The Satanic Epic

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Overview

"The Satanic Epic is a splendid book that seeks to recover what Forsyth calls 'the subversive Satan.' This instantly sets him in opposition to mainstream Milton criticism. By rooting the Satanic reading of Milton more firmly in Biblical and other sources, he poses a challenge to those who evoke scholarship in defence of Milton's orthodoxy."?John Leonard, author of Naming in Paradise

"Forsyth's treatment of Paradise Lost is probing and ...

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Overview

"The Satanic Epic is a splendid book that seeks to recover what Forsyth calls 'the subversive Satan.' This instantly sets him in opposition to mainstream Milton criticism. By rooting the Satanic reading of Milton more firmly in Biblical and other sources, he poses a challenge to those who evoke scholarship in defence of Milton's orthodoxy."—John Leonard, author of Naming in Paradise

"Forsyth's treatment of Paradise Lost is probing and illuminating. It is a true scholar's feast, a most impressive and compelling work. It is particularly engaging because of its willingness to give the devil his due and to argue for Satan's importance not only in Milton's epic but in the culture that Milton inherited."—Michael Lieb, author of Milton and the Culture of Violence

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Editorial Reviews

Milton Quarterly - Michael Lieb
The Satanic Epic establishes Forsyth as our foremost scholar of Satan as a literary and cultural phenomenon. . . . The Satanic Epic is useful not only as a deft and fascinating reading of the most 'imposing' character in Paradise Lost but as a history of Satanic interpretation from the ancient world onward to Milton's own time. . . . Forsyth's scholarship re-creates and redefines the milieu out of which Milton's works emerged. In the process, it tells a fascinating story. As a result of his work, we are in Forsyth's debt.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2004 Holly Hanford Award, The Milton Society of America

"The Satanic Epic establishes Forsyth as our foremost scholar of Satan as a literary and cultural phenomenon. . . . The Satanic Epic is useful not only as a deft and fascinating reading of the most 'imposing' character in Paradise Lost but as a history of Satanic interpretation from the ancient world onward to Milton's own time. . . . Forsyth's scholarship re-creates and redefines the milieu out of which Milton's works emerged. In the process, it tells a fascinating story. As a result of his work, we are in Forsyth's debt."—Michael Lieb, Milton Quarterly

Milton Quarterly
The Satanic Epic establishes Forsyth as our foremost scholar of Satan as a literary and cultural phenomenon. . . . The Satanic Epic is useful not only as a deft and fascinating reading of the most 'imposing' character in Paradise Lost but as a history of Satanic interpretation from the ancient world onward to Milton's own time. . . . Forsyth's scholarship re-creates and redefines the milieu out of which Milton's works emerged. In the process, it tells a fascinating story. As a result of his work, we are in Forsyth's debt.
— Michael Lieb
Milton Quarterly
The Satanic Epic establishes Forsyth as our foremost scholar of Satan as a literary and cultural phenomenon. . . . The Satanic Epic is useful not only as a deft and fascinating reading of the most 'imposing' character in Paradise Lost but as a history of Satanic interpretation from the ancient world onward to Milton's own time. . . . Forsyth's scholarship re-creates and redefines the milieu out of which Milton's works emerged. In the process, it tells a fascinating story. As a result of his work, we are in Forsyth's debt.
— Michael Lieb
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691113395
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2002
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Satanic Epic


By Neil Forsyth

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11339-5


Introduction

Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan in "Paradise Lost." It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.-SHELLEY, The Defence of Poetry

1. "Too full of the Devill"

Paradise Lost is not an orthodox poem and it needs to be rescued from its orthodox critics. This book contends that the best way back to the poem Milton composed, rather than the one the orthodox would have us read, is to reassert the importance of Satan, heretic and hater. I shall be doing this in various ways. One is through revising the history of the Satan that Milton reimagines for us, since a mistaken idea about it has been widely accepted in recent years. It is the combat myth, I argue, that has always been at the center of that history, and Milton knew it. His more perceptive readers have kept it there, for the opposition is central to the poem. "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devils party without knowing it." Blake's aphorism has become so famous that it is hard to hear what it says. I think that, like much Romantic criticism, it is right, orat least helpful, except for the implied accusation of ignorance. Milton knew quite well what he was up to: even the fetters are deliberately donned. And there was a "Devils party."

