I.—The Forty Days
I, who erewhile the happy Garden sung
By one man's disobedience lost, now sing
Recovered Paradise to all mankind,
By one man's firm obedience fully tried
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foiled
In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed,
And Eden raised in the waste Wilderness.
Having thus introduced his subject, the poet describes, on
Scriptural lines, the baptism of John, seen by Satan, "when
roving still about the world." The Fiend then "flies to his
place" and "summons all his mighty peers"—a gloomy consistory—warning
them that the time seems approaching when
they "must bide the stroke of that long-threatened wound,"
when "the woman's Seed shall bruise the serpent's head." They
agree that Satan shall return to earth and act as Tempter. In
Heaven, meantime, God tells the assembly of angels, addressing
Gabriel, that He will expose His Son to Satan, in order that
the Son may "show him worthy of His birth divine and high
prediction." And the angelic choir sings "Victory and triumph
to the Son of God."
So they in Heaven their odes and vigils tuned.
Meanwhile the Son of God ...
Musing and much revolving in his breast
How best the mighty work he might begin
Of Saviour to mankind, and which way first
Publish his God-like office now mature,
One day forth walked alone, the Spirit leading,
And his deep thoughts, the better to converse
With solitude, till, far from track of men,
Thought following thought, and step by step led on,
He entered now the bordering desert wild.
Christ then, in meditation, tells reminiscently the story of His
Full forty days He passed ...
Nor tasted human food, nor hunger felt,
Till those days ended; hungered then at last
Among wild beasts. They at His sight grew mild,
Nor sleeping Him nor waking harmed; His walk
The fiery serpent fled and noxious worm;
The lion and fierce tiger glared aloof.
But now an aged man in rural weeds,
Following, as seemed, the quest of some stray ewe,
Or withered sticks to gather, which might serve
Against a winter's day, when winds blow keen,
To warm him wet returned from field at eve,
He saw approach.
This is Satan, and, entering into conversation adjures the
"If thou be the Son of God, command
That out of these hard stones be made Thee bread,
So shalt Thou save Thyself, and us relieve
With food, whereof we wretched seldom taste."
Christ at once discerns who His tempter is and rebuffs him;
and the Fiend, "now undisguised," goes on to narrate his own
history, arguing that he is not a foe to mankind.
"They to me
Never did wrong or violence. By them
I lost not what I lost; rather by them
I gained what I have gained, and with them dwell
Co-partner in these regions of the world."
Christ, replying, attributes to Satan the evils of Idolatry and
the crafty oracles of heathendom, which have taken the place
of the "inward oracle in pious hearts," whereupon Satan, "bowing
low his gray dissimulation, disappeared."
II.—The Temptation of the Body
Meanwhile the disciples were gathered "close in a cottage
low," wondering where Christ could be, and Mary with troubled
thoughts, rehearsed the story of His early life. Satan, returning
to the council of his fellow fiends, in "the middle region of thick
air," reports his failure, and that he has found in the Tempted
"amplitude of mind to greatest deeds." Belial advises that the
temptation should be continued by women "expert in amorous
arts," but Satan rejects the plan, and reminds Belial—
"Among the sons of men
How many have with a smile made small account
Of beauty and her lures. For beauty stands
In the admiration only of weak minds
Led captive: cease to admire and all her plumes
Fall flat.... We must try
His constancy with such as have more show
Of worth, of honour, glory, and popular praise."
With this aim Satan again betakes himself to the desert, where
Christ, now hungry, sleeps and dreams of food.
And now the herald lark
Left his ground-nest, high towering to descry
The morn's approach, and greet her with his song,
As lightly from his grassy couch uprose
Our Saviour, and found all was but a dream;
Fasting he went to sleep and fasting waked.
Up to a hill anon his steps he reared,
And in a bottom saw a pleasant grove,
With chant of tuneful birds resounding loud.
Thither He bent His way ...
When suddenly a man before Him stood,
Not rustic as before, but seemlier clad,
As one in city or court or palace bred.
Here Satan again tempts Him with a spread of savoury
food, which Jesus dismisses with the words:
"Thy pompous delicacies I contemn,
And count thy specious gifts no gifts, but guiles!"
The book closes with the offer of riches, which are rejected
as "the toil of fools."
III.—The Temptation of Glory
Finding his weak "arguing and fallacious drift" ineffectual,
Satan next appeals to ambition and suggests conquest; but is reminded
"Rob and spoil, burn, slaughter, and enslave
Peaceable nations, neighbouring or remote,
Made captive, yet deserving freedom more
Than those their conquerors, who leave behind
Nothing but ruin wheresoe'r they rove,
And all the flourishing works of peace destroy;
Then swell with pride and must be titled gods.
But if there be in glory aught of good,
It may by means far different be attained;
Without ambition, war, or violence,
By deeds of peace, by wisdom eminent,
By patience, temperance."
But Satan, sardonically, argues that God expects glory, nay,
exacts it from all, good and bad alike. To which Christ replies:
"Not glory as prime end,
But to show forth his goodness, and impart
His good communicable to every soul
Freely; of whom what could He less expect
Than glory and benediction—that is thanks—
The slightest, easiest, readiest recompense
From them who could return him nothing else."
