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Milton’s Satan is one of the most powerful characters in his great epic, Paradise Lost. A wondrous feat of the imagination, Satan has received an abundance of attention from critics of Milton. As I will show, readers have been divided on whether the figure of Satan ought to be praised or ridiculed. Some admire him greatly and look to him as a hero. Others find him pathetic, foolish, absurd, even comical. Regardless of their opinions, Satan has forced their hands into producing a great amount of scholarship to discuss his virtues and his vices.
No one can read Milton’s epic without having Satan create some significant impact on him. It is impossible to pass him by. In this paper I will trace the historical tradition of criticism on this vast topic. I will then consider important passages of Milton’s own texts that help to paint a general picture of the Archfiend. Next, I will offer my own opinion on this controversial figure.
Finally, I will discuss the importance of Satan for students of Milton.
When critics talk about Milton’s Satan, John Dryden is often the first name comes up. He is perhaps the first one to have called Satan Milton’s hero in Paradise lost. Dryden, at the beginning of his translation of the Aeneid, first published in 1697, said that Milton as a poet would stand with Homer and Virgil “if the Devil had not been his Heroe instead of Adam, if the Gyant had not foil’d the Knight, and driven him out of his strong hold, to wander through the World with his Lady Errant.
” Dryden’s objection seems to be that the antagonist won while the good guy was defeated—an undesirable outcome in his eyes. Sharrock explains that some critics, Dryden among them, “had maintained that Satan had usurped the place due to the hero of an epic poem; it became a commonplace of eighteenth-century literary opinion, but always without theological overtones, and with the understanding that what was involved was a defect of structure.” Dryden drew attention to the extremely prominent place Satan holds in Paradise Lost. His seeming disdain for the “Gyant” in this particular way means that “Satan as hero” is different for him than it is for some later critics, though one does wonder whether Dryden’s conferral of that title cracked open the door through which the Romantic admiration would eventually burst.
Another voice arose just a handful of years after Dryden, though with a differing opinion. In 1712 Joseph Addison published several essays on Paradise Lost in his own publication, The Spectator. In the sixth of these essays Addison notes Dryden’s position and presents his own: “The Paradise Lost is an epic, or a narrative poem, and he that looks for an hero in it, searches for that which Milton never intended; but if he will needs fix the name of an hero upon any person in it, it is certainly the Messiah.” Milton set out to tell the story of the fall of man in magnificent verse, yet not without fidelity to the biblical text. Asking him to make a hero out of Adam is basically demanding him to tell a different story. And if that is not enough, Addison firmly announces the Messiah as hero. Already within the first half-century after the epic’s publication critics are arguing about whether Satan is the real hero. Granted, at this early point they are looking primarily at structure and the arrangement of characters. Nevertheless, Dryden and Addison are found on opposing sides at the beginning of a fierce debate that will continue for many more years.
The Romantic critics took the Satan question a step further. The first of these is William Blake. Blake’s strange lines in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790, tell a story of a divided universe, Heaven against Hell, Reason against Energy and Desire, Milton’s Messiah against his Satan. He writes of a struggle between Reason and Desire within the person. Desire is restrained only if it is too weak. Satan is a powerful image of energy for Blake, a point of contact between his unique ideas and the more typical Romantic admiration of the Archfiend. He is perhaps remembered most on this subject for his casual Note at the end of the section referencing Milton: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” There are two insights that can be gleaned from this passage. First, as noted by Sharrock, Blake saw Satan as an expression of Milton’s unconscious appetites. Second, he reveals a dissatisfaction with Milton’s restrained images of Heaven—one of the reasons many find it easier to prefer his devils.
