‘’Paradise Lost’’ by John Milton
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This essay will address the question: ‘’How are John Milton’s views presented through the character of Satan in the epic poem ‘’Paradise Lost’’?’’ by focusing on Milton’s initial portrayal of Satan’s glory as a rebel leader in book I, his political prowess in book II, as well as Satan’s eventual fall, in terms of character, in book IV.
This essay will analyze the characterization of Milton’s character of Satan and how this character of such sly heroism presented his personal views and beliefs. Satan’s initial presentation in books I and II in comparison to his supposed ‘’self-hating’’ soliloquy in book IV will be analyzed in terms of what Milton is trying to accomplish through this change of heart. Also, this essay will study the writing styles of Milton and how he utilised his voice as a narrator to suppress Satan’s voice throughout the poem and what this signifies for the character. These goals will be achieved through the assessment of critiques by Waldock and the interpretations as well as notes by Grace and Wheeler.
This essay concludes that Milton shows, through Satan, his views regarding society itself. His views regarding the corruption within the political system, his Christian virtue of obedience, as well as the futility of evildoers are presented within the poem ‘’Paradise Lost’’. .
John Milton, born on December 9th, 1608 in Cheapside, London, England, The United Kingdom, was an English poet as well as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England during the time of Oliver Cromwell. After the death of ‘The lord Protector’ Oliver Cromwell in 1658, it was a time of political change as well as religious flux in London. This was around the time that John Milton began writing his epic, ‘Paradise Lost’, with the help of his aides due to the fact that he was suffering from blindness. The poem ‘’Paradise Lost’’ was finally published in 1667 and was the focus of many critics at the time due to his other propaganda writings. The epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ is considered one of the greatest literary works in the English language.
The poem focuses on the biblical story of the fall of man and its purpose, stated in book I, is to explain or to ‘’justify the ways of God to men’’ (Book I, line 26). Milton tries to describe the mysterious plan that god has for humankind. He presents, through a unique portrayal of the evil figure of Satan, his own personal beliefs, religious or otherwise. In ‘Paradise Lost’, Milton presents a Satan that is interesting to the common reader and brings to light the question: how can someone who lived in a time where religion was law create a Satan who reflected the heroes of the Iliad or the Aneid? This paper aims to investigate the character of Satan, focusing on books I, II and IV, and how the portrayal of such a gloriously sly character reflects Milton’s humanism while challenging his Christian values (obedience, humility, and forbearance).
The introduction of Satan
From the brief introduction that covered lines 1-26 in book I of ‘Paradise Lost’, Milton quickly goes into description of Satan and the flaming hell that he resides in. Satan’s role in Paradise Lost is clearly defined. Through the lines “who first seduced them to that foul revolt? The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived the mother of mankind’’ (book I, lines 33-36), we can see that he is the serpent who tempts Eve and Adam to commit the Original Sin. The link to the Bible is clearly defined and it is established, from the beginning of the epic, that Satan can be seen as one of the main characters of the poem.
However, as Wheeler mentioned in his book ‘’Paradise Lost and the Modern Reader’’, we can see that there is a certain heroic and gloomy splendor that is attached to the character of Satan. How Milton described Satan in these few lines could be seen as the presentation of a hero. Satan is described as glorious, ambitious and proud. These are words of praise that one would normally give to a hero or great warrior fighting for what is good. Instead these heroic traits are not only given to one that is clearly of evil intent, but they are given to Satan himself. Milton, living in a time where religion was an integral aspect of their communities, now writes about ‘’the enemy’’ as if he was a great warrior stirring up a rebellion against an unwanted king.
Then, in the fiery depth of hell and in ‘’adamantine chains and penal fire’’ (book I, line 48) Satan and his second in command, Beelzebub, lay there thinking on their position and the war that they had just lost. Again, Satan is presented with traits of glory and heroic leadership. “All is not lost ‘the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield: and what is else not to be overcome?’’ (book I, lines 106-109) are lines said by Satan himself. We can compare this Satan, this character who displays all of the virtues of a great warrior to the heroes such as Achilles or Odysseus. He is courageous and refuses to yield in the face of impossible odds. Also, Satan is presented as an unrelenting general as well as a glorious leader, able to raise the moral of his troops through gallant speeches boasting of unmatched determination. Milton has created a Satan that draws readers into sympathising or even admiring such an evil and hated figure.
