Commentary on the Speech of Satan, Paradise Lost: first book
Commentary on the Speech of Satan, Paradise Lost: first book
By Hisham M Nazer
Department of English
University of Rajshahi
In the first book of Paradise Lost Milton chiefly deals with the fall of Satan along with the rebel angels, and how Satan manages to portray their dire condition by his rhetorical speeches given at different times, fulfilling the purpose he designs against the Supreme God. Despair, passion, hope, pride, manipulation and plotting against the God are the main themes found in his speeches in the first book. His words speak for him, and gradually, though tactically, he declares himself the ruler of the Hell:
“Here we may reign secure, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” (Third speech)
Throughout the entire first book, Satan is very much cautious in his addressing God. In none of his speeches has he addressed Him as God, rather has used titles that are usually used for worldly authorities, like: victor, king (sovran), conqueror, mightiest, tyrant or monarch. This he does for a purpose, which is nothing else than to denounce the merit of God, because the very name ‘God’ is an ample warrant of ample power, traditionally, which Satan denies repeatedly in his speeches, as he thinks God is someone “Whom reason hath equaled”, but merely “force hath made supreme / Above his equals” (Third speech). So he thinks and believes that their merit, by reason, is equal to God, which is why he feels comfortable in calling him with any name but ‘God’, and moreover he calls Him victor, king, conqueror, tyrant or monarch because these worldly titles gain power by force or heredity (the title ‘mightiest’ proves this further), and not by reason. This he does to make all the rebel angels believe that their opponent is someone below their standard, which in turn instills hyperbolic hopes and irrational courage in them, to fight against God again, fulfilling the selfish pursuit of Satan. In the mind of his followers the inception of what Satan believes to be true is done in such an artistic, elaborately subtle and in such a roundabout way that this manipulating device is often overlooked by a mind superficially and grossly sitting upon the epic.
The speeches of Satan can simply be separated in accordance with their directions, that who they are delivered for. Satan first speaks to his chief follower Beelzebub – a prime strength of the rebel angels—only next in valor to Satan himself. Satan intentionally manipulates him first because when the large portion of something is changed, the entire thing is bound to, and Beelzebub here represents the fallen angels, in mind and strength occupying the essential half of the rebel angels’ satanic pursuits together; where Satan stands separated, like a leader, or to say it in the tone of Satan himself – like a god of hell, who is the creator of their destruction. In the very beginning of his speech, Satan shows sympathy towards Beelzebub and makes him remember what his former status was, with a view to enthusing him, to instigating him, so that he may always stand firm on the side of Satan:
“If thou beest he, but Oh how fallen! how chang’d
From him! who in the happy realms of light,
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads though bright. . .” (First speech)
In his first speech towards Beelzebub, Satan gives an account of how they unitedly shook the throne of ‘the potent Victor’;—how the rebel angels “durst dislik[ing] [God’s] reign, and, [Satan] preferring” had fallen with him in the miserable condition. This he mentions to show his gratitude towards the rebel angels, but with a tone so haughty and sympathetic, as if nothing serious has happened to him compared to the fallen state of the rest ‘innumerable force of spirits’, assuming the gestures of a fatherly leader, who soothes, but at the same time do not deviate from his resolved aim, no matter even if that makes all fall into greater trouble. For Satan is so resolved, so fixed in his mind, and this he proves by this his following speech:
“Though changed in outward lustre that fixed mind,
And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
. . . .
What though 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?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power” (First speech)
In the above excerption, the pride of Satan too is vividly visible. He is die-hard resolved not to surrender before God, but to carry on his fiendish pursuit of ever going against everything that God may decree or ordain. It is his sole intention to destroy what God creates; to undo what God may in grace bestow. The utterance: “That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace / With suppliant knee, and deify his power” is somewhat ironical, dramatically, in that, God’s existence and power does not depend upon the deification of Him by anything that He Himself has created. In the pursuit of overcoming the shame of their fall, and the defeat they have recently experienced, Satan, blinded by pride, tries to make the situation appear somewhat in a more optimistic light; in a way much positive and hopeful, contrary to the reality.
