so the Romantic (read: Blake’s) interpretation of Milton goes like this: Milton’s Paradise Lost is a glorious failure because, rather than “justify the ways of God to Man”, Milton’s God is a jealous cruel tyrant and the tragic hero of his poem is the devil himself.
I won’t say it’s wrong (the idea of a “right” interpretation of art is absurd). but I think it’s more complicated than that. I think Milton’s intention is to restage the Fall, to restage that drama as if it were happening again, so that you understand why—so that you intimately connect yourself to that cataclysmic event. Milton’s intended readers aren’t innocent, they’re fallen, as a result of the event this poem is about. I don’t think it’s an accident that you, like Eve, hear Satan’s words and feel swayed, seduced, dizzied; that God seems forbidding and strange, Christ humble and unassuming and plain-spoken, while the Devil seems dazzling and sympathetic. I think that’s the whole point.
Satan knows himself to be a player in a grand cosmic drama, and he claims the part of glorious rebel and revolutionary. in the beginning, Satan-still-Lucifer is full of life and conviction and defiance, and that lasts a while—until you realise that Satan’s poetry sounds like honey to the ear but it’s half-poison and half-void. by book II, the demonic debate in Pandemonium, Satan sounds like a politician. his ideas seem bold and subversive—but as they unfold they become disordered and self-contradictory, twisting back on themselves (all should be free, yet Satan himself should govern; creatures like they were made for liberty, but they were not made, they were self-begot; God is evil because he has no cause but wrath, but Satan’s cause is unending hate).
the story of the War in Heaven is told in mock-epic style: Satan’s war isn’t glorious, it’s vain and senseless and self-destructive (and it’s immediately followed by the story of God creating the world, which is beautiful and hopeful and magisterial). all Satan’s grandeur is prideful grasping. absurd. in the famous speech of book IV (which way should I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair?), the ‘heroic’ mask cracks and you see the dark hungry petty hate-festered furtive wretch underneath. when he gazes fascinated at Adam and Eve in the Garden, you can hear Iago and his motiveless malignity, such unalloyed hatred that would swallow the world if it could, out of sheer spite. at this point I have no idea how anyone continues to think Satan is the hero—or the victim—of this piece.
you’re tripped up by Satan over and over and over—sympathy, then disquiet. Satan will say anything to persuade, he’ll lie and cozen and flatter, he’ll flicker through a dozen contradictory lines until he finds one you like, because he’s a hollow thing. what’s happening isn’t really a seduction—Milton’s devil is just a mirror, a projection of desire, reflecting back to you your capacity for wickedness. in many ways, Satan is incidental to the Fall—he only tells Eve what she desires to hear (if you listen to Satan’s arguments that Eve should eat, they’re specious and hollow; maze-like, insubstantial). she wishes it to be an act of rebellion, or wisdom, or love; he’ll twist his forked tongue to those words.
Satan’s ending is not a surprise. Milton builds to that moment over nine books. you can trace the descent from gold-tongued apostate angel still bright with vestigial glory, to low and wretched serpent hissing with prideful envy and malevolence and bitterness. it’s a story of language becoming hollow and contorted, poisoned by its own hate. by book IX Satan is already the serpent in essence, if not in shape (a touch I love is the way Milton foreshadows that, in sibilant sounds threaded through Satan’s speeches). that moment when God changes Satan into the serpent—the metamorphosis is already occurring before you know it, you’re taken aback by it, by Satan being already twisted and base and bestial—that, in microcosm, is what Milton’s being doing all along. this is the devil, did you forget?
long story short, I think Milton is much cleverer than the Romantics allow him to be—too clever to write some perverse, accidental apology for the devil. when you read Paradise Lost the Fall happens again, and again: Milton’s devil illuminates nothing more or less than the capacity for darkness and frailty and viciousness in you—because evil has many faces and voices, but when you strip away the gleam and honey and hollow lustre, underneath it’s all the same empty hateful hiss