Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Portrait of Satan

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.

He is the most heroic subject ever chosen for a poem and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. In the words of Addison, he is "the most exalted and most depraved being." Why then does Milton give the importance of a hero to Satan in the first book and in all the parts of the epic where he makes his appearance? The reasons for opposing God Almighty himself is said to be ambition, pride and the love of supreme leadership. Egoism is at the bottom of his life and actions, and because he shows it under almost certain difficult circumstances we cannot but sympathise with him. For he knows in due course that God cannot be overcome either by men or by devils. Instead of resigning himself to the inevitable as most sensible people might think of doing, he resolves on eternal warfare, hatred and opposition to God, just to vindicate his unconquerable love of freedom, liberty, and independence. This strikes a responsive echo in our hearts, and we are forced to admire him although we may also detest him at the same time. Viewed in relation to God, whom he opposes, he is the weaker party and so doomed to failure. Being immortal, he is incapable of destruction, But he can offer battle to God in all possible ways, and thus stand out above all else. But viewed in relation to innocent man, whom he resolves to seduce, corrupt and turn against God himself, he is a villain, for just as the fight between him and God is one-sided and unequal, so also the struggle of man against Satan proves one-sided and unequal. In thus representing Satan, he invests him with intensely human traits, both virtues and vices or failings which bring him intimately to our understanding. God is beyond our understanding, since we are finite and He is infinite Man in the state of innocence is equally beyond our understanding. For we now live in a world very different from the conditions in which he lived with Eve in Eden or Paradise. Between the two extremes, he therefore, occupies the stage in its entire length and depth and engrosses our attention continuously at high pressure whether he is present or absent.
Satan's Towering Personality
In Book I, we see him in the moment of his greatest disaster. There is no lower point to which he could be pushed down by fate or fortune. We see him a fallen creature, his face and form disfigured, stunned by his defeat and downfall and an object of terror and pity. Milton's first description of him is intended to impress us with his superhuman appearance and powers. He is of gigantic stature, yet without body, such as we possess. There is nothing grotesque or absurd or comic in describing him as a huge giant sprawling over the burning lake and occupying many occupying many leagues of space to keep his body. We are naturally impressed by such a figure.
Satan is known to have genius and all its charm great beauty, great intellect, great emotions, great physical daring; in all things proudly eminent. This was the personality of Satan before his degradation.
Satan's Courage
Milton's Satan is endowed with heroic qualities. The outstanding trait of his character is courage. He may be wrong headed: but he has infinite courage in himself. As the poem, Paradise Lost begins, we find Satan in a hopeless situation. He and his companions have been hurled down into the bottomless pit of Hell. He lies dazed and stunned in the Lake of Liquid fire and so do his companions, the rebel angels. Heaven is lost to Satan and his companions, and they are doomed to live forever in the darkness of Hell. But this gloomy prospect of the future does not fill Satan with despondency robbing him of his power of action. When Beelzebub, his lieutenant, tells him that their situation is hopeless beyond redemption, he replies:
Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable.
Doing or suffering.
Satan is determined not to be weak under any circumstances. If one retains his courage and strength of mind, he "can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Even in Hell Satan discovers an advantage:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
Satan's Affection for his Followers
Satan has great anxiety for his followers. It is the trait of a great general of any army, to think of the welfare of his followers even before he think of his own safety. All great warriors and conquerors were able to inspire their followers with loyalty and devotion which make them ready to suffer and die for their leader. In return, the chief guard cherishes them as if they were all his own brothers or children. This feeling of chivalry overcomes Satan as he sees his unconscious friends lying in profound slumber all round him. He cannot forget that they had met this cruel fate because of their devotion to him. He sees their self-sacrifice as heroic in its essence. So, he is represented as shedding tears of sympathy for them - Tears such as angels weep. This is pathetic fallacy since angels cannot weep at all.
Satan as a Leader
A great leader should have great qualities of character. He should have courage, resourcefulness and an indomitable will. Above all, the should be a man of action. Milton's Satan is endowed with all these qualities. It needs mighty courage to revolt against the Almighty, and to hurl defiance at Him even in captivity. Besides, Satan is not only courageous himself, he can inspire courage in his followers. They lie dazed and stupefied in the Lake of liquid fire. But the courageous words of their leader rouse them from their stupor and make them bold and active once again.
