Come and learn about Milton’s famous portrayal of Satan in ”Paradise Lost,” analyzing Satan’s physical description, his surprisingly uplifting speech, and his dramatic fall from heaven and then test your knowledge with a quiz.
What is Paradise Lost?
Before we begin our discussion on the character of Satan, let’s briefly touch on Paradise Lost itself. First published in 1667, Paradise Lost is an epic, a long narrative poem, often divided into sections, written by John Milton.
Over the course of 12 parts, called books, Paradise Lost tells the entire biblical story of the fall of mankind, from the rebellion of Satan to the temptation of Adam and Eve.In addition to being recognized as one of the greatest achievements in English literature, Paradise Lost is also one of the most famous uses of blank verse in English poetry. The term blank verse refers to a poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a meter that uses five iambic feet per line.
In poetry, a foot means a soft syllable followed by a stronger syllable. As you look at the examples in this lesson, however, you may notice that Milton doesn’t always follow the rules of blank verse to the letter.
Milton’s Description of Satan
Now, on to the character of Satan himself. When we’re introduced to Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost, he has already fallen from heaven, along with a host of other rebel angels. 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 eyesThat sparkling blazed; his other parts besidesProne on the flood, extended long and large,Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as hugeAs whom the fables name of monstrous size,Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,Briareos or Typhon, whom the denBy ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beastLeviathan, which God of all his worksCreated hugest that swim th’ ocean-stream.
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,Moors by his side under the lee, while nightInvests the sea, and wished morn delays.So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay,Chained on the burning lake . . .Don’t worry if you had some trouble making sense of those lines.
The reason these lines are somewhat difficult to navigate is because Milton uses a great deal of allusion to describe Satan’s massive size. Allusion is what occurs when an author refers to mythology or another piece of literature; in other words, it’s a fancier term for ‘name-dropping.’ The two most important allusions in this description are to Leviathan, a sea monster from the Bible, and the Titans, massive beasts from Greek mythology.
Milton also gives us the impression that Satan is so huge that he could be mistaken for an island if viewed from the proper angle.
In addition to being absolutely gigantic, Milton’s Satan also has beautiful powers of speech. After Satan breaks free from his chains and emerges from the burning lake, he attempts to lift the spirits of his fellow fallen angels, delivering this speech:Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,’Said then the lost Archangel, ‘this the seatThat we must change for Heaven?–this mournful gloomFor that celestial light? Be it so, since heWho now is sovereign can dispose and bidWhat shall be right: farthest from him is bestWhom reason hath equalled, force hath made supremeAbove his equals.
Farewell, happy fields,Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,Receive thy new possessor–one who bringsA mind not to be changed by place or time.The mind is its own place, and in itselfCan make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.What matter where, if I be still the same,And what I should be, all but less than heWhom thunder hath made greater? Here at leastWe shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not builtHere for his envy, will not drive us hence: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 Heaven . . .As with the previous example, these lines are a lot to take in.
In order to break things down, we’ll look at the three major points in Satan’s argument, which, incidentally, line up with the most clear and quotable parts of the speech.The first point that Satan raises is that God can no longer control the fallen angels because hell is as far from God as possible (‘farthest from him is best’). The second point is that the mind has the power to make the best of any situation; in other words, to ‘make a Heaven of Hell’ or ‘a Hell of Heaven.’ The third point Satan raises is that hell can become the new kingdom of the fallen angels, since they are no longer God’s servants (‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’).
Strangely enough, we don’t receive a detailed description of Satan’s fall from heaven until the sixth book of Paradise Lost. Stranger still, we hear the story from heaven’s perspective. To be more specific, this story is told by the angel Raphael, who has come to warn Adam and Eve that Satan is making his way to Earth.
Raphael describes an explosive action sequence that concludes with Jesus himself riding into battle on a flaming chariot. Instead of destroying Satan’s army, which, it seems, is a very real possibility, Jesus chases the rebel angels out of heaven, as described in the following lines:Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checkedHis thunder in mid volley; for he meantNot to destroy, but root them out of Heaven:The overthrown he raised, and as a herdOf goats or timorous flock together throngedDrove them before him thunder-struck, pursuedWith terrours, and with furies, to the boundsAnd crystal wall of Heaven; which, opening wide,Rolled inward, and a spacious gap disclosedInto the wasteful deep: The monstrous sightStruck them with horrour backward, but far worseUrged them behind: Headlong themselves they threwDown from the verge of Heaven; eternal wrathBurnt after them to the bottomless pit.Hell heard the unsufferable noise, Hell sawHeaven ruining from Heaven, and would have fledAffrighted; but strict Fate had cast too deepHer dark foundations, and too fast had bound.Nine days they fell: Confounded Chaos roared,And felt tenfold confusion in their fallThrough his wild anarchy, so huge a routIncumbered him with ruin: Hell at lastYawning received them whole, and on them closed;Hell, their fit habitation, fraught with fireUnquenchable, the house of woe and pain.
This passage is interesting for two major reasons. The first reason is that it reveals that Satan’s army actually chooses to retreat into hell (‘Headlong themselves they threw/ Down from the verge of Heaven’). Depending on which side you choose to take, this can either be interpreted as an act of cowardice or an act of self-preservation; after all, Satan’s army survives the fall.The second interesting aspect of this passage occurs when the perspective shifts, however briefly, to hell’s point of view.
Milton calls hell a ‘she’, and even goes so far as to claim that hell ‘would have fled/ Affrighted’ if it were able to. In giving something that isn’t a person human characteristics, such as fear and gender, Milton has used a literary technique called personification.
Let’s finish by going over what we’ve learned about Satan in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.
We are presented with the figure of Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost, which begins just after Satan and his army have fallen into hell. In describing Satan’s enormous physical size, Milton makes several allusions to Biblical and Greek mythology, comparing Satan to a sea monster so large it could be mistaken for an island.Shortly after this description, Satan delivers a powerful speech to his fellow fallen angels, describing the unexpected freedom that hell has provided them, as well as the power of the mind to ‘make a Heaven of Hell.’ In the sixth book of Paradise Lost, we receive a detailed account of Satan’s fall from heaven, in which hell is briefly personified.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Describe the format and structure of Paradise Lost
- Recall how Milton describes Satan in the poem
- Discuss the main points of Satan’s speech in Paradise Lost
- Summarize Satan’s fall from heaven