A comparison of Vondel’s ‘Lucifer’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667 and 1674)


1 Lucifer (a drama) has a little over two thousand lines (rhymed), whereas Paradise Lost (an epic) has about 10,500 (blank verse).  (Milton first thought of telling the story through drama.)

2 The similarities between Lucifer and Paradise Lost can be attributed to their derivation from two passages in the Bible: Genesis, Chapter 3, verses 1-6, for the temptation by the serpent of Adam and Eve; and Revelation, Chapter 12, verses 7-9, for the “war in heaven” and the “casting out” of Satan. 

3 Both God the Father and God the Son appear in Paradise Lost; in Lucifer, God is represented by the loyal angels, expressing his wishes and enforcing his orders. 

4 Is it a good idea to include God in a poem as a major character?  Does it work artistically? Does Milton do him justice?  (Can he, indeed?)

Rather caustically, Alexander Pope commented on God’s speeches in Milton’s epic:

‘In Quibbles, Angel and Archangel join,

And God the Father turns a School-Divine.’


[The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, 101-102]


See also Christopher Rick’s Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost (Penguin, 1989), pages xxi-xxii.


For a positive view of Milton’s portrayal of God (Father and Son), see Alastair Fowler’s Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost (Longman, 2007), pages 36-41.


5 Is the God of either poet autocratic?  And if so, is he unappealing? Suffice it to say here that Milton’s Satan is a tyrant in the making (see Paradise Lost, Books I and II, to look no further); and Vondel’s Lucifer is similar.  So, although they make great speeches, they are great deceivers and are unfit to rule (except perhaps in hell).


6 Adam and Eve do not appear on stage in Lucifer.  They may seem passive – created and acted upon rather than active (they are not given space to tell their story in their own words).  In Paradise Lost, by contrast, Adam and Eve, are undoubtedly active characters.  God the Father, moreover, states that He has endowed them with free will; and of Adam he says:


“Ingrate, he had of me

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”


[Book III, 97-99]


7 In Lucifer, Lucifer himself has been second only to God hitherto.  He and his supporters rebel against God because they believe that the newly created Adam and Eve will usurp the angels’ place and be closer to God (and be of higher status) than they themselves.  In Paradise Lost, it is the status of God the Son that sparks the rebellion (see Book V, lines 772-802.)  Moreover, Adam and Eve are created after the war in heaven, as the climax of the six day creation (see Book VII).

In this connection, compare speeches by Lucifer in Vondel’s play and Satan in Paradise Lost:


“To be the first prince in some lower court

Is better than within the Blessed Light

To be the second, or even less.”


[Lucifer, Act 2]


‘Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.’


[Paradise Lost, Book I, 263]


8 In Lucifer, the rebels are warned against rebellion by Gabriel (Act II), Michael (Act III) and Raphael (Act IV).  In Paradise Lost, the challenge to Satan and prediction of his downfall comes from the seraph Abdiel (Book V, 803-848 and 877-89).


9 Lucifer conveys the build-up to the angels’ rebellion in the first four Acts, and all the consequences in Act V.  (The Fall of the rebel angels and that of Adam and Eve follow in quick succession.)  The movement over time is linear.  Paradise Lost starts in the middle, with Satan’s preparation for his part in the second Fall, in Books II-IV; then it covers the first Fall, in the account given by Raphael, in Books V and VI; then it returns to the Fall of mankind, and its consequences, in Books VIII-XII.   

10 There is a war in heaven, between the forces of God and those of Lucifer/Satan, in both works: in Lucifer, the account is given in Act V; in Paradise Lost, in Book V, 563-907, and Book VI, 1-866.  God the Son is the commander in Paradise Lost: in Lucifer, it is Michael.  (Both accounts make the reader think of the nature of 17th century warfare.)

11 In both works, Satan/Lucifer is transformed into a lowly beast.  In Satan’s case, he is changed into a hissing serpent (Book IX, 504-545).  Lucifer is metamorphosed into a “hideous medley of seven beasts”, representing the seven deadly sins (cf Revelation).

12 In Paradise Lost [Book III, lines 80-134] God the Father reveals that he can foresee the Fall of Adam and Eve: nothing similar occurs in Lucifer.


13 In Paradise Lost, God the father contrasst the negative fate of the rebellious angels (“the first sort”) and the ultimately positive destiny of Adam and Eve:


“The first sort by their own suggestion fell,

Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived

By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,

The other none: in mercy and justice both,

Through heaven and earth, so shall my glory excel,

But mercy first and last shall brightest shine.”


