real experiences and interactions.