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University of Zagreb

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Department of English

CRITICS ON MILTON'S PORTRAYAL OF SATAN IN PARADISE LOST

Student: Anđa Belić

Course: Milton

Academic year: 2018̸ 19

Professor: dr.sc. Tomislav Brlek, izv. prof.

February, 2019
INTRODUCTION

Paradise Lost, Milton’s masterpiece, placed the great seventeenth-century English

poet Milton beside Shakespeare, Dante, Homer and Virgil in the pantheon of world literature.

Satan, one of the main characters in Paradise Lost, failed in the rebellion against the tyranny

of Heaven and was cast into the darkness of Hell and led to man’s fall from grace. There are

many compelling qualities to his character that make him intriguing to literary critics and

readers.1 Namely, some of the readers and critics see Satan as an attractive character that is

able to turn people into sympathising with him and his struggles. On the other hand, some of

them see him as pure evil that only uses his power of deceiving and seducing people in order

to get what he wants. For instance, critics as Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake and

William Hazlitt champion Satan and view his character as a glorious hero. They emphasize

Satan’s courageous spirit and his pride as well as his rebellious side. However, critics as

Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis underestimate Satan and see him as a depiction of pure

evil.

In the next few paragraphs we will see how Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Paradise

Lost influences readers in a way that causes them to sympathize with him. As Satan is much

more like us than God, it is much easier for us to imagine a situation and sympathize with it

than an omniscient deity. Also, how Satan’s features can be connected with struggles that

men can encounter in life and with flaws that we all have. Through Milton’s description of

Satan we will see how he uses Satan’s character in order to reveal the deeper meaning of the

1
Yang, S. H. Body Narrative of the Image of Satan in Paradise Lost. Advances in Literary
Study, Scientific Research Publishing Inc., 2015, p. 1.

1
image of Satan and differentiate masked appearance form inner reality. In other words, how

human nature in itself can be very cruel, selfish, rebellious and hypocritical.

At the beginning of the poem, Satan is viewed as a very majestic angel of great stature

and an even bigger leadership skill. He is pictured as a hero in Book I only because the poem

focuses on him and because shows his pain, "Both of lost happiness and lasting pain ̸

Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes ̸ That witness'd huge affliction and dismay."2

The very descriptions of Satan’s physical dimensions and the size of the tools he carries mark

him out as a kind of hero. His limbs are long and large; his bulk is as huge as that of the Titan

who fought against Jove or that of Leviathan which God of all His works created

hugest that swim the ocean stream. He has a mighty stature so that, when he rises,

the flames on both sides of him are driven backward and roll in billows. He carries a

ponderous, massy, and large shield on his shoulder. This shield is compared to the moon

as seen through a telescope. His spear is so big that the tallest pine tree would be but

a wand by comparison, etc.3 Namely, this description demonstrates Satan’s great qualities.

However, his awareness of his power caused in him the greatest ambitions which will lead

him to the greatest punishment, Hell.

According to P. B. Shelley, Satan is a devil, but "very different from the popular

personification of evil malignity and it is a mistake to suppose that he was intended for an

idealism of implacable hate, cunning, and refinement of device to inflict the utmost anguish

2
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Paradise Lost I, 55-57.
3
Jamal Subhi Ismail Nafi’. Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion of
Heroism. International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 3, No. 3, 2015, p. 22-23.

2
on an enemy."4 Considering that the Satan feels that he has been wronged by God, unfairly

cast down from Heaven for daring to proclaim his independence and autonomy, it is not so

peculiar for the human to sympathize with him because all these reasons are things to which

people can easily relate or the things that people can easily desire. In Shelley’s eyes, Satan is

a champion of the oppressed, or mankind, who is fighting against God and his "tyranny".

However, some critics hold that Milton only makes the Satan attractive to the readers because

he wants to show how it is easy to deceive us as well as how the evil can be physically

attractive, which does not mean that it is good.

