Satan's Behaviour in Paradise Lost, By John Milton

Categories: Paradise Lost

In his apostrophe to earth, lines 99-179, does Satan seem more human than diabolical? Consider his characterisation, the effects of language, poetic technique and imagery.

Satan likes to confuse people. Evil incarnate, he yet appeals to that side of human nature that rebels against reason, authority and order. A paradox, his characterisation is a strange balance between allegory of corrupting malevolence and flesh-and-blood hero. Note the word, for with his portrayal of a passionate, eloquent and seemingly admirable Fallen Angel, Milton has often been interpreted by more modern audiences, in a phrase coined by the liberalist and unorthodox Blake (more particularly in his encouragement of earthly joy, a stand which did not endear him to the Church), as ‘a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’.

‘More human than diabolical’, their Lucifer is a proud Romantic figure, a view largely defined by his representation in Books 1 and 2. The rebel, freedom fighter and courageous leader of the vanquished, he appears a noble character, far removed from the fiend of Christian tradition.

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However, just as the extraordinary persuasiveness of his words alters that image, so does the Devil himself change through the course of the poem. In Book 9, the twists and turns of his language are exposed for what they truly are; products of a perverse, corrupting evil. This does not mean, though, that Milton does not depict his Satan as human. For, perhaps, that evil is in all of us.

At the moment he is about to pour his spirit into the body of the serpent, the act of ultimate debasement, hatred and malicious intent, he addresses the earth, his victim, out of the strangest of griefs.

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Passionate in all that he does, Milton portrays a character given over wholly to his emotions; he speaks of ‘delight’, ‘joy’, ‘pleasures’, ‘torment’, a sensuous idiom that emphasises not, at first sight, a being of ugliness and cruelty, but of worldly, earthly and above all human desires. The very nature of his speech conveys the influence of extreme sensation. His apostrophe, a poetic technique often used in classical epics either by the author himself in a burst of sympathy or condemnation towards his leading figures, or by those very individuals at the object of their ardent regard (a personification that typically lends vividness and significance to the thing), is thus a way of indicating high emotion and alluding to an heroic temperament. The word itself means a ‘turning away’; compelled by force of feeling away from the main text of the tale, so is Satan diverted, if only temporarily, from his diabolical purpose by an outpouring of human sentiment, just as confused, self-reflecting and eloquent as any human. ‘O earth, how like to heaven, if not preferred / More justly, . . . / . . . reforming what was old!’, the beginning of his violent lament (for that is what it is, plaintive, regretful and annoyed in equal measure) is truly sensational. Both based entirely on sense perception, the earth’s natural wonder ‘like to’ heavenly beauty, his comparison rooted in an irrational aesthetic response, and controversial as a blasphemous attack on the primacy of God’s kingdom.

His language is key to Milton’s characterisation; ‘more justly’ evoking that role of righteous freedom fighter against an oppressive ruler, especially stressed due to the unusual, heavily Latinate word order that positions the adverbial phrase at the beginning of the next line, a practice known as enjambment, and ‘reforming’ suggesting the image of the revolutionary bent on the substitution of a fraudulent ‘ancien regime’ with a new order. The two ideas are repeated throughout the passage, his attack on Man and God justified as a legal continuation of his struggles against ‘servitude inglorious’ and in order to liberate the ‘throng of his adorers’. In this depiction of Satan lies the origin of Blake’s Romantic hero, ‘contending’ (aptly implying a contest between two equals and rivals vying with each other for supremacy) valiantly against ‘tyranny, church and convention’ and a radical revision of his rebellion ‘as just . . . against the tradition and authority of the evil tyrant, God’. Even his love for nature is mirrored in the poetry of the Romantic Movement in the early nineteenth-century, the imagery ‘Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods and plains’ as the pinnacle of a ‘Terrestrial heaven’ has its parallels in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and Keats’ ‘To Autumn’. However, this is Satan, written by a Puritan born two centuries before England’s spiritual decline and the poetic elevation of man, and the very words which seem to suggest such a character are, like the Devil himself, deceiving. His glorification of earth is mere hyperbole, ‘Terrestrial heaven’ a paradox and a conceit to make his intended target a fitter alternative to what he has wilfully rejected, while such adulation of the natural world includes, at the end of a catalogue of its major features, those darker aspects, ‘rocks, dens and caves’, ambiguous pictures of shelter and a harsh landscape, the haunt of robbers and animals.

The magniloquence of his language fails to disguise the fact that rather than an equal to heaven, he sets up a false idol in paradise; as he recognises the native hierarchy of ‘herb, plant and nobler life of creatures animate with’ man at the top, so does he admit an ordained structure and highlight by omission God’s position at the top of the divine order. Even the familiar, popular rhetoric of the rebel fails to convince: ‘I in one night freed / From servitude inglorious well-nigh half / The angelic name’. In reality, it had only been a third. This illusory vanity taps into the theme of knightly prowess and glory that Milton constantly ascribes to Satan; his chivalric notions are misleading, emphasising violence and the paganism of an earlier age, and empty, leading even to the degrading of Man’s creation as the stuff of ‘heavenly spoils’ taken from Lucifer, his defeated foe. His self-delusion is balanced, though, by instances of confessional introspection, where the contradictions in his make-up are exposed through the cracks, made by a passionate, hellish and all too mortal grief, of his superficial tongue; ‘the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me, as from the hateful siege / Of contraries’. This is Satan at his most enigmatic and yet, curiously and typically (for he would be paradoxical no matter what), his most human. He may be the villain of a Renaissance tragedy, for example in the pathological nastiness of Shakespeare’s Tarquin in the ‘Rape of Lucrece’ or his Iago, determined to destroy what is good in ‘Othello’. Their suffering, yet inability to prevent the evil in themselves, are all aspects of this allegorical prototype, made human by those same characteristics that descend literarily from them (yet another paradox; Satan is both their predecessor and successor). Nevertheless, his psychological depth and contrariness are all symptoms of an implacable Evil, all his traits various faces of the Godless angel: his eloquence of the Seducer, his magnetism of the Fallen Lucifer and his passion of the Tempter. Neither fully angel, nor ever truly human, he is somewhere in between; devil.

The overpowering image of Book 9 is that of the Serpent. Satan’s plaintive apostrophe is as much a lament for his lost heavenly grandeur as for his inability to enjoy anything due to his relentless destructiveness. In order to embrace his full malevolent powers, he must ‘descend’, a true plummeting from previously dizzying heights at the top of creation (depth a continual motif), the divine hierarchy to ‘incarnate and imbrute’. Just as Christ will be incarnated for the highest, godliest and best of reasons, Satan will do so for the lowest, most diabolical and worst of intentions. One will reach the divine; the other the demoniac. In the end, what seem human in the Devil are only those aspects of earthly delight, erring confusion and proud vanity. The temptations and weaknesses that lead to sin are ones that have their origin in him; is it little wonder then that we see the worst, most paradoxical and enticing of ourselves in his character. Milton drew him as human to make him truly diabolical.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Satan's Behaviour in Paradise Lost, By John Milton. (2024, Feb 16). Retrieved from

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