As Satan’s speech comes to an end in the first book, we can see the results of his glorious words. ‘’I shout that tore hell’s concave, and beyond frightened the reign of Chaos and old Night. All in a moment through the gloom were seen ten thousand banners rise into the air with orient colours waving.’’ (Book I, lines 543-545) These lines further show the commanding voice of Satan, a voice which expresses magnificence, a sense of magnitude, the exhilarating pressure of the united and defiant action. It is in this voice which Satan addresses his legions, giving them hope in a time of despair.
Satan also gives description of the single devils in his legion. Waldock, in his book ‘’Paradise Lost and its Critics’’, says that these descriptions can be related to how Homer described the great warriors in the Iliad. ‘’First Moloch, horrid King besmeared with blood of Human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,’’ or ‘’Chemos, the obscene dread of Moab’s sons…’’ (Book II, lines 392-410) These lines show that Satan honoured his legions much like how Homer honored the great warriors in his Iliad. The irony in these descriptions lies in the fact that these devils and even Satan himself are in fact evil. In spite of their seemingly heroic actions and gallantry, they are still fighting against the righteous (God). The description of the devils can also be seen to reflect Satan as well. No matter how brave he is presented, he is still Satan. We cannot overlook the fact that no matter how gloriously they may seem, they are still devils.
Milton even goes as far as establishing his Satan as a defender of freedom, a role that is attractive to readers. This is demonstrated in the lines: ‘’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, and in my choice to reign is worth ambition through in hell’’ and followed by line ‘’better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven’’ (book I, line 258-263). Satan is speaking about a place where he and his comrades can roam free and not be oppressed by the higher order that is God. Satan is, at the same time, revealing that he would take that freedom regardless of the fact that it is corrupt in nature.
This heroic view of Satan is carried out further into book II. In book II, Satan and his commanders debate about their next course of action. In book II, Milton shows another facet of Satan that was not presented in book I. Satan is seen as a military hero in book I, while the debate in book II shows his political prowess.
Milton depicts the devils in such a way that is contrary to the religious views of 17th century London. The devil’s nonviolent debate and their democratic decision wreck havoc on another creature, man, shows the corruption of reason. Milton uses this style to make it seem as if the devils are good instead of evil much like he did with Satan. Showing such a civilised and seemingly political debate is another way of drawing the reader in to connect more with his characters despite their evil intentions.
Furthermore, Satan continually urges the others to have ‘’union, and firm faith, and firm accord’’ (book II, line 6). This makes their debate seem more legitimate and powerful when in reality, they are false and disorganised. Irony is a prevailing element in this debate due to the fact that Milton presented the devils in such a way that it gives them a serious and nonviolent aspect which devils should not have.
From the descriptions of Wheeler and Waldock, Satan can be seen to degrade as the poem goes on. Milton degrades his character in many different ways. Faltering due to personal faults, transition from human to animal, and even weakness of the mind are some ways in which Satan experiences a fall from the glorious character that was presented in books I and II.
It is not until we are two thirds of the way through book II that we learn what the odds against Satan and his legions were. ‘’Art thou that traitor angel, art thou he, who first broke peace in heaven and faith, till then unbroken, and in proud rebellious arms drew after him the third part of heaven’s sons’’ (book II, Line 689-693) it is in this line, spoken by Death, that we can see Satan’s army was a third of what was in heaven. The impression that was carefully built from book I and the earlier parts of book II were that the rebels had a true fighting chance against the armies of god, and that the rebellion, in the eyes of the rebels, was a rational undertaking with a fair chance at success. However, from this line we begin to question the reasoning behind Satan’s fight against god. Was he not outnumbered? Was Satan’s reasoning not as rational as it seemed? And had he become, in our imaginations, a figure so formidable that we could no longer doubt him? These lines, slipped almost unseen into the verses gave us a hint as to what would come: the fall of Satan as a character.
Examples of the difference in strength between the armies of Satan and those of God had been hinted at in book I as well, but Milton had wrote it so that we took the news by stride due to the fact that Satan was presented as such a unwavering warrior that it would be foolish to doubt him. Some examples are: ‘’till then who knew the force of those dire arms?’’ (Book I, line 93) and ‘’they endangered heaven’s perpetual king, and to put to proof his high supremacy, whether upheld by strength, or chance, or fate’’ (book I, lines 132-134). These lines prove the fact that they were fighting a force much stronger than their own, and even though in the face of such a formidable opponent, they continued to fight. These lines were overlooked due to how Satan were depicted in books I and II.
