The Devil You (may not) Know

Recently, I have been working my way through C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942). The text unfolds as a series of correspondence written in Hell from a ranking demon, Screwtape, to his aspiring young nephew, Wormwood, offering advice on how to best ensure the damnation of a man known only as “the Patient.” In view of Lewis’ legacy as a Christian apologist, the Letters’ rhetorical strategy appears glaringly obvious: by playing the devil Lewis hoped to inculcate a stronger sense of faith in his readership. Yet, what is striking about the Letters is how vociferously anti-Romantic the text is in its handling of theology, eschatology, and those weighty matters of doubt and faith. In one letter, for instance, Screwtape holds Coleridge up as a model of the kind of “superficial” worship of the divine that Wormwood should aim to cultivate in his patient in order to secure his spiritual downfall.[1]

That Lewis found in Romanticism a fallen theology with which to equip his devils should come as little surprise given the Romantics’ long idolization of Milton and his defiant archangel, or their wider aim of supplanting traditional forms of devotion with a deeper connection to the aesthetic realm. No doubt, along with Coleridge’s “natural supernaturalism,”[2] Lewis had in mind Blake’s fiery spirit of opposition, spoken through the “voice of the devil” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790); Percy Shelley’s infernal atheism, and the Luciferian “better genius” of The Revolt of Islam (1818) and Prometheus Unbound (1820); and finally, the man who lived like a devil, earning Robert Southey’s famous censure as progenitor of the so-called “Satanic School” of Romantic poetry for his literary creations that flaunted their damnation. This was the same man who even once confessed to his wife that he believed himself an avatar of a fallen angel––Lord Byron.[3]

All good authors have their dalliance with the damned, it’s true. However, in taking poor Coleridge to task, Lewis seems to have failed to give the devil his due. Case in point: when no longer content with saving souls, Lewis doubled down on his devilish strategy in a sequel, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (1959), in order to critique what he saw as the wider shortcomings of British public education and society at the time.[4] Playing the devil for the purposes of reform was by no means original on Lewis’ part, certainly. Had Lewis been a closer reader of his Romantic forebears, though, he would have recognized the same (albeit mutable) strain of radical reformism running from Goethe and Godwin, through Byron, Shelley, and Victorian melodrama’s moral didactics, all the way to his own Screwtape Letters.

Readers of Lewis will object, of course. The “Satanic School,” as Southey denounced it in A Vision of Judgment (1821), exemplified all of the “pride and audacious impiety” that Lewis’ work adamantly opposes.[5] Similarly, contemporary readers of Romantic literature have been quick to follow Southey in drawing straight lines between the radicalism of the Satanic School and a rather adolescent strain of countercultural rebellion; between Romanticism’s appropriations of Paradise Lost, and its irreverent modes of satire; between a juvenile worship of the aesthetics of “ruin,” and a puerile reaction against the social and political status quo of the early nineteenth century. Therefore, today’s readers will probably balk at the suggestion that Lewis, too, may be of the devil’s party and not know it. But allow me, if you will, to play devil’s advocate.

Here, I contend that dismissing Romantic “Satanism” as youthful rebellion misses entirely its mature strain of political reformism, which continued to weave its way through the Victorian period’s heavy-handed treatment of morality before eventually informing Lewis’ own demonic didacticism that sought to edify Christian souls while also improving public institutions. Tracing such reformist contours in the Romantic Devil will require a close examination of the literature in question, however. The devil may care, after all, but the devil is also in the details, as they say. So, let’s summon the devil, shall we?

