Satan's Glory Gradually Diminished in Paradise Lost Book 9

Also Read

      “Milton”, said Blake, “was of the devil’s party, whether he knew it or not; Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost” But this contention is not quite acceptable. True, the character of Satan is one of the greatest creations in any language; however, the greatness lies not only—indeed, not primarily—in the depiction of the majestic character of Books I and II, but in the slow and steady degeneration of an angel who once stood next to God Himself in Heaven.

      As we read Paradise Lost we watch the subtlety of Milton’s art as the role of Satan gradually diminishes from grandeur and magnificence to baseness and final degradation, so that we are inevitably alienated from admiration.

      Milton was writing on two levels a literal one and a moral one. On the literal level, Satan is a character, a person about whom a story is woven. Milton’s basic technique is a subtle change in figures of speech, mutation of the images to which Satan is compared. Thus, the moral degeneration is images to which Satan is compared. Thus, the moral degeneration is conveyed. The first physical attribute of Satan as he emerges from the burning lake and makes towards the shore is his tremendous size. Following classical tradition, Milton does not describe him in detail but emphasizes two objects he carries. His shield, Milton compares (I. 284-291) to the largest round object human eyes had ever seen, the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope. His spear (I. 292-294) is so gigantic that the tallest pine tree, used for the mast of a flagship, seems only a wand in comparison. On the basis of that shield and spear, our imagination begins to frame the gigantic stature of this Titan. Satan has not yet lost all the original brightness of an angel in heaven, for he still may be compared with the sun and moon. But some of the glory has been lost, for he is like the sun seen through morning mist, or like the moon in eclipse. So Satan continues for some time, majestic, grand, yet always a little more flawed. After his extraordinary voyage in Book II, when he “holds gladly the port”, he is compared with a ship with “shrounds and tackle torn” (II. 1043-44). One of the last occasions that Milton uses a grand comparison for Satan is the scene at the end of Book IV in which the angelic squadrons begin to hem Satan round and he turns upon them with all the courage he still possesses.

      Earlier in the same book, we have evidence that the figure of speech are changing. He has become ‘this first grand Thief’. In Book IV the analogs are largely animal-imagery. After Satan has entered Eden, he chooses as his vantage point a tree on which he “sat like a cormorant”. When Satan begins the temptation of Eve through her dream, he is “squat like a toad” a grotesque and almost comic figure. His potential greatness is still there, however. When the comparisons are with birds, they are with the cormorant or the vulture, which far off seem both grand and magnificent, but which are carrion birds of prey. More and more the analogs are with low things. In his search of the serpent:

through each thicket dank or dry,
Like a black, mist, low-creeping, he held on
His midnight search.

      Subconsciously we are prepared for that climactic scene in Book IX in which he becomes the snake he has permitted himself to be.

      In the meantime, we watch a degeneration in Satan’s moral character parallel to the changes in his physical appearance. The moral degeneration of Satan is suggested in part by Milton’s subtle changes in figures of light and darkness. When he was an angel in Heaven, Satan, like God and the other angels, had been clothed in light. Even in the early scenes in which he is still majestic, he is losing some of his original brightness. In the later books, as Satan deliberately continues to choose evil rather than good, light gives way more and more to darkness.

      The first dangerous quality of Satan emphasized by Milton is “obdurate Pride’’, which proves his besetting sin. The word is repeated again and again. To modem readers, Pride often seems an admirable quality, but we must understand the word as did Milton and his contemporaries. Many of the most familiar stories of classical mythology were based upon the belief that Hubris was the sin most frequently punished by the gods. The idea is a reiterated motif in classical tragedy, as well as in legend. In addition to this was the Christian emphasis upon meekness and humility, according to which Pride was the most deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins.

      When we consider the idea of “hierarchy”, as Milton and his contemporaries understood it, we shall find the belief that as all things were created in the universe, they were established in “degree” and “order” in a scale or ladder of Nature, a great chain of being. In that scale, ladder or chain, men and angels all had ranks or degrees. As they were created, so they should be content to remain. Classical and Christian teachers combined in their warning to man to be content, not to aspire for a higher place, not to permit himself to fall to a lower rank.

      Satan deliberately broke the chain of being. The word “Pride”, is frequently reiterated. We note the increasing obduracy of Satan, his persistent refusal to choose right, his deliberate choice of evil, with his accompanying physical and moral degeneration.

      In Book IX, Milton speaks most objectively; he is coolly pointing the finger of scorn at one who called himself Archangel, though fallen, who yet did not have the courage of his conviction to meet his equals on fair terms openly, but adopted a mean subterfuge to deceive an innocent woman. Hence the degradation of Satan.

      In this Book, Satan is first introduced as coming back to Eden, choosing for it the time when the shades of darkness gather. He dares not show himself in open daylight. Nor does he enter Paradise through the regular entrance guarded by the cherubim; Archangel though he might be, he is afraid of the cherubim. And fear does not command respect. Even before he assumes the snaky form he literally creeps into Paradise, following the underground passage of a stream. He has returned to Eden, after ‘traversing each colour’; but, after all, even Shakespeare’s little Puck could put ‘a girdle round the globe in forty minutes’; this does not seem a great thing for a spirit to do. Satan’s only improvement, since our last acquaintance with him in the poem, is that he is ‘now improved in mediated fraud and malice and is bent on destroying mankind at the root, in whatever way the mischief might recoil on him. There is not much to admire in him.

