Department of English
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Satan’s escape from the prison of Hell
and traversal of Chaos in Book II of John Milton’s Paradise Lost
only marks a beginning of humankind’s woe but presents the poet with a
pressing dilemma in the progression of his undertaking.
Having sprung his protagonist,
In Paradise Lost, everybody watches everybody else, and Book III systematically captures and critiques the gazes of Satan, God, and the unseeing narrator. A host of dangers accompany sight, the most significant sense of Paradise Lost. These dangers become fully apparent as the poem progresses, as the narrator clearly identifies the roving eye as the first step toward transgression and nearly a sin in itself. According to Raphael’s explanation to Adam, when the unfallen Satan sees the coronation of Christ, his resentment rises, and he cannot close his eyes to sleep. Raphael presents Satan’s sin as rooted in a visual comparison of elevation; he “could not bear/ Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired” (5.664-5). Satan will later use the means of his own downfall to trap God’s new creatures. As he tempts Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, “Fix’t on the Fruit she gaz’d, which to behold/ Might tempt alone” (9.735-6). Satan’s main objective consists of enticing Eve to the tree; the sight of the fruit, drawing Eve to possess by devouring, can accomplish the rest. Voyeurism, viewing that victimizes its object and desires to see without being seen, ranks high among the dangers of looking in the poem. Regina Schwartz provides a reading of Satan’s predatory spying in which “Satan has turned Eve-the-exhibit into Eve-the-voyeur; for once he fixes her/his gaze on that fruit, she must possess it, just as Satan possesses her . . . having dared to look, she must suffer exposure. Eve becomes aware that she is naked” (91). Although Schwartz later explains the problem with this reading, she admits “evidence that this is a poem preoccupied with voyeurism” (152).
Book III represents
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist dispel from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight
phrase “see and tell” provides a key to reading this book and Paradise
as a whole for the one justifies the other. The narrator intends to
debt for divinely granted eyes by telling of the glory he sees with
them. By situating his poem as a hymn of
the narrator justifies the lofty proposal of his first book to compose a
“That with no middle flight intends to soar/ Above the Aonian
Mount” (1.14-15). As
Uriel later states, the glorification of God can reach no excess. Even more fundamentally, the poem’s
invocation reinforces the necessity of sight, if not physical then
or spiritual, for the poetic venture.
He wastes no time in putting his vision to use now that the mist has been purged and dispersed. The narrator’s eyes turn upward, and we suddenly find ourselves looking upon the One who sees all:
Now had th’ Almighty Father from above,
From the pure Empyrean where he sits
High Thron’d above all highth, bent down his eye,
His own works and their works at once to view
While God does bend down his eye, the narrator does not disclose the precise location of these divine organs of sight. Indeed, seven angels, including the archangel Uriel, serve as God’s Eyes as they rove through the Heavens and Earth (3.650-51). The nature of God’s look also escapes definition. God does not observe passively, and the effects of his sight exceed the power of language. Around his throne stand Sanctities of Heaven, who experience the benefits of the power of his divine sight and “from his sight receiv’d/ Beatitude past utterance” (3.61-62). On the other hand, God’s look does not unduly interfere with his creatures. William Kerrigan observes that vision has traditionally represented God’s presence in the world because eyes, unlike some other senses, can see without disturbing the object of sight; foresight, in this sense, does not imply determination (141).
Yet this looking without the object’s
suggests voyeurism and invites an interesting question for
The presence of the Son somewhat mitigates the implication of God as the ultimate voyeur. As the narrator tells it, he “to his onely Son foreseeing spake” these words: “Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage/ Transports our adversarie” (3.79-81). The word “foreseeing” could describe the prophetic nature of the Father’s forthcoming speech, but it could also refer to the “Son foreseeing,” eliminating the idea that the Son had not been looking or had even been distracted by some more petty concern. In any case, the differentiation in the Godhead allows the Father to see and then turn and tell what he has seen, the poem’s formula for blameless looking. The appearance of the Son also justifies the gaze of God by providing an indirect way to see the Almighty. As God speaks and fills heaven with ambrosial fragrance:
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen
Most glorious, in him all his Father shon
Substantially express’d, and in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeered,
Love without end, and without measure Grace
The Son provides visual access to God, so that the beings of heaven may view God’s substance and nature by seeing this translation of God’s light. The emphasis of this passage lies on the way the Son “was seen” or “appeered.” Part of the goodness of God, suggests the narrator, consists of his adoption of an appearance that reflects his true nature. Immune to the hypocrisy of false appearance, the nature of God, as seen in the Son, may be understood upon observation. This line of thought derives from neo-platonic theories of beauty and goodness, and Castiglione’s Pietro Bembo perhaps demonstrates it best in a conversation in The Book of the Courtier:
I say that beauty springs from God and is like a circle, the center of which is goodness. And so just as one cannot have a circle without a center, so one cannot have beauty without goodness. In consequence, only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. (330)
The radiance of Christ perfectly communicates the inner goodness of God, and the assumption of trustworthy appearance immensely benefits a poet committed to “see and tell.” To follow Bembo’s logic, looking upon God and understanding God amount to the same thing, and this vision bolsters the poet’s confidence that his sight may effect a true telling.
