Contents Index

The Siege of Hateful Contraries: Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Paradise Lost

Stuart Curran

In Milton and the Line of Vision, ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 209-20

I dreamed that Milton's spirit rose, and took
From life's green tree his Uranian lute;
And from his touch sweet thunder flowed, and shook
All human things built in contempt of man . . .
-- Shelley
Few can pretend to the cheek of C. S. Lewis, who first told Milton's readers that none of them knew what Paradise Lost was about and then, with the primness of a Tory vicar confident of taking tea with royalty in heaven, informed his auditors that the lesson for the day was obedience.1 But without his hauteur, one can feel as adamant in one's convictions and press a thesis somewhat less primary, if equally less erroneous. Simple and negative, it is likewise easier to substantiate. Romantic Satanism, the pervasive heresy supposedly celebrated by the younger Romantics, does not exist, but, like the chimeras of Eve's dream, continues to distemper the mind. On that occasion Milton assured us that "Evil into the mind of God or man / May come or go" (V.117-18); but we may also assume that it ought not to remain unquestioned for a century and a half.

{210} To lift this burden from shoulders wearily accustomed to bear it is not to deny that there are those who deserve to have it to themselves. A succession of Milton's critics, with a sophistical blindness to the text, placed a self-indulgent and idiosyncratic taste above sober judgment and determined Milton to be Satan's apologist. For obscure reasons of cultural dynamics this line of argument seems to have reached its most vociferous pitch around the time of the Second World War, and the subsequent development of criticism on Paradise Lost appears to have taken impetus from the perceived necessity of refuting the Satanic view. With professional standards of courtesy governing so much of academic life, critics may be pardoned for displacing E. M. W. Tillyard or A. J. A. Waldock in favor of Shelley and Byron, long dead and immured within their scandalous reputations. A curious gentility it is, however, that would make the younger Romantics scapegoats and distort their views to accord with those of later commentators. One finds Merritt Y. Hughes, whose scholarly judgment was otherwise finely balanced, claiming that "Milton's Satan deceives himself so well that he deceived Shelley into thinking him a Promethean apostle of human regeneration, and Byron into thinking him an inspiring symbol of revolt against political tyranny."2 Shelley, suggests John S. Diekhoff, conceived of Satan "as a thoroughly admirable moral agent," and Diekhoff dismisses the famous remarks on Paradise Lost in A Defense of Poetry with blistering scorn: "If this is eloquent, it is eloquent nonsense."3 The moral archness of these comments serves to remind us that Romantic Satanism has an exact source in literary history, a source that might surprise later critics who lightly inherit the term:

Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations, who, forming a system of opinions to suit their own unhappy course of conduct, have rebelled against the holiest ordinances of human society, and hating that revealed religion which, with all their efforts and bravadoes, they are unable entirely to disbelieve, labour to make others as miserable as themselves, by infecting them with a moral virus that eats into the soul! The school which they have {211} set up may properly be called the Satanic school; for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent, they are more especially characterized by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety, which still betrays the wretched feeling of hopelessness wherewith it is allied.4
Robert Southey began this diatribe in the third section of his preface to A Vision of Judgement by suggesting that the laws be strengthened to prohibit the publication and distribution of "those monstrous combinations of horrors and mockery, lewdness and impiety," by which he characterized the mature works of Byron and Shelley.5 Of course, it is unjust to taint later attacks on Romantic Satanism with guilt by association; but Southey's combination of humorless orthodoxy and censorious repression must give one pause. His correct assessment of the Satanic mentality is expressed within a context utterly abhorrent to Milton. Had Milton been alive when his conceptions were first invoked against the Satanists, one would confidently predict him to have joined the devil's party posthaste.

The moral of Southey's position should thus be observed. In rejecting the simplistic tendencies of the Satanist critics, readers of Milton have at times followed C. S. Lewis into the equally simplistic pieties of Anglo-Catholicism. The contemporary view of Paradise Lost, buttressed by extensive theological scholarship and a close reading of textual patterns, is more orthodox, one might submit, than ever before in the history of the poem's reception. If the Satanists commonly treated Milton as if he did not know how to express his deep allegiances, the orthodox critics also tend to separate the artist from the artifact, as if Paradise Lost were another, sublime example of God's creation. But the Satanic impulse did not leap forth as a fully formed perversion, like Sin from the head of her creator, when the Bastille gates fell and the ancient hierarchies toppled: it surfaces throughout the poem itself, as Milton obviously intended it to do. If the greatest artist of English verse wished to create a masterpiece that never probed or questioned orthodox conceptions, he had the certain capacity. {212} Instead of avoiding problems or tacitly ignoring them, Milton goes out of his way to emphasize them. And the central issue, claiming our attention from the first, may be summarized in Sir Herbert Grierson's sardonic observation: "If the third part of a school or college or nation broke into rebellion we should be driven, or strongly disposed, to suspect some mismanagement by the supreme powers."6 Such suspicions Milton actively encourages, shrewdly understanding that the surest means of creating epic dynamism out of a myth where all the answers are known is to call those answers into question, one by one. It is noteworthy that so many of the commentaries on the poem set as their aim the gentle guiding of the reader back to orthodoxy. If the untutored reader has been seduced, it is not by Shelley and Byron, but by Milton. As Shelley affirms in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, "the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a republican, and a bold inquirer into morals and religion."7 Thus conceived, he became the exemplar for the skeptical endeavors of Shelley and Byron, and a classic antagonist to the hired sanctimoniousness of poets laureate.