But, argues Satan, it is the throne of David to which the
Messiah is ordained; why not begin that reign? Hitherto Christ
has scarcely seen the Galilean towns, but He shall "quit these
rudiments" and survey "the monarchies of the earth, their
pomp and state." And thereupon he carries Him to a mountain
whence He can see "Assyria and her empire's ancient bounds,"
and there suggests the deliverance of the Ten Tribes.
"Thou on the Throne of David in full glory,
From Egypt to Euphrates and beyond
Shalt reign, and Rome or Cæsar not need fear."
The answer is that these things must be left to God's "due
time and providence."
IV.—The Last Temptation
The Tempter now brings the Saviour round to the western side
of the mountain, and there Rome
An imperial city stood;
With towers and temples proudly elevate
On seven hills, with palaces adorned,
Porches and theatres, baths, aqueducts,
Statues and trophies, and triumphal arcs,
Gardens and groves. Queen of the Earth,
So far renowned, and with the spoils enriched
But this "grandeur and majestic show of luxury" has no
effect on Christ, who says:
"Know, when my season comes to sit
On David's throne, it shall be like a tree
Spreading and overshadowing all the earth;
Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash
All monarchies besides throughout the world,
And of my Kingdom there shall be no end."
The offer of the kingdoms of the world incurs the stern
"Get thee behind me! Plain thou now appear'st
That Evil One, Satan, for ever damned."
Still the Fiend is not utterly abashed, but, arguing that "the
childhood shows the man as morning shows the day," and that
Christ's empire is one of mind, he, as a last temptation from the
"specular mount," shows Athens.
"There thou shalt hear and learn the secret power
Of harmony, in tones and numbers hit
By voice or hand, and various-measured verse.
To sage philosophy next lend thine ear,
From Heaven descended to the low-roofed house
Christ replies that whoever seeks true wisdom in the philosophies,
moralities and conjectures of men finds her not, and
that the poetry of Greece will not compare with "Hebrew songs
and harps." It is the prophets who teach most plainly
"What makes a nation happy, and keeps it so;
What ruins kingdoms, and lays cities flat?"
Finding all these temptations futile, Satan explodes:
"Since neither wealth nor honour, arms nor arts,
Kingdom nor empire pleases thee, nor aught
By me proposed in life contemplative
Or active, tended on by glory or fame;
What dost thou in this world? The wilderness
For thee is fittest place. I found thee there
And thither will return thee."
So he transports the passive Saviour back to his homeless
Our Saviour, meek, and with untroubled mind,
Hungry and cold betook himself to rest.
The Tempter watched, and soon with ugly dreams
Disturbed his sleep. And either tropic now
'Gan thunder, and both ends of Heaven; the clouds
From many a rift abortive poured
Fierce rain with lightning mixed; water with fire
In ruin reconciled. Ill wast Thou shrouded then,
O patient Son of God! Yet only stood'st
Unshaken! Nor yet staid the terror there.
Infernal ghosts of hellish furies round
Environed thee; some howled, some yelled, some shrieked,
Some bent at thee their fiery darts, while thou
Sat'st unappalled in calm and sinless peace.
Thus passed the night so foul, till morning fair
Came forth with pilgrim steps, in amice grey,
Who with her radiant finger stilled the roar
Of thunder, chased the clouds, and laid the winds,
And grisly spectres, which the Fiend had raised
To tempt the Son of God with terrors dire.
And now the sun with more effectual beams
Had cheered the face of earth, and dried the wet
From drooping plant, or dropping tree; the birds,
Who all things now beheld more fresh and green,
After a night of storm so ruinous,
Cleared up their choicest notes in bush and spray,
To 'gratulate the sweet return of morn.
Satan, in anger, begins the last temptation.
Feigning to doubt whether the Saviour is the Son of God, he
snatches him up and carries him to where, in
Fair Jerusalem, the Holy City lifted high her towers
And higher yet the glorious Temple reared
Her pile; far off appearing like a mount
Of alabaster, topp'd with golden spires:
There on the highest pinnacle he set
The Son of God, and added thus in scorn:
"There stand if thou wilt stand; to stand upright will task thy skill."
"Tempt not the Lord thy God," He said, and stood.
But Satan, smitten with amazement, fell,
And to his crew, that sat consulting, brought
Ruin, and desperation, and dismay.
So Satan fell; and straight a fiery globe,
Of angels, on full sail of wing flew nigh,
Who on their plumy vans received Him soft,
From His uneasy station, and upbore
As on a floating couch through the blithe air;
Then in a flowery valley set Him down
On a green bank, and set before Him, spread,
A table of celestial food....
....And as He fed, angelic quires
Sang Heavenly anthems of His victory
Over temptation and the Tempter proud.
"Now Thou hast avenged
Supplanted Adam, and, by vanquishing
Temptation, hast regained lost Paradise."
Thus they, the Son of God, our Saviour meek,
Sung victor, and from Heavenly feast refreshed,
Brought on His way with joy. He, unobserved,
Home to His mother's house private returned.