Dark Designs: Reading and Misreading Milton

In his 1820 essay The Defense of Poetry, Percy Shelley wrote, “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.”1

This bold deconstruction of a staunchly Christian poet may have struck at least a few of Shelley’s readers as a bizarre overreach. And even today, we are forced to wonder how literally the young Romantic took his own assertion. Did he really believe a Puritan poet had cast the rebel angel as the hero in the tale of humanity’s fall? Or was this simply a rhetorical maneuver that allowed him to co-opt the earlier writer to his own ends?

But perhaps Shelley’s judgment wasn’t so wild as it might seem. Since the epic’s publication, Milton’s paradoxical portrayal of the arch-fiend Lucifer has confused and bedeviled literary critics.2 And it is a topic that continues to generate popular and scholarly discussion even in our own times. As Heather Johnson observed in 2009, “Milton’s Satan… can be a magnificent figure, compelling in his mixture of abject despair, prideful hubris, and deftly manipulative leadership.”3

How we interpret the character of Satan goes to the heart of our understanding of the poem. Is he a hero or, at the very least, an anti-hero? Or is he the personification of evil? What did Milton intend by creating such a complex and dynamic villain? And what may we, as modern readers, gain from his portrayal? Perhaps no final answers can be given to these questions, but a careful investigation may at least show us some productive ways we can encounter the poem. 

It might help to begin our discussion with the historical context of Milton’s religion, life, and work. In the wake of Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church, many reformers felt the Church of England had not gone far enough in distancing itself from Roman forms of worship. Their enemies called these dissenting nonconformists Puritans. The nickname stuck, and in the century that followed, John Milton numbered himself among them. 

During the monarchy of Charles I, Milton’s earliest poetic works show a marked interest in religious and moral questions. For example, one of his first efforts was an ode on Christ’s Nativity. And in his pastoral elegy Lycidas, he rebukes the profligate clergy of his day with the telling line, “the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”4

The religious tensions expressed in Lycidas contributed in large measure to the civil wars that followed, and Milton aligned himself with the Puritan Republicans who fought against the king. After the execution of Charles I, he served succeeding administrations until the Restoration as a secretary, translator, and public relations writer. And despite the onset of blindness, probably due to glaucoma, he proved to be a valuable asset to the regimes he served.5

Milton not only wrote poetry but often promoted his personal views on subjects such as divorce and education in pamphlets. At the time he was writing  Paradise Lost, he also produced a treatise on theology. And while his views are not entirely orthodox, in this, he was a man of his age and remained a confessing and devout Christian throughout his life. 6

In De Doctrina Christiana, he writes, “Angels are either good or evil, for it appears that many of them revolted from God of their own accord before the fall of man. [These] evil angels are reserved for punishment. Their knowledge is great, but as such tends rather to aggravate than diminish their misery; so that they utterly despair.”7

After publishing Paradise Lost in 1667, Milton brought out two additional works on religious themes. His verse drama Samson Agonistes explores the life of the Old Testament prophet. And his narrative poem Paradise Regained centers on the temptation of Christ. 

In considering the role of Satan in Paradise Lost, it might also help us to place Milton’s work in the critical context of his era. The English Renaissance conceived of literature as having a moral function that may seem foreign to our modern way of thinking about the arts. Sir William Alexander uttered a commonplace of his day when he wrote of poets, “making the beauty of virtue to invite and the horror of vice to affright the beholder.”8 Milton echoed this theme when he spoke of the power of verse to “breed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue, and public civility.”9

Milton, then, was a deeply spiritual man whose faith lay at the center of his life and art. Moreover, he believed that his duty as a poet was to help his readers become better human beings and better Christians. Given this background, it seems unlikely he would have been swept away by the frisson of romantic rebellion that Shelley evidently drew from his work. 

But perhaps we should turn to the text of the poem itself. Let’s imagine it to be like some well-wrought urn or statue we’ve encountered that we must judge on its own merits. 

Certainly, one way we can read Paradise Lost is to be caught up with the “energy and magnificence” of the character of Satan. The grim grandeur of the opening scenes in Hell overwhelms our imaginations, and the arch-fiend rivets our attention as he rises off the burning lake and rouses his legions to unceasing rebellion. 

As if to reinforce his heroic stature, the poet puts into his mouth noble and defiant lines that prove to be among the most memorable in the poem. “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.”10 Or again, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”11

In the infernal council that follows, Satan proves that this is no mere empty rhetoric. He demonstrates his dauntless courage by alone volunteering to seek out “another world, the happy seat / of some new race called man.”12 And his flight through the outer chaos beyond our universe reads like a tremendous adventure story in blank verse. 

This winged voyage over, we find ourselves amazed at his resourcefulness as he deceives the far-seeing angel Uriel and beguiles the guileless Eve. In short, he is a bold, inventive underdog, as fearless as Achilles and wily as Odysseus, who refuses to yield though he knows the odds are against him. These tropes play on our sympathies and provoke our admiration. 

But to read the epic in this way, we must ignore the many passages in which Milton deliberately undercuts this heroic portrait. For example, we may consider the following verses. “So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence / had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will / and high-permission of all-ruling Heaven / left him at large to his own dark designs.”13 In this and many other similar statements, the narrator makes it clear that Satan’s rebellion is entirely without meaning. Against the backdrop of God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge, all his machinations turn out to be histrionic and absurd. The paradox of Satan in Paradise Lost proves to be the paradox of all Christian theology. If God is all-powerful, any rebellion can only occur with divine sufferance and forbearance. 