The bold inquiry of Paradise Lost, as Shelley reads the poem, stems from distinctive ramifications of its largeness of vision, which he analyzes in the famous passage in A Defense of Poetry and recreates in several of his major poems. In the Defense he celebrates Dante and Milton together:

The Divina Commedia and Paradise Lost have conferred upon modern mythology a systematic form; and when change and time shall have added one more superstition to the mass of those which have arisen and decayed upon the earth, commentators will be learnedly employed in elucidating the religion of ancestral Europe, only not utterly forgotten because it will have been stamped with the eternity of genius. (Prose, VII, 130)
That comment has an authentically Shelleyan ring to it, but it is no mere reiteration of his pervasive irreligion. Rather, it represents {213} the considered perspective from which he reads Milton's epic: as comparable to the Homeric or Virgilian epics, a mythic structure independent of the religious principles that inform it. To Shelley Paradise Lost represents Christianity but it does not inculcate it. If anything, Milton's objective rendering of Christian myth draws attention to its inadequacies, especially for a reader predisposed to emphasize them:
. . . Milton's poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system, of which, by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in "Paradise Lost." It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonours his conquest in the victor. Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as One who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to One who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius. (Prose, VII, 129-30)
To assert that this passage "presents Satan as the great moral agent" of Paradise Lost, or to remind us sarcastically that "the purpose which he has conceived to be excellent" is merely the destruction of the human race, is wholly to distort Shelley's statement.8 Miltonist commentary on this passage has invariably {214} seized upon isolated subordinate clauses (for example, "although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat"), converting them into declarative and unmodified assertions, or has rewritten two sharply circumscribed, sequential constructions -- "as far superior to . . . as One who perseveres" -- "has so far violated the popular creed . . . as to have alleged" -- so that they appear to be direct affirmations. In the main body of the passage there is a single unconditional declaration around which all else revolves: "these things are evil" (my italics). The enveloping clauses seek to discriminate the fine gradations of this evil, not to exonerate it. If a reader seeks a moral representative, Shelley suggests, it is obvious that he will not find one in Satan; and, less apparent but equally clear, since God acts as Satan's antagonist with superior hatred, cunning, and plotting, he self-evidently suffers from the same defects. The only extenuation of Satan's evil is that accorded a victim of greater evil. No moral superiority can be claimed, however, because the antagonism of Satan and God is itself not moral.9

Shelley would have welcomed the clarity of Lewis's memorable utterance: "Many of those who say they dislike Milton's God only mean that they dislike God."10 He would have assented without feeling any need to follow Lewis into apologetics. For Shelley, the Christian vision of Paradise Lost is a mythic structure conceptually removed from questions of faith or belief, a dynamic model whose universal tensions have been accentuated by Milton. In his brief analysis Shelley ignores the psychological validity of Milton's rendering of evil, though it is clear from many of his writings -- and in particular the direct confrontation of Christ and Satan in the rejected choral prelude to Hellas -- that the poet was indebted to Milton for his own comprehension of a reductive, self-consumed, and self-consuming evil. The account focuses on Paradise Lost as macrocosm, a mythological paradigm, as befits the emphasis of {215} Shelley's original context, the unfinished essay "On the Devil, and Devils," dating from a year and a half before the Defense, the autumn of 1819. And in turn, the context for that essay, flippant as it generally is, was Shelley's serious, indeed obsessive, concern with the nature of evil in the poems of this year.11 Shelley's conception of Paradise Lost as mythological paradigm is scarcely sketched in his critical paragraph. His principal statements on Milton's model are not discursive but recreative. Although Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci revert, respectively, to classical and Renaissance literary patterns, their essential dramatic conflict derives immediately from the view of Paradise Lost contained in these remarks. In The Cenci Shelley transposes the model into human society, elaborating its necessarily tragic consequences. In Prometheus Unbound he recreates it from an independent mythological stance, balancing cosmic and microcosmic, historical and psychological, perspectives, in order to expose, explode, and replace the inherited model.

