Always the seer is a sayer



Victor Sensenig

Department of English



Always the seer is a sayer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


          Satan’s escape from the prison of Hell and traversal of Chaos in Book II of John Milton’s Paradise Lost not only marks a beginning of humankind’s woe but presents the poet with a more pressing dilemma in the progression of his undertaking.  Having sprung his protagonist, Milton must now imitate the fallen spirit’s ascension, fraught with “difficulty and labour hard” (2.1021), with his own “hard and rare” flight.  Milton will venture “through utter and through middle darkness” (3.16) and attempt to scale even the summit of Heaven, where he proposes to continue what he has called his “adventurous Song” (1.13).  The sulfurous odor of the pit or some dark materials of the void may yet cling to him as he offers his seemingly confident greeting, “Hail holy Light” (3.1).  His next question seems to reflect his anxiety concerning the appropriateness of his sudden transition and imitation of satanic flight or the possible inadequacy of his fallen mind to address its holy subject: “May I express thee unblam’d?” (3.3)  The poet requests permission to look about him and express what he sees, to imbibe celestial light and convert it to sacred song.  He asks a valid question in a poem full of problematic looking and everywhere permeated by the envious, lustful, and aggressive gaze of Satan.  The archangel Uriel, one of God’s eyes on earth, concludes Book III with the key to blameless looking.  He reveals that an appropriate desire to know ultimately seeks to glorify the “Work-Maister.”  If Uriel instructs correctly, the poet may express holy Light “unblam’d” if he looks in order to praise what he sees, in other words, privileging “open admiration” over the “secret gaze.”  This directive to worship by seeing and telling, while overtly presented, may obscure an alternate reading of Book III.  The susceptibility of sight and the primacy of the Word call into question the purported sequence of seeing and telling, and Milton’s poem presents instead the possibility of the story creating the sight. 

          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 Milton’s attempt to unravel the tangle of gazes and discern what kind of gaze may be appropriate, beginning with his own narrator’s angle of vision.  In his invocation of the holy Light of Heaven, the narrator’s blindness presents a presumably significant difficulty.  Placing himself beneath the celestial light of God, he feels “thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou/ Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowl in vain/ To find thy piercing ray” (3.22-4).  His blindness, however, does not quench his “love of sacred Song” and, inspired by blind “Prophets old,” his imagination will “feed on thoughts.”  Finding the “Book of knowledge fair” closed to him, he opens another door for wisdom, requesting celestial light to:

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


The phrase “see and tell” provides a key to reading this book and Paradise Lost as a whole for the one justifies the other. The narrator intends to repay his debt for divinely granted eyes by telling of the glory he sees with them.  By situating his poem as a hymn of praise, the narrator justifies the lofty proposal of his first book to compose a song “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 intellectual or spiritual, for the poetic venture.  Milton’s narrator must examine the ways of God before justifying them; he must see in order to tell. 

          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 awareness suggests voyeurism and invites an interesting question for Milton’s reader.  To what extent, despite the life-giving quality of God’s look, does the narrator present the Almighty Father as the “Transcendental Voyeur”?  From his lofty position the Father first beholds the “two first Parents” in the happy Garden and then surveys Hell, Chaos, and Satan coasting toward the new world.  One figure, the narrator, does watch God, but only after God sees him and the celestial light has shone through every corner of his mind.  The narrator makes it clear that we never actually see God, as we do all the other characters in the poem.  A choir of angels praises the Father as the “Fountain of Light, thy self invisible/ Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sit’st/ Thron’d inaccessible” (3.375-77).  One would risk blindness in the attempt to view God, for even the brightest angelic beings do not dare to approach but veil their eyes with their wings.  The brightness so overwhelms the eye “Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appeer” (3.380).  Sequestered from the sight of others, the Father even operates a spy camera with rewind and fast forward functions, observing from a high prospect “Wherein past, present, future he beholds.” 

          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

From thy Empyreal Mansion thus alone,

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 on the 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 sorrows by informing Satan that the “spot to which I point is Paradise” (3.733).  When Uriel declares that the angel’s desire “seems excess,” the iambic pentameter pushes out to eleven syllables, perhaps suggesting that his desire is excess.  While much evidence for the preeminence of sight and the duty of worship exists in the text, other evidence expresses the vulnerability of sight and thus undermines the purported sequence of seeing and telling.  “Admonisht by his ear” at the sound of Satan’s approach, Uriel turns and sees only an innocent stripling cherub, a sight that relaxes his guard.  “Admonisht” suggests the warning of a danger that his subsequent sight will not communicate; Uriel would have done well to heed this admonishment by one of his “lesser” senses.  The archangel himself hints at the epistemological problem at the center of this episode: to see is not necessarily to know.  He offers the caution that the created mind cannot comprehend the infinite wisdom behind God’s works that “brought them forth, but hid thir causes deep” (3.707).  With his own eyes he saw order spring from disorder, yet he admits to lacking a complete understanding.  Uriel’s instruction points to the conclusion that worship stems from the acknowledgement of this limited sight, but the narrator suggests another lesson.  A na´ve reliance on the sight as a judge of character comes under question in Book III of Paradise Lost in the character of Satan and his cherubic disguise.  Even the “sharpest sighted Spirit of all in Heav’n” cannot pierce his fraudulent disguise; God alone (and, implicitly, the narrator) can discern hypocrisy, “the only evil that walks/ Invisible” (3.683-84). 

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. 

