Satan in Paradise Lost: Description, Speech & Fall

Satan in Paradise Lost: Description, Speech & Fall
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  • 0:01 What Is Paradise Lost?
  • 1:04 Milton's Description of Satan
  • 3:05 Satan's Speech
  • 5:14 The Fall
  • 7:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Come and learn about Milton's famous portrayal of Satan in ''Paradise Lost,'' analyzing Satan's physical description, his surprisingly uplifting speech, and his dramatic fall from heaven and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Paradise Lost?

Before we begin our discussion on the character of Satan, let's briefly touch on Paradise Lost itself. First published in 1667, Paradise Lost is an epic, a long narrative poem, often divided into sections, written by John Milton. Over the course of 12 parts, called books, Paradise Lost tells the entire biblical story of the fall of mankind, from the rebellion of Satan to the temptation of Adam and Eve.

In addition to being recognized as one of the greatest achievements in English literature, Paradise Lost is also one of the most famous uses of blank verse in English poetry. The term blank verse refers to a poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a meter that uses five iambic feet per line. In poetry, a foot means a soft syllable followed by a stronger syllable. As you look at the examples in this lesson, however, you may notice that Milton doesn't always follow the rules of blank verse to the letter.

Milton's Description of Satan

Now, on to the character of Satan himself. When we're introduced to Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost, he has already fallen from heaven, along with a host of other rebel angels. Even though Satan is no longer the beautiful angel he once was, he is still described as an impressive figure. The most dominant characteristic in Milton's description of Satan is his size:

Thus Satan, talking to his nearest mate,
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large,
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' ocean-stream.
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays.
So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake . . .

Don't worry if you had some trouble making sense of those lines. The reason these lines are somewhat difficult to navigate is because Milton uses a great deal of allusion to describe Satan's massive size. Allusion is what occurs when an author refers to mythology or another piece of literature; in other words, it's a fancier term for 'name-dropping.' The two most important allusions in this description are to Leviathan, a sea monster from the Bible, and the Titans, massive beasts from Greek mythology. Milton also gives us the impression that Satan is so huge that he could be mistaken for an island if viewed from the proper angle.

Satan's Speech

In addition to being absolutely gigantic, Milton's Satan also has beautiful powers of speech. After Satan breaks free from his chains and emerges from the burning lake, he attempts to lift the spirits of his fellow fallen angels, delivering this speech:

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,'
Said then the lost Archangel, 'this the seat
That we must change for Heaven?--this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. 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 its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven . . .

As with the previous example, these lines are a lot to take in. In order to break things down, we'll look at the three major points in Satan's argument, which, incidentally, line up with the most clear and quotable parts of the speech.

The first point that Satan raises is that God can no longer control the fallen angels because hell is as far from God as possible ('farthest from him is best'). The second point is that the mind has the power to make the best of any situation; in other words, to 'make a Heaven of Hell' or 'a Hell of Heaven.' The third point Satan raises is that hell can become the new kingdom of the fallen angels, since they are no longer God's servants ('Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven').

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