Count Cenci ends his extraordinary curse of his daughter and his presence on the stage with an intimation of his largest purposes:

O, multitudinous Hell, the fiends will shake
Thine arches with the laughter of their joy!
There shall be lamentation heard in Heaven
As o'er an angel fallen.
(The Cenci IV.i.183-86)
Cenci, conceiving himself a "scourge" (IV.i.63) wielded by God, with characteristic megalomania identifies the divine purposes as his own. His daughter's independence thus becomes a Satanic revolt. "A rebel to her father and her God" (IV.i.90), Beatrice is to be forced not merely to concede her will to Cenci, but simultaneously to convict herself of irredeemable evil, to "Die in despair, blaspheming" (IV.i.50), and thereby ensure her damnation. Cenci the theologian is as ingenious as he is insane, for he effectively leaves Beatrice without options. To concede or not to concede her will to her father as representative of God alike would {216} damn her. Beatrice's view of her situation is the mirror-image of her father's in its assumption that salvation can be secured only through becoming God's representative. Thus her father's murder becomes the fulfillment of providence. In confronting the agents of society's justice, which in this play consistently echoes Cenci's justice, she affirms that heaven has intervened because they have "Bar[red] all access to retribution first" (IV.iv.118). Later, in accepting the court's conviction, Beatrice transposes the guilt to the logical and theological center from which emanates the pattern she has been forced to retrace:
Or wilt thou rather tax high-judging God
That He permitted such an act as that
Which I have suffered, and which He beheld;
Made it unutterable, and took from it
All refuge, all revenge, all consequence,
But that which thou hast called my father's death?
To question the source is to question the reality of all her and society's values. The passage ends significantly:
Which is or is not what men call a crime,
Which either I have done, or have not done;
Say what ye will.
Expelled from the center of her beliefs, the center of society's ideals, Beatrice cannot return. Her fate is Satanic, as judged by her father, by her culture, by herself.

Shelley's lengthy disquisition on the nature of Italian Catholicism in the play's preface-as "interwoven with the whole fabric of life . . . not a rule for moral conduct" -- deliberately propounds a cohesive religious structure like the one he saw in Paradise Lost. It abrogates, rather than enforces, morality. Both Cenci and Beatrice see themselves allied with God's purposes; both also momentarily discover an identity with Satan. What Shelley poses is not a riddle in which his audience is to sort out the proper identifications, assigning Cenci and Beatrice to their respective categories, but a single dynamic model of which God and Satan are the polarities. Defiant opposition is the motive force of the personal relationship between father and daughter, and of the society that encompasses {216} them. And yet, ironically, it results from the compulsive assertion of power throughout the social frame in order to compel unity to a single source of power. Cenci conceives of his daughter as a "particle of my divided being" (IV.i.117), and his incestuous attack is an outrage of syllogistic precision designed to "confound both night and day" (II.i.183) by reassimilating his daughter to himself. Beatrice, in turn, comprehends her body as an Eden now violated by Satanic corruption, and in destroying the source -- which, paradoxically, is also an assimilation of her father -- she will extirpate the evil within. Cenci, however, holds the ironic trump, a parody of God's capacity to frustrate Satan eternally by transmuting his evil into good. Nothing Beatrice does can free her from the consequences of her father's act. She is effectively denied free will, as all acts become sins against God, and non-action becomes the greatest sin of all. There is only one means of liberation, in an agnostic rejection of this model which enforces the whole society, but that is only possible once Beatrice has accepted the inevitability of her death and, beyond hope, draws her fellow-victims with her into the dual intensifies of suffering and compassion.

The conceptual labyrinth of The Cenci, winding through increasingly oxymoronic frustrations, like so many of Shelley's complex structures, elaborates a simple truth: a model that is fundamentally amoral cannot encompass and invest a moral society. The pretensions of Prometheus Unbound are far larger, for its theater is the cosmos and its purpose, like Milton's, is justification. The scene opens upon "A Ravine of Icy Rocks" (I.s.d.) high above the earth, the barren setting for a deadlocked antagonism that has endured for three thousand years, the span of documented human history. "No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure" (I.24). Shelley has conflated the Dantean and Miltonic visions of hell: "Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured" (I.21), replicating in an exact sense Milton's prescription: "A Universe of death, which God by curse / Created evil" (PL II.622-23). The source of human misery has been a curse, a curse suddenly recalled by Prometheus as he discovers the ethics realized by Beatrice at the end of her tragic agony: "I wish no living thing to suffer pain" (I.305), he asserts, as the Phantasm of Jupiter retreats into subterranean darkness and dawn begins to glow on the horizon. The curse repeated by the Phantasm has no basis in Aeschylus or in the {218} Promethean myth, but from first phrase -- "Fiend, I defy thee!" (I.262) -- to last -- "Scorn track thy lagging fall through boundless space and thee" (I.301) -- derives from Paradise Lost:

All that thou canst inflict I bid thee do;
Foul Tyrant both of Gods and Humankind,
One only being shalt thou not subdue.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O'er all things but thyself I gave thee power,
And my own will.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On me and mine I imprecate
The utmost torture of thy hate;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Heap on thy soul, by virtue of this Curse,
Ill deeds, then be thou damned, beholding good.
(I.263-65, 272-73, 278-79, 292-93)
That Prometheus is cast in the role of Satan cursing Jupiter in the role of Jehovah does not negate the relationship of Shelley's poem to Milton's, but rather intensifies it. For the curse repeated to Prometheus by the Phantasm of Jupiter -- who reproduces the "gestures proud and cold / And looks of firm defiance, and calm hate, / And . . . despair" (I.258-60) with which it was originally uttered -- is the equal product of both, the seal of their identity even as it establishes their antagonism. In negating Satan for eternity God becomes a Satanic negation himself. Self-justifying and self-righteous, the polarized terms of the model are interchangeable.

