Of all fictitious characters, Lucifer is my absolute favourite. He’s not as prominent in those two particularly well known fictions, the Old and the New Testaments, as I feel he ought to be, but Milton supplied the deficiency in Paradise Lost, and since then it’s been hard to keep the guy down.
I think my favourite representation of Satan on celluloid is brought to us by Al Pacino:
In the introduction to his excellent Oxford Book of Villains, John Mortimer writes:
‘What entered the Almighty’s mind when he put the serpent into the Garden of Eden he alone knows, and by now he may well have forgotten. The existence of villainy in a world under divine supervision is a question which has long troubled humanity… All that can be said is that, so far as writers of fiction are concerned, the serpent’s presence was an unmixed blessing, as was the gift of free will and the power of the individual to choose the path of unrighteousness.’
George Meredith (1828-1909) was an extraordinary man. Novelist, poet, essayist, publisher’s reader, cuckold, beloved by Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle.
In this extraordinary sonnet, Meredith doesn’t really give us the Satan I like to see, but still, it’s not a shabby bit of work at all. It’s called ‘Lucifer in Starlight’.
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion, swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball, in a cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their specter of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wilder zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
In English, with its paucity of rhymes, Meredith chose an octave (ABBAABBA) and sestet (CDCEED) used by Milton. And the Milton link is a big hint, of course. Still: only five rhymes for the whole fourteen lines. I tips me hat to that and no mistake.
Isn’t ‘uprose’ at the end of the first line a stroke of genius? ‘rose up’ would fit the syllable requirements to a nicety also, but it doesn’t give you that heady sense of flight that ‘uprose’ does: you can hear, in the cadence of that word, a monstrous pair of wings snap open and flap down. But this is an active poem from the first – ‘swung the fiend/Above the rolling ball’ is almost enough to make you dizzy, and you can feel your perspective tilt when ‘upon his western wing he leaned’. Notice also that he seems to grow: first he can be ‘in a cloud part screened’, then suddenly we hear about his ‘huge bulk’ and then he is a ‘black planet’. Love it.
The active nature of the sonnet recedes with Satan, who is defeated by the ‘unalterable law’ of the cosmos. The final two lines are magnificently stark in comparison with the movement and urgency of what precedes them. I particularly like the military imagery there: a nice reminder that the story of religion is at heart essentially a warlike one.
The marvellous possibilities embodied in Lucifer as a character are also here evident: too proud to prey on pitiful sinners, too weak to pervert the course of the stars. Poor fellah. That’s quite a bind to be in.
I think Meredith is my clear favourite in the category ‘poet whose wife ran away with a Pre-Raphaelite painter.’