By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 6, 2011

7. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 138-163

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesBook VI
Raphael continues to tell Adam and Eve about Satan's rebellion and the war in Heaven. Abdiel, having defied the rebel angels, returns to tell God what has happened and is applauded for his obedience. He now joins in the effort
                                                                 to subdue
By force, who reason for thir Law refuse,
Right reason for thir Law, and for thir King
Messiah, who by right of merit reigns.
"Right reason," like "Christian humanism," is one of those phrases that have an oxymoronic ring to modern ears, but it goes back to Plato and the Stoics and is the basis of the concept of natural law. "Right" is the operative word: Reason alone is not a moral concept.  Of course, for Adam and Eve, who are supposedly not yet aware of the distinction between good and evil, Raphael is getting a little bit ahead of himself in the lesson.

Milton was a pacifist, and the very concept of war was anathema to him, so he depicts it as anarchy and chaos brought on by the false heroics of Satan, who arrives with his hordes in a vainglorious display:
                                     exalted as a God
Th' Apostate in his Sun-bright Chariot sat
Idol of Majesty divine, enclos'd
With Flaming Cherubim, and golden Shields
The war begins with a verbal contest, just as it does in Homer and Virgil. Abdiel comes forth to denounce Satan as a fool for thinking that God wouldn't meet his challenge. Satan in response taunts the faithful angels for giving up their "Liberty" in serving God, accusing them of servility and sloth, and as "Minist'ring Spirits, train'd up in Feast and Song," not proud warriors. Abdiel counters that Satan "deprav's it with the name / Of Servitude to serve whom God ordains, / Or Nature: God and Nature bid the same, / When he who rules is worthiest, and excels / Them whom he governs." And having said this, "a noble stroke he lifted high ... On the proud Crest of Satan." It rocks Satan back "ten paces huge," amazing Satan's troops. The battle begins.
Abdiel smites Satan, by Gustave Doré, 1866
The battle begins, by Gustave Doré, 1866
The wounded Satan, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Satan and Michael have words in the midst of battle, with Michael promising to send Satan "to the place of evil, Hell," and Satan retorting that "we mean to wind, / Or turn this Heav'n itself into the Hell / Thou fabl'st." And Michael deals Satan a blow that "deep ent'ring shear'd / All his right side; then Satan first knew pain ... but th' Ethereal substance clos'd / Not long divvisible, and from the gash / A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow'd / Sanguine, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed." He is borne away by his troops
Back to his Chariot, where it stood retir'd
From off the files of war: there they him laid
Gnashing for anguish and despite and shame
To find himself not matchless, and his pride
Humbl'd by such rebuke, so far beneath
His confidence to equal God in power.
Yet soon he heal'd; for Spirits that live throughout
Vital in every part, not as frail man
In Entrails, Heart or Head, Liver or Reins,
Cannot but by annihilating die
It's nice that Raphael explains all this, except that it once again raises the issue of his audience: How could Adam and Eve understand the concepts of things they haven't experienced, like pain and death? In fact, as Milton reminds us, these concepts were new to the angels as well, especially the rebels, "to such evil brought / By sin of disobedience, till that hour / Not liable to fear or flight or pain."
Night comes on after the first day of battle, by Gustave Doré, 1866
Michael and the other angels keep watch, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Night comes on and the armies return to their camps, where Satan suggests that "perhaps more valid Arms, / Weapons more violent, when next we meet, / May serve to better us, and worse our foes." And so he urges them to create the first weapons of mass destruction from materials found
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till toucht
With Heav'n's ray, and temper'd they shoot forth
So beauteous, op'ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativity the Deep
Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hollow Engines long and round
Thick ramm'd, at th' other bore with touch of fire
Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thund'ring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and o'erwhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarm'd
The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt. 
He even foresees the possibility that in the future, if they triumph, "Some one intent on mischief, or inspir'd / With dev'lish machination might devise / Like instrument to plague the Sons of men / For sin, on war ad mutual slaughter bent."

So the next day they wheel out their cannons and blast the unsuspecting angels: "down they fell / By thousands, Angel on Arch-Angel roll'd." Satan mocks them by commenting that it looked like "they would dance, yet for a dance they seem'd / Somewaht extravagant and wild." But as the rebel angels "Stood scoffing, highth'n'd in thir thoughts beyond / All doubt and victory," God's troops
           pluckt the seated Hills with all thir load,
Rocks, Waters, Woods, and by the shaggy tops
Uplifting bore them in thir hands: Amaze,
Be sure, and terror seiz'd the rebel Host,
When coming towards them so dread they saw
The bottom of the Mountains upward turn'd
So the rebels start flinging mountains back, "and now all Heav'n / Had gone to wrack, with ruin overspread," except that God had foreseen all this and let it take place in order "To honor his Anointed Son aveng'd / Upon his enemies, and to declare / All power on him transferr'd." The whole two days of war, it seems, was just to set the stage for the Son's triumph on the third day -- a pattern to be repeated in the crucifixion and resurrection.

So on the third morning, the Son rides forth in a chariot "Flashing thick flames, Wheel within Wheel," accompanied
By four Cherubic shapes, four Faces each
Had wondrous, as with Stars thir bodies all
And Wings were set with Eyes, with Eyes the Wheels
Of Beryl, and careering Fires between;
Over thir heads a crystal Firmament,
Whereon a Sapphire Throne, inlaid with pure
Amber, and colors of the show'ry Arch. 
The destroyed landscape is restored "At his command ... And with fresh Flow'rets Hill and Valley smil'd." Telling the assembled angels to stand aside, the Son bears down on the enemy, and "under his burning Wheels / The steadfast Empyrean shook throughout, / All but the Throne itself of God." (Satan had boasted in Book I that he shook that throne.) The rebel angels retreat,
                                                     for he meant
Not to destroy, but root them out of Heav'n:
The overthrown he rais'd, and as a Herd
Of Goats or timorous flock together throng'd
Drove them before him Thunder-struck, pursu'd
With terrors and with furies to the bounds
And Crystal wall of Heav'n, which op'ning wide,
Roll'd inward, and a spacious Gap isclos'd
Into the wasteful Deep
(Samuel Johnson observed that the flock shouldn't have been described as "timorous" by Raphael before the Fall, but as we've seen, consistency has long been absent from the narrative.) Hell opens up and "Yawning receiv'd them whole, and on them clos'd." And the Son rides in triumph back to "the Courts / And Temple of his mighty Father Thron'd / On high."
Engraving by Francis Hayman, 1749
William Blake, 1808
Gustave Doré, 1866

And Raphael ends his narrative by pointing the moral:
        let it profit thee to have heard
By terrible Example the reward
Of disobedience; firm they might have stood,
Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress. 

No comments:

Post a Comment