Just a few years after Blake’s book was first published there sounded another voice enamored of Satan: writer and philosopher William Godwin. He is perhaps the first to declare the view characteristic of many of the Romantics, namely, that Satan is “a mighty outlaw who embodies an ideal of liberty.” Godwin spells this out in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice wherein he states: “[Satan] bore his torments with fortitude, because he disdained to be subdued by despotic power . . . How beneficial and illustrious might the temper from which these qualities flowed, have been found, with a small diversity of situation!” There are two things to note here. First, Satan is pictured as a bold and courageous being who is oppressed by a tyrannical God. He longs to break free from an unjust yoke. Second, Godwin cuts to the heart of the matter by focusing on the temper behind Satan’s actions. The reader here catches a glimpse of grand imaginings made possible through the emulation of Satan’s energy and strength. It seems clear that Godwin admires Satan and thinks it good to imitate his spirit.
Some years later, in 1821, Godwin’s son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley further embellishes this fondness for Satan. In his A Defence of Poetry he breathes forth his wonder and awe: “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” For him, God and Satan have switched places. God is the evil one who plots against his already defeated foe, seeking to lead Satan to heap ever-greater damnation on himself. Satan, a far superior moral being, tirelessly fights for a cause he deems worthy no matter how much resistance he meets. A real veneration of the fallen Archangel emerges with these statements. These two figures represent the general Romantic position on Satan: the admiration of his energy, his fortitude amidst hostility, and his desire for liberty. But was their view truly that narrow? Was there any recognition of the darkness of Satan? Neil Forsyth claims that there was.
First, he points to Shelley’s comments in his preface to his own Prometheus Unbound. There he implies that Satan is open to being accused of possessing “the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement.” This admission tempers Shelley’s high praise offered in his other work. Secondly, Forsyth tells of some uncertainty in the Romantic poet John Keats: “[He] scored in the margins of his copy of the poem especially those passages that suggest inner conflict . . . one passage marked with triple strokes in the margin is Satan’s reference to ‘the hateful siege / Of contraries.’” Forsyth uses the word “ambivalence.” There is definitely an embracing of Satan in these men, but it does not seem to be complete and total. There is still some degree of hesitation. Even Godwin admits, “His energies are centred too much in personal regards.” Furthermore, another Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was more wholly opposed to Satan, thereby proving that Satanic admiration was not universal. Edna Newmeyer writes, “Benjamin T. Sankey claims the distinction [of the first to oppose Satan as hero] for Coleridge, whose view of Milton’s Satan as the prototype of tyranny and evil was made public as early as 1809.” Overall, fondness for Satan certainly marked the Romantic period, though the praise was in no way undisputed.
Despite the presence of ambivalence in those Romantics who most strongly championed Satan, several twentieth century writers felt strongly compelled to speak out against that idolization of the fallen Lucifer. Perhaps one of the most forceful voices against Satan is that of C. S. Lewis. In his Preface to Paradise Lost there is not a single shred of fondness for the Archfiend. His intention there is to show Satan’s admirers just what it is that they adore. In striking words he writes: “To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.” Lewis sees Satan as a liar tangled up in multiple contradictions and obsessed with himself, the unjust fate that has befallen him, and his plan to make things right again. He ultimately finds Satan, who willfully opposes his omnipotent Creator, to be an absurd, nearly comical character, though perhaps his misery is more evident. Additionally, because man also possesses a fallen nature, he has a tendency to shy away from seeing Satan’s plight as comedic; it is too close to his own condition. Every fallen man has something of a “Satan” within him. Therefore it is easy for Milton to write the character just as it is easy for us to find elements of him attractive. Conversely, it is difficult for Milton to write of Heavenly things because “We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves.” This helps to answer the common dissatisfaction with Milton’s God. However, Lewis explains that even though the Satan within Milton perhaps spills onto the pages of the epic, that does not mean that Milton finds these elements desirable or worthy of admiration or expects the reader to find them so.
Another anti-Satan writer in this time period is Stanley Fish. In his 1967 book, Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, Fish focuses on the idea of “Satanic rhetoric.” His interpretation helps to make sense of why Satan appears so magnificent. He claims that Milton’s intention in the poem is to lead the reader to encounter his weakness and vulnerability, to “fall” in his mind with Adam and Eve, deceived by Satan; only then can he accept the moral and intellectual guidance Milton wishes to offer. Satan has to be extremely good at misleading rhetoric for this plan to work. He must be powerful and appealing in order to beguile the reader. Then, hopefully recognizing that Satan has deceived him, he can accept his weakness and seek to be reformed.