The readers, who believe in orthodox Christianity, may find Satan’s boasting words rather idiotic, because it is his destitute state that provokes the desperation in him of ‘appearing’ more powerful than God, when, it appears to be from his later speeches, he himself knows actually he in not.
“What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?” (Third speech)
Again in the first speech he says:
“In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in the excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.”
The antithetical sugar-crust in manipulating the rebel angels is obvious in the above citation. Much in like manner of a cunning politician, he plays with phrases, for example ‘successful hope’. Hope itself is a mental device, adopted when someone becomes the prey of adversity; it itself is a ‘necessity’ of a despairing heart that is unsuccessful. Satan tries to install enthusiasm and colour in a canvas that is already dull and dark, and is completely incapable of regaining its former usefulness. The only hope he has is inciting the fallen angels with the help of exaggerations or over-statements.
In his second speech, Satan speaks his intention in front of Beelzebub, that their sole duty will be diverting the aim of God. The existential despair makes him wretched, and in his wretchedness, he plots against God and everything that is good. Paradoxically, in the pursuit of overcoming the consequences of fall, he plans for trials more sinful, that makes him fall into the cause of his despair and wretchedness more deeply and ever more permanently. There is irony too in his speech in the sense that he thinks he has the power of diverting good into evil, but does not realize that the power solely lies in the hand of God. He foolishly denies the possibility of their evil works being diverted into good, and so resolves to ever be damned, and chooses to be wretched. He is manipulating and exploiting the fallen miserable condition of the rebel angels, to stand with him so that they may regain Paradise again, but ironically he, rather in his manipulation, is actually welcoming his own and all others’ eternal doom of damnation. In the second speech he says:
“To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
. . . . If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to prevent that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;”
And then later in the fifth speech says he:
“For who can yet believe, though after loss,
That all these puissant legions, whose exile
Hath emptied Heaven, shall fail to re-ascent,
Self-raised, and re-possess their native seat?”
Satan is very much crafty in uplifting enthusiasm in his followers, for he knows it so well that despair and doom overwhelms the spirit, and that in trying to overcome it, they may become more violent than they usually are. This serves the purpose of Satan so well, and so he describes the land in crafty language so that it appears gloomy and disastrous. It is evident that disaster either makes spirit dull or enthusiastic, and Satan by his power of language chooses to portray the landscape in a more negative light while aiming at the revival of enthusiasm in his followers. Thus he speaks:
“Seest thou you dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
The seat of desolation, void of light,
Save what the glimmering of these vivid flames
Casts pale and dreadful?” (Second speech)
He indeed is the harbinger of light among his desolate followers, but of such a light that makes them all the more violent, destroying everything that they may consider dark.
Interrogation out of despair is recurrent in Satan’s speech, and is so meticulously portrayed in his third speech where he says quite in a pathetic tone:
“Is this the region, this the Soil, the Clime,
. . . this the seat
That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?”
But immediately he adds like a trained politician:
“Be it so, since He
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best,”
In the same speech, Satan becomes so eloquent in his desperation, and justifies his state. He wants his followers to believe that they still are powerful, and have rather gained by this their loss. In this speech Satan becomes most rhetorical, and truly hits upon some universal truth true for every entity.
“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.
. . . .
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell
Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”
Probably this is the ultimate sugar-crust over the bitter condition of the rebel angels;—a way of portrayal where the lost are portrayed in such a style that they rather appear to be the ones who have regained their land. This speech is more deeply rhetorical and therefore is more dangerous because it tries to make the fallen angels believe that they are in a state which bears no independent meaning other than the meanings their minds may feed.
