Making a Mug of Milton: A Bit of Presumption

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 of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

“Milton,” replied Father Thomas Edmund Gilroy, “though undeniably possessed of poetic genius, had some rather silly ideas.”
— Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, Brother Wolf

“But isn’t the connection of Milton and horror novels too esoteric for a coffee mug?” I was admiring promotional merchandise for my new novel, Brother Wolf, when my husband shocked me with this mild question. In my imagination, the shade of John Milton haunts the Gothic tradition, a disapproving grimace upon his ghostly face. He has just cause for his disapprobation; the genre in part arose from the determined misreading of his greatest work, the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667).

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John Milton (1608-1674) was a staunch Puritan, devout in religion and politics, and a champion of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth of England it begot. His life spanned this period of dramatic turmoil. In the 1640s, parliamentary debate blossomed into revolt, culminating in 1642 with the deposition of King Charles I, followed by his decapitation in 1649. During the Commonwealth, and especially under the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, Milton served both as a civil servant and as the period’s greatest poet. 

Paradise Lost, however, was not written from a place of triumph. When Milton began writing Paradise Lost, the Republic was waning. He concluded his work in the early 1660s, after the restoration of the monarchy and the crowning of Charles II. The loss of the Republic and the personality of Charles were alike grievous to Milton; Charles, the “Merry Monarch,” presided over a hedonistic court and—even worse—was inclined toward religious tolerance. Grief for the lost Paradise of the Commonwealth strongly influenced the spiritual understanding of the poet.

That spiritual understanding was not meager. The theological force of Paradise Lost should not be ignored. However, though the thesis of Paradise Lost is “to justify the ways of God to men”—and Milton asserts it without irony from the first Canto—the thrust of the epic, and in particular the character of Satan, has long been subject to debate. Milton’s Satan has many of the characteristics of an epic hero. All of the most eloquent and persuasive speeches are his. Described with aesthetically rich imagery, he filibusters the stage to present his agenda. 

Central to this agenda is a nominalist gloss of God’s omnipotent power. Satan twists the reality he has wounded through sin, asserting it as his own creation. Evil cannot create, it can merely warp what God has created, and Milton’s Satan does this with gusto. Satan, with the perverse willfulness of the true egotist, seeks to be “farthest” from whatever God deems “right,” declaring himself God’s equal. Such equality demands a re-creation and re-imagination of the lake of fire itself:

…Farewel, happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

A more poignant example of the effects of tyrannical subjectivity I have yet to find.

For Milton, the literary elegance and hyperbole of Satan were as clear a sign of evil as his profligacy and determined energy. In the centuries following Milton, the Romantic poets, reacting in turn to the attitude of cold rigor adopted during the Enlightenment, heard in the words of Satan a clarion cry. Those famous lines above articulate the aesthetic agenda to which the darkest of the Romantic poets were dedicated, the assertion of the power of the individual to recreate reality based on individual experience and desire. 

Satan embraces the desolation and inhospitable bleakness of the accursed realm. He declares himself the “new Possessor” of the “Infernal world,” tyrannizing over a host of demons, inciting them to unremitting rebellion and eternal “defiance towards the vault of Heav’n,” and commanding the construction of Pandæmonium. “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell,” he cries. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

In contrast, the Romantics found God and the Angels dull as dishwater. This is why, in his provocative reading of Paradise Lost, William Blake asserts: “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 of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Following Blake, Percy Shelley insists: “It is a mistake to suppose that he [Satan] could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.” Shelley would go on to embrace the mythological Prometheus as an even more fitting exemplar of the darkest Romantic ideals. The Titan who stole the fire of the gods and gave it to man represented the political fervor, emotional turmoil, and impractical idealism which so personified Shelley himself.

Nevertheless, Paradise Lost, seen through a Blakean lens, was so critical to Shelley that its influence permeated his life and, in a special way, his wife’s nightmarish gothic masterpiece Frankenstein. Shelley’s personal life provides many examples of self-will and license, including his second marriage. When Mary Wollstonecraft, the daughter of the radical thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, eloped with the already-married Shelley, her father stood by his radical principles by disowning her. Shelley’s profligacy continued; he had an affair simultaneously with Mary and her stepsister. 

After travelling throughout Europe, the couple returned to England, where they endured ostracism and penury. Then Shelley’s wife obligingly committed suicide, paving the way for his marriage with Mary. It was at this interlude that Shelley and his bride visited Lord Byron and his personal physician, John Polidori, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. During this visit, as part of a literary challenge they undertook together, Mary commenced writing Frankenstein.

Frankenstein’s appropriation of Miltonian themes is tangled, especially in the correlation of characters. Mary Shelley, as a proper Romantic acolyte, conflates Satan, Adam, and God in the formation of both Frankenstein and his creature. The novel even includes an interlude where the creature learns to read and makes his way through Milton’s work. He concludes: 

Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hand of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial art of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of [others], the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

The creature’s self-identification with Satan becomes more tragically appropriate as the story progresses. He gradually comes to hate and, eventually, to drive his creator to his death. Despair, born of envy and neglect, drives him to extreme and horrifying violence. The novel ends in an archetypal landscape of the Satanic sublime—amidst a dangerous and desolate sea of ice.

The Romantic poet seeks an outlet for intense personal experience and emotion. To achieve it, he casts off any constraints of morality or religion, reveling in a desolate, awesome, horrible beauty that permits him to embrace private experience. He repudiates love in the interests of a glorious self-expression. Thus, at its most deadly, the Romantic movement must embrace all of the most terrifying characteristics of the Satanic sublime. When ecstatic openness is ungrounded and unguided, the result must be nightmare, madness, and violent, despairing death. Passion without purpose or direction drives the soul out into the storm, in defiance of nature and of nature’s God, and the soul perishes, drowning beneath the tumultuous waves.

The Romantic misreading of Milton does not merely have significance for Mary Shelley’s tormented masterpiece. Such a melodramatic fate is the heart of the Gothic genre, from which the subgenre of horror is derived. It is also a temptation and a reality with which every reader can relate. We hear from Catholic novelist and editor Karen Ullo: “The monsters live inside each and every one of us: malformed, lonely, hopeless, vengeful monsters with their fangs latched deep into our hearts.” 

Like all of us, the Gothic protagonist grapples with the darkest consequences of reality when damnation is embraced. This dark, threatening reality can come in the form of preternatural threats or (if we are in a science fiction mode) the alien unknown or, in the case of a werewolf, the darkest passions of his own fallen nature. This is why, though I very much would like to have the opportunity of kicking Percy Shelley in the shins, I can’t condemn him. Pace Milton and with due deference to my husband: Paradise Lost continues to have relevance for those who dare to dabble in the Gothic. 

The mug design stands.

[Image: Satan, as drawn by Gustave Doré, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost]


  • Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

    Eleanor Bourg Nicholson is the author of several works of fiction, a literature instructor for Homeschool Connections, and a homeschooling mother of five. John Milton would not approve of her latest novel, Brother Wolf (Chrism Press, 2021). Read more at her personal site:

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