Shelley's conceptual preoccupations seldom stand in isolation: at least during his lifetime even the most obscure are delineated more extensively and more openly in the writings of his wife. Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, published six months before Shelley undertook Prometheus Unbound, is the most pronounced imaginative recreation of Paradise Lost in the Romantic period. Mary's derivations are congruous with Shelley's later ones and would seem, like his additions to the holograph, to indicate his marked influence on her symbolic allegory.12 Although the {219} fiction is ostensibly concerned with the creation of a new Adam, the issues recoil continually toward the primal antagonism of God and Satan; and, as in Shelley's dramas, the imagery is mutually implicative. The initial allusion to the Miltonic context is an unexpected inversion, as the narrator Walton observes that Victor Frankenstein "must have been a noble creature in his better days" (p. 22). The analogy of Frankenstein, the creator, with Satan grows insistent, punctuated on the last page of each of the first two volumes, which remark the mental inferno he bears with him (pp. 84, 145). But, of course, the deformed monster who begins his existence, like Michelangelo's Adam, by stretching out his hand to His creator, is immediately transformed into "a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (p. 53), and after repeated rejection isolates his cold rage amid the icy Alps, descending with superhuman power to walk by night and revenge himself upon his maker. Frankenstein's pursuer through much of his career, he becomes at last the pursued, even as, originally Frankenstein's dependent creation, he later assumes divinity, uttering the imperative verb that resounds through Milton's epic: "You are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!" (p. 165) Likewise, Frankenstein, having created a monster, transforms himself into a monster: "My abhorrence of this fiend cannot be conceived. When I thought of him, I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed" (p. 87).

A relationship conceived without love becomes predicated on the intensity of hate. "I, too, can create desolation" (p. 139), the monster exults; and revenge becomes the "devouring and only passion" (p. 198) for both. Unprotected in the arctic wastes, Frankenstein testifies that "revenge kept me alive" (p. 199), and when he discerns the dog-sled of his adversary before him, he experiences the ecstasies of a lover: "Oh! with what a burning gush did hope revisit my heart! warm tears filled my eyes, which I hastily wiped away, that they might not intercept the view I had of the daemon" (p. 205). Each denying the other a spouse, they commit themselves wholly to the suicidal consummation of their relationship. It is the monster who points to the frustration his creator cannot articulate: "Whilst I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires" (p. 219). The murderous mirror-images {220} are like those of Francesco and Beatrice Cenci; and the monster's plan for his suicide, a spectacular immolation atop the north pole -- "I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames" (p. 221) -- not only climaxes the inverted image patterns of this work but becomes the prototype for Cenci's plan, once he has destroyed his family, to make a pyre from his belongings, mount it, and "resign" his soul "Into the hand of him who wielded it" (IV.i.53-54). The self-destructive nature of Satanic revenge both Shelley and Mary saw in Milton. What they also conceived was that God's revenge was equal in effect, as it was superior in design, and that the creation resulting from such antipathy must be reductive.

The paradigm that the Shelleys abstract from Milton's epic is, it hardly need be acknowledged, not the Christian vision one expects Milton to propound. The tendencies of the model are radically heretical. It fell to the least systematic or philosophically learned of the three members of Southey's "Satanic school" openly to avow the heretical implications, as he redesigned the amoral antagonism of the model within the Gnostic trappings of Cain. Although Byron was sensitive enough to the laws on blasphemous libel to render his heretical notions within a dramatic framework -- and, indeed, to have them stated by the most traditionally unreliable of narrators, Lucifer -- there are no events in the play to contradict the cosmic scheme in which he instructs Cain. God exists in the isolation of his ennui, tinkering with the universe, sitting

. . . in his vast and solitary throne--
Creating worlds, to make eternity
Less burthensome to his immense existence
And unparticipated solitude.
(Cain I.148-51)
He is "the Destroyer . . . The Maker -- Call him / Which name thou wilt: he makes but to destroy" (I.265-67). Omnipotent over the material universe, God is nonetheless baffled by his inability to reconcile the claims of spirit with those of matter. Lucifer, admitting their incompatibility, indulges in the luxury of aristocratic disdain for the god who must work, shielded through his incessant garrulousness from confronting his own state as an equally "unpar- {221} ticipated solitude," with nothing to do except frustrate Jehovah's aspirations to create the perfect machine. Cain, inheritor of that knowledge which is self-consciousness, is the incidental victim of the irreconcilable polarities. Jehovah and Lucifer are brothers who have separated, a pattern soon to be repeated by Cain and Abel, and now contend for a single purpose: "To reign" (II.ii.388). The power struggle is pointless; but then in this ironic universe Jehovah's creation is also pointless, a mere ego-extension, and Lucifer's vaunted liberty of thought reduces to the spoiler's art.

