By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

3. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 30-59

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesBook II
Satan assumes the throne of hell, "which far / Outshone the wealth of Ormus or of Ind." (Ormus was a kingdom located near the modern Strait of Hormuz.) He has been "by merit rais'd / To that bad eminence," a neat little jibe on Milton's part. And from that seat of authority, he calls for counsel from the other demons as to their next step, although he has no intention of doing anything but what he has planned all along.
Satan on his throne, by Gustave Doré, 1866

The first councilor to speak is Moloch, who doesn't waste any time in getting to the point: "My sentence is for open War." He does anticipate objections, however, though he scorns them: "But perhaps / The way seems difficult and steep to scale / With upright wing against a higher foe." He reminds the "sleepy" of what indignity has been heaped upon them, and urges revenge.

Belial counters Moloch's hawkishness with polite urbanity, being able to "make the worse appear / The better reason," which was the charge laid against Socrates. He says he would be all for going to war again with Heaven if it wouldn't make things worse. He argues, "Our Supreme Foe in time may much remit / His anger" if they don't cause trouble. (A similar argument will be voiced by Adam and Eve after the Fall.) And besides, this isn't the worst possible place to be, and they may get used to it in time; they may "receive / Familiar the fierce heat, and void of pain; / This horror will grow mild, this darkness light." He "Counsell'd ignoble ease, and peaceful sloth, / Not peace."

Mammon thinks it would be worse if God forgave them:
                               Suppose he should relent
And publish Grace to all, on promise made
Of new Subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict Laws impos'd, to celebrate his Throne
With warbl'd Hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forc't Halleluiahs
He prefers to "seek / Our own good from ourselves, and from our won live to ourselves, though in this vast recess, / Free, and to none accountable, preferring / Hard liberty before the easy yoke / Of servile Pomp."
And this place isn't so bad, "This Desert soil / Wants not her hidden lustre, Gems and Gold; / Nor want we skill and art, from whence to raise / Magnificence; and what can Heav'n show more?" Characteristically, Mammon thinks in purely material terms. And like Belial, he argues that they'll get used to it: "Our torments also may in length of time / Become our Elements, these piercing Fires / As soft as now severe, our temper chang'd / Into their temper; which must needs remove / The sensible of pain."

Finally, Beëlzebub, who seems to have taken on the role of Satan's second-in-command, rises to suggest another possibility:
                                              What if we find
Some easier enterprise? There is a place
(If ancient and prophetic fame in Heav'n
Err not) another World, the happy seat
Of some new Race called Man, about this time
To be created like to us, though less
In power and excellence
Satan, of course, has already taken notice of this new-created universe, and is using Beëlzebub as his mouthpiece, to make at least a show of listening to a variety of options. So Beëlzebub proposes that they mess up this new creation of God's:
                                      This would surpass
Common revenge, and interrupt his joy
In our Confusion, and our Joy upraise
In his disturbance; when his darling Songs
Hurl'd headlong to partake with us, shall curse
Thir frail Original, and faded bliss,
Faded so soon. 
Beëlzebub here imaginatively anticipates the human longing for the lost Paradise.

The idea gets general acceptance from the council, so Satan puts the question of who they're going to send to check out this new creation, shrewdly making it sound like a really nasty job. After all, whoever they choose has to get past "gates of burning Adamant" and if he makes it that far, "the void profound / Of unessential Night receives him next / Wide gaping, and with utter loss of being / Threatens him." (I've always thought that "Unessential Night" would be a great book title.)

Well, naturally he volunteers himself for the job, being a shrewd politician:
                                        Thus saying rose 
The Monarch, and prevented all reply, 
Prudent, lest from his resolution rais'd 
Others among the chief might offer now 
(Certain to be refus'd) what erst they fear'd; 
And so refus'd might in opinion stand 
His Rivals, winning cheeap the high repute 
Which he through hazard huge must earn.
 He's so good at this that he gets the kind of reverence they refused to give to God: "Towards him they bend / With awful reverence prone."

At this point Milton even praises the devils for being so agreeable amongst themselves:
O shame to men! Devil with Devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
Of Creatures rational, though under hope
Of heavenly Grace; and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strive
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the Earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes anow besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait. 
It's a reminder that Milton's 17th century was a bloody one, torn by religious wars.

So the devils celebrate Satan's departure on his perilous mission with epic games, like those in the Iliad and Aeneid. There are sports contests, music contests, and debates in which some of them "reason'd high / Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate, / Fixt Fate, Free will, Foreknowledge absolute, / And found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost." Others take this opportunity to explore hell, which is in part frozen over. They're not exactly cheered by what they encounter: "A Universe of death, which God by curse / Created evil, for evil only good, / Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds, / Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, / Abominable, inutterable, and worse / Than Fables yet have feign'd."
Creatures of hell, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Satan, meanwhile, reaches the Gates of Hell, and finds there two figures.
The one seem'd Woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm'd
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark'd
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturb'd thir noise, into her womb,
And kennel there, yet there still bark'd and howl'd
Within unseen.
                                                    The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.
These turn out to be Sin and Death, and very close relations of Satan. Sin was born of a literally splitting headache Satan once had, and Death is their offspring, as Satan learns when he makes a move against Death and causes Sin to intervene: "O Father, what intends thy hand, she cri'd, / Against thy only Son?" In other words, this is a parody of the Holy Trinity.
Michael Burgesse, engraving after John Baptist de Medina, 1688
Charles Grignon after Francis Hayman, 1749 
William Blake, 1808
Satan, Sin and Death at the Gates of Hell, by Gustave Doré, 1866
William Strang, 1896

Satan explains his mission to them, and proposes that he'll come back and take them to this new creation "where Thou and Death / Shall dwell at ease, and up and down unseen / Wing silently the buxom Air, imbalm'd / With odors; there ye shall be fed and fill'd / Immeasurably, all things shall be your prey." In response to this proposal, "Death / Grinn'd horrible a ghastly smile." And Sin welcomes the prospect that she "shall Reign / At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems / Thy daughter and thy darling, without end." (In case you missed the parody of the Holy Trinity the first time.)

So Sin takes "the fatal Key" and unlocks the Gates of Hell, revealing what lies between Satan and the new world:
                                                         a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost, where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal Anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand:
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistry, and to Battle bring
Thir embryon Atoms
Gustave Doré, 1866

It seems to intimidate even Satan. But he launches himself into it, buffeted about by the warring proto-elements, "And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies" until he reaches the throne of Chaos and his consort Night. Chaos points out the way and gives his blessing: "Havoc and spoil and ruin are my gain." Meanwhile, Sin and Death are following, and build "a Bridge of wond'rous length" that connects hell with the new universe, "by which the Spirits perverse / With easy intercourse pass to and fro / To tempt or punish mortals. And finally Satan spots
           fast by hanging in a golden Chain 
This pendant world, in bigness as a Star 
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon. 
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge, 
Accurst, and in a cursed hour he hies.

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