“A grateful mind by owing owes not”

In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Satan enters the Garden of Eden having left Hell but carrying it within him, as he says: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n” (lines 75-78). He sighs under the weight of “the bitter memory / Of what he was, what is, and what must be / Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue” (25-27). Milton evokes a bit of sympathy for Satan as he recognizes – all too late – that the debt of gratitude owed to God is not as burdensome as he once thought because it is a debt that can never be paid except by loving obedience. The closest analogue here is the parent-child relationship: a child can never pay back his parents for their protection, love, and generosity excepting by honoring them. When the angel or child refuses his derivative and subordinate position, seeking to be “one step higher,” all Hell breaks loose. Satan laments:

Ah wherefore! he deserved no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less than to afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due! Yet all his good proved ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I ‘sdained subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged; what burden then? (42-57).


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