On this day in 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost was registered for publication. One of the most famous poems in English literature, it is also one of the most paradoxical. Milton wrote it to – as he put it – “justify the ways of God to men”. However, it is the character of Satan rather than God who has generated the most interest – and the most controversy – since the poem’s publication. As William Blake so famously put it, Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Or as William Empson put it in Milton’s God, “the reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”.
In writing Paradise Lost, Milton set out to establish himself in the tradition of the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. In the first two books of the epic, Satan is the main character and therefore assumes the mantle of Achilles/Odysseus, the flawed hero. This was a major change in the character of Satan, who had previously been depicted as “the ridiculous Devil of the Middle Ages, a horned enchanter, a dirty jester, a petty and mischievous ape, band-leader to a rabble of old women”, as Hippolyte Taine put it.
In both books, Satan displays what could be described as great courage in the face of adversity. Having been cast out of heaven, he says,
“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”
He is painted as a strong military leader, whom the other fallen angels look to for leadership, and who will not submit to the will of a tyrannical monarch. Readers of the poem in 1667 didn’t have to look too far to see similarities with a certain real-life figure. Milton had long been a supporter of Oliver Cromwell – amongst many other political tracts, he wrote Eikonoklastes, an explicit defence of the execution of Charles I, as well as Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell. Needless to say, all this didn’t go down too well with Charles II. After the Restoration in May 1660, Milton went into hiding, while a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends intervened.
In Paradise Lost, the “ways of God” that Milton has to justify are particularly harsh. As Ian Johnston puts it, “[God] sounds like an irascible, peevish, irrational tyrant, filled with a self-defensiveness” and “a harsh egotist whose major interest seems an inadequate defence of His own actions and grim delight in the pain He can now inflict.” So, in writing Paradise Lost, Milton is faced with a dilemma – how does someone who has spent his life advocating justice and liberty write a narrative defending the actions of a would-be tyrant?
It seems that Milton’s solution – in the latter half of the poem – was to paint an unflattering portrait of Satan: because if he cannot convincingly defend God’s actions then he can, at least, show the extent of Satan’s evil. Satan begins to display characteristics – envy, jealousy and spite – that are a far cry from his earlier nobility. What previously had been an issue of pride – to strike back at God for injuries he had inflicted – now turns into malice for its own sake.
There are some critics, such as Stanley Fish in his influential book Surprised by Sin, who claim that Milton deliberately makes Satan attractive at the beginning of the poem to seduce the reader in; his subsequent degradation is a warning to the reader of the dangers of sin, especially the sin of pride and arrogance.
But to many readers – this one included – it would seem that, however unwittingly, Milton sympathised with his antagonist. Perhaps he realised this after he had written the first two books and tried to set it right. If so, he doesn’t succeed. The strongest character in the poem remains the character of Satan. A proud, flawed, and – ultimately doomed – anti-hero.
And what reader doesn’t love one of those.