TLS Online November 14, 2017
​"​Satan Exulting over Eve​"​​ by William Blake, 1795

Milton’s Satan and the struggle for power


Just over 350 years ago (on October 10, 1667, to be precise), the poet and MP John Denham went into the House of Commons “one Morning with a Sheet, Wet from the Press, in his hand”. Asked “What have you there, Sir John?”, he replied, “Part of the Noblest Poem that ever was Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age”. This encounter, recorded by Jonathan Richardson in 1734, supplies a possible publication date for a poem which would become one of the most important in English: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Milton’s name was already well-known. He was the controversial blind man who publicly advocated the execution of King Charles I in 1649 before serving in Oliver Cromwell’s republican government. Milton also spoke out against the Catholic Church, didn’t believe in the Trinity and had written pamphlets about the merits of divorce. His anti-monarchical stance didn’t prevent Denham, a lifelong royalist, from praising the poem. But Milton wrote Paradise Lost (dictating it, since he had become completely blind) under house arrest, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the execution of many of his friends.

But are Milton’s anti-authoritarian propensities (which are by no means the only way of interpreting the man or his works) still prevalent in the way he has been received until now?  Some twentieth- and twenty-first-century stories from some of the most conflicted parts of the world, from the Soviet Union to Korea to Syria, show that engaging with Milton can itself be an act of rebellion. Consistently, we see that Milton’s anti-authoritarianism is brought to the fore when governments engage with his works, whether to support or suppress them.

Writing in Milton in Translation, which I co-edited, the renowned Slovenian poet Marjan Strojan tells the story of Milovan Djilas, the translator of Paradise Lost into Serbian. Born in Montenegro in 1911, Djilas would join the (illegal) Communist Party and end up in prison for refusing to name his collaborators, even under torture. He became a key guerrilla commander in the Partisan resistance against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, eventually becoming Vice-President of Yugoslavia. But after publishing criticisms of the Yugoslav regime, he was arrested and imprisoned for three years; then sentenced to a further seven years for writing, while in prison, a book that exposed the way communism had created a privileged bureaucratic class. Released in 1961, Djilas was swiftly re-imprisoned the following year for allegedly revealing state secrets in yet another book.

It was during this period, while sharing cells with common criminals, that Djilas started to translate Paradise Lost into Serbian. He wrote on prison toilet paper, using a three-inch pencil which he hid from guards inside an orange. One journal entry from September 24, 1964 reads, “I finished the ninth chapter of the third part of the second book [of Paradise Lost] on page 3126 of toilet paper”. Strojan notes that Djilas occasionally got the tense wrong, or even misspelt words – misspellings that changed Milton’s meaning. But Djilas’s insistence on translating Paradise Lost in such circumstances and instead of writing in a more polemical way is noteworthy: he brings out some of Milton’s often understated anger and starkness. Strojan believes that Djilas is General-like when he writes and translates, so translations of Satan’s speeches are combative and convincing. Indeed, the translator’s struggle (from inability to express himself freely to lack of access to writing tools) and his powerful critique of communism are very much echoed in God the Father’s claim to having created a fair society which, in reality, has pushed Satan and the fallen angels to the bottom of an irredeemable hierarchy. Robert F. Kennedy summarized this neatly in his address to the Free University of Berlin in 1962:

It is communism, not free society, which is dominated by what the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas has called the new Class — the class of party bosses and bureaucrats, who acquire not only privileges but an exemption from criticism which would be unimaginable in democratic society. Far from being a classless society, communism is governed by the elite as steadfast in its determination to maintain its prerogatives as any oligarchy known to history.

In Estonia – though Milton’s poetry was known there in the late nineteenth century when the country was under Russian rule – it is the prose tract Areopagitica that is most significant. Milton’s famous defence of freedoms of speech and printing, written during the period of the English Civil War, continues to have an influence today. In Estonia, the Soviet Union was accused of destroying non-conformist books in the 1940s and 50s. Then in 1974, as Anne Lange revealed (in the same volume), publication of an Estonian translation of Areopagitica was halted when the editors of the most influential publications were replaced by handpicked, loyal communists. The problem here was with freedom, not with Milton or his more blatant opposition to political or religious authority. Milton had, after all, participated in “the great English revolution” (Lange notes that Soviet historians “interpreted the mid-seventeenth-century civil war in England as forerunners of the proletarian revolution”). Lange explains that “Even though the publication of Areopagitica failed in 1974, in oral history the ban managed to make a very strong statement about the Soviet authorities”. News of the suppression meant that even without his words existing on a page, Milton served as an anti-authoritarian influence.

He can, though, also be used by those in authority. Two landmark Korean translations of Paradise Lost came out in 1963, fifteen years after South Korea (or the First Korean Republic, as it was known before the Korean War) had its first independent government. Its anti-communist agenda and movement towards what has been dubbed a US-style democracy led to an increase in the translation of foreign works, of which Milton’s epic, published by the South Korean government using US funding, was one of the most significant. As the scholars Kim Hae Yeon and Angelica Duran explain, the country’s political direction is also evident in the way that Milton’s biography and Satan’s character are depicted. Milton is presented in the introductions as a relatively non-political figure, while aspects of Satan’s heroism are significantly downplayed: “the Arch-Enemy” becomes a “ringleader of the enemy” and “His utmost power” is instead “the power of disobedience”. Such re-balancings  are a reminder that any anti-authoritarianism we might read is not a given.

That different, opposing factions take an interest in Milton is most evident in the Middle East. When the region was under direct colonial rule, there was a concerted effort to preserve Arab cultural identity, and attention to Milton was sporadic. In the last decade, though, a surge of interest has given rise to two full translations of Paradise Lost. In Milton’s life and in his depiction of the fallen angels, there exist clear challenges to authority and the status quo.

The second of the translations was published in 2011 by the Syrian government’s official publishing body. But publication coincided with the Arab Spring uprisings against the long-standing regimes of the region, including protests against the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Would anyone notice the anti-authoritarianism? In the past, yes, people did. For example, Abduallah Ammer, a Kurdish writer from Iraq, had praised Satan’s rebellion against autocratic authority. To Ammer, Satan’s motives and rhetoric were convincing: he praises Satan as a dissident, a “strategic commander motivated only by his revolutionary emotion”. In 2011, the Syrian government couldn’t take the chance.

So, the state-run newspaper al-Thawra responded with an article about Milton, in which it was suggested that the poem is in fact more about the human condition than about politics. The columnist, Basim Sulaiman, tells readers to remember that Satan’s rebellion against the Father was unsuccessful, that Adam and Eve’s over-reaching was fatal, and that Milton’s anti-monarchical activities for Cromwell ended in disaster. Sulaiman’s clearest argument is that in England, “the monarchy remained” and that the republican uprising ended by causing religious and political divisions in Christianity and the New World. The Syrian regime, so the article intimates, will overcome the uprisings, just as the Father did, and just as the English monarchy did. What’s more, the result will be civil unrest, as in Paradise Lost and in seventeenth-century England. Here, the idea that Milton’s life and work might become an anti-authoritarian influence isn’t even allowed to take shape, and its potential consequences must be denounced before they have come about.

Islam Issa is senior lecturer in English at Birmingham City University and author of Milton in the Arab-Muslim World