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How do both the poems and the poets relate to the theme ‘Fallen Hero?’
John Milton and Oscar Wilde were two literary figures who crafted many different types of work. Milton was a pamphleteer in mid seventeenth century, who wrote and discussed important matter such as; in defence of liberty, in support of regicides, against episcopacy, divorce, apologist for the Common Wealth. Perhaps the most famous of his pamphlets, was ‘Areopagitica’, this dealt with censorship.
Wilde was a playwright in the late nineteenth century. Milton was highly placed in the political world. He was sentenced to prison, for being a republican when monarchy returned to Britain. He was however bailed out by a friend, and after facing his sentence in gaol he wrote Paradise Lost referring to a ‘Fallen Hero’ which is possibly the best piece of English literature ever written. Paradise Lost, his most famous poem that was first published in 1867 in ten books.
Wilde was one of the most popular celebrities of his time. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment and hard labour in Reading Gaol. He was sent to gaol after he was accused by the Marquis of Queensbury of homosexual offences. He then regrettably took his libel case to court, and lost his case. The case attracted much publicity in 1895 which destroyed Wilde’s reputation. Unlike Milton, he was a wrecked person after his sentence, and felt he had to move to France; and it was there he wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. In the following essay, I shall be comparing and contrasting this poem with two excerpts from his Milton’s poem.
Both poets have written about a form of captivity that can be described as hell or hell on earth. In Wilde’s case he describes gaol as being a hell on earth, in Milton’s case however, he describes the protagonist, as being in the actual hell. Milton’s principal character, Lucifer, was the archangel of Heaven and serving for God. However Lucifer; wanted more power, he believed he was equal to God. He instigated a rebellion, and fought God, and was defeated in the battle. As a result:
“Him the almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” (line 45)
Lucifer with his fellow rebels, were thrown out of Heaven into the Chaos of Hell.
“Nine times the space that measures day and night” (line 50)
This Hell was the deepest, darkest, most dreadful part of the Universe. Satan is thrown into the Hell that Milton describes:
“Fiery gulf” (line 52)… “One great furnace flame” (line 62)… “Regions of sorrow”
They were left to perish in agony. Lucifer was from then on known as Satan. He was the ‘Fallen Hero’ in Milton’s epic poem.
Wilde however described the tortures of gaol, illustrating how hellish they were. In his poem he writes about a soldier, Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge being charged with murder by slitting his wife’s throat with a razor. This is an example of a fallen hero. However; I believe Wilde can also be seen as a ‘Fallen Hero’. He portrayed his own situation through the imagery of the soldier as a metaphor for his condition in his poem. He fell from the height of his popularity, in 1895 to degradation and never recovered. He was so ashamed of his humiliation that although Wilde never hid his authorship of the poem, it was published under the name ‘C.3.3.’, which stood for building C, floor 3, cell 3, at Reading. Wilde speaking of his hell on earth says:
“The wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.” (Verse 1)
The differences between Wilde’s hell and Milton’s hell are that Milton’s hell is open for Satan to run free.
“Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure” (line 258)
Satan feels now he is out of God’s hand, he is free and has more power than ever. God will not be able to touch Satan and Beelzebub were they are, and Satan will “reign secure” (line 261)
In Wilde’s poem, he describes his hell as a confined, claustrophobic area, where nobody has freedom. They are:
“Each in his separate Hell,” (verse 10)
Each prisoner is deprived of, senses, confrontation, food and water. Society which has locked them up, acts as God. Society is the law, and law is not always right:
“I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;” (verse 1)
The word Law in this poem, has a capitol L this is to personify the word, and raises the word law from guidance, into a high power. The quote is saying Law, which is society, perhaps is judging mistakenly. The next quote highlights this fact:
“But straws the wheat and saves the chaff” (verse 2)
This quote is a play on the saying ‘Separate the wheat and chaff’. The saying means to distinguish the good from the bad, the precious from the worthless. This saying literally occurred regularly in the ancient agricultural practice of winnowing. This is said in the Bible:
‘Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ (Matthew 3:12)
In Wilde’s poem, he says that more bad people are not imprisoned, than good people are imprisoned.
The Satan in Milton’s poem intended to be the ‘Fallen Hero’? I believe he is the anti-God or anti-hero. If this is the case, I believe Satan is not a hero, but is a character that consists of many heroic qualities;
“A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
This shows Satan’s determination and resilience. He will not change his mind. The reader respects Satan’s energy, resilience, bravery, not concerned of what evil archfiend has these traits. Satan is able to see what power he still has, he now has a land of his own, which he will make a Heaven, and he will believe God’s Heaven to be a Hell.
Nobody appreciates Satan’s heroic qualities as much as Milton. Satan’s passionate and ambitious character is more intriguing than God’s reasonable and mild personality. Milton has sculpted the character of Satan to be a desirable character in the beginning to represent the temptation man faces when dealing with the devil. As in The Fall of Adam and Eve, Eve resists into the temptation of the Devil, and brings sin into the world. This is the beginning of the Devil’s war against God and this is what Milton’s Epic is about to answer the earlier question, although William Blake said memorably in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790:
“Milton…was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without Knowing it”
Milton was a strong puritan and would never allow an evil character to become the true hero.
There is a big difference between both focal characters in the two poems. As I mentioned before, we admire Satan’s heroism in spite of what mars him. The word marred is also used in Wilde’s poem:
“And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred”
In Milton’s case Satan’s actions are marred, and his persona is as gallant as ever. However in Wilde’s poem he describes the prisoner’s soul, body and persona marred. The soldier and Wilde are completely decrepit, and destroyed. Satan does not give up; he keeps on going determined to defeat God.
“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
An the study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit of yield:” (line 105)
Even once Satan has lost the battle, he feels, he is finally free from God’s slavery. This a big difference between Satan and Wilde, Wilde gave up. Satan has the ability to look at the bright side of the situation:
“This downfall; since by fate the strength of gods” (line 116)
“This the seat
That we must change for heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?” (Line 244)
“With rallied arms to try what may yet
Regained in heaven, or what more lost in hell?” (line 269)
Satan in this situation believes that losing this battle was an act of a fate. Being defeated, in the long run, was a good thing. The battle was worth the risk of ruling heaven, even if it resulted in a loss and being thrown into hell.
“Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”
Fate has led Satan to have a land of his own to rule. It is best to have power in a land of vice, than to be under slavery in a land of good.
“In arms not worse, in foresight mush advance.
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,”
Satan and his henchman, Beelzebub, feel after they were defeated they feel they can fight back by learning from their mistakes. They will approach the war not by strength, but by intelligence. They learned God’s foremost weapon was thunder.
“Who thunder hath made greater?” (Line 258)
Although Satan lost his battle against God he can still win the war.
The primary difference between the two poems is the determination of the two Fallen Heroes Satan has resilience to fight back and defeat the omnipotent; however Wilde allowed society, which was his omnipotent to crush him. Milton managed to write this poem as a result of his return into society he fought back, and was able to write about the positives of his fall. Wilde however, took a vast piece out of him, and was only able to write about the negatives of his experience. I believe, if Milton had been trampled to the same extent of Wilde, he would not have been able to write the best piece of literature ever. Similarly, if Wilde was not hit at such an degree, he would have been able to write about the encouraging points of his life.
Milton and Wilde differ in such a way; it is difficult to contrast the two poets. However being able to see the difference in manner of literature, after different levels of crushing by society, enables you to see the true Fallen Heroes; Milton and Wilde.