Satan's greatest quality as a leader is his readiness to act under all circumstances. Even Hell cannot rob him of his power to act. Having fallen down into the bottomless pit, he lies unconscious for some time in the lake of liquid fire as the result of his great fall. But the moment he regains consciousness, he decides not to lie any more in that abject position. Finding Beelzebub, his lieutenant, lying close to him, he persuades him to leave the infernal lake and go with him to the solid plain beyond its shore. Accordingly, leaders of the fallen angels go to the solid plain, where Satan exhorts Beelzebub to overcome his despondency, and bravely face the situation in which they are. He will live in Hell as its ruler rather than be a slave to God in Heaven. It is man's mind which can turn Heaven into Hell and Hell into Heaven. If they courageously face the situation, even Hell will not be too uncomfortable for them to live in. These words of his leader infuse courage in Beelzebub and he regains his lost boldness and self-confidence.
As a leader Satan is ready and eager to assume the difficulties, responsibilities and dangerous of leadership as well as its rights; ready to accept "hazard" as well as "honour". He shows a noble sense of duty, of self-sacrifice incumbent on him on account of his position as King of Hell, when, "for the general safety he despised his own", and undertook alone the difficult enterprise which daunted the courage of the mightiest of his followers.
Satan's Unconquerable and Indomitable Spirit
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 part 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 rigorous, indeed, but the rigour of the punishment was matched by the extent 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 thought 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 from the bliss of Heaven, he kept up his strength of spirit and invincible courage, which aroused the admiration of all. He inspired the fallen angels with new hope and courage, and his leadership roused 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 break 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 it sown 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.
Satan has many admirable qualities for example his power of endurance, his heroism and his indomitable refusal to admit defeat. These virtues are expressed in peculiarly Miltonic words of great eloquence and power. His first speech shows him defying his conqueror and "though in pain" asserting his invincible resolution. He is undaunted by God's victory and retain his "fit mind" and high disdain. He finds consolation even in Hell and maintains the morale of his followers.
Satan's Pride
Satan is a study of obdurate pride. Self-exhaltation is the motive of all his conduct. Satan suffered from a "sense of injured merit". "He thought himself impaired". Pride, out of intense self-desire is the evil from which all other evils arise. "We are eclipsed" Satan says, "we are ordained to govern, not to serve". Out of this arises his "high disdain from a sense of injured merit" and from this follows "the study of revenue, immortal hate"; the scorn of repentance and finally its impossibility. Even in defeat he will never dream of submission. The fierceness of the punishment inflicted on him is mitigated by the greater fierceness of his pride.
Satan Should be the Villain of the Piece
Satan alone occupies a prominent position in the narrative. According to the strict rules of dramatic art, Satan should be the villain of the piece. To a certain extent, Paradise Lost is symbolic of the never-ending, conflict between good and evil in the life of man, and Satan is thus the type of universal evil and wickedness. In one sense, Satan is the most important character of the poem because it is from his agency that practically all the action of the narrative arises. The revolt which Satan stirs up in Heaven leads to the fall of the angels in the first place; the decision which he comes to, to tempt the newly created human pair, leads to further action in Paradise Lost. Such being the case, Milton had to necessarily bring Satan prominently before the reader, more prominently indeed than any other character. So we might say that the theme or narrative which Milton selected for Paradise Lost depended for its action on the deeds of a wicked character, rather than on a hero. The problem for Milton was the manner in which he was to present such an evil character. The sight of pure, and undisguised evil is never pleasant, and the acts of a wicked person cause feelings of disgust and repulsion to right-minded readers. So Milton would have risked losing the sympathy and interest of his readers had he presented Satan as an unattractive study in wickedness. It seems then, that Milton realized this danger, and refrained from blackening the characters of Satan unduly. Not only so, but he depicts Satan as possessing many qualities which are good, noble and wholly admirable. It is this point which has made the character of Satan unique and has aroused so much discussion among critics.
