In Anne Paolucci’s “Dante’s Satan and Milton’s “Byronic Hero”” (1964), she argues that Dante and Milton’s characterization of Satan are more alike than the superficial physical descriptions would imply and that to truly understand both characters, the reader must look at them as both the conclusion of all that has been represented before and as a change from what has come before. Paolucci begins her argument by contrasting the two characterizations; that Dante portrays Satan as something “sub-human” (141) and grotesque while Milton’s is portrayed as still retaining his angelic form; Dante’s Satan rarely speaks, and is portrayed as having no redeeming features, while Milton shows Satan’s eloquence and his similarities to a tragic “Greek hero” (144). Paolucci’s illustrates that while both characterizations seem superficially different, the characters in fact both suffer from immense rage at the fact that they “cannot undo the consequences of rebellion against God” (145) and that both are condemned to be rulers in Hell when they know what a pale comparison it is to Heaven’s majesty and she does this in order to make clear that both characterizations require the reader to bring to the table all their knowledge of the character of Satan and that it is impossible to view either in a vacuum. Paolucci establishes immediately that her audience is meant to be one that is familiar with both Dante and Milton’s portrayal and the criticisms of both in her reference to T.S Eliot’s observations on both.
Dante’s characterization of Satan in Inferno is often dismissed as a source for Milton’s portrayal in Paradise Lost because of the apparent differences in the characters and I was no different in dismissing the influence of Dante on Milton. However, Paolucci’s argument presents a new perspective in that she postulates that the characters are similar in the context in which they must be read. She presents both characterizations as both the summation of all that had come before, and also radically different from all that had come before. Given that my argument when analyzing Milton’s Satan is that he created a new fusion of the literary, political and religious, it seems arrogant to dismiss Dante’s Satan when his characterization also created something new.
Paolucci opens her article by referring to how T.S Eliot observed that Dante’s Satan would be seen as disappointing in contrast to Milton’s but should also be seen as something “utterly different” (139). She counters Eliot’s analysis by stating that his disappointment was “an utterly false impression” and results from viewing the portrayal as superficial. She also states that Eliot “instinctively understood Dante’s intention” (139) although she counters Eliot in stating that he was “unable perhaps to appreciate the full beauty” (139) of Dante’s representation. Paolucci then uses this interpretation as an opening into her own assertion, that both characterizations cannot be viewed or interpreted superficially or in a vacuum, that people often try to read both texts on their own without considering what came before. She argues that it is the “newness” of how the characters are used that creates a similarity. Paolucci uses forwarding by citing specific textual evidence from Dante to show that while the beginning impressions of the two characters may be different, their uses by the authors are the same.