“Paradise Lost” – John Milton’s epic poem, visually describing the risen Satan and his overthrow from heaven down to earth, in many respects popularized the representation of Satan as a personality. The live and vivid representation of Satan’s image, as well as other biblical characters drawn by Milton, strongly settled in people’s minds.
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This image still exists even for people who did not read the poem. The poem’s influence in the last two hundred-plus years was so strong, it can be said that many people had an impression that the image of Satan drawn by Milton, was taken based on what is written in the Bible.
It is necessary to realize accurately, that people perceive religious representations mostly from their surroundings, the cultural environment, and from art products, but not from reading religious books, not to speak of the Bible. There is no doubt that art played a huge role in the formation of the representation of Satan, and “Paradise Lost” had a leading position in that sense.
In book one, starting from line 50, Milton showed that a certain long time had passed since the downfall of Satan, where he pictured the image of Satan’s defeat; “Nine times the space that measures day and night/To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,/Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,/Confounded, though immortal. But his doom” (Milton 50-54)
In these lines, Milton is showing the picture of Hell. Referring to Satan as he, where it is later when he would be introduced by the name Satan, Milton is portraying the common representation of Hell, Satan, and his “crew”. Milton emphasizes the aspect of the immortality of hell, time, and its inhabitant, as to separate the books’ antagonists from the reader and their representation of time.
The next five lines shift the focus on the emotional contrast in Satan’s conditions. It is interesting to notice how Milton humanized Satan by assigning human emotions and feelings to him, i.e. lasting pain, lost happiness, affliction, dismay, pride, and hate. These emotions were used as a preface to explain the motives of the upcoming war declared by Satan. (Milton 55-59)
Milton follows his description of Hell, this time in Satan’s eyes, where the shift in perspective might serve to the horribleness of hell even for Satan. “A dungeon horrible, on all sides roundAs one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flamesNo light, but rather darkness visibleServ’d only to discover sights of woe,Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peaceAnd rest can never dwell, hope never comes” (Milton 61-66)
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In this description, another common image of hell was represented, where using the dungeon as the closest thing to portray the human vision of suffering in eternity. Milton also uses figurative speech, such as regions of sorrow and doleful shades to emphasize that this horrible image was wherever his eyes looked. In describing hell, Milton was gathering all the presumptions of hell together, which if perceived ironically can be translated as “hell is what we portray in our mind.
In the following lines Milton amplifies the usual representation of hell, where if removing the exaggeration, the life imprisonment of that time would be similar in the description. It is the additions of gothic elements that made the representation of hell in the literature and art the way it is now; “With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire”, (Milton 77) where the usage of contrast amplifies the difference between Heaven and Hell, thus making the common associations, i.e. God-light and hell-darkness.
In the next five-line, Milton describes Satan meeting with Beelzebub-another falling angel and a rebellion; He soon discerns, and weltering by his sideOne next himself in power, and next in crime, Long after known in Palestine, and nam’dBeelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,And thence in Heav’n call’d Satan, with bold words” (Milton 78-82)Milton is trying to establish the superiority of Satan among the other fallen, where Beelzebub is the second after him in power and crime. These lines end with the start of the dialogue between Satan and Beelzebub.
The next nine lines describe the dialogue of Satan with Beelzebub, which was the only thing that interrupted the silence that was in hell; “If thou beest he; But O how fallen! how chang’dFrom him, who in the happy Realms of LightCloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shineMyriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,United thoughts and counsels, equal hopeAnd hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,Joynd with me once, now misery hath joyndIn equal ruin: into what Pit thou seestFrom what high fallen, so much the stronger proved “(Milton 84-92)
Milton used the form of a question to express the astonishment of Satan by the look of Beelzebub, as to emphasize the contrast of their downfall even in physical look, and at the same time giving the reader a representation of angel’s common look which is also might seem like a combination of people’s general perceptions. Milton then enlightened the mutual history of Satan and Beelzebub, so the reader can acknowledge their shared background. Milton explains that this background united them in their fate using this transition to show how Satan started to gather the rebellions around him.
The next lines represent Satan’s refusal to accept his destiny, stating that he will not bow no matter what weapons would be used against him. In that sense Milton showed the turning point of the eternal good-evil battle; “Nor what the Potent Victor in his rageCan else inflict, do I repent or change,” (Milton 95-96) Milton’s usage of the word repent and change can be interpreted as the eternity of the battle, as if stating that Satan will not change, thus the opposition will last until the judgment day.
Summarizing the analysis, it can be seen that Milton, despite taking the general concepts of biblical timeline, painted the pictures of biblical events using his imagination combined with an emphasis on contrast. In that sense, it can be seen that most of the current representation of biblical aspects including Satan is based on such representation, where Satan has human attributes, the hell is a dungeon with lakes of fire. In that matter, the poem in general, and the aforementioned passages can be perceived in two different ways. The first one is Milton’s portrayal of Satan as the main character and the opposition to God, and the second one is an irony by which Milton ridiculed the general representation of Satan and Hell, leading the reader to the conclusion of the absurdity of such description.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books.” 1854. Hayes & Zell. Web.