Character of Satan in Paradise Lost

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      Satan is the most important character in Paradise Lost. Though the action of the poem turns round Man’s first disobedience, yet the character that gives epic grandeur to Paradise Lost is that of Satan. He is endowed with some of those qualities that make the hero of an epic. In fact, Milton partly expressed himself through Satan.

      Satan was originally an archangel in Heaven occupying a high place in the hierarchy of angels. He was proud, defiant and of an independent temper of mind. He would not submit to the authority of God. He rebelled against the Almighty and won over to his side a third party of the angelic host. He fought against God, and was defeated and hurled down to Hell. The punishment inflicted upon him was eternal damnation. The punishment was fierce indeed, but the fierceness of the punishment was matched by the fierceness of his pride and the strength of his spirit. It was after his defeat that Satan’s greatness manifested itself. Defeat did not curb the independence of his spirit:

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;
And what is else not to be overcome.

      Though he was banished ever from the bliss of Heaven, he kept up his strength of spirit and invincible courage, which arouse the admiration of all. It was he who inspired the fallen angels with new hope and courage and his leadership rouses them from the depth of despair, into which they had fallen. He would undertake the most hazardous task in order to fight God against all odds. No amount of torture could damp the brave spirit of Satan. Hell was a desolate place, very different indeed from Heaven; but its dismal surroundings could not daunt his spirit. In fact he welcomes Hell, where he may ‘reign secure.’

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells. Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

      He may have been defeated by the superior arms of God, but ‘all is not lost.’ He would not under any circumstances submit to the tyranny of the Almighty. This courage and this indomitable spirit make Satan a unique figure in Paradise Lost.

      Though Satan represents evil, he has a greatnes: all his own. He is magnificent in his crime. He is a born leader, and would not: shrink from any risk or danger to help his followers. It is Satan who undertakes that perilous voyage through Chaos and reaches the Earth to bring about the fall of man. To him weakness is a crime:

Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable. Doing or suffering.

      The first two books of Paradise Lost depict the greatness and grandeur of Satan. He fills the whole space with the grandeur of his stature. In fact, it appears that he is the real hero of Paradise Lost. “It is surely the simple fact that Paradise Lost exists for one figure that is Satan, just as the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the Odyssey for Odysseus. It is in the figure of Satan that the imperishable significance of Paradise Lost is centered; his vast unyielding agony symbolizes the profound antimony of modem consciousness.” (Abercrombie)

      But as the poem proceeds, the character of Satan degenerates. When on reaching the earth, he enters into a Serpent, and he is completely degraded. Pride was the cause of his fall from Heaven-pride that had ‘raised’ him to ‘contend with the Mightiest.’ Where is that pride, when the Archangel enters “in at the mouth of a sleeping serpent” and hides himself in its “mazy folds”? He is himself conscious of this degradation:

O foul descent! that I, who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast, and, mixed with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the height of deity aspired. (Book IX)

      From the grand figure that he is in the beginning he degenerated into a mean and cunning fellow trying to tempt Eve by guile. So Satan degenerates from the role of a brave hero to that of a cunning villain.

      The strength of the portraiture of Satan is due to the fact that the poet is expressing himself through Satan. While portraying Satan Milton projects himself into him and expresses his own indomitable personality through him. Milton himself was proud, and had stood against the tyranny of the King, and though his party had been defeated, he remained as courageous and defiant in the teeth of adversity, as Satan. It is because Milton expressed his own feelings through Satan, that the portraiture of Satan’s character is so intense and powerful. Though Milton set out to justify the ways of God to men, yet in spite of himself, he endowed Satan with great qualities, simply because Satan, like himself had opposed the ‘tyranny’ of the King of Heaven. Hence Blake remarked, “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton became conscious of what he was doing as the poem proceeded. The character of Satan, with its greatness and grandeur, was militating against his avowed theme. Hence Milton restrained himself and showed the real character of Satan, the Arch devil. In the later books Satan degenerates into a cunning spy, imposer, and villain.

      In spite of its final degradation, it is Satan’s character that gives real epic quality of Paradise Lost. Without Satan Paradise Lost would be no more than a theological thesis composed in verse. Satan’s courage and unconquerable spirit, his vaulting ambition, his fortitude, and contempt for suffering, the fierceness of his indomitable passion give to Paradise Lost its permanent value as a work of poetic art.

      Satan is the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem, and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. He was the first of created beings, who, for endeavoring to be equal with the highest, and to divide the empire of heaven with the Almighty, was hurled down to hell. His ambition was the greatest, and his punishment was the greatest, but not so his despair, for his fortitude was as great as his sufferings; His strength of mind was as matchless as his strength of mind was as matchless as his strength of body. His power of action and of suffering was equal. He was the greatest power that was ever overthrown, with the strongest will left to resist or to endure. He expresses the sum and substance of all ambition in one line:

Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable,
Doing or suffering.

      The poet has not given us a mere shadowy outline, the strength is equal to the magnitude of the conception. The Achilles of Homer is not more distinct; the Titans were not more vast; Prometheus chained to his rock was not a more terrific example of suffering and of crime.” (Hazlitt)

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