These anti-Satan writers, however, did not bring the discussion to a close. In reality, they gave rise to another wave of criticism in Satan’s defense. One of these critics is G. Rostrevor Hamilton. First published in 1944, his book titled Hero or Fool? A Study of Milton’s Satan is a reaction to C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, both anti-Satanists. He is not satisfied with their accounts that strip Satan of all of his glory. He asserts that Milton had to give Satan some heroic qualities, for we generally find good and evil together in the world. The mixture of these two is what makes Satan come alive. He sees courage, greatness, and splendor in Satan, which prevent him from calling him “absurd” as Lewis does. The tragedy of Satan, augmented by strains of heroism, is more of a cause for tears than laughter to Hamilton. Furthermore, he shares the view of others in finding Milton’s heavenly things wanting because they do little to move him and stir his imagination. It needs to be said, though, that this new wave of pro-Satan criticism lacks the element of Romantic admiration. Hamilton, speaking of the potential in Milton’s Heaven for a “wholly splendid rebel,” presents a more balanced interpretation: “Such a figure, fighting in a hopeless cause, would be worthy of unstinted admiration, and we may be inclined to transfer it undiminished to Satan, who showed some of the proper heroic qualities. But Satan, though a hero, is a hero darkened and perverted; admiration cannot blind us to the selfishness of his pride.” Therefore, he does not find Satan to be perfectly grand and worthy of imitation, though he does want to convince readers of the presence of real heroic qualities, though mixed with evils, in this formidable, yet tragic character.
Another defender of Satan, William Empson, wrote a book titled Milton’s God, published in 1961 wherein he treats Satan at length. His basic thesis seems to be that if we look at the situation from Satan’s perspective, we too fill find his actions to be right and justifiable. In this regard, he writes, “The chief thing to get clear, I think, is that Milton regularly presents a fall as due to an intellectually interesting temptation, such that a cool judge may feel actual doubt whether the fall was not the best thing to do in the circumstances.” From Satan’s viewpoint, God “still his strength conceal’d / Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall” (PL I.640). According to Empson, if we only consider what Satan knew, it is not so easy to dismiss his actions as complete foolishness. He adds that the moral confusion is part of what makes the poem so great. In these ways he tries to vindicate Satan, basically saying that the way Milton presents him leaves room for readers to find his behavior just.
Even after all of this warring between positions, scholarship today is still discussing the right way to view Satan in Paradise Lost. One author, Stella Purce Revard, wrote the following in 1980: “Only in Hell does Milton permit Satan to seem heroic. In Heaven he is defeated unheroically and falls, unnamed and unnoted, in the rout driven before the Son.” She accepts the legitimacy of finding heroic qualities in Satan, but also asserts that Milton’s final word is one of inglorious defeat. Another critic, Neil Forsyth, published an extensive study of Satan in 2003 titled The Satanic Epic. His primary objective seems to be defending Satan as the epic’s most important character, seeing him as the reference point by which Milton approaches every other notable topic in the poem. To give an example, almost every time Milton presents God, he is reacting to Satan’s actions.
The incessant debate on this subject makes you wonder if it will ever be settled. According to John Carey, perhaps the answer is no. In an article on Satan, he writes: “A more reasonable reaction is to recognize that the poem is insolubly ambivalent, insofar as the reading of Satan’s ‘character’ is concerned, and that this ambivalence is a precondition of the poem’s success.” A mixed opinion has indeed been present in many of these major critics. Satan’s character exhibits both attractive and repulsive qualities. Most of the critics tend to lean in one direction or the other and then attempt to show how the other position is nonsense. Carey and others believe that Milton, intentionally or not, has left the question open. Ultimately, though, the heated controversy over Satan’s character has led to a great depth of reflection and study on this figure with immense poetical power.
