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Milton’s Satan: Admirable or Pathetic?

October 8, 2011 1 comment

There is a centuries-long debate concerning the chief character of Milton’s Paradise Lost, stemming from this fundamental question: How are we supposed to feel about Satan?

It may seem like an odd question to some, but to anyone who has read Paradise Lost, the question is difficult to answer. If Satan truly is who we think he is, why is the character so compelling to us? Did Milton have some sort of underlying motive? Is Satan perhaps the unfair victim of an overbearing cosmic killjoy with delusions of grandeur? Or is Milton’s depiction of Satan perhaps somehow ‘accidentally’ majestic?

William Blake, himself a huge admirer of Milton and his work, seems to be the first to suggest this ‘alternate view’ of Satan. A little over a hundred years after Paradise Lost, Blake wrote in his own work ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

This seems to insinuate that even if Milton wasn’t aware what he was doing, he was still under the compulsion to write positively of Satan. Since that time, Blake has had a large and influential following. After Blake, no less a poet than Percy Bysshe Shelley took up his mantle as Satan’s defender. In the years since, many others have followed in their footsteps right up until today. An upcoming film of Paradise Lost appears to be in the works which, given the sentiment of the culture today will undoubtedly join this group in portraying Satan as being the unjust victim of an oppressive deity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see about this, but I’m pretty confident in my guess.

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