Lust, Violence, and Death in John Milton's Paradise Lost

Lust, Violence, and Death in John Milton's Paradise Lost

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Lust, Violence, and Death in Paradise Lost

Images and allusions to sex and death are intermingled throughout John Milton's Paradise Lost. The character of Satan serves as not only an embodiment of death and sin, but also insatiated sexual lust. The combination of sex and lust has significant philosophical implications, especially in relation to themes of creation, destruction, and the nature of existence. Milton, in Paradise Lost, establishes that with sex, as with religion, he is of no particular hierarchical establishment. However, Milton does not want to be confused with the stereotypical puritan. Milton the poet, seems to celebrate the ideal of sex; yet, he deplores concupiscence and warns against the evils of lust, insisting  lust  leads to sin, violence and death.

There is no reason to apply modern theories to Milton if we do not care whether Milton remains alive. However, if we wish him to be more than a historical artifact, we must do more than just study him against the background of his time. We must reinterpret him in light of the germane thought of our own age.-James Driscoll

Images and allusions to sex and death are intermingled throughout John Milton's Paradise Lost. The character of Satan serves as not only an embodiment of death and sin, but also insatiated sexual lust. The combination of sex and lust has significant philosophical implications, especially in relation to themes of creation, destruction, and the nature of existence. Milton, in Paradise Lost, establishes that with sex, as with religion, he is of no particular hierarchical establishment. However, Milton does not want to be confused with the stereotypical puritan. Milton the poet, seems to celebrate the ideal of sex; yet, he deplores concupiscence  and warns against the evils of lust, insisting  lust  leads to sin, violence and death.

From the beginning, Satan, like fallen humanity, not only blames others; but also makes comic and grandiose reasons for his evil  behavior. Yet, despite his reasoning to seek revenge against God, "his true motivation for escaping from hell and perverting paradise is, at least partly, something more basic: Satan needs sex" (Daniel 26).

In the opening books of the poem, Satan is cast into a fiery hell that is not only is miserable, but devoid of sex. As Satan describes when he has escaped to Eden, in hell: "neigh joy nor love, but fierce desire, / Among our other torments not the least, / Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pine" (Book IV, 509-11).

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  The phallic implications of  "pain of longing pine" is quite clear. In this metaphor, Milton expresses that sex itself is not a sin; to be without it is a "hellish" punishment. However, Milton rejects the morality of  lusting for sex, equating it with: death, sin, violence and Satan. Milton elucidates the lustful desires of Satan throughout the first  few books. For example, liquid, a common symbol of femininity is depicted seven times in the first two books in the form of a "lake" (Daniel 26). The  "lake" serves as a metaphor to the waters of the womb. Further metaphors to female anatomy and the womb are made through references of  hell as a "pit" (Book I, 91).  Therefore,  Satan's fall into hell is an allusion  to  being thrust back into the womb(hell)  where Satan and his rebels are sexually inhibited. As  Daniels states, "These images suggest that Satan has been, in regard to the perfect sex that he enjoyed in Heaven, emasculated, rendered impotent but burning, in a feminine, inactive in hell." (27). Similarly, Frank Kermode comments, "Milton boldly hints that the fallen angel [Satan] is sexually deprived . . . the price of warring against omnipotence is impotence (114). This is exemplified in book II, when Milton writes, " Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt/ From Heaven's high jurisdiction, in a new league / Banded against his throne, but to remain. In strictest bondage" (318-321).

Furthermore, Satan's sexual despair is intensified by the very notion that it was the Son of God, who caused his malady. As Satan says, he and his "associates and copartners" (Book I, 265) were "transfix[ed]" by the Son's "Thunderbolts" (Book I. 328-329) to a "fiery Couch" (Book I, 377). Thus, Satan blames his sexual despair on the Son of God, who is his arch-rival for the favor of God. In Satan's eyes, it is "as if it were a sexual assault by the triumphant Son."(Daniels 27).

