Fallenness and Poetic Tradition in Paradise Lost
By (author) Danielle A. St. Hilaire
Publication date:18 October 2012
Length of book:256 pages
PublisherDuquesne University Press
Readers of Paradise Lost have long been struck by two prominent—and seemingly unrelated—aspects of the poem: its compelling depiction of Satan and its deep engagement with its literary (and specifically epic) tradition. Satan’s Poetry brings these two issues together to provide a bold, provocative, and fresh reading of the poem—one that responds to the resurgent interest in Milton’s Satan by examining the origins of conflict and ambiguity in Paradise Lost.
Without needing to resolve whether Satan is the hero or the villain, a mastermind or fool, Satan’s Poetry examines the more fundamental role of Satan as the origin of the fallen world, the entity that initiates the poem—perhaps, indeed, that initiates poetry itself. Paradise Lost, like all else in our fallen human existence, is permeated by Satan’s evil, which alters human life in ways that cannot be remedied within the course of human history, but Milton’s epic demonstrates that this generative evil does not ultimately determine what fallen creatures can do with that life. The whole point of the poem, then, can be seen as an attempt to understand what Satan’s fall means for us, the poem’s fallen readers, and only by achieving that understanding and working within our fallenness can our fallen state be resolved in the promise of redemption.
Drawing on the philosophical frameworks of Hegel and Adorno, Satan’s Poetry argues that satanic creation, although fundamentally negative, nevertheless exists positively in Milton’s universe by virtue of its dialectical relation to God’s creation. Qualitatively different from God’s creation, producing only fragments, satanic creation is essential for Milton because it is the only mode of creation available to fallen consciousness, and therefore the only kind available to the poem seeking to create itself. So it is unnecessary, St. Hilaire concludes, to assume that sympathy for the devil means implicit agreement with the devil, or that Milton’s narrator must dissociate himself from Satan in order to justify God’s ways. Paradise Lost is Satan’s poetry because it participates in a form of existence that is in need of redemption; it is by embracing this fact that it renders itself fit for redemptive reading.