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.
Brian, I think this must be one of my favourite posts by you! Paradise Lost was on my university syllabus for my first year, and contrary to the reputation that surrounds this text, I flew through the sections we were allocated to read (and kept reading!)
The writing is crafted in such a clever way, and it really gets you thinking about Milton's own thoughts about the characters he's created.
And you've summed up so well the ambiguity of Milton's Satan! I found that by reading about his dual character before and after his fall forced me to consider people we consider evil or immoral in our own society, and think about how they were before their actions (i.e. in childhood). Forgiveness then comes to mind, but so does actions that are difficult to repent. Lots to think about!
Hi Lucy - Thanks so much.
Yes there really are shades of childhood moving towards adulthood in both Satan and Milton's depiction of Adam and Eve here.
The interesting thing about the text is that the first time that I read this I had terrible difficulty with it. I guess I am typical of most people in this regards.Over the years, after reading many other such challenging things my comprehension has improved. It is funny how in some ways reading comprehension is like physical exercise. The more you do it the better you get but it is so difficult at first.
I still haven't read Paradise Lost, but would love to if only to experience the character Satan as depicted by Milton.
Loved this post--well done.
Hi Jane - Thanks for the good word.
Satan is really the highlight of this work. I will be posting on at least one more interesting aspect of the poem.
This extraordinary epic has haunted me for years, Milton's language and cadence is so sublime, and the feelings he expresses and produces in the reader. And he makes the decasyllable seem so easy.
Hi Miguel - The language and the poetry here is indeed soaring. Reading some commentary upon this work it seems that not everyone appreciates it and some find it overblown and pretentious. I thin k that it is sublime and at least in the context that it is in here, works perfectly.
How could a poem about a celestial war and the fall of Man not be written in overblown and pretentious language? What did they expect, Eliott's collages?
Hi Miguel - Ha! Exactly my thoughts!
I have not read this work but you've piqued my interest in it. Thoughtful post as usual! I look forward to your next post.
Hi Suko - If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it. There is so much to talk about when it comes to this work.
I read this book long ago and remember nothing about it. I need to read it again.
Interesting what you say about Satan. I heard a speaker on the radio say that it seems in fiction, evil is always made out to interesting and good boring while in reality the reverse is true.
Still, I need to read this book if I want to comment on it intelligently. Thanks for a great review!
On our shelves, my husband is forever encouraging me to read it but alas not a fan of this format to begin with - in my opinion verse should be something you have read to you rather than read by you - I find the thought of reading it daunting.
How did I miss this post? Great comments. Milton is one of my favorite poets. One of his poems actually caused a turning point in my life: "On His Blindness." I love his writing style as well, particularly in this epic poem. I will eagerly look forward to your next post.
Hi Sharon - i think to some extent that is true when it comes to good and evil and the way that it is portrayed. I think that the same is true about good as opposed to bad news. It was definitely true in Milton's case.
Hi Tracy - As I commented above this can be a challenging work. As for having verse read to you I think that it is a fine idea. You could consider an audiobook version of this.
Hi Heidi - Thanks for the good word.
I must read "On His Blindness". As a Poet, Milton was certainly impressive in so many ways.
Interesting Brian. I have heard of Paradise Lost but had never read it.
Growing up Catholic and attending Catholic school from grades K-12, we all knew that Lucifer was God's favorite angel who fell from grace. Aside from biblical texts, I have never read anything else on the subject. I look forward to your upcoming posts of Milton’s work. It seems the way he is telling it is intriguing.
Hi Naida - Without a doubt one would understand how this Lucifer would be God's favorite. This devil must have been a very attractive character before he fell.
Hi Brian, this is a lovely post, and you've brought this to life for me - I knew only a little about it before and now I feel I know more through your words. I'm not sure whether it is a book I will ever read, but I like your suggestion above of listening to it in an audio book version.
Hi Lindsay - Thanks for your kind words.
I am actually thinking of trying to give this a listen in audiobook format myself.
I was curious to read about it. I didn't know what it was about. For a native, it seems easier to read than I imagined. Have you read Dante? If yes, how does it compare to Dante's Inferno
Hi Emma - If I recall I think that we discussed Dante's inferno in the comments section of your blog some time ago. I love Dante's entire Divine Comedy. I found that this was much more accessible and less dense. I could not get through the Divine Comedy without notes. Of course this was written in English which is my native tongue and I have only read translations of Dante.