Wheeler describes this effect on the modern reader as ‘’interesting’’ and how, even though we know that Satan is a liar, we were too concerned with the fact that he was presented as a protagonist. Milton inserts confidence into Satan speeches, and as a result, some may take the words of the defeated for a perfect report of fact. We had established, in our imaginations, that Satan was a worthy antagonist of heaven. But this is a trick, and the writing style of Milton affected us in the way that he meant it to: for us to connect with Satan and sympathise towards the evil. Now that we know the rebellion was a foolish effort, why did Milton make the fall of Satan that much more dramatic?
The main reason as to why Satan went for his bid for supremacy was pride. His lust for power and ambition for the throne caused his fall. We have stumbled upon an element which is repeatedly stated in ‘Paradise Lost’: this helpless and solemn image of pride. Milton presents pride as a useless sin in comparison to the Christian virtues of obedience, humility, and forbearance that was stated in the introduction.
Thus it can be seen throughout the poem that Milton suppresses Satan’s heroic side to a point where he is degraded to someone who has sinned. The heroic is degraded through the use of multiple devices. One of which is Milton himself. As the narrator, he repeatedly suppresses Satan’s voice. Milton may have made the mistake of making his character so overwhelmingly perfect that he has to repeatedly suppress him to reach his goal. He would make him say someone glorious, then, seemingly anxious about the effects, he will gently tug our sleeves and warn us not to be swayed by him. This is expressing the disagreement and contrast within Milton’s mind and Satan’s character, and also reflecting his views of humanism and not religion.
The process of dampening Satan’s voice began quite early in the poem. After Satan’s first speech, Milton inserts the comment: ‘’so spake the apostate angel, though in pain, vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair’’ (book I, line 125-126). Where had there been a moment during his speech where there was despair? The speech seemed incompatible with this sense of despair. Did Milton truly feel that, when he was writing the words, that he was in ‘’deep despair’’? Each great speech lifts Satan a little beyond what Milton originally wanted him to be, and thus had to suppress his voice via a comment.
In book II, Belial, a demon, also has a speech. His advice to the others is to stay where they are, to be quiet and to lie in wait and see what is to come. In these circumstances, especially as we know from other sources that they cannot win the battle and have no hope for grace, it is the best advice at the time. However, we can see that Milton dislikes Belial (who can be seen to reflect reason). Instead he prefers the dashing villainy that he perfected in Satan and thus Belial is dampened by the line: ‘’thus Belial with words cloath’d in reason garb, counsel’d ignoble easy and peaceful sloath, not peace.’’ (Book 2, lines 226-228). The words of Belial are not only ‘’cloath’d in reason garb’’ but are in fact reasonable. Having his character speak wisely then says that he has spoke foolishly proves Milton’s like for Satan’s character. Even though other characters can be seen to give good advice, Milton deliberately suppresses them to make Satan look better.
As the poem proceeds through its pages we can see that Satan is on a downwards course. The moment where the change can be seen the most would be the soliloquy near the opening of book IV, it is a speech by Satan, but one that is utterly different in feeling and tone from the speeches that came before it. It strikes readers as a little odd in the poem ‘Paradise Lost’ due to the fact that Milton designed it as the opening speech of a tragedy.
The speech at the opening of book IV was conceived and partly composed before Milton began his poem. The implication being that while the glorification of Satan was present in books I and II of Paradise Lost, Milton had the idea of Satan’s downfall in his mind the whole time he was writing the previous books. The movement towards this soliloquy of doubt and self-torture had already been set. This is the reason why Milton continually suppresses Satan’s voice throughout the beginnings of the poem.
The speech begins with a voice that we can easily relate to. One that is seen again and again in books I and II. A speech that is filled with wonderful disdain, envy, and hate: ‘’the apocalypse heard cry in heaven aloud, then when the dragon, put to second rout, came furious down to be revenged on men, woe to the inhabitants on earth!’’ (Book IV, lines 3-5). These lines quickly flow to the guilty lines of the soliloquy to follow. Lines 42-48 and 58-68 express the pain that Satan feels and the despair of his character. Satan shows, for the first time, behind this impressive mask of pride and ambition, a Satan who knows he is wrong and blames no-one for the fall but himself.
We might be drawn to sympathize with this fallen character who faces his own faults so honestly, and we may be tempted to wonder why god denies his grace. He is portrayed as having a conscience to further the connection with Satan and ourselves. After the speech we can see that he becomes nearly helpless and realizes that he is weak. He finds Adam and eve so attractive that he could love them (book IV).
