By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 1-29

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes"On Paradise Lost," by Andrew Marvell; Book I
One phrase from Marvell's graceful tribute to Milton's epic stands out for me: "gravity and ease." Could there be a lovelier description of Milton's prosody? Of course, Milton then has to apologize,  in a note on "The Verse,"  for not writing his epic in the then-fashionable rhyming couplets, "the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter."

You have to say this for Milton, he doesn't mess around. In the first four words of the poem he lets you know what he's up to: "Of Man's First Disobedience." Of course, if you disagree with the premise that humanity's ills are all the product of rebelling against the divine will, then you might have a problem reading further. The "Heav'nly Muse" he invokes here is later revealed to be Urania, the muse of astronomy, whom he asks to help him achieve "Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme." But he also asks the help of the Holy Spirit: "What in me is dark / Illumine" anticipates the light-dark contrast of heaven and hell later in the book, and asks for aid that "I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."

The exordium, the general statement of theme, over, he gets right to introducing the villain first, "Th' infernal Serpent." We'll see a more attractive image of Satan later, but the first mention of him is anything but heroic. And with exquisite placement of words and phrases, we get a glimpse of what has already happened to Satan:
                                 Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition
Just the placement of the word "down" at the end of the line, instead of, say, "Hurl'd headlong down," which might be syntactically more proper, shows the "gravity and ease" that impressed Marvell. How far down? "Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night / To mortal men." Milton recognizes the space-time continuum here. Of course, "To bottomless perdition" is a bit of a problem for the literal-minded: Something that's "bottomless" can't be a destination, a place you're hurled to.  But metaphysics transcends logic here, as it does when we find out what sort of place this is: "A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible."
Satan hurled headlong from Heaven, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Douglas Bush, who taught me Milton, comments of the difference of Milton's inferno from Dante's. The Inferno of the Divina Commedia is described in detailed particulars; Milton's is vast and vague, characterized best by an oxymoron: "darkness visible." But Milton had Dante in mind nevertheless: Milton's hell is "where ... hope never comes," an evocation of Dante's "Lasciate ogni speranze voi ch'entrate," abandon all hope. And as in Dante, this is a "place Eternal Justice had prepar'd / For those rebellious."

So Satan, "rolling in the fiery Gulf / Confounded though immortal," looks around to find, "welt'ring by his side," Beëlzebub, and speaks to him, breaking "the horrid silence" with the first great speech of the poem, one that in its broken phrases suggests the disordered state of Satan's mind:
If thou beest hee; But O how fall'n! how chang'd
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth'd with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads though bright
Once again, I think Milton is recalling Dante's encounter with Francesca da Rimini, who complained, 
Nessun maggior dolore,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria.
Roughly, that there's no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in the midst of misery. But Satan doesn't stay brooding on the past for long: Claiming (incorrectly) that he shook God's throne, he starts plotting "revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield." If we've learned anything from Shakespearean tragedy, revenge is never a very good idea. But we're more likely to be seduced by the line about courage, which Tennyson will echo at the end of the poem "Ulysses": "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." (Tennyson, who knew Dante as well as Milton, was aware that Ulysses wound up in Dante's Inferno, which is where the story of his final voyage is told.)

Milton knew what he was doing here by making Satan a figure of boldness and courage. It's not that he was of the devil's party without knowing it but rather that he wants his Satan to seduce the reader into complacent acceptance of his heroism before unmasking him for the arch-fiend that he is. He even has Satan denounce "the Tyranny of Heaven," which is a phrase that Shelley, among others, responded to.

Beëlzebub gets a speech in response, expressing some doubts, especially regarding the power of God, "whom I now / Of force believe Almighty, since no less / Than such could have o'erpow'rd such force as as ours." He thinks they're just being used by God to further His plans. Satan's reply is So what?
                               If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil
It's a speech that could have been uttered by Iago or Edmund.

And so Satan sets out to rouse his troops. We are reminded that all of this talk has taken place while Satan is lying "Prone on the Flood, extended long and large," very like a whale. But although "stretch'd out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain'd on the burning Lake," God doesn't expect him to stay that way for long:
                                                            the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd. 
So let's work this out: God has punished Satan by hurling him into this fiery dungeon, but allows him to escape and tempt humankind because seeing humans shown mercy will only add to Satan's torment? I'm not sure that really justifies the ways of God to man from my point of view. We're pawns in a kind of celestial chess game.
Satan rouses Beëlzebub, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Anyway, Satan and Beëlzebub survey the dismal landscape, and for a moment are upset that this is what they "must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom / For that celestial light?" Well, so be it, Satan decides, and launches into a speech of Byronic defiance:
                                             Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n. 
It's a pretty impressive argument, though it could be pointed out that he isn't hell's "Possessor," he's its prisoner. Notice, too, that Satan's aim is power, not freedom. He's glad the place is such a mess, that God hasn't created it as a place He could envy and decide to take over for His own, so Satan can "reign secure" there. But as we're always reminded, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
 So they set out to rouse their companions, scattered like autumn leaves across the infernal landscape. Satan proclaims, "Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n." Again he kind of misses the point: They are "for ever fall'n," no matter what they do. And so the fallen angels swarm like locusts in response to "thir great Sultan." Douglas Bush commented that "Sultan" would have the same sinister quality for Milton's audience that "Führer" might have for a later one. These demons are identified as those who will later be "false gods," or else, like Belial and Mammon, as personifications of sin. Belial in particular is described as one who reigns "In Courts and Palaces ... And in luxurious Cities," i.e., in Restoration London, especially "when Night / Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine."
John Baptist Medina? illustration to Paradise Lost, 1688
Satan rouses the fallen angels, by Gustave Doré, 1866

The demons are happy "to have found thir chief / Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost / In loss itself." And so they rally around, brandishing banners and spears. There's no doubt who's in charge:
Thir dread commander: he above the  rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a Tow'r; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear'd
Less than Arch-Angel ruin'd, and th' excess
Of Glory obscur'd: As when the Sun new ris'n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. 
Simon François Ravenet after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book I of Paradise Lost (1749)

Milton apparently made Charles II nervous with this reference to monarchs fearing change. But the main point is that Satan appears here as a worthy antagonist to God, even if his luster is somewhat dimmed. He outlines the plan for the troops, which is not to make a frontal assault on Heaven:
                               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. 
A shrewd observation that last line and a half, as many a powerful nation has found. Anyway, he has heard rumors that God has a project in mind: to create a new world "and therein plant / A generation, whom his choice regard / Should favor equal to the Sons of Heaven." And what better way to get even with God than to foil that plan?
Satan Rousing the Rebel Angels, by William Blake, 1808

And so, led by Mammon, "the least erected Spirit that fell / From Heav'n," they set out to mine Hell for the gold and other materials to create the palace of Hell, Pandaemonium.
Pandaemonium, by John Martin, c. 1825
The architect of Pandaemonium is Mulciber, aka Hephaestus or Vulcan:
Nor was his name unheard or unador'd
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men call'd him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o'er the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summer's day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th' Aegean Isle: thus they relate,
Erring: for he with this rebellious rout
Fell long before
It's nice the way Milton can get his gorgeous cake and eat it too, by describing Mulciber's fall so magnificently while insisting that it didn't happen that way at all.

So now the demons enter their magnificent new home, but they shrink in size: "they but now who seem'd / In bigness to surpass Earth's Giant Sons / Now less than smallest Dwarfs, in narrow room / Throng numberless." On the other hand, their leaders retain their size: "far within / And in thir own dimensions like themselves / The great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim / In close recess and secret conclave sat."

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