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although not a dictum of Aristotle, who, although in the "Poetics" he always assumes a hero, says that a hero alone is not enough to give unity to a tragedy or epic poem. But the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," the “ Æneid” had heroes, so that a hero seemed a necessity. Therefore there must be a hero to "Paradise Lost."
As to precisely who the hero should be was a difficult question. The only two candidates for the honor were Adam and Satan. Now as Adam was presented, not triumphing over difficulties, but as betrayed and beaten, he certainly could not be the hero. There remained, then, Satan, who certainly carried out his plans with apparent success. And there were not wanting those who declared that Satan was to be regarded as the hero of “Paradise Lost." So thought Dryden in Milton's day, and so thought Lord Chesterfield, who was a very fine gentleman of letters of a later period. "I assert, with Mr. Dryden," says he, "that the Devil is in truth the hero of Milton's poem; his plan which he lays, pursues, and at last executes, being the subject of the poem." And certainly whatever we may say of the poem as a whole, the chief figure of the two books we have in hand, the leading figure, the acting, achieving, accomplishing figure, is Satan. So far as these books only are concerned Satan is the hero, and the very successful hero. He appeals to our admiration, and, to a certain extent, he appeals to our sympathy.
If, however, we take the final impression of Satan, as we must have it in mind on reading the whole poem, we shall find the case different. However much he may appeal to our admiration, it cannot be on account of his success; and he soon loses any sympathy which he may have aroused, appealing instead almost to a sort of pity. He is presented in the poem as defeated and beaten in his effort to destroy mankind, and as becoming viler and viler, until he is finally an object for nothing more than a miserable disgust.
Of the first of these matters no more need be said. It has already been shown that Milton did not think of the
Fall of Man only; that he regarded the Redemption as implicit in the Fall; that, although as far as Satan and Adam were concerned, the latter is discomfited, yet when we consider the whole scheme of the poem, the purposes of God and the triumph of the Messiah are clearly seen and felt.
As to the second point, however, the development of the character of Satan, there is much that is interesting to have in mind in reading, which will bring out more strongly and effectively not a few passages which might otherwise pass with little notice.
When he first appears to us Satan is not "less than Archangel ruined." He has still the pride and ambition that caused his fall; he has added to them the rage, chagrin, and longing for vengeance which followed his fall. But these qualities cannot be said to render him utterly evil, utterly vile. Even his desire to strike the Creator through his creation shows, not malice, not hatred of those who had never injured him, but merely that extreme anger that cares nothing for its instrument, as a naughty boy in a fit of passion may long to break something belonging to his mother. Otherwise Satan is a figure that may be admired. Were it not for our feeling for the awful power against whom he rages, we should not think of calling him mean or base. He is a schemer, a politician, it is true; he will stoop to sophistry (ii. 27, cf. note), to finesse (ii. 468), to flattery (ii. 817), to gain his ends,but except for this rather petty temper, he may rightly be called a heroic figure. And so much Milton indicates to us, not only by his presentation of the character, but by a subtle symbolism, which may be followed through the poem.
Milton tells us that as the Soul of Satan became viler and meaner, his form followed step by step, until from its heavenly beauty it fell to snaky ugliness. The angels had always power to change their form at will, but each had his own especial form to which he ever tended to return,
and with Satan this form, once equal to the splendor of Raphael,1 gradually became more and more hideous as his spirit became more and more evil. We have first the fine lines in Book i.:
"He above the rest
Somewhat "changed in outward lustre " (i. 97) he was, but still he had the remnant of the angelic beauty which had been his in Heaven. So then he gathers his followers, starts on his journey, flies through Chaos, and finally reaches the Earth and the neighborhood of Paradise.
Here comes the moment of indecision when Conscience wakes despair that slumbered," the moment of possible return to the better, ended by that cry "Evil be thou my good," the moment when he becomes pledged forever to Evil. And as his mind, which had wavered for a time, takes the determined plunge downward, so his form also, even through his borrowed form, takes on a hideous aspect, so marked that Uriel, whom he had before deceived, knows him for evil. Further proof comes when Satan is discovered in the garden by the Cherub Zephon. The angel asks which of the rebel spirits it may be, and Satan gives haughtily the well-known answer: "Not to know
1 "Six wings he wore, to shade
Each shoulder broad came mantling o'er his breast
(Bk. v. 277-285.)
me argues thyself unknown." But Zephon answers scorn
"Think not, revolted spirit, thy shape the same, Or undiminished brightness to be known As when thou stood'st in Heaven upright and pure. That glory then, when thou no more wast good, Departed from thee; and thou resemblest now Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul.” (Book. iv. 835-840.)
At this the Devil stood abashed,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
With Ithuriel they leave the garden, and find Gabriel, who recognizes his fellows, and with them.
"A third, of regal port,
Even further than this, however, must he fall; the better to carry out his scheme he takes the form of the serpent, not without some loathing: "That I," he cries,
66 Who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
(Book. ix. 163–167.)
And this form which he himself assumes, though so distasteful to him, the form in which he completes his evil, this hideous form finally becomes his own in the metamor
phosis of Book x. 504-584,1 his own form which, although he is allowed to leave it by his power of change, must yet be worn certain numbered days each year.
With this change of form has gone the moral degradation. Ambition, pride, hate, malice, deceit, fear, these are the steps in his career. He returns from earth, successful and humbled in the dust, and in what follows of the poem, Milton shows how all the outcome of his malice and deceit is the redemption of man, and, in the fulness of time, a new heaven and a new earth.
The interdependence of body and soul is a favorite idea of the Platonist, and had long lain in Milton's mind. Closely connected as it is with the eternal problem of Art, the connection between form and idea, he seems to have
given it in a measure embodiment in the masque of "Comus." There we have the symbolic representatives of Goodness and Evil, we have the evil element in various natures coming to full possession in the "brutish form of wolf or bear, or ounce or tiger, hog or bearded goat," and, more especially have we the words of the elder brother, the Platonist, who explains to the younger brother the secrets of divine philosophy.
"So dear to Heaven is saintly chastity
'Too long to quote here, in which Satan and his angels are suddenly transformed into serpents.