Saturday, March 01, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 1

Here’s the first entry in my attempt to read Paradise Lost, with a degree of attention, in one month.

Today I reached Book 1, Line 330

Milton begins by invoking the Muse to help him with his song, which will pursue “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” His Muse is Jesus, but an address to the Muse brings to mind the traditions of both Greek and Roman verse, and it will be interesting to evaluate Milton’s mixing of these traditions as the poem continues.

Milton then summarises the story of the Fall, highlighting the role of the serpent, Satan, who had raised himself up against God and was cast down into the abyss. Milton describes it:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell

TS Eliot dismissed these lines as “impossible to imagine”, which seems an odd opinion to me. Yes, flames that give darkness rather than light are no ordinary flames, but this is clearly no ordinary place. We can surely envisage the possibility of such flames even if they stretch beyond the imagination. I thought it was a great conception.

Then Beelzebub, ‘Lord of the Flies’, arrives and Satan hatches his plot. He is deluded, in that he thinks he can overcome God by force, as if God rules by force in the first place. His speech lasts 41 lines, the same number of lines as his final speech in Book 1 – numerologists have had a field-day with PL. Beelzebub is dubious, as God defeated them before and might do again, but Satan reckons that:

If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;

Satan is cool, crafty and single-minded. He even senses an advantage of being so far from God in this terrible place – all the better to plot against him in peace. In lines 249-264, he comes up with some astonishingly lyrical stuff, the kind of blank verse you just can’t beat:

Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive thy new possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the 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 heaven.

Fantastic stuff! Again Satan is deluded in thinking that God's glory derives only from his “thunder”, but the self-possession he has in his mind (“the mind is its own place”) is chilling. He and Beelzebub raise themselves from the fiery sea they’ve been cast into and go in search of their defeated army. Satan rouses them, asking them ironically if they’re sleeping (“to repose their wearied virtue”) or are abasing themselves so as “to adore the conqueror”. He tells them to get up or God’s forces will soon arrive to trample on them and finish them off.


Jane Holland said...

There are elements in that speech by Satan (249-264) which remind me of Hamlet's 'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.' (Act II, scene ii) This idea of the mind as a place where we can rule supreme, rather than, for instance, be ruled by God or society with its formally constructed hierarchies, is particularly appealing to the modern sensibility (in the sense of post-medieval). In Orwell's 1984, it is the last refuge of Winston Smith, defying the system's ability to discover and prosecute 'thoughtcrime'. The drawback is that an enclosed space of any kind makes suffering there all the more intense ...

Here Satan is making a case for the rebel-dissenter who splits off from society in order to form a new (splinter) group, defying the old regime and plotting against it in relative freedom from oppression. Is Satan the first terrorist? But he won't be changed by these straitened circumstances, he claims; the inverse of the millionaire lottery winner who insists 'this isn't going to change me'.

Because of course he will change and be changed by his new position. Even this early in the poem, the rebel underdog already sees himself as a god in his new environment: 'Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.' And his first action here, mocking his fallen army and stinging them back onto their feet to serve him, serves to highlight the polarity that now exists between him and God.

Hedgie said...

That passage also contains echoes of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, I, iii, where Faustus first conjures up and questions Mephistopheles:

Faust. Where are you damn’d?
Meph. In hell.
Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

Hell, ultimately, is not a place but a state of mind, the state of deliberate, willful separation from God; this becomes increasingly apparent throughout Paradise Lost.

Another major theme of Milton's, in some ways the most important of all, is also introduced in these opeing lines, particularly 209ff:

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs . . . .

Satan is granted freedom by God to act as he chooses (although God foreknows that he will choose to sin). What is especially important to Milton as a dissenter from the established religion of England is this whole concept of freedom of choice. Such freedom is fundamental to christianity as Milton sees it; Adam and Eve must have the freedom to choose, just as must Satan and the angels, even if they misuse it to make the wrong choice. To deny this freedom would make Adam, Eve, and all the other figures mere puppets controlled by God, and that is not what God desires; He wishes for His creations to choose freely to serve and obey Him. Satan continually talks about being free, but in fact his freedom, as he continues to rebel against God, becomes increasingly constricted through the poem.

Andrew Philip said...

Milton's muse is surely the Holy Spirit rather than God the Son:

... thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou knows't; thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss

The bit about temples is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 6:19: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ...?" and the dove, of course, is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Genesis 1:2 says: "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."

Andrew Philip said...

I agree that Eliot's comment is odd. In a sense, the fact that the image exists disproves his point: Milton imagined it so why can't he? The contradictory nature of the image is also surely part of the point: it's not a natural place; it's a place of almost inconceivable darkness and suffering.

There's also surely an irony in Satan's thought that being so far away from God will be advantageous in plotting against him. Having been who he was, he should know that nowhere is beyond God's sight. It's not as if God's vision or knowledge is affected by distance! His fall has already changed him, pace his protests, and dulled his knowledge and understanding of God.

Rachel Fox said...

Rob, particularly the first section you quoted in this posting made me wonder what 'Paradise lost' would have been like if Milton had been prescribed Seroxat, Prozac etc. Much shorter probably. And lifeless.

scavella said...

And, of course, darkness visible is the quintessential example given to schoolchildren for an oxymoron. What better?

Makes me almost wish I'd taken the challenge.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Rob, have you ever thought about considering in the same way "Sir Gawain and the Green Night". It's a story I use to tell at school as a whole symbol of the Middle Ages, it has fascinated me for years when I first read it in prose in Joseph Campbell's book "The King and the Corpse" and then in Tolkien's modern English translation in verses.
Then I heard there's a very recent translation by Simon Armitage.
Best wishes,
Davide Trame

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'd reply to all of them if I had the energy right now, but I don't. However, I've read them with great interest and appreciation.