And Satan admits as much to himself in his soliloquy in Book IV. Having just descended to the earth, he pauses for a moment to take stock. “Now rolling boils in his tumultuous breast, / and like a devilish engine back recoils / upon himself; horror and doubt distract / his troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir / the Hell within him; for within him Hell / he brings … Now conscience wakes despair, / that slumbered; wakes the bitter memory / of what he was, what is, and what must be; / of worse deeds worse suffering must ensue.”14

We see, then, from Milton’s viewpoint, that Satan’s heroic stature amounts to so much posturing. But we live in an era that is often skeptical of a writer’s intentions. As two scholars of the last century put it, “We [argue] that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard” by which to judge the meaning or value of a literary work.15

In other words, if we wish, we may separate Milton’s poem from its theological framework and judge it on its own merits. In such a reading, Satan becomes, if not the hero in the sense that Aeneas is a hero, at least the epic’s most psychologically interesting protagonist. He is a dark and fragmented mirror in which we may see much that is noble and much that is horrifying about ourselves. 

And if we read the poem in this way, the fact that Satan does not know why he acts as he does may draw our attention. In his soliloquy, speaking of his rebellion against God, he says, “Ah wherefore! he deserved no such return / from me, whom he created what I was / in that bright eminence, and with his good / upbraided none.”16 Stripped of its theological justifications, this passage offers readers a wide field for speculation about the arch-fiend’s subconscious motivations and our own. 

But while this may be a valid reading, there is another which appears just as worthy of consideration. For it seems to me that while an author’s design may not be available, a good writer leaves enough clues for us to take some portion of what he has written and make it our own. And perhaps in closing our eyes to the poet’s intent, we blind ourselves to the richness of his work. 

We began this article by considering the strange paradox of a Christian poet casting Satan in a heroic role. In Book IX, Milton draws back the curtain a bit on what he has been doing. He tells us that in singing of the fall of humanity, his task is, “Not less but more heroic than the wrath / of stern Achilles on his foe pursued / thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage / of Turnus for Lavinia disespous’d; / Or Neptune’s ire, or Juno’s that so long / perplexed the Greek.”17 Here, he encapsulates the tradition of classical epic poetry and asserts that his work is a more fitting subject than the exploits of Achilles, Aeneas, or Odysseus. He goes on to contrast the warrior ethos that characterized the Homeric and Virgilian epics with “the better fortitude of patience and heroic martyrdom unsung.”18

In light of these verses, the earlier sections of the poem which focus on Satan, take on a new meaning. We may see them as a conscious pseudo-epic. Lucifer subsumes all the heroes of antiquity and romance within him, and Milton uses him as a figure to critique the tradition within which he is working. The poet contrasts the arch-fiend’s “heroism” with the genuinely courageous martyrdom of Christ toward which his poem points.

Milton was a complex man who created multi-faceted works of literary art. In outlining the approaches to the character of Satan in these pages, I don’t mean to suggest that I have exhausted the possibilities. A great work of art yields to each new generation fresh treasures, and we must always attempt with whatever words we find to say just what it means to us. 

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  1. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Delphi Classics, p. 2260
  2. “It is sometimes supposed that critical support for Satan began with the Romantics, but this is not so… the notion of Satan as the true hero of Milton’s epic goes back to Dryden.” Carey, John, “Milton’s Satan” The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Danielson, Dennis ed. Cambridge University Press, p. 161
  3. Johnson, Heather G. S., “Seeking Fame Through Infamy: Satan, Oblivion, and the Memory of God,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association Vol. 42 No. 2 (Fall, 2009) p.23
  4. Milton, John, LycidasThe Riverside Milton, Flannagan, Roy ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, p.105
  5. Campbell, Gordon and Corns, Thomas N. John Milton, Life, Work, and Thought, Oxford University Press, p.212
  6. “From the perspective of modern Christian consensus, Milton’s central aberration is his anti-trinitarianism. Dissent from trinitarianism was, however, much more common among seventeenth-century Christians.” Milton avoids Arianism by a hair’s breadth, acknowledging the Son to be the only begotten of the Father but locating his begetting in time. The Holy Spirit is almost entirely absent from Milton’s theology. Campbell and Corns, p. 273
  7. For the sake of clarity, I have elided several passages containing Milton’s observations on fallen angels. Milton, John, De Doctrina ChristianaJohn Milton Prose: Major Writings On Liberty, Politics, Religion, and Education, Loewenstein, David ed. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. p. 506 ff. 
  8. Alexander, Sir William, To Henry Reynolds, of Poets and Poesy, Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, Alexander, Gavin ed. Penguin Books, p. 299
  9. Milton, John Milton ProseOn Church Government, p.89
  10. Milton, Paradise Lost, The Riverside Milton, p. 357
  11. Milton, PL, p.362
  12. Milton, PL, p.390
  13. Milton, PL, p.360
  14. Milton, PL, p. 442
  15. Wimsatt jr., W.K., and Beardsley, M.C., The Intentional FallacyThe Sewanee Review, Vol. 54 No.3 (July-Sept 1946) p.468 
  16. Milton, PL, pp.442-3
  17. Milton, PL, p.584
  18. Milton, PL, p.584

Dark Designs: Copyright Jonathan Golding, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Artwork: “Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve” (Book IV, line 492), one of William Blake’s twelve Paradise Lost illustrations. Public Domain.

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