[Book III, 129-134; emphasis added]


In Lucifer, Act IV, as the rebellion comes to a head, the angel Raphael talks about justice and mercy.  Justice, he says, now has the superior claim on God’s attention, but mercy is still on offer (for a short space), if Lucifer lays down his arms.  Lucifer hesitates, but loses his chance to accept the offer, as he feels impelled by his supporters to join battle with God’s forces.


14 In both works, both Adam Eve are very beautiful; and they have something denied the angels – their happy married state.  The angel Apollion readily expresses his admiration for the couple:

“Perfect are both man and wife;
Of equal beauty they, from head to foot.”

And, he says, they surpass the angels:

“And though all the Angels now
Impress our eyes as beautiful and fair.
How ill their forms and faces would appear
If seen within the rosy morning-light 
Of maidenhood!”

[Lucifer, Act 1]

Similarly, in Paradise Lost, their beauty makes an impression upon Satan [see Books IV and IX]; but the sight of them, “Imparadised in one another’s arms”,  is “hateful” and “tormenting” to him [IV, 505f]; and later, when he finds Eve on her own [IX, 455ff], her beauty temporarily “overawed/His malice”, and he is “of enmity disarmed,/Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge”, until “the hot hell that always in him burns….soon ended his delight” and “Fierce hate he recollects”.  (And his temptation of Eve follows.)


15 In Paradise Lost, it is Satan himself who tempts Eve.  (See Book IX, 532-548, 567-612, 655-658 and 677-732, for his speeches to Eve; see the rest of Book IX for the short term consequences, and the later Books for those of the long term).  In Lucifer, it is Belial (sent by Lucifer) who tempts Eve (and Adam), in similar but far fewer words.


16 The planned redemption of mankind, through Jesus Christ, is conveyed in the last few lines of Lucifer, and throughout Books III, X, XI and XII of Paradise Lost.


17 There are symmetries in both works.  Albeit known only by report, Adam and Eve feature early in Act I of Lucifer (where they are beautiful and happy) and late in Act V (when they have fallen).  Symmetries can be found too in Paradise Lost.  In the Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost, Alastair Fowler sets out this “array” of the twelve Books:


i-ii       Effects of angelic fall                    a

iii        Council: Satan enters world           b

iv       First temptation                           c

vi       Messiah’s triumph                        D

vii       Messiah’s creation                        D

ix       Second temptation                       c

x        Council: Satan leaves world           b

xi-xii   Effects of human Fall                             a


[Page 26]     


18 Last but not least: both works are full of male characters: Eve is the only woman.  As is well known, it is Eve who takes much of the blame for the Fall – much more so in Paradise Lost than in Lucifer, as in the latter the forbidden fruit is passed from Eve to Adam immediately.




Scholars can detect theological differences between Vondel (a convert to Roman Catholicism) and Milton (a free thinking Protestant); but on the whole both poets act to “justify the ways of God to man”.  Both works are tremendous literary achievements.  Objections to them can be raised by readers who do not share the faith that informs the works, but on grounds of belief rather than artistic merit.



For an alternative analysis of the two works, see: van Dijkhuizen, J F, and Helmers, H, ‘Religion and Politics – ‘Lucifer (1654) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674)’, in: Korsten, F W A, and Bloemendal, J (eds) (2012), Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Dutch Playwright of the Golden Age, (Leiden: Brill), 377-405 (available on line).  They see Vondel as a supporter of divinely appointed authority and Milton as a republican, concerned about tyranny, whoever exercises it:

‘Both Milton and Vondel employ the Lucifer myth to investigate the nature of authority….  Both ultimately draw opposite conclusions from their material: Vondel sees in the rebellion of Lucifer a lasting justification of divine kingship….[In the hell of Paradise Lost, we see portrayed] the power and authority [that] come to be corrupted into the inequality and tyranny that Milton associated with the Stuart monarchy.’  [Page 404]


David Harries


January 2014


Joost van den Vondel and his drama, ‘Lucifer’


Joost van den Vondel stands as a major Dutch poet and dramatist.  His times were marked by the nascent Dutch Republic’s wars of liberation but also by internal strife over religious and political issues (often connected).

