Symbolism & Allegory in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Into a poem which deals very largely with supernatural agents, Milton introduces two shapes, the sinister figure of Sin and the grim and horrid monster, Death, who meet Satan at Hell - gate, and prevent his egress. The adequacy of their portraiture has been praised, but their consistency as allegorical personages has been questioned. Stopford A. Brooke, for example, writes thus: “Death’s image has claimed admiration and justly; but if the lines, which leave him indefinite, yet ‘terrible as Hell’, are sublime, the rest of the allegory of him and of Sin is so definite, so conscious of allegory, that it loses sublimity.” Addison was the first critic to draw attention to the inconsistency of the representation. While admitting that it is a “very beautiful and well-invented allegory,” he added, “I cannot but think that persons of such a chimerical existence are proper actors in an epic poem; therefore, there is not that measure of probability annexed to them which is requisite in writings of this kind.” Finally, Johnson regarded the allegory as “unskilful” and complained that it is broken when “Sin and Death stop the journey of Satan, a journey described as real, and when Death offers him battle.” “That Sin and Death should have shown the way,” he continued, “to Hell, might have been allowed: but they cannot facilitate the passage by building a bridge, because the difficulty of Satan’s passage is described as real and sensible, and the bridge ought to be only figurative.” A careful analysis will show that Milton has secured consistency of portraiture, though in the allegorical significance that we read into it, the sublimity of the episode is a little detracted.

Profiles of Sin and Death

      Both Sin and Death are conceived and presented with propriety. Sin which is delectable in commission and hideous in its effects is aptly pictured as a woman fair from the waist upward but foul downward, ending her body “in many a scaly fold, voluminous and vast, a serpent armed with mortal sting.” Around her middle cluster a pack of hounds which never cease their barking. They are her offspring, and when disturbed they kennel in her womb, still continuing their howls within her body. They are described as horrid in appearance, and worse than those that afflicted Scylla, or which accompanied the night-hag, when she came riding through the air to dance with the Lapland witches. They feed on her bowels, and are a constant vexation to her. The description of the appearance of Sin reads like a visible embodiment of these words of William Dyer, a contemporary of Milton: “There is more bitterness in sin’s ending than there ever was sweetness in its acting - If you see nothing but good in its commission, you will suffer only woe in its conclusion.” Whereas in the Hell-hounds that afflict her within and without, her own offspring, we see the symbolical presentation of the consequences of sin.

      Death, the grisly horror, which all of us dread, but which cannot be imagined by us in any form, is properly presented as a shape that is shapeless. The vagueness with which it is invested is in perfect keeping with our own conception of it. “Black it stood as Night Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, and shook a fearful dart.” Coleridge has well remarked: “The grandest effects of poetry are where the imagination is called forth to produce, not a distinct form, but a strong working of the mind, still offering what is still repelled, and again creating what is again rejected; the result being what the poet wishes to impress, viz” the sublime feeling of the imagination for the mere images.” Such a stupendous feat of the imagination is this animation of what man dreads most instinctively.

Vivid Portraits

      The allegory, here, does not consist in the mere personification of an abstraction, but in its relation to Sin. We read in the Bible that the wages of sin is death, and Milton had made Death the offspring of Sin, just as he had made Sin the offspring of evil thought and the consort of the devil. Interrupting the mortal combat of Satan with Death, which would have ended either or both, Sin relates her history. To Satan who has forgotten her, she recounts how she rose from the left side of his head, like Juno, on a day in Heaven, when he was complotting rebellion against God:

All on a sudden miserable pain
Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum
In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide
Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright, Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed
Out of thy head I sprung.
Sin Sublime.

      But Milton does not stop with rendering in visual form what merely passes in the mind. He shows also how we become reconciled to sin and finally hardened in it. “Amazement” seized all the heavenly host, she says continuing her narrative to Satan, they recoiled in fear, and called her Sin, and held her for a portentous sign. But when she had grown familiar, she pleased “the most averse” among them, “and with attractive graces won thee chiefly, who full oft thyself in me thy perfect image viewing becamest enamored; and such joy thou took’st with me in secret, that my womb conceived.” The allurements of sin are here well-bodied forth, and the whole passage reads like an artist’s picture of the text: “Sin is first pleasing, then it grows easy, then delightful, then frequent, then habitual, then confirmed.” The association with and the commission of sin lead inevitably in the end to hideous death; and so the offspring of Sin in the poem is the grim monster, Death. The final ruin, with all its throes and travail, is befittingly presented in the picture of Sin’s confinement. “Pensive here I sat,” Sin recollects ruefully,

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant, by thee, and now excessive grown,
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest,
Thine own begotten, rcaking violent way,
Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain
Distorted all my nether shape and thus grew
Here are all the details of the violent end of a man of sin.

      Milton completes the picture of Sin and Death by remarking further that just as sin ends in violent death, so death is passionately fond of sinners. Hence he makes Death, as soon as he emerges from the womb of Sin fall lustfully in love with her, and become the father of all that brood of hounds, the affliction of sin, we have noticed above. The poet seals their permanent union in the words he places on the lips of Sin, that Death would have destroyed her,

but that he knows
His end with mine involved, and knows that I
Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane, Whenever that shall be.

      Death shall cease when Sin becomes extinct. The destruction of the one involves the ruin of the other. Milton thus gives a perfect picture of the origin of sin in the mind of man, his being hardened in it, the evil consequences that follow, and the violent end to which it finally leads him.

      The adequacy of the portraiture and its vividness cannot be doubted. But while the genesis of sin is sublime enough, its later history is full of such gruesome details that it tends to detract from loftiness. It cannot but be otherwise, since there is nothing elevated in the consanguinity of Sin and Death. The representation, however, is hideous enough and impressive.

      The characters of Sin and Death are thus firmly drawn, once their reality is granted, all their deeds become plausible; there is nothing inconsistent in them, as Dr. Johnson contended. It is but natural that Death, the shadowy giant, should bar Sakin’s way, and offer to fight him, for death makes no distinction between saint and sinner. Sin does well to remind Satan that Death’s dart is mortal, that he is unconquerable except by him “who rules above”. Neither is it strange that Sin should be the first to fall a victim to Satan’s temptation. He offers to bring her to the place “where thou and Death shall dwell at ease, and up and down unseen wing silently the buxom air, embalmed with odours,” and she jumps at the offer, while Death, the gourmand, smacks his greedy lips in joyous anticipation of the goodly feast he shall soon have. Sin hastens to open the three-folded gates; the portcullis slides to her touch, her key swiftly turns the intricate wards, and every belt and bar of massy iron or solid rock unfasten with ease. There is no inconsistency either in these persons Quickly spanning the distance from Chaos to the Earth by a bridge, for they are eager to get into the new habitation. Thus Milton’s presentation of these two characters does not impinge rudely upon our credulity. On the other hand, they are satisfying portraits of the two deadly evils of this world.

University Questions

Discuss the allegorical significance of the episode of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, Book II.

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