The universal order is petty, if massive in its consequences for man. Cain, the familiar Byronic hero caught between antitheses he cannot control, in accepting his exile paradoxically commits himself to a human destiny. "That which I am, I am" (III.i.509), he maintains to the angel who marks his brow, thus acknowledging himself and his progeny a third identity in the cosmos. Unlike Jehovah and Lucifer, Cain is resigned to his limitations; unlike them he is susceptible to the values of beauty and love, which cannot redeem him but are distinctively human realities. As a fugitive, Cain turns his back upon the struggles of Jehovah and Lucifer, to which the Adamic family is still committed, and sets forth to create a moral order. His is the solution of Beatrice, of Prometheus, and of Robert Walton, the narrator who mediates the nightmare vision of Frankenstein and returns from the ice-locked arctic to the values of a civilized and social life. The educational process of these works is alike in its insistence on the inextricable unity of human faculties and the absoluteness of human moral responsibility.

There are, of course, essential distinctions, ideological as well as temperamental, among these authors and their works. Byron never denies that man's nature is, like Napoleon's, "antithetically mixed" (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage III.317), or, as Manfred would have it, "half dust, half deity" (Manfred II.i.40). His solution is existential, an acceptance of the absurdity inherent in a consistent inconsistency, a compound so pure as to be itself elemental. Shelley, at least in Prometheus Unbound, denies that the duality is intrinsic to human nature, discovering the source of evil not in society, but, beyond it, in the structural models by which the mind organizes reality, the patterns it imposes. Mary's romance stands somewhere between these positions, its ambiguities largely {222} unresolved, emphasizing human accountability and the reductive nature of hatred. The most sympathetic treatment of the Satanic character is that of The Cenci; but, notwithstanding Shelley's effort to expunge from his heroine the ugly concomitants of Satan's revenge, Beatrice's condition is unremittingly tragic. The "restless and anatomizing casuistry" (Preface) by which one defends her actions cannot alter the mode in which one is forced to view her life. To bring the same attitude to Milton's Satan, however, is to engage in a "pernicious casuistry," as Shelley defines it in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound, one that undermines the moral basis for judgment it seeks to discover. Such casuistry demands that one accept the context for Satan's rebellion, and it is that context which each of these authors sees as pernicious. Paradise is incompatible with a universe created through antagonism. Deadlocks issue in death.

There is no little irony in the fact that the younger Romantics went out of their way to show that the position with which they are commonly associated, the Satanist view of Paradise Lost, was indefensible. But a single paragraph of abstracted principles, and a series of recreated works, cannot be called a reasoned and systematic criticism of Milton's epic; and it remains to be seen to what extent their view is a defensible reading of the poem. Where so many erroneous opinions have been attributed to the Romantics, one naturally hesitates to speak for Shelley yet once again. But if we are sure of his premises, or of his view of Milton's premises, our margin of error is considerably reduced. At basis, Shelley would have vehemently opposed any notion that only an orthodox Christian could rightly appreciate Paradise Lost. Milton, like Dante, did not write as a Christian, but as an epic poet.

He mingled as it were the elements of human nature as colours upon a single pallet and arranged them in the composition of his great picture according to the laws of epic truth; that is, according to the laws of that principle by which a series of actions of the external universe and of intelligent and ethical beings is calculated to excite the sympathy of succeeding generations of mankind. (Prose, VII, 130)
The Christian mythology was, for Milton as for Dante, "merely the mask and mantle in which these great poets walk through {223} eternity enveloped and disguised" (Prose, VII, 129). In turn, it clothes a conceptual drama whose principles pertain to a human reality that will be judged by succeeding generations independent of the vestment. This premise rejects as specious any scheme that resolves the dramatic conflicts of the poem by a circular reference to its enveloping mythology. God, being "All in All" (PL, III.341; VI.732), cannot be wrong as emanating center of a mythology; but the system then begs the questions raised by his actions. Shelley, who was too masterful a craftsman himself ever to propound that there were unconscious impulses warring against the conscious intent of Paradise Lost, suggests instead, and characteristically, that the poem "contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system" of mythology it recreates.