Vondel took the plots of his plays from biblical stories and classical models but also from events that happened in his lifetime.  (He wrote a play about Mary Queen of Scots, in which she was portrayed as heroine and martyr.)  As regards the format and style of his dramatic writing, he was much influenced by the Bible, and the classical writers, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle and Seneca.  It is Christian thought, however, that is central.  Lucifer is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Vondel is not well known outside the Low Countries: he wrote in Dutch and few of his works have been translated (apart from into German).  It appears that, at home, he is little performed or read, nowadays – perhaps because his themes are of less interest and his diction is old-fashioned; but he remains of interest to scholars.

LUCIFER (1654)

(‘Lucifer’ means, primarily, “light-bearing”, and secondarily, the morning star.)

Lucifer is a neo-classical drama, termed by Vondel a tragedy, in verse.  Only two or three principal characters are on stage at any one time. 

In accordance with the title, Lucifer himself is the tragic hero. At the commencement of the drama, he is God’s “stadhouder” or lieutenant, above all the other angels. 

Lucifer is a hero characterised by pride, envy and ambition.  He does reveal some self-doubt in Act IV. 

The conflict in the play comes down to one between Good and Evil – God and the Devil.  The rebellious angels receive justice, as seen from God’s standpoint: but, just before war breaks out, they are offered mercy, but on condition of surrender. The reader has to consider whether either Satan or God, or both, is an autocratic ruler – and to what extent this is acceptable.  (Compare John Milton’s Paradise Lost.)

The play has these features:

–      The setting is heaven; the characters are angels – some act as a chorus, commenting on the action

–      The principal angels are: Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Apollion (rebellious); Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel (loyal)

–      Although conceived of as incorporeal spirits, all the angels appear masculine, (referred to as “he”); and so, implicitly, there is no room for women on the stage

–      God does not appear in person

–      Adam and Eve do not appear in person

–      Debates about God’s plan, and the rebel angels’ response, take place on stage; but the war in heaven is waged off stage

–      The temptation of Adam and Eve takes place off stage

–      Such action as there is, then, to be found in the energy the characters put into their debates, which are of a rhetorical, declamatory nature

–      Lucifer’s first appearance is delayed to Act II (we have heard about him in Act I), and this delay is dramatically effective

–      There are symmetries: for example, the rise of Adam and Eve is described early in Act I, and their Fall is portrayed late in Act V

–      The drama climaxes in the defeat of the rebels, and the temptation of Adam and Eve, but also the promise of future redemption.


(The spelling of the Dutch quotations, here, reflects the practice of the late 19th century – contemporary, indeed with the English translation of L C van Noppen, used here.)


Apollion reports to his friends on his visit to the newly created Garden of Eden.  “The world’s delights, yea, Eden’s fields/Alone, our Paradise excel,” he says.  Adam “rules even like a god whom all must serve”: the animals look up to him – and he in turn looks up to God.  The beauty of both Adam and Eve is praised: “Perfect are both man and wife.”  They are happy in their marriage, while the angels are “poor” in their “loneliness”. Although made of “clay and bone”, their power will surpass that of the angels.

Gabriel arrives, confirms God’s decree, and expands upon it.  The seat in heaven has already been prepared for man (“de mensch”); he will rule over the whole world, including the angels; they must serve him.  He urges them to remain loyal.


Now Lucifer joins his supporters. He addresses the new situation with vigour: “our slavery now begins,” he says; but he will “to no usurper bow”; he will resist the change, even if he fails in the attempt, as failure is more honourable and glorious than submission.  His speech culminates in the telling phrase:

“En liever de eerste vorst in eenig lager hof

Dan in ‘t gezaligd licht de tweede, of nog een minder.”


“To be the first prince in some lower court
Is better than within the Blessed Light
To be the second, or even less.”

(Compare Satan’s “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” Paradise Lost, I, 263.)

Gabriel returns, with no comfort for Lucifer.  He urges him to obey God and to comply with His will (however inscrutable).  He cautions against rebellion: “Genoeg u met uw lot/En staat en waardigheid, u toegeleid van God” (“Content thee with/Thy lot, the rank and state and worthiness/Once granted thee by God”). 

When Gabriel has left, Lucifer (influenced by Beelzebub) remains defiant.  He lets his supporters work out the details of the revolt.  They decide to win over angels to the cause by appealing to their pride, encouraging contempt for the new creation, and saying that mankind should be kept in its place, on earth.  Rebellion is now afoot.


Now the angels are divided: the rebellious demand “justice”; the loyalists speak up for continued obedience to God’s will, as whatever He ordains is right.

Michael, aroused by the “tumult and dispute” of the contending angels, comes to find out what is going on.  He listens to what the rebels have to say but orders them to lay down their weapons.  He goes to report to God; and he leads the loyalists away.