      Before entering into the sleeping serpent, Satan analyses in a speech to himself the state of his mind and his present intentions. This speech is a regular hymn of hate. We have travelled far from his earlier sublime utterances. At first, in the speech, he is disposed to admire the beauty of this World, this “terrestrial Heaven danced round by other Heavens.” lie shows also sufficient intelligence to appreciate the well-ordered evolution of life from ‘plant and herb’ to ‘nobler birth of creatures animate’ until ‘growth, sense, reason’ are all summed up in Man. But, the more he sees of pleasure about him, the more he feels the torment within him—the jealous creature that he is. Since the World is not for him, at any rate not meant for him, he will destroy it. There is but one source of pleasure for him, and this is the pleasure of destruction. If a further reason were wanted, it is there in his envy of Man. Speaking of the Creator, he says, “Man he made, and for him built Magnificent this World,” while the same Creator thought fit to kick Satan, an archangel, down to Hell. He will therefore revenge himself on Man. He cannot reach out to God the Father, and therefore he will wring the neck of the child. With this determination, he enters the poor sleeping serpent.

      With the first break of dawn, Satan, now ‘mere serpent in appearance’, crawls about, seeking Eve. In bower and field, he searches for her, and at last as his luck would have it, he finds her in the rose-bower, and alone: This is what he had wished for. At first, he is overcome by the supreme power of her native innocence and beauty; this is almost a relieving trait in his character. But the hot Hell within him rages, and gladly he yields to it. For, as he says in his second speech to himself he has sought Paradise, not to admire it, nor even to gain it for himself; but to destroy it. And here is a chance to do it, Eve being alone. So he makes bold to approach her and gain her attention.

      Serpent as Satan now is, yet, in the method of his approach to Eve, he puts on both sparkle and brilliance. As much brilliance and personality as a serpent can conceivably have. Here the poet rises to epic level. The work that Satan is engaged in is certainly mean: but he does it so well that he deserves a place in the epic. He is not exactly the creeping reptile that serpents are—but an upstanding beauty, rising on a base of circular folds, ‘a surging maze, his head is crested aloft, and his eyes are like carbuncles. His burnished neck is of verdant gold, and it stands, ‘erect’ from among his circling spires, ‘that on the grass floats redundant’. This is a magnificent reptile, and poor Eve has no chance against Satan in this form, as with a graceful, wavy motion, he ‘lures’ her eye. Her eye being turned in response to his glorious wiles, the serpent like any chivalrous knight, bows his turret crest and sleek neck, and starts addressing her: Eve is immediately impressed. Satan may now follow up with whatever story he likes, and he will be believed. He has his story ready and delivers it with wonderful plausibility, even instituting a comparison between the flavour of his normal diet, “the teats of ewe or goat dropping with milk at even” and the divine savor of the new fruit he has sipped. Eve believes all that he says, and asks him to lead her to the Tree. Now, the serpent is further glorified: “Hope elevates and joy brightens his crest.” It is the hour of his approaching victory: and with the swiftness of lightning—or the will-o-the wisp—he glides along, leading her.

      Satan’s final speech to Eve, the one which overcomes her scruples regarding God’s warning, is a masterpiece of specious reasoning. In the art of making the worse appear the better reason, Satan stands without rival. One must note first the oratorical pose that he assumes, like one of those famous orators of Athens or Rome, commanding attention by the very stateliness of their presence and the look in their eye, before they start speaking. Assuming this pose, he turns to the divine Tree, to begin with, and offers it a little rhetorical incense. This would lend plausibility to the rest of his tale. It is an ocular demonstration to Eve of the Tree being there, and he standing there both triumphantly alive, despite all the prophecies of Heaven or Hell. Then he turns to Eve and just asks her to look at him. He ate the fruit of the tree; is he dead? On the other hand, he has reached a higher lift. Man must certainly have what a beast has attained to; and if he is denied this privilege, then the gods are unjust. If God is a kind God, he should love to see Man attaining to knowledge; for, even Evil must be known in order to be guarded against. What, after all, is the value of a ‘cloistered virtue’? Therefore, God would certainly approve of their reaching out to knowledge in the fruit. If he does not, then he is an unjust God and would not deserve to be obeyed. If he, a beast, had by the fruit attained to human status, she—namely Eve - being already human would by the same fruit attain to divine status. She would be a goddess, as she deserved to be, and her husband would be a god. And, why should the Gods be superior to Man: They have not taken out a monopoly of greatness and have no right to resent Man’s attempt to raise himself to their status. Therefore, in all reason, she must taste that divine fruit and herself have a taste of divinity. This unsettles Eve, and soon she eats the fruit. Whereupon the ‘sly snake’ slinks away into the adjoining thicket.

      At the end, Satan is revealed in all his moral cowardice. Starting out to assault the ‘Tyranny of Heaven’, he stoops to harming two innocent beings who had no hand in his Fall from grace. ‘Spite then with spite is best repaid.....’ that sounds just mean, especially so when in the process two harmless and innocent beings are affected. Satan’s degradation is complete—physically and morally—as he slinks away after making Eve eat the forbidden fruit. Satan himself is aware of the degradation he is undergoing in assuming the form of a serpent:

O, foul descent that I who erst contended
With gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast,
He, however, reasons that
Who aspires must down as low
As high he soared.

      The irony is evident: the reasoning is specious. Once baseness has been deliberately chosen, the degeneration has begun and there can be no redemption.

University Questions

How far is it true to say that in Book IX of Paradise Lost Satan’s glory and grandeur are gradually diminished?
Discuss how Milton presents the character of Satan in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
It is part of Milton’s design to show the gradual deterioration of Satan’s character in Paradise Lost. Do you agree? Substantiate your answer from the text of Book IX.

Previous Post Next Post