A "philosophical refutation" implies a syllogistic series, the terms of which Shelley would first find stressed in the second book. "High on a Throne of Royal State" (II.1), Satan begins his eternal parody of God and the persons of God: like the Son, he is "by merit rais'd" (II.5). His legions surround him, performing their automatic ritual: "Towards him they bend / With awful reverence prone; and as a God / Extoll him equal to the highest in Heav'n" (II.477-79). With "fixt mind / And high disdain" (I.97-98), Satan establishes the politics of hell "As being the contrary to his high will / Whom we resist" (I.161-62), a reactionary politics to the core. But then, an antithesis, even a parodic one, reflects its thesis. The divine emblem that dominates the heavens at the close of the epic's first third, the scale of justice, may represent the Father's primal value, but in its very bifurcation distinguishes a closed system of contraries. The primal syllogism -- the spurned son turning upon his father -- engenders its dependents. Sin leaps from the head of Satan, but returns as mistress to her author. Death tears through Sin's womb, but returns to gnaw her bowels as a grotesque extension of Satan's revolt against the Father. And Sin recognizes the prescribed limitations to Death's voracity as fulfilling the repeated pattern: Death,

. . . me his Parent would full soon devour
For want of other prey, but that he knows
His end with mine involvd.
{224} Similarly, to turn God's creation against its author becomes the Satanic program, again conceived as a negation incestuously wedded to its contrary:
          This would surpass
Common revenge, and interrupt his joy
In our Confusion, and our Joy upraise
In his disturbance.
Satan purposes "To wreck on innocent frail man his loss / Of that first Battel, and his flight to Hell" (IV.11-12); and in return man is promised his revenge. Eve, contemplating suicide or abstinence, is forestalled by Adam's persistent memory of God's promise, imaged not as a liberating hope but as a vengeful conclusion to the cycle:
          that thy Seed shall bruise
The Serpents head; piteous amends, unless
Be meant, whom I conjecture, our grand Foe
Satan, who in the Serpent hath contriv'd
Against us this deceit: to crush his head
Would be revenge indeed; which will be lost
By death brought on our selves, or childless days . . .
That perspective, one might argue, is irreparably fallen even as it struggles to rise; but when Adam's prayer is answered with effulgent grace, it produces only a more serene contemplation of his just deserts:
Methought I saw him placable and mild,
Bending his care; perswasion in me grew
That I was heard with favour, peace returnd
Home to my Brest, and to my memorie
His promise, that thy Seed shall bruise our Foe.
The rhythms of a fragmented eternity become the cycles of history in time, as Michael unveils the future of the race. Cain kills Abel; Enoch is persecuted by his tribesmen, Noah alienates himself to perfect his mountain labors; and providence deluges the earth. Adam anticipates a peaceful aftermath, but the postdiluvian tranquility is soon rent by the dispersal, and at the beginning of {225} the twelfth book another Satanic manifestation, in symmetrical balance with the first, arises "as in despite of Heav'n" (XII.34), the Hunter Nimrod who installs political tyranny on earth as Satan has in Hell:
And from Rebellion shall derive his name,
Though of Rebellion others he accuse.
From Nimrod to Charles I it is but a short step, as Michael admits:
          So shall the World goe on,
To good malignant, to bad men benigne,
Under her own waight groaning till the day
Appeer of respiration to the just,
And vengeance to the wicked, at return
Of him so lately promis'd to thy aid . . .
History cannot be redeemed except by being halted. Free will cannot be justified except through its dislocation. The primal syllogism contains all others: the initial separation into sheep and goats presupposes the last judgment. This is what the younger Romantics stress: the justice of God to Adam and Eve is secondary to the question of his justice to Satan. "The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry, which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure." Lewis scoffed at this assertion, countering with an Oxonian sniff that Satan's wrong was that he did not know his betters.13 Oxford, after consulting God's high purposes, taught Shelley much of what he knew about expulsion: it included no means of redress except forfeiture of one's will. The impulse to expel is the flaw in God's scheme: it is the psychological premise for the ensuing cycles of fragmentation and can only end as it began, with an eternal bifurcation that abrogates free will. Although one can presume to read in Satan's soliloquy on Mount Niphates the possibility of a reconciliation (IV.79-81), no utterance of the Father's supports it.
[Satan] breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls {226}
Into utter darkness, deep ingulft, his place
Ordain'd without redemption, without end.
Man therefore shall find grace.
The other none.
For God to have sat down for a chat with Satan, of course, would presuppose a very different poem from the epic Milton wrote. It also, from Shelley's point of view, would have produced a very different universe from that depicted in the poem, one compatible, as the antagonistic model is not, with Michael's enunciation of a democratic politics and a humanist ethics at the end:
          onely add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add vertue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call'd Charitie, the soul
Of all the rest . . .
It is no more accidental that Demogorgon's closing benediction is so strongly reminiscent of Michael's than it is that Prometheus's curse echoes Jehovah's. The two points of similarity cast in a strong light the "philosophical refutation" Shelley saw in Paradise Lost. There is no logical progression that can unite that curse with that benediction. The polar opposition of God and Satan is a Platonic model for myriad extensions of the primary syllogism, but a locked antagonism is amoral and incapable of progression. Creation is set in motion, but no true dialectic can issue from a circular prototype. As Satan reacts to God, God reacts to Satan. Within that sealed context, free will is a conceptual sophistry. As the political liberation Milton stresses throughout the twelfth book is denied by the cycles of history Michael anticipates, Milton's commitment to a Christian eschaton suppresses his faith, and the equal faith of the younger Romantics, in one that is human. In the largest sense a humanist eschaton can be realized only through the Charity that is the soul of all, which refuses to countenance that Woe and Foe are the end rhymes of a closed couplet polished by a divine hand. Love disintegrates oppositions, negations, other- {227} ness. Hatred perpetuates a polarized universe and frustrates the will to regeneration.