He claimed to be writing to justify the ways of God to men. Nonetheless, "Milton is a poet too full of the Devill," said an early reader, the country minister John Beale. Though he thought Paradise Lost "excellent," he found "great faults" in it, and preferred the earlier poetry, less obviously political: he wrote that Milton had "put such long & horrible Blasphemyes in the Mouth of Satan, as no man that feares God can endure to Read it, or without a poysonous Impression." That view of Milton's Satan was prophetic, as well as perceptive, and it has continued in several forms to this day: contemporary teachers apparently feel the need to protest at the prominence given to Satan in student responses to the poem, or among certain benighted scholars. One such teacher, writing recently on an electronic discussion list, was proud to announce that her students had "seen through Satan" very quickly. I do not think she was aware of the double meaning of the phrase.

In spite of such attitudes, Satan has stayed at the forefront of readers' reactions to the poem. Beale's more famous contemporary, John Dryden, described Satan as the poem's "hero, instead of Adam." Although Dryden was using the word hero more in a formal than a political sense, the remark was quickly read as a Tory slur against "that Grand Whig Milton." The post-Restoration world continued to read Milton's politics through Satan's. A discussion in the London Chronicle of 1763-64 pitted Whig against Tory readings of Paradise Lost and in each case Satan stands for the unacceptable voice of the opposition: Tories thought Milton had repudiated the good old cause by "giving the same characteristics to the apostate angels as were applicable to his rebel brethren," while the Whig response sees Satan as the arch-Tory, "setting himself up over his peers."

Romantic admiration for Milton built on this eighteenth-century reception, but now comparison with Satan was the way to admire one's heroes, not diminish one's enemies. Burns, even before the French Revolution, wrote of "my favourite hero, Milton's Satan," and talked of his "dauntless magnanimity; the intrepid, unyielding independance; the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great Personage, Satan." William Godwin asked in his Political Justice of 1793, "Why did Satan rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power which the creator assumed." Godwin's daughter, Mary, and her husband Percy Shelley, kept up the admiration long after the Revolution had turned sour. Mary's journal testifies to their frequent reading of Milton together, and she permeated her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1817) with references to Paradise Lost. The eighteenth century had already shifted the focus of interest from Adam and Eve to the Satanic sublime, and Frankenstein reflects that shift. "Remember that I am thy creature," says the nameless monster to his creator: "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss from which I alone am irrevocably excluded." Percy Shelley, in an essay "On the Devil, and Devils," wrote

As to the Devil, he owes everything to Milton. Dante and Tasso present us with a very gross idea of him: Milton divested him of a sting, hoofs, and horns; clothes him with the sublime grandeur of a graceful but tremendous spirit.

This Satan was a Romantic hero, politically admirable-and good to look at.

Most readers have continued to connect Milton with his hero. But the differences just sketched have remained active, and no consensus has ever emerged about what the connection implied. Even the Romantic enthusiasts, as we shall see later, were not always so sure of their allegiance. Are we to identify with Satan, who himself presents the case against tyranny but who takes on a tyrant's role, or read against his impact? Or both?

A modern critic attributes this uncertainty to the idea that Milton deliberately wrote a controversial poem, one that would continue to disturb its readers and perhaps excite commitment.

Custom, tradition, indeed all the common glosses of theologians, are, for Milton, enemies of truth, whereas constant labor, tireless seeking, and continual interrogation are, again for Milton, a means of moving beyond the unthinking distortions of orthodoxy into the realm of truth.

This view has little in common with the Shelleys', beyond the refusal to admit an orthodox Milton. Otherwise "constant labor, tireless seeking," and other American values have replaced the heroic Satan and his sublime grandeur. This newer Milton is a reflective heretic, who "thus gives voice to inconsistencies and to contradictions within his culture that often he cannot transcend," and that are frequently embodied in, or articulated by, his Satan. So, whether we read Milton for his sublimity or his controversies, we are drawn to the figure who dominates the poem. That, in a nutshell, is what this book is about-the attraction of Satan.