Nothing warned us about this speech of horror and uncertainty. This Satan all of a sudden recognizes his pride and ambition and is filled with remorse through the lines: ‘’I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere; till pride and worse ambition threw me down warring against haven’s matchless king’’ (book IV, lines 39-41). Who would have thought that this was possible for the majestically evil Satan of books I and II? He is suddenly changed into one who realizes that the service of god was not hard at all. Where did this Satan come from? This is a Satan that we have not seen before and is now presented to us in such a sudden manner. This is to emphasize his fall, and to emphasize the meaninglessness of his actions against god.
He then flies to the tree of life and sits there. ‘’sat like a cormorant; yet not true life thereby regained, but sat devising death to them who lived’’ (book IV, 196-198) these lines show a Satan who has fallen to a level where, ignoring the obvious opportunity to strike, uses this time for a trivial bout of anger. Now, Satan shifts between two levels: the glorious General, politician and rebel from previous books to the new and self hating Satan. After those lines, he quickly recovers at line 356 and the previous Satan returns explaining how he feels sad that such beauty (Adam and eve) must be destroyed in a joking tone.
The elements for a tragedy are here. These elements are forever approaching but cannot connect. The ‘tragedy’ of Satan’s character is nothing but a shadow. He is put through the notions of a tragic conflict but maintains his dashing villainy in the end. This is shown to reflect Milton’s mindset at the time: His confusion between his Christian views and his humanism. The speeches in book I deal with revenge and the ‘’unconquerable will’’ to hate but by book IX, he has found that revenge is bitter and this can be seen to reflect Milton’s Christian ideals that these sins are meaningless.
Satan: what is being presented?
As we can see, there are a great many things that Milton put into his work and has been said through the actions and voice of his character: Satan. He showed that although Satan was a magnificent figure to behold, he still fell. We can see that in the 4th book, Satan came to realize his own actions and he had found that he was the cause of his fall and not because of god. It was his own selfish actions that wrought this upon him and he came to realize this in the 4th book. This can be seen to reflect the view that the sufferings of men are their own fault. Because Milton characterized Satan in such a way that we can easily relate to, it can be seen as him trying to represent mankind through Satan.
In the modern era, many of us have difficulties blaming the evils of our time onto ourselves. The fact of racism and discrimination, the starving millions, and the relentless poisoning of the air and water are all things that we have trouble blaming on ourselves. It is easier to blame it on something else, something such as Satan. The ordinary person simply cannot see him/herself as being the one who is responsible for making the air unfit to breathe or for the climate to change. By making Satan more like a person, with our everyday faults and evils, Milton has created a kind of evil who is purposeful and aware. The Satan within ‘Paradise lost’ has a conscience, as seen in book IV, and he accepted that he was at fault. We can see the being that is behind a veil of power and evil is a hollow and shrunken person who plots against others while denying his own nature, but cannot deny what his intellect tells him.
Our final impression of Satan is that he is futile. His act of disobedience: making Adam and Eve commit the Original sin as well as fighting against the will of God has indeed been done. But to do these acts with no sense of purpose and with no hope of grace has made Satan come to the realization that his disobedience is futile. While Milton has failed in showing that obedience to god will bring joy and happiness, he showed, in Satan, that disobedience is futile and reinforced one of the first ideals that was taught by the Christian religion: the root of all sin is disobedience.
In answering the question: ‘’ How are John Milton’s views presented through the character of Satan in the epic poem ‘’Paradise Lost’’?’’ this essay outlines the character of Satan present in the poem and how his glorious actions lead to his resulting fall. Also, through this essay, we can see that John Milton presented many of his ideals through his character.
Milton showed, through the non-violent and democratic debate from book II, his view on the corrupt political debates and the system itself. But more importantly, outlined the importance of the Christian virtue of obedience as well as showing us, through Satan, an extreme example of futility. By presenting us an easily relatable Satan, he creates a Satan which reflects humankind itself. By dividing Satan into two facets, one of great power and magnificence on the outside and the self-hating Satan on the inside, he splits humankind into two factions as well.
Milton’s ‘’hidden truth’’ that has placed within Satan is one that reflects his personal views and ideals. One that says in every age there will be a multitude of men committing bad deeds. They, and not some ethereal being such as Satan, are at the center of their faults. The good men shall be isolated and be recognised for their actions or ‘’obedience’’ and the bad shall be presented with one simple fact: the fact that their actions are futile. By dividing the human race into the bad and the good, the poem gives us a simple scheme: the good will prevail and evil is futile.
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