I was going to ask if this was the first time you'd read this, but I see in the comments that no, you've read this before. Don't you think that some books 'work' better as we age?
Hi Guy - Without a doubt many books have a much greater impact the second time around. First my reading comprehension has gotten better over the years. Second having read more and I understand how other literature and history connects up better with a poem such as this really opens the text up. Then I think that, at least for me, with maturity comes an appreciation of things that I may not have appreciated so much when I was younger. Finally, of course one picks things up the second time around that were missed on earlier attempts.
The audio book is not an option I'm afraid as whilst I can sit for hours book in hand for some reason I get bored very quickly with these.
Hi Tracy - I hear you! Audiobooks do work for me but only when running or working out.
Your comments on Paradise Lost resonate with me in two ways. First, reminding me of my own reading of the book almost two decades ago (I am overdue to reread this), but second, providing a fascinating contrast in the depiction of Satan when compared to his role in The Book of Job which I am currently rereading with a local study group. His image is powerful in Job, but Milton's poetry raises the stakes to another level.
Hi James - Now the Devil's depiction in The Book of Job is interesting and also offbeat. As I recall he seemed almost a friendly adversary of God. I believe the two made wagers in that story. It bears rereading.
I also think that God was interesting to say the least in that Book, doing all sorts of seemingly nasty things to prove a point.
Haven't read this one yet though it has always been a goal - some day, along with Dante's Divine Comedy. I think I may have enjoyed both of them more in prose, though.
That having said, I find it intriguing that Satan considered returning into God's service. I wonder what would have happened had he done it.
Hi Delia- I think that Milton's work is a little more accessible then Dante's. at least. Satan was sure that he would not be able to control himself and that he would have rebelled again.
I was so impressed by this in college, thought it was magnificent. Don't know if I'd have the patience to tackle it again though. Great project, Brian!
Hi harvee - i actually had no patience back in my collage days. Do much youthful, nervous energy. I find that only now can I read these things.
Satan's character in Paradise Lost is something I find quite fascinating, too. He's the very first anti-hero, and the foundation on which all later anti-heroes are built.
I've often pondered the question "Does God love the Devil? And if so, are we supposed to love the Devil?" Instinct tells me that the Devil is one of God's creations (as is pointed out definitely in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), and therefore we ought to love him. At the very least, we should pity him. But I was also taught that we should hate the Devil. It's all a befuddled mess, isn't it? :)
I suppose this mess is easier for me to handle as a spiritual philosopher, and easier for you because you're a philosophic atheist (I believe?). What fascinates me is the fact that the people who this question should bother the most are the people who don't pay any attention to it at all. The same people that glare at me when I ask such a question in the first place. :)
Hi Rachel - Indeed I doubt the existence of God and Satan. I do think that if God does exist we would be likely pondering the wrong topics.
There is so much diversity in religious belief. I think that the God of the New Testament would likely love Satan. I do not believe that the God of the Old Testament or the Koran would not love him. Milton's conception of God seems to still love him to some extent.
Personally I am a strong believer in the value of loving, having empathy for, and forgiving others. However when it comes to those who consistently and maliciously hurt others, I feel very little love or empathy.
Thanks for the great comment and have a Happy New Year!
Happy New Year! I had not commented on your blog for a while,so am sending belated wishes for a wonderful 2014!!
This is the type of serious reading I would really like to be doing more of. Although of course I have known about this classic for years, and remember studying portions of it in high school, I have never read it in its entirety. Well, as you might remember, I acquired a beautiful leather edition not that long ago, so I will definitely make plans to read it sometime this year.
The portrayal of Satan is indeed unorthodox, but fascinating and psychologically complex. As interested as I am in why evil exists, and is allowed to do so by an Almighty God, I really should tackle this poem in its entirety.
As always, thanks for the interesting commentary!! : )
Happy New Year.
I know how busy that you have been. Thanks for stopping by.
I think that among other things Milton wanted to emphasize the tragedy of Satan's fall here. In doing so he needed to create a character that once exhibited great nobility. Fragments of that nobility remain.
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