“Depiction Of Satan” (1866) by Gustave Dore
BBC: Milton’s Paradise Lost is rarely read today. But this epic poem, at over 350 years old, remains a work of unparalleled imaginative genius that shapes English literature even now. In more than 10,000 lines of blank verse, it tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden. Its dozen sections are an ambitious attempt to comprehend the loss of paradise – from the perspectives of the fallen angel Satan and of man, fallen from grace.
Even to readers in a secular age, the poem is a powerful meditation on rebellion, longing and the desire for redemption. The poem begins with Satan, the “Traitor Angel”, cast into hell after rebelling against his creator, God. Refusing to submit to what he calls “the Tyranny of Heaven”, Satan seeks revenge by tempting into sin God’s precious creation: man. Milton gives a vivid account of “Man’s First Disobedience” before offering a guide to salvation.
Ricks notes that Paradise Lost is “a fierce argument about God’s justice” and that Milton’s God has been deemed inflexible and cruel. By contrast, Satan has a dark charisma (“he pleased the ear”) and a revolutionary demand for self-determination. His speech is peppered with the language of democratic governance (“free choice”, “full consent”, “the popular vote”) – and he famously declares, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”. Satan rejects God’s “splendid vassalage”, seeking to live:
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile Pomp.
Nonconformist, anti-establishment writers such as Percy Shelley found a kindred spirit in this depiction of Satan (“Milton’s Devil as a moral being is… far superior to his God”, he wrote). Famously, William Blake, who contested the very idea of the Fall, remarked that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. MORE
THE ATLANTIC: Three hundred and fifty years ago, the poet John Milton wrote one of the greatest characters in all of British literature: Lucifer, the antagonist of the epic poem Paradise Lost. Feared by Puritans, fêted by Romantics, and reinvented by everybody else, Milton’s fallen archangel has worn many different masks over the centuries, from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab to television’s Tony Soprano and Walter White. Curiously, the deeply modern Lucifer could also be considered one of the greatest characters in American literature, even though he was created more than a century before the United States was founded.
In light of this, it’s little surprise Milton’s Lucifer can be read as a kind of modern, American antihero, invented before such a concept really existed. Many of the values the archangel advocates in Paradise Lost—the self-reliance, the rugged individualism, and even manifest destiny—are regarded as quintessentially American in the cultural imagination. Milton may be a poet of individual liberty and conscience, but he was also one of the most brilliant theological explorers of the darker subjects of sin, depravity, and the inclination toward evil. Nothing demonstrates that inclination more than the long-standing appeal the charismatic Lucifer has had for audiences, an appeal mirrored by the flawed but alluring protagonists of some of TV’s greatest American dramas. What Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first version of which was published in 1667, also demonstrates is what can be so dangerous about mistaking an antihero for a hero. MORE
RELATED: Walking down Broadway on a chilly Upper West Side morning in 1972, I bumped into my good acquaintance, the novelist Anthony Burgess, and at his request I resigned to him the bottle of Fundador I had just purchased at a nearby liquor store. Standing in a tattered robe and blinking in the sun, after a night devoted to composition, Burgess required immediate medication.
Besides, he had introduced me to this invigorating Spanish brandy only a few weeks before, so I urged him to retain the bottle after he had absorbed two prodigious swigs outdoors. As I wended back to the liquor shop, he called out after me: “The debt shall be paid, Bloom! When you arrive in Limbo, I will await you there with a bottle of Fundador.” MORE