Further, William Blake expressed his opinion about Milton’s portrayal of Satan in

Paradise Lost "by saying that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it. He

expressed this opinion chiefly in relation to the portrayal of Satan who, according to him,

has been depicted as a character possessing certain grand qualities worthy of the

highest admiration." 5 Shelley supported this view, as it is already stated, in his "Defence of

Poetry", where he suggests that it is a mistake to think that Satan is the popular

personification of evil. However, regarding a Romantic view of Milton’s Satan, William

Hazlitt shows both positive and negative side of this view. According to him, " Satan is the

most heroic subject that was ever chosen for a poem . . . In the poem, Satan was

endowed with certain attributes which are worthy of epic heroes, and which make him

a sympathetic, almost tragic character."6 Namely Milton presents Satan’s character as

someone to whom we can relate to, in a way, that through his moments of pain, sadness and

abandonment we are not aware of his actions behind that. The one only sees him as a creature

4
Shelley, B. Percy. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley ed. R. Ingpen and W. E.
Peck in Ten Volumes, Benn, 1965, p. 129.
5
Jamal Subhi Ismail Nafi’. Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion of
Heroism. International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 3, No. 3, 2015, p. 22.
6
Ibid.

3
who felt oppressed and rebelled, and thanks to his persuasive and clever speeches the one

believes him. Even though Satan is no longer the beautiful angel he once was, he is still

described as an impressive figure. The most dominant characteristic in Milton's description of

Satan is his size:

Thus Satan, talking to his nearest mate,

With head uplift above the wave, and eyes

That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides

Prone on the flood, extended long and large,

Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge

As whom the fables name of monstrous size.7

Besides his size, Milton emphasizes his leadership qualities, showing that Satan is not only

courageous himself, but he also can easily persuade and inspire courage in his followers.

Namely, Satan persuaded one ̵third of the angels to rebel with him and when they lie dazed in

the lake of liquid fire, the courageous speech of Satan roused them from their stupor and

make them bold and active once again. For instance, his opening speech shows his qualities

and him as a leader: "Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind, ̸ And high disdain

from sense of injured merit."8 Free will is another factor of Satan’s character to which we can

relate. The allure of free will is where power and attractiveness of Satan’s lies. He may be

useless when it comes to fighting the God and the Son, but in his will he is free and in his

mind he is supreme:

7
Paradise Lost I, 192-197.
8
Paradise Lost I, 97-98.

4
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

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.9

Satan’s indomitable spirit, his readiness to act under all circumstances, witty and persuasive

speeches and his eagerness to assume his difficulties, responsibilities and danger of

leadership are what make the reader attracted to his character. As Eric Hoffer said: "The

leader has to be practical and a realist yet must talk the language of a visionary and the

idealist."10

However, it is Satan's manifest folly, accordingly to twentieth-century critics such as

Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, which strongly refutes the positive view of Satan held by

the Romantic poets and critics.11 According to Lewis and Williams, Satan’s attempt to defy

almighty God is fundamentally irrational. Williams also asserts Satan’s proud as a foundation

of his malicious acts: "Milton may sometimes have liked to think of himself as proud, but it is

extraordinarily unlikely that he liked to think of himself as malicious and idiotic. Yet it is

9
Paradise Lost I, 104-109.
10
Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts On the Nature of Mass Movements. New York:
Harper and Row, 1951.
11
Coleman, P. Henry. Man in Devil's Guise:Satan's Exceptional Humanity in Milton's
Paradise Lost. University of Canterbury, 1998, p. 8.

5
those two qualities he attributes to Satan as a result of his energy of self-love."12 Similarly,

Lewis emphasizes Satan’s selfishness, folly and absurdity. Namely, he suggests that Satan’s

character lacks reason: "As a consequence the same rebellion which means misery for the

feelings and corruption for the will, means Nonsense for the intellect."13 Also, Satan in some

ways resembles an immoral and despicable human being.

Furthermore, this connection between Satan and humankind is noted by Isabel

MacCaffrey in her book Paradise Lost as "Myth," when she writes, "Human pain, struggle,

confusion, and (one must add) energy and courage, are brought together in a creature who,

while not technically human, shares the relevant human condition: he is sinful and hedged

about with limitations."14 This can be seen through the characters of Adam and Eve. They as

representatives of us also display characteristics which show similarity between Satan’s

consciousness and ours. Namely, before they have eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam’s

and Eve’s primary concern is to serve God. Yet after the Fall, they become aware of

themselves and their primary concern is replaced by a predominant concern with themselves.