Satan lusts for sex, as does his rebels; sexual tensions saturate the images in the first few books. To elucidate, Satan's consult begins amidst:

a plethora of phallic symbols: standards, staffs, ensigns, "a Forest huge of spears," pipes, flutes, and, amidst the uproar there is the "painful steps over the burnt soil" of phallic feet . (Daniel, 30).

Even when Satan views his consult of demons, the images used by Milton conjure images of a potential erection: "his  heart / Distends with pride, and hardening in his strength " (Book II, 571-573),  Satan "stood like a Tower" (Book II, 591). Furthermore, when Satan arrives at the walls of Eden, the sexual imagery continues,  Eden  is seen as mons Veneris: "a rural mound, the champaign head / Of a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides / With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild, / Access denied" (Book Iv. 134-37).

In Paradise Lost, Milton equates lust with evil, Satan is seen as a foil to Christ, God's good son, and references are made to Christ being: "by merit more than birthright Son of God, / Found worthiest to be so by being good, / Love hath abounded more than glory abounds;" (Book III, 309-312). Furthermore, although Eve is seduced by Satan, it is her lust for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge that causes her downfall.

However, unlike lust, sex itself is not presented in Paradise Lost as impure. Milton takes a different attitude towards sex than what would be expected of the doctrines of the time. He passes no moral judgment in Paradise Lost that sex itself may or may not be engaged solely to procreate. For Milton,  "chastity is rather `purity of life', the aggregate of `the duties that touch the purities of ones person'. Her [chastity] proper companions are `modestie and temperance', and if she appears at all as abstinence it is only in the sense of `abstaining from straggling lusts and al impurity'"(Patrides, 166). In Eden, before the fall, sex is perfect, as Adam and Eve are sinless nor do they feel guilt about themselves. In fact, it is when Adam and Eve must engage in sex to procreate that guilty feelings arise: "After the fall, both Adam and Eve agonize that the devil has devastated their sex lives by turning the personal pleasure of sex into the source of a race of beings doomed to suffer" (Daniels 36). Before the fall, Satan while observing Adam and Eve in Heaven becomes hateful and jealous at the sight of this universal and harmonious fornication, and writhes with hateful envy at the memory of his state in Heaven: "I hate thy beams /That bring to my remembrance from what state / I fell"(Book IV, 37-39). Before the fall, Adam and Eve are amorous and like God, delight in love.  As Patrides states, "No Protestant commentator ever denied that Adam and Eve `knew' each other before the Fall, and neither does Milton" (167).  Milton asserts outside of Paradise Lost that love is "as a fire sent from Heaven to be ever kept alive upon the altar of our hearts, be the first principle of all godly and vertous [sic] actions in men " (Patrides, 168) . Most renaissance writers regard love as a positive passion. But they also believed that if love is cut off from its true source, which is God, it grows perverted, immoderate and irrational. Burton, wrote, "if it rage . . . it is no more love but a burning lust, a disease, Phrensie[sic],  Madness, Hell."(440) and according to Peter Sterry "All lust is Love degenerated, Love corrupted" (Patrides, 170). In Eden, before the fall Adam and Eve are  guiltless of "dishonest shame / Of Nature's works, honor dishonorable, / Sin bred "(Book Iv, 313-315) and are "god like erect, with native Honor clad / In naked Majesty" (Book IV, 289-90). This stands also as a phallic metaphor to contrast Satan's impotence. He is a fallen angel, not "God-like" as is Adam, having cut himself off from God, his love has been corrupted and turned into a madness. Through Raphael,  Milton expresses a concern for sexual gratification without love as reducing man to the level of animals:

if the sense of touch whereby mankind

Is propagated seem such dear delight

Beyond all other, think the same voutsafed

To Cattle and each Beast

(Book VIII, 579-82)

The pain caused by Satan's sexual frustration and lust is incalculable, as he whines:

Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two

Imparadised in one another's arms

The happier Eden shall enjoy their fill

Of bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,

Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,

(Book IV, 505-509)

The above passage contains several sexual connotations; Eden provides  a blissful "fill" while Satan is "thrust" into hell, devoid of joy or love. Satan's building lustful hate becomes perverted into thoughts of forceful rape. God, seeing Satan winging his way to earth, has sent angels Ithuriel and Zephon, to prevent Satan from overwhelming the humans against their will(Book IV, 800-900). Through Satan's plot against humanity, the lust/love relationship becomes elucidated further when compared to biblical references. James I:15 states: "That when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished bringeth forth death". Milton painstakingly reiterates this ideology throughout Paradise Lost.

By the end of Paradise Lost, lust brings forth death. Most readers recognize the erotic nature of Satan's encounter with eve. The tasting of the forbidden fruit by Eve is based on a lust created by Satan as the serpent. Eve returns to Adam "defaced", "deflowered" and "now to Death devote" (Book IX, 901). When Satan ruined Eve, he knew that Adam would soon follow.  Satan realizes the consequences of his actions; in agony of lust and despair he needs sex so badly he is willing to murder Adam and Eve, for in order to sate his lust, the humans must die, and consequently so must all humans.

After the fall, Eve  is distraught as she contemplates abstaining from having sex in order to thwart death.  She states to risk bringing children into "this cursed world" is unconscionable (Book X, 981-91). From here, the theme of sex and lust moves towards lust and violence. As Daniels writes: "Milton subtly modulates the theme of lust and death to one of lust and violence, a theme that already has been heard in the catalog of devils as well as in the sexual dimension of the war and Heaven" (44).

According to Milton, lust gives rise to warfare, when mankind is not busy: "marrying or prostituting , as befell, /Rape or Adultery, where passing fair / Allured them" (Book XII, 716-18), it wars: "With cruel Tournament the Squadrons join; / Where cattle pastured late, now scattered lies / With Carcasses and Arms the ensanguined Field / Deserted. Others to a city strong / Lay siege " (Book XI, 652-55). Furthermore, he describes  "just men they seemed, and all their study bent / To worship God aright, and know his works / Not hid, nor things last which might preserve / Freedom and peace to men" (Book XI, 577-580). Even these "just men" succomb to lust:

They on the plain

 Long had not walked, when from the tents behold

 A bevy of fair women, richly gay

 In gems and wanton dress; to the harp they sung

 Soft amorous ditties, and in dance came on:

 The men, through grave, eyed them, and let their eyes

Rove without rein, till in the amorous net

Fast Caught...

(Book XI, 580-587)

These "just men" become corrupted by their lust for these  women and their "perverted love" brings forth violence, and eventually their death:

 Bred only and completed to the taste

 Of lustful appetence, to sing, to dance

 to dress and troll the tongue, and roll the eye.

 To these that sober race of men, whose lives

 Religious titled them the Sons of God,

 Shall yield up all their virtue, all the fame

 Ignobly, to the trains and to the smiles

 Of these fair atheists" (Book XI, 618-625)

Thus, reiterating the renaissance and Milton's notion that love cannot by cut off from its true source, which is God; otherwise, it develops perverted lust. The punishment for the ensuing spread of lust is the cataclysm of universal death by the flooding of the earth; also death on a less universal scale caused by the violence of  "slaughter and gigantic deeds" (Book XI, 659) lust  creates:

... great conquerors

Patrons of Mankind, Gods, and Sons of Gods,

Destroyers rightlier called and Plagues of men

(Book XI, 695-697)

In reviewing Milton's lethal nature of lust, it would be helpful to also examine another work, Samson Agonsistes, in comparison to Paradise Lost. In Samson Agonistes, Samson like the "just men" in Paradise Lost also becomes lost in lust and violence and fears the consequence of death: "My race of glory run, and race of shame, . And I shall shortly be with them that rest." (Samson, 597-598).  As Daniels states, "Samson is ruined not so much because he is garrulous but because he is violent and licentious"(77).