Shelley's celebration of Dante and Milton in A Defense of Poetry culminates in one of his most memorable utterances:

A great poem is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight. (Prose, VII. 131)
One can never ignore the "peculiar relations" the younger generation of Romantics established with the literature and culture of the past. They survived the intellectual terrors of a quarter-century of war that devastated and impoverished Europe within a pervasive metaphorical assumption. Napoleon pitting himself against that amalgam known as the Holy Alliance was the Satanic rebel defying the upholders of orthodoxy. The Napoleonic Wars appeared to the sensitive minds of the age as a reality whose imperatives were no less categorical for being fruitless, but more so, enforced with historical urgency. To these writers -- and to the finest minds throughout Europe -- there was no public position that was not reactionary, as the interchangeable empires committed their citizenry to the ruthless mechanism of an inherited paradigm. The deliberated refusals of Prometheus and Cain are characteristic of a sober optimism that will no longer abide by the standards of antagonism informing western culture. Milton's genius for their creators was to have discerned that model at the center of Christian thought, the conceptual framework for modern culture. A man unable to sustain his commitment to a corrupt church, a corrupt monarchy, or a corrupt Commonwealth, Milton exemplified his own refusal in the libertarian rhetoric of Book XII of Paradise Lost. If the New Model Army of Cromwell was only the old model refurbished, predicating its existence on opposition, it was doomed to reenact the warfare of God and Satan to no avail. The epic written by this spiritual fifth columnist severely questions the order it reproduces, nowhere more than in those examples of human charity and divine mercy that transcend the rigorous claims of eternal justice. To the younger Romantics, at {228} least, Paradise Lost is neither a poem that justifies God nor a poem out of joint and internally at odds, but rather an epic large enough in scope and in intellect to stand beyond its culture and religion, sustaining their philosophical tensions with honesty.

"Back to Shelley," William Empson adopted as his slogan, and, returning with some ingenuousness and an exhilarating passion to the vehement polemics of Queen Mab, he roundly denounced the immoral who wrapped themselves in Milton's respectability.14 "Back to Shelley," deliberately echoes Harold Bloom in his Anxiety of Influence, though he evidently means something else. After an opening acknowledgment that Shelley conceived of all poets as contributing to a single great poem, his back is ironically turned on Shelley and on what Bloom agrees with Yeats is "the most profound discourse upon poetry in the language," A Defense of Poetry.15 The sad determinism and the distortions to which Bloom's theory leads need not be rehearsed or battled with, but his model deserves recognition. Milton rules over English poetry with the omnipresence of his own conception of God, and subsequent poets are forced into the Satanic role, recoiling from the dominating paternity of his heritage. It is the same primal syllogism, producing the same hopeless, circular angst that the younger Romantics saw in Milton's depiction of Christianity.

Back to Shelley. To the post-Enlightenment libertarianism of that "most profound discourse upon poetry in the language." To a conception of the artist as not one further, cynical extension of the thrust of American competitive capitalism -- the manipulator of a craft, beggared by the past, playing beggar-thy-neighbor on the present, and threatening the future with utter exhaustion of resources -- but as legislator of the vision by which civilization frees itself from local obsessions and selfish interests in order to forge a {229} community. To the affirmation that art can liberate and that artists, rather than being overwhelmed by the past, can be "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present" (Prose, VII, 140). To a joyful celebration of one's mentors, honoring their independent integrity in the vigorous assertion of one's own. To "that great poem, which all poets, like the cooperating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world" (Prose, VII, 124).

The co-operating thoughts of one great mind. . . . Back to Shelley.

A Defense of Poetry is an enduring testament to the healthy, vital, and continual influence of Milton on the future course of English poetry. It is written by a working poet, who, after Blake, was probably the most strongly touched by the art and exemplary life of John Milton.16 Although Shelley's skeptical interpretation of Paradise Lost may not today gain a great many scholarly adherents, it is important to emphasize that it is not a compulsive misinterpretation of the poem. His view of Paradise Lost can be supported from the text: it can also be supported to some extent from what we know of the development of Milton's political and theological positions.

What is most significant in Shelley's conception of Paradise Lost, however, is not the precise view of the relationship of God and Satan, but rather the attitude to the poem embodied in that view. Modern emphasis on structural and rhetorical repetitions has built up a work of art that is a monument of form. There is something almost abstract and nonideological in the purity of this multifaceted, enormous jewel, and it is powerfully dazzling. Interpretations of Paradise Lost written from such an aesthetic perspective have been among the most influential and satisfying of those produced under the impetus of the current Milton renascence. One thinks, for instance, of Isabel Gamble MacCaffrey's examination of Paradise Lost as "Myth" (1959), where the idea of myth {230} appears as a pure distillate from the work of Jung, and the poem attains a crystalline stasis of aesthetic clarity. Paradise Lost asks for such a conception; so, one must add, does Prometheus Unbound.