As Lewis notes: "Book II opens with his speech from the throne; before we have had eight

lines he is lecturing the assembly on his right to leadership. He meets Sin - and states his

position. He sees the Sun; it makes him think of his own position."15

In the same way, Williams discusses Satan and his "state of self-love"16 as something

so intense that he cannot remember his life in Heaven before the Fall in terms of actual

12
Williams, Charles. The English Poems of John Milton in Milton Criticism: Selections from
Four Centuries, ed. J. E. Thorpe. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1951, p. 258.
13
Lewis, S. C. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1942, p. 97.
14
MacCaffrey, O. Isabel. Paradise Lost as "Myth". Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1967, p. 181.
15
Lewis, p. 102.
16
Williams, p. 258.

6
experience. In other words, he cannot perceive his experiences during his life in Heaven with

his unfallen consciousness, but sees them instead only through his present fallen

consciousness. This can be seen from his sun soliloquy: "o Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy

beams ̸ That bring to my remembrance from what state ̸ I fell, how glorious once above thy

Sphere."17 What Williams actually wants to show is that Satan does not feel answerable to

God and that he only responds to his personal interests and aims.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, even though many critics argue, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, William

Blake and William Hazlitt, that Satan possesses some heroic characteristics and qualities in

his defiance of what he sees as a God’s tyranny. In the first two books Satan is certainly

pictured as a heroic figure. He is selfless, high-spirited,generous, taking upon himself

responsibilities of leadership. Moreover the traditional idea of the epic hero as a great

warrior and leader lends support to Satan as the hero of the poem. However, when the poem

is read in its entirety, it is obvious that Satan cannot be seen as the hero of the epic. His heroic

greatness is not seen so much in action as it is seen in his speeches. In that regard, critics like

as Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis suggest had a different idea of the heroic. Even though

Satan is portrayed as a character that can be seen in many ways human, Milton does imply

throughout the book that the Satan and his rebel angels can be defeated and evicted from

Heaven by God with thunder and lightning only. Therefore, one can agree that there is often a

problem between Milton’s intention and the result. After all, evil has to be attractive if it aims

to tempt people away from goodness.

17
Paradise Lost IV, 37-39.

7
Satan is not only a rebel but a tyrant. His words show how far he is from

understanding true liberty. He has heroic qualities, as we have already seen . . .

But if he has heroic virtues, so has Macbeth; and Macbeth is a villain. The reason

why Milton has endowed Satan with these qualities is that an adversary to God had

to be of massive dramatic stature and that the power that was to seduce Eve must

have an impressive personality and character. The misinterpretation arises from the

tendency in human nature to romanticize the rebel and the fighter against odds.

Satan’s heroism is false heroism because it is based on false beliefs and unworthy

aims.18

18
Jamal Subhi Ismail Nafi’. Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion of
Heroism. International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 3, No. 3, 2015, p. 27.

8
Works Cited:

Coleman, P. Henry. Man in Devil's Guise: Satan's Exceptional Humanity in Milton's

Paradise Lost. University of Canterbury, 1998, p. 8.

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts On the Nature of Mass Movements. New York:

Harper and Row, 1951.

Jamal Subhi Ismail Nafi’. Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion of

Heroism. International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 3, No. 3, 2015, p. 22-23.

Lewis, S. C. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1942, p. 97.

MacCaffrey, O. Isabel. Paradise Lost as "Myth". Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

1967, p. 181.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Shelley, B. Percy. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. R. Ingpen and W. E.

Peck in Ten Volumes, Benn, 1965, p. 129.

Williams, Charles. The English Poems of John Milton in Milton Criticism: Selections from

Four Centuries, ed. J. E. Thorpe. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1951, p.

258.

Yang, S. H. Body Narrative of the Image of Satan in Paradise Lost. Advances in Literary

Study, Scientific Research Publishing Inc., 2015, p. 1.

9
10

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