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Milton's serpent and the birth of pagan error

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2007   by Pitt Harding


When Milton's Satan enters the serpent and approaches Eve in Paradise Lost, he comes equipped with more than a crested head and a "burnisht Neck of verdant Gold" (9.501). (1) He also bears an impressive array of classical allusions. The perplexed reader who turns to annotations will find that notes keyed to line numbers, however helpful, typically offer little aid in drawing meaningful connections among them. As Alastair Fowler observes in the introduction to his richly annotated edition, however, "Milton's allusions to ancient epics have turned out to be so consistently organized as to amount to a distinct strand of meaning--a kind of metapoetic accompaniment." (2) An equally subtle but continuous thread of allusions can be discerned in the serpent's temptation of Eve. There, the allusions to classical history, poetry, and mythology can be shown to foreshadow key aspects of the postlapsarian world. Specifically, they evoke features of Roman tradition that were thought by early Christians to be errors afflicting the classical world at large: its veneration of martial heroes and its homage to sometimes cruel and irascible deities. Viewed in light of Milton's evident attempt to trace error to its source, the allusions attached to his serpent can be seen to implicate Satan in the birth of these errors more precisely and consistently than earlier readings have disclosed.

Milton's diagnosis of error stems from the early Christian apologists. For these sometimes heavy-handed champions of the new faith, the charge that paganism derived from Satan served a dual purpose. It explained pagan ignorance of the Christian God, and it falsified Roman deities by exposing their diabolical source. This essay singles out Lactantius, the learned convert whose eloquence earned him the nickname "the Christian Cicero." The last of the Latin apologists, Lactantius consolidated the efforts of earlier Ante-Nicene fathers to map the points at which classical values diverged most sharply from Christian teaching. His Divine Institutes (ca. 305-10) is cited repeatedly in Milton's commonplace book, and Kathleen Ellen Hartwell speculates that it became "part of the very texture of Milton's memory." (3) To invest his serpent with errors denounced in this ancient text would thus enable Milton to appropriate some of the original tension between the empire and the early church, deepening the historical dimension of an epic vitally concerned with cultural origins. While mindful that Milton could hardly be said to bow to patristic authority, I want to show that the Lactantian critique informs his serpent's approach to Eve. My reading treats the temptation scene as the culmination of a consistently organized genealogy of error. It draws connections among Milton's allusions and provides a meaningful context for the acrostic at lines 9.510-4. My larger point is that the project of converting the pagan epic to a Christian theme commits Milton to revive issues raised in the early encounter between the church and the classical order in which it emerged.


If the temptation of Eve marks the onset of fallen history, Milton's rendering of the scene might be illuminated by the diagnosis of error rendered elsewhere in Paradise Lost. Before examining that scene, then, let us recall that the poem has earlier given "[t]h' infernal Serpent" some distinctly classical notions (1.34). The view of divine wrath that he will tempt Eve to share, for example, first appears in his speeches in hell. Satan attributes his fall to a Hesiodic deity who overthrew him by superior force alone, "so much the stronger prov'd / He with his Thunder" (1.92-3). (4) Neither Father nor Son, but a "Potent Victor in his rage" ousted him from heaven through an arbitrary show of "wrath or might" (1.95, 110). The primitive deity evoked in these early speeches will reappear when the serpent tempts Eve to think of God as a volatile "Threat'ner" who she can only hope will not "incense his ire" (9.687, 692).

To foster erroneous views of divinity, we are told in the opening books, will be the work of Satan's comrades-in-arms. The fallen angels will mislead humanity when "By falsities and lies the greatest part / Of Mankind they corrupted to forsake / God thir Creator" (1.367-9). The charge that pagan gods were demons bolstered the apologists' "argument from antiquity," which held that Christianity antedated the cults through its roots in Hebraic tradition. In the early fourth century, Lactantius took this approach in contending that humankind was originally monotheistic before going astray some 1800 years before his time. True religion holds priority over competing pagan traditions, says Lactantius: "They are in error, therefore, who contend that there have been cults of the gods from the beginning of things, and that there was an earlier type of religion than that of the one God which they think was discovered later in time; in error because they are ignorant of the font and origin of truth" (2.13). (5)

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