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  • Satanic Vision and Acrostics in Paradise Lost
  • Jane Partner

Milton encapsulated the entire moral and narrative trajectory of Paradise Lost in a series of four words that are hidden within the main body of the text. The way that this acrostic micro-epic is concealed, and the means by which the reader is led to find it, exemplify both the argument and the medium of the whole poem. Through the allusive reach of this virtuoso wordplay – the individual occurrences of which have not previously been considered as a group – Milton expounds the moral and physical frailty of the human eye, and so reflects upon the process of reading. These themes lead him to draw upon his own experience of blindness, contributing in turn to his authorial self-fashioning as a seer fit for the audacious poetic task to 'assert Eternal Providence / And justifie the wayes of God to men'.1

Vision is central to the theological structure of Paradise Lost, a poem in which the fall of man is expressed as the fatal desire for 'that false Fruit that promis'd clearer sight' (XI. 413). Visual perception is consequently Milton's most pervasive metaphor for knowing and understanding throughout the poem, where he uses different ways of seeing to distinguish mere empirical facts from the true wisdom that brings inward illumination. As the frailties of the 'visual Nerve' (XI. 415) come into conflict with higher rational, spiritual and imaginative modes of 'internal sight' (VIII. 461), Milton employs contrasting types of looking to differentiate the spiritual status of his characters. Extending this concern to encompass the inconclusive endeavours of fallen man to know the heavens by empirical means, [End Page 129] Milton also marked out Galileo the 'Tuscan Artist' (I. 288) as the only contemporary figure to be referred to directly in the poem.2

Within this framework, the precisely imagined way that the Devil sees in Paradise Lost is crucial to the reader's relationship with the fallen archangel – a relationship that determines our moral experience of the poem. The contentious amount of sympathy that Milton had, and asked his readers to have, with his darkly charismatic anti-hero has long been a principal debate attending the epic, epitomised in Blake's statement that Milton was 'of the Devils party without knowing it'.3 Milton gives us beguiling descriptions of the spectacular panoramas that the fiend enjoys, as 'Undazl'd, farr and wide his eye commands' (III. 614), but the alluring intimacy that is forged as we share Satan's viewpoints is undermined by the deceptiveness of the sights that he sees; he is the only character in the poem to be subject to optical illusions. As Stanley Fish has pointed out, one way in which readers are surprised by sin in Paradise Lost is through the demonstration that their senses are 'unreliable and hopelessly limited'.4 Given the pervasive didactic intent of Milton's poem, I suggest that we too are tested by exposure to the spectacular panoramas that are presented to Satan's insatiable vision. Milton's hidden acrostics function to draw readers into experiencing the duplicity and moral vulnerability of their own eyes at the same time as they read about the ocular failings of his characters.

The visual dimension of the reader's trial by sympathy with Satan begins with his very first appearance. As the retrospective account of the fall of the rebel angels shifts into direct narration and the reader is made privy to Satan's tormented thoughts, the first present-tense action of Paradise Lost is the movement of his eyes:

                  round he throws his baleful eyesThat witness'd huge affliction and dismayMixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:At once as far as Angels kenn he views.

(I. 56-9) [End Page 130]

The word 'witness'd' promises an immediate description of the landscape that Satan's moving eyes survey but, as if he is not yet actually seeing, the following line in fact stresses the 'huge affliction and dismay' that Satan's anguished eyes bear witness to. His 'obdurate pride and stedfast hate' are only by extension a characterisation of the scene around him, reflecting the anguish of his...


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pp. 129-146
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2007
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