Often did the Romantics speak of the devil, and often did he appear. While his manifestation in early nineteenth-century thought and literature has been exhaustively treated, the contexts and conditions which seemed to demand his presence have been less so. As Peter Schock has suggested, during the Romantic period,

“Representations of Satan appear in response to an emergent,   collectively felt need. Jacobinism, Millenarian antinomianism, the imperial ambitions of Napoleon, plebeian blasphemy, the threat of civil insurrection during the Regency – these portentous forces and events demanded answerable mythic embodiments to render them intelligible and to shape public opinion.”[6]

Thus, as Schock continues, popular and politicized forms of discourse invoked Satan propagandistically, as a tactic for demonizing adversaries, or as a rhetorical instrument for speculative writing. Moral or social crises, or crises of faith, in turn, invoked him as a means for shoring up ambiguities, for “othering” threatening groups among populations, or, as with Lewis, to warn against potential spiritual pitfalls. In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), for example, William Godwin deploys the devil in a discussion of virtue and “talent” in great versus bad men:

“Poetical readers have commonly remarked Milton’s devil to be a being of considerable virtue. It must be admitted that his energies centered too much in personal regards. But why did he rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power, which the creator assumed. It was because prescription and precedent form no adequate ground for implicit faith. After his fall, why did he still cherish the spirit of opposition? From a persuasion that he was hardly and injuriously treated. He was not discouraged by the apparent inequality of the contest: because a sense of reason and justice was stronger in his mind than a sense of brute force; because he had much of the feelings of an Epictetus or a Cato, and little of those of a slave. He bore his torments with fortitude because he disdained to be subdued by despotic power. He sought revenge because he could not think with tameness of the unexpostulating authority that assumed to dispose of him. How beneficial and illustrious might the temper from which these qualities flowed have been found with a small diversity of situation!”[7]

Conjuring the devil as a vehicle for anti-authoritarian values, Godwin’s discourse is able to parse the nuanced distiction between that which is intrinsically evil (despotism), and the tragedy of those with misplaced talents, who often meet ignominious ends. The devil (or at least his utility) here thus provides a valuable philosophical insight in an age when human desire and power achieved a kind of apotheosis.[8] It also gestures toward the kind of sympathizing move that Godwin’s literary successors would undertake in their writing, which was always a potential devil’s bargain.

Blake, Byron, and Shelley summoned the devil for functions far different than their eighteenth-century forerunners, often with the express aim of producing “a mythic anchor for ideological identification.”[9] This was always, of course, fraught with the possibility of turning out to be a Faustian pact, and these authors were well aware of the dangers of seeming a devil versus being the real thing. In The Deformed Transformed (1824),[10] for instance, a clubfooted protagonist addresses a stranger who he suspects of being the Devil, himself. Appearances are often deceiving: “Your form is man’s, and yet / you may be devil” (I. i. 82–3). To which the stranger replies,

Unless you keep company

With him (and you seem scarce used to such high

Society) you can’t tell how he approaches.

And for his aspect, look upon the fountain,

And then on me, and judge which of us twain

Look likest what the boors believe to be

Their cloven-footed terror. (I. i. 95–101)

In the space of the seeming, one always hazards transforming likeness into being through the magic of aesthetic mediation.[11]

The Byronic hero often defined himself at the very brink of this abyss. Yet, while Byron’s “fatal men” are often cited as the grossest examples of moral transgressiveness and inflated individualism––responsible for the “diabolism” of the fin de siècle and French Decadence movement––it is also true that, as Mario Praz has argued in his magisterial study,

“As humanitarian ideas penetrated more and more into literature, the [villain] finished by definitely taking on the character already hinted at by Schiller and Zschokke––becoming, in fact, a secret benefactor, a nobleman with a dark past who devotes himself to a noble ideal, employs bandits as unconscious instruments of justice, and dreams of perfecting the world by committing crimes. The Byronic heroes of the romans-feuilleton of such writers as Eugène Sue and Paul Féval are in reality, under their Satanic exterior, apostles of Good. Whether they are called Rodolphe or the Marquis de Rio-Santo, they loom gigantic in the midst of a net of intrigues which have for their object the salvation of the State––a curious popular reflection of the end of Byron’s career, as the champion of Greek independence.”[12]

As I have said, either playing or deploying the devil to incite reform has a long literary history. And, as Praz reveals for us in his chapter entitled, “The Metamorphosis of Satan,” donning a devil’s mask to deliver the damned and save the State appears to be what unites even two authors as dramatically opposed as Lord Byron and C. S. Lewis. Naturally, this raises more than a few questions.