The appeal of Satan is hardly a new topic in the world of Milton studies. I will argue nonetheless that Satan's importance, his overwhelming power in the poem, and even that attractiveness itself, have been obscured by most recent criticism. It may seem unthinkable to those beyond the groves of academe, but there has been a conscious attempt by orthodox, pro-God critics (whether actively Christian or not) to deflate Satan's wonderfully persuasive rhetoric and show forth his moral flaws. At the same time there has been what looks like a largely unconscious drive to protect vulnerable young readers, and perhaps the critic himself, from the Satanic power. The mistaken assumption here is usually that Satan is to be equated with "evil," and the result has been to ignore what seem to me obvious features of the poem. Thus Satan's ambivalent and constantly shifting relationship to the poem's narrator has been buried beneath the insistence that the narrator must somehow always be the mouthpiece for a stern and moralizing Milton. And in the same way, any apparent opposition between the narrator and Satan has been read as a "correction" of Satan, or the reader. If Satan is "Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare" (1.126), as the narrator early insists, that is universally taken as a sign that we must withdraw any nascent sympathy for the Devil. I will argue instead that this assumption violates something more important-the tragic status of the hero, what the Shelleys took so seriously.

It also devalues the larger shape of the poem. Paradise Lost is a long poem, as epics are, and its more important meanings emerge gradually. So the order of chapters in this book, after the first, is governed very roughly by the structure of Paradise Lost, since I try to respect-and account for-the reading experience Milton designs for us. (Chapter nine, for example, is largely about Book 9.) The sequence of chapters also represents an accumulating argument about the reasons for calling the poem "the Satanic epic," obvious enough in the early books, where Satan dominates, but more complex later when he is often absent from the action. The last chapters show how the structure of the whole poem, and even its final scene, may be read as Satanic.

Romantic admiration, then, was not misplaced. Satan's appeal is obvious from the beginning. Milton constructs him as our point of access, a seductive way in, both to the action of the whole epic and to the world of Paradise itself. He gets our (my) sympathy in many ways: he knows, or rather he discovers during one marvellous speech, that he is damned, like a good tragic hero; but he also seems mysteriously to know, as we all do, that "terrour be in Love / And beautie" (9.490-91). And if this be the Miltonic narrator's idea as much as Satan's, as it certainly is when he acknowledges "jealousie / ... the injur'd Lovers Hell" (5.449-50), this only shows how entangled is the narrator with his hero, and how alike they are. The poem is pervaded by Satan, as the title of this book is designed to indicate.

The controversy over Satan, instigated by the earliest readers and unforgettably extended by the Romantics, is where most readers start to get interested. One of the great pleasures of reading Milton, and reading about him, is the strength and eloquence of the passions he arouses-and the passions usually begin with Satan. In recent years, two other issues have dominated the debate: Milton's politics, especially his role in the English revolution and the ways in which his poetry can be read in the light of that role, and Milton's women. Under the impact of materialist criticism, and feminist theory, most of the best writing, whether pro- or anti-Milton, has been about those matters. I shall not be ignoring those important topics in this book, but I think the time has come to reopen the issues from the point of view of the main character in Paradise Lost. That is, after all, how Milton presents them; politics and the relation of men to women (also a political issue) are both approached initially through the figure of Satan.

It is strange that some parts of the text, so blatantly subversive, were not censored by Restoration officialdom. No doubt Milton was careful, as those who write under autocratic regimes have to be. But we are told that the censor almost destroyed the poem because of the Satanic simile about the eclipse that "with fear of change / Perplexes Monarchs" (1.598-99). And if the censor thought those lines were questionable, then why did he not, even more insistently, scratch out other bits? What of Belial, for example? In the rabbinic view, his name means "profligacy," and is a casual curse in Hebrew, ("worthless"). Surely any reader would recognize that what is said of him applies more obviously to the Royalists, the cavaliers of Milton's own immediate experience, those aristocratic enemies against whom he and his fellows had tried and failed to establish a free commonwealth. The tense is now the present:

In Courts and Palaces he also reigns And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs, And injury and outrage: And when Night Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine. Witness the streets of Sodom, and that night In Gibeah, when the hospitable door Expos'd a Matron to avoid worse rape. (Paradise Lost [hereafter PL] 1.498-505)

That worse rape, if you look up the story of the visiting angels in Genesis

19.4-11 (and the parallel type-scene in Judges 19), you discover to be homosexual rape of one of those beautiful angels. With these implications it's perhaps not surprising that God cursed the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. But it is surely surprising that this passage, in which Milton implicitly tars the court of Charles II with the same brush, somehow escaped the censor. The passage about the "disastrous" eclipse comes only a few lines later.

