John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a magnificent work. For those who are unfamiliar with this epic poem, first published in 1668, it details Satan’s fall from heaven into hell, the creation of the earth and humans, as well as humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In some ways wildly over the top, the poem covers epic and violent celestial battles between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, involving legions of angels, demons and satanic war machines, philosophical conversations between God and Jesus, as well as phantasmagoric descriptions of heaven, hell, the Garden of Eden, etc. It is full of interesting philosophical themes ranging from the nature of evil, reason and religion, the paradox of predestination and free will, etc. It builds a macro to micro picture of a cosmos that ranges from the actual physical locations and proximities of heaven, hell and Earth, down to the dietary habits of angels.
An issue that has occupied critics and legions of other readers over the centuries is the fabulous depiction of Satan in this poem. Milton’s Satan speaks in eloquent and soaring verse, is often brave and noble, at least within his nefarious circle, as well as intelligent and self-reflective. There are varying opinions on this very unconventional portrayal of the Devil. A few have gone as far as to accuse Milton of blasphemy and Satanism.
To be sure, this Satan is a fascinating and complex character. At one point, he even considers repenting and returning to God’s service, but realizes that he would eventually be unable to prevent himself from resuming his rebellion,
But say I could repent and could obtaine
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would highth recal high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart.
It seems to me that Milton was portraying Satan as a terribly tragic figure. He is an angel who possessed incredibly noble and appealing virtues but who could not resist the appeal to evil. Hence he fell a very long way. Furthermore he was one of God’s leading angels. Monumental virtue, though eventually lost, would have been a prerequisite of this position. It would not be surprising that elements of this virtue would remain after his fall. Though a sympathetic character in many ways, there is no doubt that Satan has become a purveyor of evil. He constantly harps about revenge upon God, corrupts humankind and brings all sorts of chaos into the universe.
At one point, he even acknowledges that his rebellion is wrong, unprovoked and motivated by pride and ambition,
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd 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 then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
Satan’s story is one of monumental tragedy; it is monumental precisely because of the virtues inherent in his character.
There are so many other themes and ideas explored in this work. I will be devoting another post or two in exploring some points that were of particular interest to me. There are many reasons to read this poem, not the least of which is the amazing persona that Milton has created in Satan himself.