Satan too is versed like a cunning politician in reviving the enthusiasm of his followers either even by insinuating them or by instilling dread in them, while hiding all the time his sole purpose, that is, fulfilling the vows of his disturbing the aims of God. By insulting them and under-statements, he tries to instigate the pride that glimmers within the rebel angels, ready to be turned into an inflagration and to uplift the sleeping spirit of them. He says insinuatingly:
Warriors, the flow’r of Heaven, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can seize
Eternal spirits! or have ye chos’n this place
After the toil of Battle to repose
Your wearied virtue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the vales of Heaven?” (Fourth speech)
In the same speech again he says showing them the reason to be afraid:
“His swift pursuers from Heaven-gates discern
The advantage: and, descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this gulf?
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n!”
The fifth speech is replete with Satan’s mission and political propaganda. His mouth does not exhaust in hailing the fallen spirits, as they are the only hope he is left with in this region of Hell, and must, like a good leader, make good use of them. In a sense it can be said that his speech works like a recycle-bin for him, from where he restores the hope of fallen angels, and where is his only dominion. Through his ever increasing language capacity, he goes on enthusing the fallen angels in grand manner, and exaggerates and glorifies their existence though they are ‘fallen’. There is desperation in him, an urge to fix what he himself has destroyed by his egotistic motive. In one thing he never fails, and that is in praising the other spirits for the sake of himself, as he says:
“O myriads of immortal Spirits! O Powers
Matchless, but with the Almighty!—and that strife
Was not inglorious, though th’ event was dire.”
This can mean nothing but that Satan’s mind is fixed to one end, which is – uplifting something that is fallen, paradoxically and contrarily which only determines their fall all the more. Moreover, confronted by some imaginary questions, he is not inexpert in pronouncing an excuse for their fall, and this he does with a view to exacting doubts that may in course of time brood in the mind of the rebel angels. He simply does not want to leave any gap where his mission may fall again, because he knows if he falls again from the confidence of the fallen angels, there is no coming out of it. So he says:
“But what power of mind,
Foreseeing or presaging, from the depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have feared
How such united force of gods, how such
As stood like this, could ever know repulse?”
It is in his ignorance Satan thinks that God’s position is “upheld by old repute, / Consent or custom”. The only pursuit that Satan has fretted himself with lately is the pursuit of denouncing the glory of God, and he thinks that by this his own glory will be uplifted. So an irony, a paradox is recurrent in this fifth speech, where Satan is proved to be increasingly cunning, therefore more ignorant of what reality is. In his cunningness, he goes even to the extent of concocting that he and the rebel angels did not know that God holds the power of thunder and that He (God) cunningly hid that all the time from them. This is merely a pursuit of defining someone after the manner of their own ego, after the truth that is strictly and individually their. Satan says:
“. . . and his regal state
Put forth at full, but still his strength concealed—
Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.”
Very tactically here Satan throws behind the original reason of their fall, presenting in front God’s ‘concealed strength’, in the stead, as the sole reason of this condemned state.
And then like a king himself he calls upon a war; like a monarch he assumes the occupation of fighting; like a tyrant imposes the burden of war upon the shoulder of all the fallen angels. So he assumes all the gestures that he previously had denounced found by himself in God. Here he sounds like a full-fledged politician, who can wage war to fulfill a selfish cause:
“Henceforth his might we know, and know our own,
So as not either to provoke, or dread
New war provoked: our better part remains
To work in close design, by fraud or guile,
What force effected not: that he no less
At length from us may find, who overcomes
By force hath overcome but half his foe.
. . . . Peace is despaired;
For who can think submission? War, then war
Open or understood, must be resolved.”
Thus in five speeches Satan finishes his primary manipulation in the first book of Paradise Lost. In doing so, he has used rhetorical devices in his speeches, so that they may appear logical to his followers, because they have a good deal of deception in their very nature. So much in manner kingly, or like a politician he tries to manipulate the rebel angels that their state is not so despairing as not to wage another war against God, and indeed he succeeds in this pursuit by the aid of his eloquence and tricky speeches. It can be said that it is his speech that makes him become more Satanic, because whenever he talks he talks evil, as if vomiting out all the disease he has inside him, consequently inflicting the multitude that stands in front.