If deploying the devil in literature to effect a moral outcome was the aim of these authors, then by implication the author plays the part of God in attempting to enact the cosmic drama of the felix culpa––the “fortunate fall”––where evil is made to serve good, and the devil is made to serve the divine. That seems a little gauche to me, if not pretentious, even for these authors. Perhaps instead it is nearer the truth to suggest that the radical reformer, however reluctantly, must always at some point play the devil, and so we might have some sympathy for him. Not in the sense of revelling in one’s recalcitrance, as contrarians do, nor in seeing the world as an irredeemable hellhole, as fanatics do. Instead, as the devil is made to view the world through the prism of the inferno, so too does the radical reformer gaze out to see a world on fire, and is in turn harrowed by that most hellish of torments: hope.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 25.

[2] See M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1973).

[3] See Jerome J. McGann, Byron and Romanticism (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), 23.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and Other Pieces (London: Fontana, 1965).

[5] Robert Southey, A Vision of Judgment in The Poetic Works of Robert Southey, Collected by Himself, 10 vols. (London: Longman &c., 1838).

[6] Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley and Byron (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 3.

[7] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. F.E.L Priestly, 3 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946), I, 323–4.

[8] Schock, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Byron, Lord (George Gordon), The Deformed Transformed: A Drama in Byron: Complete Poetical Works, ed. Frederick Page (Oxford: OUP, 1970).

[11] Cf. Clara Tuite, Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), 239.

[12] Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (Oxford: OUP, 1970), 78.

4 thoughts on “The Devil You (may not) Know”

  1. This is great, Christopher. Any thoughts about why we don’t see angels summoned as often (or at all)?

    1. Thanks, Caroline! I have actually been giving this question a lot of thought. It’s true that we do see some angels in Romantic works. With Blake, we see plenty of angels (as he himself claimed to have visions of actual angels during his youth). Southey represents angel-like beings, though often filtered through other mythologies (Islam and Hinduism). Then there are a few other works that I can immediately recall. I’m thinking specifically of those in Byron’s “Heaven and Earth” (1821), and “The Vision of Judgment” (1822), which parodies Southey’s “A Vision of Judgment” (1821), which also features angels. In “Cain” (1821), the devil appears bearing his original angelic name, Lucifer. I imagine that if we accept M. H. Abrams’ arguments that the Romantics were trying to secularize, or displace, traditional Christian theology/mythology, though, what we find is that Romantic works are filled with angels bearing different names (e.g., sylphs, seraphs, spirits, shades, &c.). Would love to know if anyone else has any more sophisticated, or at least updated, ideas about this topic!

  2. I really loved this post. I can’t remember where exactly I read this, but I seem to recall Lewis distinguishing between a “dark” (perhaps grotesque?) Romanticism, from a more salutary form (most certainly that espoused by the early Wordsworth and Coleridge). Also, in his journal entry for January 19, 1927, Lewis writes that he intends to delve into Coleridge and Imagination and considers that “the thought of Wordsworth was somehow very reassuring. That’s the real imagination, no bogies, no karmas, no bogies, no damned psychism here…” And, of course, you must know that _The Great Divorce_ is a response to Blake’s _The Marriage of Heaven and Hell_ .

    I would be interested to see where you take this piece (if you do expand it in some way). If you wish to have an interlocutor who loves the Romantics and Lewis as much as I do, let me know!

    1. Thanks, Cesar! And thank you so much for bringing to my attention these other works showing just how engaged Lewis was with the Romantics. I had honestly just picked up the Screwtape Letters for fun, but there is obviously much here that I would love to delve further into. I will certainly keep you posted if/when my ideas develop!

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