Before discussing my own opinion, I want to present some of Satan’s characteristics as simply found in Milton’s own texts. First, Satan is a liar, as declared by the Son in Paradise Regained: “Yet thou pretend’st to truth … / That hath been thy craft, / By mixing somewhat true to vent more lies” (PR I.430-433) Satan mixes his lies with half-truths so as to make them more effective. He also despises servitude: “Here we may reign secure, and in my choice / To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: / Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (PL I.261-263). Much of Satan’s ambition involves setting up his own kingdom to rival Heaven. He may reside in Hell, but at least he feels free. Milton typically presents him as a very massive creature: “in bulk as huge / As whom the fables name of monstrous size” (PL I.196-197). His physical greatness contributes to the impression readers may get of him being great in spirit.
Milton tries to show Satan’s gradual corruption throughout Paradise Lost. At the beginning, Satan still possesses hints of his former glory:
… his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured
With words like these, Milton does seem to present a grand, powerful Satan. However, this glory continues to fade as the story progresses. At the beginning of Book IV Satan, in anguish, delivers a moving soliloquy. He attempts to convince himself he alone is to blame for his misery, yet he cannot help but try to transfer the blame to God for different reasons. With pitiable words he gives vent to his pain: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (PL IV.73-75). He realizes that in some way Hell is within him. No matter where he goes, he cannot escape his suffering. He also considers here the possibility of repentance, but eventually convinces himself that it would be impossible. Instead, he confirms himself in his rebellion: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, / Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my good” (PL IV.108-110). At the end of the poem, after his successful temptation of man, Satan has lost his glory altogether and is turned into a snake: “down he fell / A monstrous serpent on his belly prone, / Reluctant, but in vain” (PL X.511-515). These passages express both sides of the Satan debate: the glory and the ruin, the ambition and the misery. Based on Milton’s words alone, it is easy to see the potential for the great divide in scholarship that arose around this notorious character.
If I had to side with one of the critics mentioned, it would be C. S. Lewis. For him, Satan is attractive at times because we have something of a Satan within ourselves. The important point, though, is that Milton does not tell his readers that these qualities should be admired. He presents Satan in all of his horrific immensity and gives him grand, yet confusing words. His rhetoric convinces other angels to fall with him, persuades himself of the rightness of his actions, and eventually instigates the fall of mankind. I also agree with Stanley Fish on this point: Satan’s rhetoric has the potential to deceive readers of the poem. For those who “fall” with Adam, persuaded by Satan’s words and convicted that his cause is just and his actions righteous, there is redemption in acknowledging this as a sort of fall. The phenomenon of his rhetoric opens your eyes to the power of language and makes you begin to wonder how you have been, or currently are, deceived. I admit that the Satan of the early books appears quite grand, yet his unrelenting rebellion leaves me with a sour taste. To see the abundance of energy he pours into convincing himself of his justice and how close he comes to repentance in Book IV evokes a deep sense of pity and sadness. All of this makes Satan not hero or fool, but the lost one, forever incapable of finding his way back due to self-imposed blindness.
As I have shown, the “Satan debate” began almost within Milton’s own lifetime and has continued unto the present day with near countless critics fighting for every possible position, though most fall into one of two general camps. The great number of voices on this subject, including poets and professional scholars, is itself a sign of the importance Milton’s dedicated readers have placed on the figure of Satan. He holds what is arguably the most prominent place in Milton’s greatest work, Paradise Lost. Anyone who seriously wants to study his poetry cannot ignore the infamous Archangel-turned-Archfiend. Satan additionally provides an outlet for Milton’s understanding of sin, justice, and obedience. Students of Milton are thereby able to find many insights into his opinions on these complex theological matters. Many readers have been unimpressed with Milton’s God. This makes you wonder what Paradise Lost would have been without his magnificent poetical portrayal of Satan. Perhaps, to be extremely hypothetical, apart from this extraordinary poetical figure, Milton would have received only a fraction of the great praise he has enjoyed through the ages. Be that as it may, the presence of Satan in his poetry gave Milton the opportunity to craft some of his most powerful and moving verses. There may be heated controversy surrounding Satan, but no reader will deny the brilliance of the poetry that flowed from Milton’s pen to create this dynamic figure in whom something of greatness and something of corruption collide.
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