Partly because of the implied politics, Milton's Satan has proved to be one of the most fertile characters in English literature-fertile of interpretation, of response, of rewriting-and unsettling, even threatening, because so fascinating and yet so hard to evaluate. He has become, arguably, as subversive for subsequent readers of Milton as was the devil of the popular and theological tradition. Though the Romantic poets thought him the prototype of revolutionary heroism, most readers have felt compelled to demonstrate his flaws-as if the danger he represents needs constantly to be contained by every reader, at every reading. The poem, I think, encourages both these responses, in that it offers the reader an alluring portrait of Satan but sets it within an epic narrative structure that encourages constant questioning-and within which it gradually fades away as seasonal time and human history ("this transient World, the Race of time"; 12.554) replace or convert myth.

For the most part, my own arguments will explore other aspects of Satan than the Romantic hero. But this is the place to begin, where the poem (almost) begins. Without that sympathy for Satan that is our Romantic inheritance, we cannot properly read Milton. For some readers, this pressure of Satan in the poem is quite a simple matter: he is heroic early on, in public, but then his private self is revealed, perhaps already in the meeting with Sin and Death in Book 2, certainly in the Niphates speech that opens the action in Book 4, and thereafter he quickly ceases to trouble the critic, who nonetheless expends a great deal of energy putting him in his place and assuring us he is embodied evil. For others, though, the problems posed by Satan are not so easily dispelled: we have no magic wand like Ithuriel's spear in 4.810-19 to make the fiend start up in his own shape. Indeed, since he is both angel and serpent, not to mention cormorant and toad, does Satan have anything as ordinary as "his own shape"? What, after all, does that odd phrase "own likeness" mean?

The likeness of Satan, in one sense, is the poem itself. Dennis Burden argued in his book, The Logical Epic, that inside the godly or Adamic narrative that Milton wrote there was a parallel Satanic epic trying to get out. Satan's is a classical epic of heroic virtue and tragic fate, of the kind conceived in Hell when the devils sing "Thir own Heroic deeds and hapless fall / By doom of battel" (2.549-50). Burden contrasts this with the Christian epic of freedom and just law, in which "doom" means simply the decree of God: "In the day we eate / Of this fair Fruit, our doom is, we shall die" (9.762-63). He shows how closely the two epics are juxtaposed, for example, in Book 9, when Satan, following Genesis 3.5, appeals to Eve's desire to be like a goddess, to make the heroic attempt to rise above her lot, and ignore the point of her act in the Christian epic-simple disobedience. In Book 10, similarly, the Satanic triumph that turns bliss to a hiss is framed by the Adamic recovery from Satanic despair.

But I shall be arguing that there is a more even congruence of Satan with the full text of the poem. Satan seduces the reader in several ways: first he has an interior, a private self, recognizably close to ours, and it is here rather than in a literal Hell that he is so intelligently, self-consciously damned-he has that hollow depth that texts seem to share with people; and second, well, he is a good speaker, both in the public scenes of the early and middle books, and in the more intimate dialogue of Book 9. The text invites the reader to experience that seduction, at times in company with Eve (who falls), most often in company with the narrator (who resists). In spite of the narrator, at times even because of him, Satan's presence as the dominating character makes the text itself, at most of the key moments, inveigling, unreliable, seductive, fascinating. The Satanic epic continues even when he is not himself present: in the conversation about astronomy and love that Adam has with Raphael in Book 8, supposedly an innocent calm before the fall, the narrative does not allow us to forget for long our postlapsarian complicity with Satan. And even after he drops ignominously out of the poem in Book 10 with that splendid and extended hiss, the seductive text keeps him active.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Satanic Epic by Neil Forsyth Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PREFACE ix INTRODUCTION 1
(1) "Too full of the Devill" 1
(2) "God is not the devil" 8
(3) The Narrative Theology of "therefore" 12
(4) "The most heroic subject that ever was chosen" 18