Satan soon arrives to disturb any confidence in the virtue of a beautiful body. His arrival on earth becomes a catalog of the transgressions of the satanic gaze. Satan, in Book III, first alights on the outer regions of the world. It seemed a Globe at a great distance, but now it seems to him “a boundless Continent/ Dark, waste, and wild, under the frown of Night” (3.422-23). The dangers of perspective characterize the satanic gaze, a way of looking that changes depending on the angle, proximity, or the focus of the eye. Such a way of looking at God may have led the Devil to believe that he could overthrow the Almighty. Close to God in Heaven, Satan could not grasp the vastness of omnipotence. Plotting after his fall to Hell, he nursed his contempt and renewed hope of success due to the visually diminishing effects of distance.
His difficult journey through Chaos completed, Satan wanders for a long time until “a gleam/ of dawning light turnd thither-ward in haste/ His travell’d steps” toward the stairway to heaven (3.499-501). Later the sun also “allur’d his eye” (3.573). For a poem so concerned with establishing Satan’s guilt, such a deflection of responsibility may surprise the reader, but a look at Renaissance visual theory may serve to explain this:
Before Kepler, light was not central to the process; rather, objects were visible by their own agency. Visual power lay not in the eye of the observer, but in the object seen, for it generated infinite images of itself through space until it reached the receptive human eye. Images were active; the eye was passive. (Schwartz and Funicci 7)
Such passivity, associated with Satan, may characterize the fallen eye and emphasize the need to control where the eye wanders and probes but to also closely guard the eye from the attack of the active object. Able to control his line of sight, God bends down his eye to the objects below, while Satan find his eyes pulled this way and that by the random transmission of images by the objects themselves.
Standing on the lower step of the forbidden stairway to heaven, Satan “Looks down with wonder at the sudden view/ Of all this World at once” (3.542-43). This look of Satan seems intent to capture, to wrap the whole earth in the predatory grasp of his vision. As Stevie Davies observes, “An image seen at this remote perspective is diminished enough to be assimilated into the eye of the voyeur in its totality. The eye engrosses and corrupts its object” (134). Satan’s eyes seem to transgress in their attempt to look from God’s perspective; his vision becomes a flight to where he can view all from a lofty perspective. Indeed, the dream he feeds the organs of Eve’s fancy involves a flight above the Clouds where Eve sees the “Earth outstretcht immense, a prospect wide/ And various” (5.88-89). Wonder seizes the Devil, “but much more envy seis’d/ At sight of all this world beheld so fair” (3.553-54). The feeling of wonder opens the possibility of praising the Maker of this sight, marvelous even to one who has seen Heaven, but the abruptly ensuing envy precludes this response and more fully characterizes the lustful satanic gaze.
Satan’s voyeuristic tendency, fully exhibited later in his temptation of Eve, becomes apparent in Book III. Spying Uriel on the sun, Satan approaches him for directions in the guise of a stripling cherub with flowing curls and gold-sprinkled wings. He expresses his desire to visit the new Creation, an “Unspeakable desire to see, and know/ All these his wondrous works, but chiefly Man” (3.662-63). Unlike the narrator who proposes to “see and tell,” Satan lets slip his voyeuristic intent to “see and know.” His stated purpose most tellingly reveals the vast difference between hidden lust and the acknowledgement of worship: “That I may find him, and with secret gaze,/ Or open admiration him behold” (3.671-72). Even as he speaks, he remains “unperceiv’d,” though Uriel to him “strait was known”; only the narrator observes his secret gaze. Uriel moves to mildly correct him and points the way to blameless looking:
Fair Angel, thy desire which tends to know
The works of God, thereby to glorifie
The great Work-Maister, leads to no excess
That reaches blame, but rather merits praise
The more it seems excess, that led thee hither
To witness with thine eyes what some perhaps
Contented with report hear onely in heav’n
This young angel could well remain in at ease in glory and simply pick up stories of the new creation from among the swirling rumors of Heaven, but Uriel affirms the privileging of seeing over hearing in the precocious cherub’s desire to see and then be one who tells. Uriel’s instructions sum up the ostensive message of Book III thus far: Look, if you desire, but only to glorify, lest it lead to the gaze of Satan, lustful, envious, and destructive.
The observant reader will note some hesitation
part of the narrator to fully endorse Uriel’s credibility.