There can be no doubt that Satan is meant to be the villain. He is throughout called names like "arch-fiend", "arch-enemy", "apostate angel", "the adversary of God and man", "the author of all ill", "the spirit malign", "the fraudulent imposter foul", etc. His rebellion against God was due to Pride and his desire to continue the war of Envy, Revenge and love of Evil. He is crafty, - "the warie fiend"- and his plan to corrupt mankind is one of "covert guile". He is cunning in his appeal to his followers which has only a "semblance of worth". Satan embodies Evil because he is the embodiment of disobedience to God. God allows him to work his "dark design" in order to give further scope, for divine goodness and to bring worse punishment on him.
Milton Expresses himself Through Satan
Milton's inner soul vibrated to those powerful expressions of republican fervour that he puts on the lips of Satan. In the character of Satan, Milton has expressed his own pride, invisible temper, love for liberty, defiance of authority and heroic energy.
The strength of the portraiture of Satan is due to the fact that the poet is expressing himself through Satan. While portraying this character Milton projects himself into Satan 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 man, 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, imposter, and villain.
Character of Satan
There is the epic necessity that the important epic character should be sublime and that we should be interested in them but absolute evil is mean, and evokes no pleasure. Satan is, therefore, made a mixed character, with evil passions in which good still lingers. In the beginning Satan is selfish but with abrupt touches of unselfishness. He is proud, but his pride is for others as well as for himself. Though he is full of envy and malice, often he hates these passions in himself. He destroys but it is with difficulty he overcomes his pity for those he destroys. He brings war into Heaven, and despises Heaven, yet he loves its beauty. He is God's enemy. Yet he allows God's justice. He avenges himself, yet revenge is bitter. He ruins beauty but he regrets its loss in himself and admires it in others. Thus, we find that Satan is a mixed character in which there is good but evil pre-dominates and eventually the evil master the good.
Exhalation of Satan's Qualities in the Romantic Age
In the Romantic age, Satan has been admired immensely. According to William Blake, "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." William Hazlitt narrated the magnificence of Milton's portrayal of Satan. According to him, "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. Whenever the figure of Satan is introduced, whether he walks or flies, "rising aloft incumbent of the dusty air," it is illustrated with the most striking and appropriate images: so that we see it always before us, gigantic, irregular, portentous, uneasy and disturbed but dazzling in its faded splendour, the clouded ruins of a God." Finally Shelley expressed his great admiration for Milton's portraiture of Satan. As Shelley said: "Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who persevere in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent inspite of adversity and torture, to God who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to new torments."
Satan's Greatness in the Twentieth Century
Even in the twentieth century some critics are influenced by this romantic figure. They continue to consider Satan as the chief figure of Paradise Lost. Abercrombie remarks: "Paradise Lost exists for one figure, that is Satan, just as the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the Odyssey for Odysseys. It is in the figure of Satan that the imperishable significance of Paradise Lost is centred. His vast, unyielding agony symbolises the profound antimony of modern consciousness". Bagehot says that Milton's "Satan was to him, as to us, the hero of his poem." In fact, many more critics have suggested that the republican Milton's unconscious sympathy went to the creation of Satan. Legouis says that Milton has put most of himself, his pride, and his temperament into Satan. "Devoutly, but mechanically, he paid lip-service to the duty of obedience, but in his heart he was chanting a hymn to freedom and rebellion." Many other critics think that Milton has created the very figure of Puritanism in his Satan, thus unconsciously identifying his consecrated cause with the foul revolt of the devil.
Gradual Degradation of Satan's Character
But as the poem proceeds, the character of Satan degenerates. Reaching the Earth, he enters into a Serpent, and 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 his degradation:
Of 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 degenerates 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 aforesaid view has been formulated by the twentieth century critics who feels that the character of Satan shows a gradual decline. As C.S. Lewis remarks: "From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent and thence to a thing that peers in at the bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan." John Peter is of the opinion that the degradation of Satan is due to the fact that Milton lost poetic fervour after the two books. As Peter remarks: "These play a very important part in determining the reader's impressions during the opening books where they are consistently good and are often used powerfully, but the similes of the succeeding books, though they recover their potency are usually far less effective."
"Though Satan represents evil, he has a greatness of his own. He is magnificent in his crime. He is a born leader, and would not shrink from tasks that the perilous voyage through Chaos to Earth implies. 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. Like Macbeth, he, too, seems to be tragic character.
In spite of his final degradation, it is Satan's character that gives real epic quality to 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 passions give to Paradise Lost its permanent value as a work of poetic art.

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