          Even 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 effluence of bright essence increate” (3.6).  The poet also concedes that the possibility of an entirely obscure origin, with light springing from a “pure Ethereal stream,/ Whose Fountain who shall tell?” (3.7-8)  But he does approach an answer in the following lines, as light “at the voice/ Of God, as with a Mantle didst 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 there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  Milton’s narrator, while not specifying the origin like Genesis, does describe light moving at the voice of God, signaling, at least, a hierarchy of divine emanations and the primacy of the Word.  As Uriel remembers, “I saw when at his Word the formless Mass,/ This worlds material mould, came to a heap” (3.708-9).  God commences creation with an act of telling which precedes and enables the ability to see through the vehicle of light.     

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 nature of light.  Aware of the vulnerability of sight to temptation and deception, Milton’s blindness seems to have engendered an awareness of the extreme sensitivity of the organs of sight, his quenched and veiled “Orbs.”  Parts of the invocation in Book III do resemble a Samson-like complaint as “not to me returns/ Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn.”  The poet finds himself surrounded by everlasting dark and “from the cheerful wayes of men/ Cut off” (3.46-47). 

Ironically, Samson’s apparent weakness ultimately provides him with the opportunity for revenge when he pushes over the pillars of the theatre to kill the assembled Philistines.  The narrator of Paradise Lost comes to a similar conclusion.  The privileged position of sight receives the ultimate challenge with the poet’s suggestion that his inspiration does not simply overcome but derives from his loss of sight.  With Nature’s works “expung’d and ras’d” and “wisdom at one entrance quite shut out,” the poet 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 Milton was a sign of artistic power and spiritual favor, linking him to God in proportion as it distanced him from men” (132).  A person will usually defend against loss by devaluing the lost object, but the narrator persistently praises light throughout his poem, especially in Book III.  Kerrigan argues that Milton’s loss did not impede but initiated Paradise Lost, and he quotes a line from Milton’s Second Defense to demonstrate this point.  Milton writes, “There is a road which leads through weakness, as the apostle teaches, to the greatest strength” (134).  Though his body proved weak and his eyes dimmed and went out, Milton somehow rallied the psychic energy to read his affliction in a way that encouraged him to write.  Not a means to deny his blindness, the poem “arose from a centering acceptance of his blindness as a sign in need of meaning and a meaning in need of interpretation” (135). 

Kerrigan’s commitment to psychoanalysis inspires his reading in terms of ego, the rational and conscious aspect of the psyche, and superego, the part of the psyche that has internalized societal norms.  While psychoanalysts typically view ethical maturity as the slow “assimilation of the superego into the ego,” Kerrigan understands Milton as empowering himself by resisting this dissolution and refashioning the superego into a “sacred complex” (7-8).  By so doing, Kerrigan discovers the means to describe the encounter between psychoanalysis and religion and maintain the relevance of a work like Paradise Lost that presupposes what he considers a discarded image of faith. 

While I find Kerrigan’s argument for the psychogenesis of Paradise Lost convincing, I would contend that Milton was very much aware of the contingent nature of his faith as evidenced by the nuanced interplay of seeing and telling as it appears in Book III of Paradise Lost.  His exploration of seeing and telling suggests his comprehension of the interplay in his own mind between the strictures of his religious framework and his vision of his own creative range as a poet.  While a belief in God and commitment to religious principles underlie his poem, he also remains aware that in writing about God he creates his own belief.  Thus, the opening question, “May I express thee unblam’d?” becomes all the more poignant, as it essentially entails the extremely complex query “May I create thee unblam’d?”  To quote Kerrigan:

To justify the ways of God, Milton had first to delineate the deity on trial, and the ways to be adjudicated.  Like other religious poets, he submitted his desire to the legalities of his faith, teaching obedience and reconciliation.  Yet this champion of “Eternal Providence claimed the freedom to impose some measure of his own disposition on the doctrine’s concerning God’s ways. (129) 


Milton suggests that perhaps the telling precedes the sight.  The primary impetus for his poem lies in his delineation of his subject, or his creation of a God he can see.  The narrator constitutes worship as seeing and then telling, not to glorify an attention-craving Calvinist deity, but because it establishes the primacy of sight, belief, and assertion.  But the narrator also indirectly admits the other possibility that such sight derives from a narrative.  Milton compiles this story from the various books of knowledge available to him—the text of the scriptures, the external creation, and his self-awareness of the workings of his own mind.  The third book of Paradise Lost does indeed merit a measure of anxiety for the poet because he must tell of God, construct God, before seeing him and justifying him.  In effect, he situates a telling that occurs before seeing in the narrator’s mind.  In Paradise Lost, Milton wrote what he believed, promising to record the findings of his inner sight.  But even more primarily, he believed what he wrote, and we can read Paradise Lost as the means of a humiliated survivor of a failed revolution to justify the ways of God in order to enable his belief. 












Castiglione, Baldesar.  The Book of the Courtier.  Trans. George Bull.  New York:  Penguin, 1967.


Davies, Stevie.  Milton.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.


Kerrigan, William.  The Sacred Complex.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.


Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  The Complete Poetry of John Milton.  Ed. John Shawcross.  New York: Doubleday, 1971.  249-517.

---.  Samson Agonistes.  The Complete Poetry of John Milton.  Ed. John Shawcross.  New York: Doubleday, 1971.  573-620.


Schwartz, Regina.  “Through the Optic Glass: Voyeurism and Paradise Lost.”  Desire in the Renaissance.  Ed. Valerie Finucci and Regina


Schwartz.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.  146-66.


Schwartz, Regina, and Valerie Finucci.  “Worlds Within and Without.”  Introduction.  Desire in the Renaissance.  Ed. Finucci and Schwartz.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 3-15.