Sin and Death in Book 2 of Paradise Lost

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      Undoubtedly Milton found inspiration for the figures of Sin and Death in a biblical passage: “Thus when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death”. From this cryptic statement Milton has visualized and etched the allegorical figures of Sin and Death. Both are drawn with a wealth of detail. Sin is part woman, part serpent while Death a shadowy monarch who wields a dreadful dart, is made brightening by reason of his lack of clear and solid shape. Milton has painted both of them with lurid colors, specially their origin.

Origin of Sin

      Sin describes how she sprang fully grown from the brow of Satan at the moment of his rebellion in Heaven. Satan has an incestuous relationship with her. She is mistress as well as daughter and from this union is born death, so aptly labeled by Milton as “this odious offspring”. The incestuous relationship continues with Death becoming the lover of his parent. His progeny are the yelling monsters that continuously torment their mother.

Graphic Description

      Sin and Death are no mere decorative pieces in this epic poem. Through their presence and their allegory the poet drives home the point that evil turns back on itself endlessly repeating the same sterile and self-destructive acts. He adds a further significance to their characters by his description. Death is shown to be something awful and mysterious. He does not depict any details but leaves the readers with a vague terrifying impression of a misty, shadowy but nevertheless a majestic presence.

      This is the best example of what Macaulay calls “the dim intimations of Milton”. He begins by calling Death a shape, then he qualifies this by saying that it had no shape - a shapeless shape. Then he adds that this shapeless shape could not be called a substance or shadow. He does not speak of his head or his crown but what seemed his head had on - the likeness of a kingly crown. The impact of the description is black and menacing and becomes the more sinister because it is just a shadow.

      The portrait drawn by Milton of Sin is ugliness personified. The poet has used the female form to represent Sin and one can rightly call it Milton’s masterpiece of filth.

Differences among Critics

      Milton’s portrayal of Sin and Death has led to sharp differences among his critics. One set of critics led by Addison is of the view that though the allegorical descriptions are arresting enough, the two figures, look out of place in the epic. He raises doubts whether persons of such chimerical existence are proper actors m an epic poem.

      Alterbury in a letter to Pope challenged him to show in Homer anything equal to the allegory of Sin and Death. On the other hand Johnson believes that “this unskilful allegory appears to be one of the greatest faults of the poem.”

      Hanford describes the episode as loathsome but believes it has a purpose by making us aware of the real ugliness of Sin and Death. McCaffery suggests that Sin and Death inhabit a necessary borderline between myth and allegory, “between a world where physical and spiritual forces are identical and a world where spiritual force is merely indicated by physical.” Summers is happy about the characterization specially as it places Satan in perspective and establishes the necessary relation in the epic between the comic, the heroic and the tragic.

Moral Purpose

      In assessing the part of Sin and Death in the poem we have to accept that they are integral to the poem. By depicting them in the most grotesque of forms Milton tries to project the moral purpose of the whole episode. By placing them in Hell he suggests that they rightly belong there. The double incest shown between father and daughter and son and mother makes Sin and Death all the more horrifying and repulsive. Such an impact could only be conveyed through an allegory and Milton has done just that. It must be remembered that Paradise Lost even if it is close to the truth, is not literally true and is at the most a symbolic poem.

      It is through symbolism that Milton wishes to convey the horror of the encounter between Satan and Sin and Death. Hell has become the abode of the fallen angels. The introduction of Sin and Death and their encounter with Satan at the gates of Hell carries the epic forward. The figure of Sin, half-woman and half-serpent with a number of barking dogs at her waist and creeping into her womb whenever they like has predecessors in Elizabethan poetry.

      Milton’s model for Sin was the sea nymph Scylla after her transformation by the witch Circe.

      By throwing magic herbs into the sea where Circe was bathing, the witch transformed Scylla’s body from the waist down into a mass of barking dogs.

      Milton also had another model before him. This was Spenser’s description of Error - half a horrible serpent and half a woman’s shape. Similarly, Milton was beholden for his description of Death to similar earlier descriptions. However, the difference is that Milton’s description evokes terror and alarm by his description of a shadowy nothing. But Milton does transcend the indistinct image when he describes it as brandishing a dreadful dart just as the serpent in the lower half of Sin is described as being armed with a deadly sting.

Web of Intrigue

      Milton cleverly weaves a web of intrigue between Sin, Death and Satan when they confront each other at the gates of Hell. As Sin sees a confrontation between Satan and Death building up, she intervenes to stop the clash. She then discloses the relationship between Satan and Death and impresses on both the futility of their mutual antagonism. Sin counts on Satan to take her to a new world of bliss and pleasure in his company and with this hope, she opens the gates of Hell to let Satan go out.

University Questions

Why has Milton introduced Sin and Death in Book II of Paradise Lost?
Is there any significance in Satan’s encounter with Sin and Death at the gates of Hell?
Sin and Death are out of place characters in the poem. At the most they may be said to be allegorical. Do you accept this view?

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