Milton viewed violence as another guise of a perverse satanic energy. However, it may be argued as to weather or not Milton is a pacifist. James A. Freeman, in Milton and the Martial Muse maintains Milton was anti-violence/war to the point of pacifism. According to Freemen, Milton in Paradise Lost gives to the devil the traditional warrior ethos and by doing so undoubtedly, "startled early readers who were conditioned to respect military men... By identifying demonic [and/or lustful] actions as martial, Milton attacks the `double speak' of his time(220-221)...war is the utmost that vice [evil] promises to her followers" (45).  In contrast, Michael Lieb, in Poetics of the Holy: A reading Paradise Lost of, argues:

Peace was valued by Milton as much as anyone in the Renaissance, and yet this love of peace and detestation of war should not blind one to the extent to which Milton was imbued with the fervor of what he considered to be a just war undertaken in a righteous cause (265-266).

Based on Paradise Lost alone, it would appear that Milton regards lust and violence as two related issues. It is lust that gives rise to violence and hatred. Even today, debate rages over the nature of violence. Often discussed is the issue of whether the word denotes only physical harm or whether certain kinds of emotional or psychological harm constitute violence. In Paradise Lost, violence is linked with satanic energy and lust which alienates one from God. Milton connects violence with lust in some of his early works as well; in his mask Comus, the character of Comus and his crew, are compared with "stabled wolves or tigers at their prey" (534) who surprise their victims with "unjust force" (590) and with "the sons of Vulcan" who "fierce sign of battle make, and menace high" with "brandished blade"(651-56). As well, sexual connotations are very evident in Comus;  Comus himself experiences the same sexual despair and frustration of Satan in Paradise Lost. This lust creates a hell for Comus similar to that depicted in Paradise Lost:

Of midnight torches burns; mysterious dame,

that never art called but when the dragon womb

Of stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,

And makes one blot of all the air


Furthermore, as Comus lusts after the lady in the mask, this lust turns to thoughts of  violence. In the mask, the two brothers debate the possibility that Comus and his crew could conceive of trying to rape her. The second brother states: "the rash hand of blood Incontinence" (397) will not allow "a single helpless maiden pass /Uninjured" (402-403).

Without a doubt, it may be argued that Milton may or may not agree with a "just holy war", but he does believe that lust and excess will lead to violence. Such violence created by lust, alienates man from God and is therefore, sinful.

In conclusion, Milton is consistent in his approach to sex, lust, violence and death throughout Paradise Lost and many of his other works. The downfall of humankind was caused by lust for the forbidden fruit, as was Satan's motive for revenge. Milton explicitly points out that lust leads to violence and alienates man from God. The punishment according to Milton is justly, death.  Throughout Paradise Lost, Milton emphasis moderation, and love that becomes an obsession, becomes lust. In Milton's eyes lust is very dangerous and leads to violence and death of mankind. Like other writers of his time, Milton warns of the consequences of "falling" into lust as removing oneself from Godhead.


Works Cited

Daniel, Clay. Death in Milton's Poetry. (London: Ass. Univ. Press, 1994)

Freeman, James A. Milton and the Martial Muse: Paradise Lost and the European Traditions of War. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980)

Kermode, Frank. Ed. "Adam Unparadised" in The Living Milton: Essays by Various Hands (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960)

Lieb, Michael. Poetics of the Holy: A Reading of Paradise Lost. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981)

Milton, John. Comus  in The Portable Milton. Editor Douglas Bush (New York: Viking Press, 1977)

----, Paradise Lost in The Portable Milton. Editor Douglas Bush (New York: Viking Press, 1977)

----, Samson Agonistes  in The Portable Milton. Editor Douglas Bush (New York: Viking Press, 1977)

Patrides, C.A. Milton and The Christian Tradition. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966)

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