In light of this, it’s little surprise Milton’s Lucifer can be read as a kind of modern, American antihero, invented before such a concept really existed. Many of the values the archangel advocates in Paradise Lost—the self-reliance, the rugged individualism, and even manifest destiny—are regarded as quintessentially American in the cultural imagination. Milton may be a poet of individual liberty and conscience, but he was also one of the most brilliant theological explorers of the darker subjects of sin, depravity, and the inclination toward evil. Nothing demonstrates that inclination more than the long-standing appeal the charismatic Lucifer has had for audiences, an appeal mirrored by the flawed but alluring protagonists of some of TV’s greatest American dramas. What Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first version of which was published in 1667, also demonstrates is what can be so dangerous about mistaking an antihero for a hero.
But first, a reminder on the poem’s narrative: Across some ten thousand lines, Milton writes “[t]hings unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” by retelling the Genesis story of “Man’s disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise.” The poet recounts the aftermath of the war in Heaven, Lucifer’s fall to Hell, and his ultimate tempting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And though the epic’s length may have inspired Samuel Johnson to quip “None ever wished it longer,” part of the maximalist brilliance of the poem is the universe it contains, which reflects Milton’s immense erudition, ranging from the astronomy of Galileo to the subject of Lapland witches.
Paradise Lost expands on the Bible’s minimalist account, while altering received cultural representations of the devil. Milton’s Lucifer is neither bestial, a reptilian Other, nor the goofy incompetent of a medieval morality play; rather, he’s a conflicted, brooding, alienated, narcissistic self-mythologizer. In other words, he’s a thoroughly modern man, and in a country as preoccupied with modernity as the United States is, he’s arguably an honorary “American” as a result. Milton’s fellow countryman, the novelist D.H. Lawrence, remarked in his under-read 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature that, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” The novelist had in mind not just the pioneer clearing lands that do not belong to him, but also the honey-worded con man who can justify his crimes in the sweetest language.
Lawrence’s pessimistic appraisal of the American character doubles as an apt description of Paradise Lost’s central antagonist. Much as Lucifer invades Eden like the frontiersman who moved ever further west, he is also capable of justifying his actions with the most exalted of language. Milton writes, “But all was false and hollow; though his tongue / Dropp’d manna, and could make the worse appear / The better reason.” Lucifer is a confidence man, rebel, and supposed advocate of liberty. He’s also a self-made individualist setting out into the wilderness to make his own world anew.