As Michael leaves, Lucifer arrives and puts his case to his supporters.  He makes the audacious claim that he is “constrained by necessity and compulsion” to take up arms, in order to defend the status quo.

The rebel forces move off to war.


Gabriel and Michael discuss the outbreak of the war. God has weighed mercy against righteousness, and has decided in favour of self-defence.  So they arm themselves for battle.  Meanwhile, Lucifer and his supporters have taken the offensive and are confident of victory.  He promises to exchange the “hated tyranny of heaven” for a “state of freedom” (implicitly, under his own rule).

Raphael next appears.  In a magnificent speech, he reminds Lucifer of all the favour God has shown him and the majesty in which He has clothed him: he should be content with his lot.  Raphael goes on to warn Lucifer against the dire consequences for him of rebellion; he urges him to desist, before it is too late; he offers the olive branch of God’s mercy.  Finally, he offers to act as a mediator with God – but only on condition that Lucifer lays down his arms. 

Lucifer has a moment of self-doubt and despair; and he feels that he has gone too far to turn back.  Informed that Michael is ready for combat, however, and urged on by his supporters, his hand is forced, on the side of rebellion.   Raphael sums up, sadly: “Helaas, hij stond alreede in twijfel, en beraad;/Nu voert hem wanhoop aan” (Alas! but now/ He stood in doubt suspended: now, despair/Incites him on.”). 


First, Raphael, Uriel and Michael go over the course of the battle and God’s victory, in nearly 400 impressive lines, full of powerful imagery.  (The details make one think of 17th century warfare: compare Paradise Lost, V, 563-907, and VI, 1-866.)

For his sins, Lucifer is transformed into a “hideous medley of seven beasts”, representing the seven deadly sins (cf Revelation): “his beauteous form is now a monster execrable, by God/And Spirit and man e’er to be cursed.”

On the heels of success comes, however, disaster: Gabriel comes to report the Fall of Adam.  He reproduces Lucifer’s speech to his supporters, where he spoke of his aim to gain revenge for his defeat by attacking mankind: “corrupting”, “poisoning”, “staining” the human race, so that it “never shall /Usurp the throne from which we were thrust.”


Gabriel continues: Lucifer sent his ally Belial, in the form of a serpent, to tempt Adam and Eve; and the story elaborates the account given in Genesis, Chapter 3.  Michael orders Uriel to expel Adam and Eve from Eden and commands other angels to capture and bind the rebel angels, lock them in hell, and torment Lucifer.  The prediction is also made that “the promised Seed (ie Jesus), appeasing God’s wrath, will restore, through love, all that was lost in Adam” (my word for word translation):


“Terwijl ‘t beloofde Zaad, verzoenende Gods toren,

Herstelle uit liefde al wat in Adam werd verloren.”


Hence, mankind will be cleansed of its “hereditary guilt”; and the saved will go to heaven.  Christian doctrine is thus endorsed.  And so the drama ends.




1 We are not used, nowadays, to watching just a few characters, disputing with each other in long, stately speeches to each other.  (Compare, however, some of the works of Marlowe and early Shakespeare.)


2 The theme – the implicit acknowledgement of the compatibility of freedom with obedience (to God) may not be to everyone’s taste.  Conflict among human beings (without the intervention of a deity or angels) is the staple of the literature and drama we are familiar with.


3 Even if God (absent from the stage) is perceived as autocratic, Lucifer himself is ambitious and (arguably) a tyrant in the making; and he certainly poses a threat to the wellbeing of mankind (as is proved by events).  (Compare Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost).


4 There is no humour in the play; there are no clowns, no common people; “comic relief” is absent (contrast Shakespeare).


5 There is no subplot (strictly speaking) that might provide variety and might comment on the action: there are choruses (compare, and contrast, Shakespeare’s Henry V).


6 Implicitly rather than explicitly, there are no female characters on stage.


7 The few principal characters can be distinguished from each other: Lucifer is definitely the leader of the rebel angels, but at the same time he can be influenced by his supporters (eg by Beelzebub, in Act II); and Raphael (for example) conveys sincerity and sadness, as he tries to persuade Lucifer to pull back from the brink (in Act IV).


8 Lucifer deserves to be better known and performed more often.


9 The drama could be adapted slightly to include female actors.


10 If put on as a radio play (say), a mix of male and female voices would help the listener to distinguish the various characters from each other. 


David Harries


January 2014