[Milton-L] Milton and "the majesty of darkness" (was "Credited Wiki")

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Sat Nov 4 09:23:33 EDT 2017

In the note he appends to his illustration of Satan as “a black man,” Terrance Liddell writes: “In Paradise Lost clearly dark is bad and light is good. So Satan as a black man might be symbolically appropriate. . .” But is it really the case in Paradise Lost that “dark is bad and light is good”? The statement has a certain prima facie plausibility based on some memorable lines (“Hail holy light”, “what in me is dark,” “the dark unbottomed infinite abyss”) which is no doubt why the topic of “dark and light” has so often (and boringly) been assigned for student essays. (I wonder if that is where Terrance’s image comes from?) Milton’s imagination is much richer than this crude binary. Some of his most hauntingly beautiful images come from the mingling of light and dark, and the challenging of our easy assumption that “dark is bad and light is good.” Recall the eclipse simile in book one where Satan “darkened so, yet shone.” Milton’s Satan is the Prince of Twilight, not the Prince of Darkness.  If there is something light about Hell’s darkness, there is also something dark about Heaven’s light. God also has his dark side, and not in a bad way:

                                                       This deep world

      Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

      Thick clouds and dark doth Heav’n’s all-ruling Sire

      Choose to reside, his glory unobscured,

      And with the majesty of darkness round

      Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

      Must’ring their rage, and Heav’n resembles Hell?

      As he our darkness, cannot we his light

      Imitate when we please? (PL 2.262-70)

The speaker is admittedly Mammon, but the lines also have a ring of truth (biblical truth): “he made darkness his secret place” (Ps. 18); “the Lord hath said he would dwell in thick darkness” (II Chron. 6.1). Terrance coarsens both Milton’s art and his own with that flat statement “in Paradise Lost clearly dark is bad and light is good.” Mammon claims darkness for Hell, but his acknowledgement of God’s “majesty of darkness” gives him the lie. Hell’s darkness, no less than its light, is plagiarized from Heaven (“cannot we . . . Imitate when we please?”)

John Leonard

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