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

A COMPARISON BETWEEN VONDEL’S LUCIFER (1654) 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.

 

CONCLUSION

 

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.

 

APPENDIX

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

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