But A Defense of Poetry records an encounter, a myth that is invigorating, unsettling, morally ambiguous. The cold jewel of aesthetic perfection is for Shelley an enormous dynamo, engaging the reader in moral casuistry, nagging questions, complex and shifting balances. That, of course, is what Stanley Fish has seen in Paradise Lost -- though with a vital difference. Shelley is not surprised by his sin -- not even, one would suppose, by his hamartia. The active engagement of the reader with this massive work of art does not resolve itself in orthodoxy. The epic does not restrict vision or slap down with an authoritarian hand the very impulses it encourages. Rather, it demands from its reader a maturity of moral response within the large and open structure of its vision. Its implicit assumption is that of the Areopagitica, that men are educable within a free environment of ideas. As God has forced responsibility upon Satan, and upon Adam and Eve, so Milton makes his readers responsible to and for the entire Christian vision he has remolded.

It is this free, dynamic relationship with his reader that has made Milton so bountifully influential upon later poets and upon generations of readers. Paradise Lost is, as Shelley suggests, "a fountain for ever overflowing," casting its vision not as a closed and finished record of the Christian cosmos, but as a challenge of intellect and commitment. Shelley accepted that challenge as the distinctive, indeed supreme, gift of a Christian heritage he intellectually rejected; and if a later generation disagrees with the ideological implications he draws from Paradise Lost, it can only profit from his contemplation of the dynamic tensions of the epic. In Adonais Shelley places Milton, after Homer and Dante, "third among the sons of light" (36). He is so honored as a celebration of his art and influence, for as a poet, not as a Christian, Milton extracted from the reigning mythology an imaginative drama whose grand accents, though uttered on a cosmic stage, are human and humane.


1. A Preface to Paradise Lost (London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942), p. 70.

2. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), p. 179.

3. Milton's Paradise Lost: A Commentary on the Argument (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1946), pp. 29, 30.

4. Robert Southey, A Vision of Judgement (London: Longman, 1821), pp. xix-xxi.

5. Ibid., p. xvii.

6. Milton and Wordsworth (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1937), p. 116.

7. My text for the poems is Shelley: Poetical Words, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford Univ. Press, 1905). For the prose (cited in the text as Prose), I have used the appropriate volumes of the Julian edition of Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vols. (London: Ernest Bonn; New York: Charles Scribner, 1926-30). I have used the original edition of Frankenstein, as edited by James Rieger (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974). And for Byron's Cain I have used the standard text of Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed., The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, 7 vols. (London: John Murray, 1898-1904).

8. Diekhoff, Milton's Paradise Lost, p. 31. It is true enough that in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound Shelley refers to Satan as "the Hero of Paradise Lost." That, of course, is the term Dryden popularized and a commonplace even among those who, unlike Shelley, are unaware that Satan is, indeed, heroic in a classical sense, and thus the representative of a false moral code. Reactionaries of Shelley's time use exactly the same expression: the Quarterly Review, for instance, favorably compares Southey's portrait of the Emperor Kehama to Satan, "the hero of Paradise Lost" (9 [1811], 57).

9. Though generally I am in agreement with the most balanced statement on this subject, that by Joseph Wittreich ("The Satanism of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered," Studies in Philology, 65 [1968], 816-33), I would go farther than his claim: "Satan in the poem is morally superior to God in the poem. It does not follow, however, that Satan is morally admirable" (p. 827). The paradox of Shelley's series of comparative clauses is that they effectively eradicate any moral premise that distinguishes between God and Satan.

10. Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 126.

11. I have interpreted the poems of this year as a skeptical revision of the Christian theodicies of Dante and Milton in Shelley's Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1975).

12. Rieger assembles the evidence in the preface to his edition. [In retrospect, such a logic dependent on a reversed chronology is insupportable; it is more likely that Mary Shelley started this train of literary association. Ed.]

13. The quotation is the full statement in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound. See Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 94.

14. Milton's God (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961). Although ostensibly a Shelleyan reading of Paradise Lost, Empson's arguments tend to exculpate Satan, and to some extent he resurrects the view that the poem is schizophrenic. Still, to lump him with Waldock, John Peter, and other such critics whom Stanley E. Fish calls the anti-Miltonians (Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost [London and Melbourne: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967], p. 2) is a gross distortion.

15. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 23, 19, 39.

16. Bloom distorts the entire Shelleyan canon in order to see him as floundering in the wake of Wordsworth. One might note, incidentally, that Shelley knew Bloom's essential view of poetry, as well as his ideology, though without modern psychological trappings. Indeed, as expressed by Peacock in his deteriorationist Four Ages of Poetry, the position is that against which Shelley wrote his discourse.