This high-ranking spirit, victim of the first
disguise, both sees falsely and tells ignorantly, ushering in a host of
by informing Satan that the “spot to which I point is
Significantly, the first glimpse we have of Satan in Book I are his eyes—“round he throws his baleful eyes/ That witnessed huge affliction and dismay/ Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate” (1.56-57). Immediately after seeing Satan look about him, the poet lets us look through those baleful eyes, and we see what the fallen angel sees: “The dismal Situation waste and wild,/ A Dungeon horrible” (1.60-61). This narrative move demonstrates the ease with which the reader may adopt the satanic perspective and the danger that a looking at may become a looking with. Regina Schwartz, in her discussion of voyeurism in Paradise Lost, demonstrates how the poem ultimately muddles the seemingly discernable lines of sight. According to Schwartz, the poem challenges the conventional understanding of voyeurism. Voyeurism supposedly assumes an unseen watcher and positions a subject and object, but in Paradise Lost, someone else always watches, and the subject both looks at the object of sight and identifies with it.
In Paradise Lost, the polarization of voyeur/victimizer/man over against exhibit/victim/ woman is attached most persistently, as we have seen, to Satan, to the temptation of Eve, and to the Fall. Satan does not only prey upon Eve; his impulse to polarize power begins when he regards the Son’s elevation as his own reduction . . . Eve’s error may not be seizing the gaze but interpreting it (like so many film critics) as polarizing power into victims and victimizers (154-55).
Schwartz ultimately intends to portray Eve as an “active exhibit” and empower her by demonstrating that viewing an object does not mean degrading it. Schwartz’s empowerment of Eve as the “object” of sight cannot occur without the simultaneous drainage of power from the poem’s range of lookers—Satan, God, and, most significantly, our intrepid narrator. I find her argument most useful for my own purpose of troubling the authoritative nature of sight, visual and intellectual. To “see and tell” entails the subjugation of the sight by the imagination and language of the storyteller. Not only, as Uriel demonstrates, does the sight fall prey to deception, but seeing is essentially artificial and already an act of creation. It creates victims and victimizers and objects and subjects. Schwartz observes that “it is not possible to determine clearly where God ends and his objects of his sight begin, where the narrator ends and his delineations of the cosmos begin, and where the reader end and her vision of all of the above begin” (157). The separation of all these elements begins with a story that delineates figures and distinguishes lines of sight.
the nature of Celestial light points to the primacy of the Word of God. Addressing the “holy Light” in his
invocation, the narrator takes a stab at understanding its origins. It may be the first creation, the “offspring
of Heav’n first-born” (3.1), or an uncreated aspect of God, “Bright
of bright essence increate” (3.6). The
poet also concedes that the possibility of an entirely obscure origin,
light springing from a “pure Ethereal stream,/ Whose Fountain who shall
(3.7-8) But he does approach an answer
in the following lines, as light “at the voice/ Of God, as with a Mantle
invest/ The rising world of waters dark and deep” (3.9-11). In the Hebraic account of creation, light
originates in the words of God: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and
light” (Gen. 1:3).
The complication of the injunction to “see and tell” requires the reader to view the invocation of Book III in a new light. Given the prominent place of sight in Paradise Lost, one might expect a passage similar to the complaint of Samson at the beginning of Samson Agonistes, written at some point during the composition of Paradise Lost. Of all his complaints, Samson most bewails his loss of sight:
Since light so necessary is to life,
And almost life it self, if it be true
That light is in the Soul,
She all in every part; why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th’ eye confined? (90-4)
For Samson, the absence of light
almost entails a
living death, demonstrating his fundamental confusion concerning the
light. Aware of the vulnerability of
sight to temptation and deception,
Ironically, Samson’s apparent weakness
ultimately provides him with the
opportunity for revenge when he pushes over the pillars of the theatre
the assembled Philistines. The narrator
of Paradise Lost comes to a
similar conclusion. The
privileged position of sight receives the ultimate challenge with the
suggestion that his inspiration does not simply overcome but derives
loss of sight. With Nature’s works
“expung’d and ras’d” and “wisdom at one entrance quite shut out,” the
allows that “so much the rather” may the celestial light flood through
him. Kerrigan effectively argues this
point from a psychological standpoint: “We know that blindness for
Kerrigan’s commitment to psychoanalysis
inspires his reading in terms
of ego, the rational and conscious aspect of the psyche, and superego,
of the psyche that has internalized societal norms.
While psychoanalysts typically view ethical
maturity as the slow “assimilation of the superego into the ego,”
While I find Kerrigan’s argument for the
psychogenesis of Paradise Lost convincing, I would
the ways of God,
The Book of the Courtier.
Trans. George Bull.
Kerrigan, William. The
Agonistes. The Complete Poetry of
John Milton. Ed. John