Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 11

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached the end of Book 4, Line 1015.

Got to say, Book 4 has been a terrific read, the best Book so far. Great drama, fantastic poetry, and today – at last – a good angel whose sarcasm is at least a match for Satan.

Adam and Eve retire to their bower, which Milton describes in fitting paradisaical terms. But then comes a moment of controversy (L742-47):

nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.

Sex before the fall! Of course, this would have annoyed certain people. Some theologians argued that if Adam and Eve were to conceive before the fall, then Cain would have been surely born free from original sin. And doesn’t the purity of innocence – their lack of clothes (and the later embarrassment after the fall when they suddenly discover they are naked) - suggest a lack of sexual love? But other theologians reckoned that conception in innocence wouldn’t preclude subsequent infection with original sin. So there!

The action switches to the angel Gabriel who tells the angel Uzziel that a fallen angel may have infiltrated Eden. They send a couple of cherubs, Ithariel and Zephon, to root the evil being out, and it doesn’t take them long. Satan, in the form of a toad, is whispering into the sleeping Eve’s ear. Milton believed that devils had no access to human reason, only to their imagination – hence Satan’s attempt to infiltrate Eve’s dream-state. The two cherubs know something’s wrong, as animals never entered the bower (“Beast, bird, insect, or worm durst enter none;/ such was their awe of man.” – L 704). But Satan is so taken aback that he changes into himself again anyway.

The cherubs don’t ingratiate themselves to Satan. They ask him who he is and Satan is scornful that they don’t recognise him. Satan, despite the many admirable qualities Milton gives him, has a massive ego. The cherubs are no pushover and answer Satan in terms just as scornful – “Thou resemblest now/ Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul” (L 840) – that word “obscure” connoting both the sense of ‘dark’ and ‘unimportant’.

Satan gets quite emotional over this (L 846-50):

abashed the devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined
His loss; but chiefly to find here observed
His lustre visibly impared

That’s his inward thoughts. But outwardly, Satan is still “undaunted”. Still shocked, he allows himself to be arrested by the two cherubs and brought to Gabriel. The discourse between Gabriel and Satan is brilliant. They both try to out-insult one another and the result is extraordinarily entertaining. Gabriel begins by asking Satan why he has broken out of hell. Satan’s reply is suitably acerbic (L886-90):

Gabriel, thou hadst in heaven the esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question asked
Puts me in doubt. Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell…?

But Gabriel gives as good as he gets. How could someone like Satan, who fell in folly, dare to question Gabriel’s wisdom? Is he daft enough to think that escaping his current punishment won’t reap much worse? And seeing as Satan is alone, Gabriel asks after the hoards left behind in hell (L 918-921):

Is pain to them
Less pain, less to be fled, or thou than they
Less hardy to endure? Courageous chief,
The first in flight from pain…

Satan tells Gabriel that Gabriel can’t know from experience what it means still to show courage and endurance as a leader even after suffering defeat. He says he wants a new place to settle. Gabriel, perhaps a little stung by Satan’s taunt that he doesn’t really know what courage means, hits back hard (L 957-61):

And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem
Patron of liberty, who more then thou
Once fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored
Heavens awful monarch? Wherefore but in hope
To dispossess him, and thy self to reign?

Critics have argued over this passage. Those who view Milton (unknown to himself) as belonging partly to the devil’s camp, pick out words like “fawned” and “cringed” and “servilely” to suggest that Milton’s heaven depicts God as an egomaniac tyrant ruling by fear, much as Satan did in hell. But other critics suggest that Gabriel, in the heat of the argument, is using his opponent’s terms (in L 945, Satan accused the good angels of cringing), the way people often do in arguments, without meaning they depict reality.

Gabriel tells Satan to go back to where he came from, but Satan, enraged, is ready to fight the whole lot of them. The cherubs surround him with their spears and a terrible fight is about to ensue, until God tries to stop the fight by creating a pair of scales which hang in the air.

It’s worth asking why God didn’t allow the fight to go ahead and crush Satan there and then, rather than allowing him the opportunity to corrupt humankind. It’s clear from previous passages that Milton regarded free will as vital. Adam and Eve had to have the choice to obey, as obedience without choice was meaningless. The cherubs here have fulfilled an important function, stopping Satan’s attempt to brainwash Eve in her sleep, but the temptation at the tree had to be her conscious choice to accept or resist. So God steps in with the scales to stop the fight.

The scales tip up and the weights on Satan’s side fly into the air. Gabriel, not missing a trick, delivers his final barb (L 1011-1015):

And read thy lot in yon celestial sign
Where thou art weighed, and shown how light, how weak,
If thou resist. The fiend looked up and knew
His mounted scale aloft: nor more; but fled
Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.

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