Chapter 1: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SATAN 24
(1) The Old Enemy 25
(2) Ancient Myth and Epic 28
(3) Hesiod 30
(4) Apocalypses 35
(5) The satan 37
(6) The New Testament 39
(7) The Early Church 43
(8) Heresy 45
(9) Medieval Heresy 49
(10) Old English Genesis to Chaucer 50
(11) Satan's Rebellion 54
(12) Warfare and Imperialism 56
(13) Elizabethan Drama 60
(14) Politics 62
(15) The Miltonic Moment 64
(16) Subversive Satan 66
(17) Critical Controversies 69

Chapter 2: THE EPIC VOICE 77
(1) Seeing through Satan 77
(2) Hope and Despair 81
(3) "Dark designs" 86
(4) "Devils into Dwarfs" 87
(5) The Critical Need for the Narrator 90
(6) Epic Similes 100
(7) Erring 105
(8) Parliamentary Devils 108

Chapter 3: FOLLOW THE LEADER 114
(1) Chaos 115
(2) Approaching Paradise 124
(3) Satan's Entry into Paradise 129
(4) Paradise 129
(5) Sex 134

Chapter 4: "MYSELF AM HELL" 147
(1) Niphates 148
(2) Faustus and the Abyss 152
(3) God in Satan 155
(4) Hell in Heaven 157
(5) Witchcraft 160

Chapter 5: SATAN'S REBELLION 167
(1) Rebellion in Hesiod 170
(2) God's Creative Word 171
(3) Satan's Theology 176
(4) Sources of Satan's motive 180
(5) Hebrews 183
(6) Psalm 2 185

Chapter 6: THE LANGUAGE OF "EVIL" 188
(1) Classical versus Christian 188
(2) Hate in Heaven 190
(3) The "Problem of Evil" 192
(4) Satan and Ancient Evils 195
(5) Allecto: Hell's Fury 196
(6) The Darkness of Hell 201
(7) "God created evil" 204
(8) The Language of Sin 206
(9) Evil Eve 207
(10) Openings 209
(11) "Perverse" 212
(12) Odium Dei 214

Chapter 7: OF MANS FIRST DIS 217
(1) Dis— 218
(2) Satan's "dark suggestions" 221
(3) Quibbles 224
(4) Vergil 228
(5) Ovid 229
(6) Dante 233
(7) Difference 235

Chapter 8: HOMER IN MILTON: THE ATTENDANCE MOTIF AND THE GRACES 239

Chapter 9. SATAN TEMPTER 259
(1) Intercourse 259
(2) "Stupidly good" 261
(3) Sexual Serpents 263
(4) Discourse 265
(5) The Seductive Text 268
(6) Commentators 272
(7) "What delight" 277
(8) Satan's Sewers 280
(9) Satanic Verses 282
Chapter 10: "IF THEY WILL HEAR" 285

Chapter 11: AT THE SIGN OF THE DOVE AND THE SERPENT 301
(1) Irenaeus 303
(2) The Wisdom of the Serpent 304
(3) Image 305
(4) The Brazen Serpent 308
(5) The Meaning of History 309
(6) Christ and Serpent 311
12. " f ul l of doubt i stand" : th e structures of parad i se lost 314
conclu s i on : s i g n s p ortentou s 329
(1) Apocalypse 329
(2) "Disastrous twilight" 332
(3) Editors 338
(4) Sun-Son 341
(5) Reading Signs 342
(6) "Good with bad expect to hear" 344

BIBLIOGRAPHY 349
INDEX 371

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2005

    Well researched

    When reading this book I find answers to big questions that one may have about the origin of evil, and how evil can exist if God is love. I have read a book along the same lines as this one, and the answers are rational considering the motivation behind the writing. I recommened this book to anyone interested in the philosphy of evils' origin.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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