More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached the end of Book 5, at Line 907.
The discussion on food between Adam and the seraph, Raphael, continues. Raphael says he can eat Adam’s food, even though it’s not his normal fare. It’s clear that Milton didn’t go along with the common idea that angels were purely spirit without body. In fact, he goes as far as to imagine them excreting – the word “redounds” meaning ‘remains in excess’ – “what redounds, transpires/ Through spirits with ease” (L 438-39). They eat together, a kind of communion between earth and heaven. Raphael mentions that one day humans may even become like angels, “if ye be found obedient” (L 501). Adam latches onto that phrase. What possible reason could there be for disobedience? He doesn’t get it. Raphael reminds Adam that God made humans “perfect but not immutable” (L 523-24). Adam is intrigued. Raphael tells him of Satan’s fall from heaven with all his hoards.
The story was that one day God made a speech in heaven – “This day I have begot whom I declare/ My only Son, and on this holy hill/ Him have anointed, whom ye now behold/ At my right hand” (L 603-05). All the angels are to swear allegiance to the Son. Anyone who disobeys him will fall “Into utter darkness, deep ingulfed, his place/ Ordained without redemption, without end” (L 614-15). Most seem happy enough about this arrangement, but you can guess who isn’t! Leaving Satan aside for a moment, it’s worth pondering again here why Milton’s Satan is such a compelling figure and why God seems so infuriating. I find Blake’s appraisal of Milton as one of devil’s party - whether Milton knew it or not - more than a little patronising. I think the problem is that evil is easier to represent. It’s possible to represent good with some vigour, but only as a result of tensions which threaten the good. In the case of God, it’s impossible that anything could threaten him, or he would cease to be God. Thus, in Paradise Lost, God appears emotionless, bland, hard to relate to, in comparison both to Satan and also to God’s less perfect angels, such as Gabriel, whose speeches in Book 4 were as cutting as Satan’s own. Michael Schmidt put it like this in “The Great Poets” supplement to the Independent newspaper a couple of days ago:
“Milton’s unequal skill in characterisation is understandable. Goodness, especially divine goodness, cannot be particularised without limiting it. Virtues are flimsy, abstract when they aspire to be comprehensive. Evil, however, has to be particularised. Men fall from grace in different ways, to different degrees. Evil acts in a world of characters we recognise. The devil has the best, the most diverse and seductive, tunes. A marriage between virtue and character, between pure qualities and mundane objects, is beyond most art, even his.”
Satan, we learn, was the most powerful archangel in heaven and feels jealous at the Son’s status. He talks to his next-in-command and asks him to call all those who have allegiance to him to gather together to receive the Son of God who will soon “pass triumphant” (L 693). This deception draws one-third of heaven and allows Satan to trust in his oratorical skills to muster a huge army.
However, God, knows it’s all happening. He knows everything, of course. How does he react? With indignation? Anger? Courage? No, Line 718 has, “And smiling to his only Son thus said…” and the Son’s response begins (L 733-735):
To whom the Son with calm aspect and clear
Lightning divine, ineffable, serene,
Complete control, untroubled, even a little humour: God seems perfectlyinhuman, which is Milton’s difficulty, because human is precisely what God can’t be represented as being, and perfection is almost impossible to portray.
Satan gathers the multitudes in his palace. He says that it’s time to cast off their yoke – the honour they must give to God and now the Son too. They are equal in freedom to God, so why should they obey him? A seraph, Abdiel, is the only one to speak against Satan. He is outraged, saying that God has only ever done good to them, and that far from being God’s equal, they are God’s creation, created indeed through his Son.
Satan replies that there’s no proof that God created them. This is Satan at his oratorical best, suggesting that the doctrine of creation through the Son, which Abdiel seems to have been familiar with, is in fact “new” (L 852-61):
That we were formed then say’st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power
So they are their own “gods”. Abdiel is furious and tells Satan that he’ll soon know the level of his power - “for soon expect to feel/ His thunder on thy head, devouring fire” (L 892-93).
He storms out the palace. The last lines, 896-907, of Book 5 are worth studying for their variation in rhythm, for the way sound and sense converge, for a free lesson on how to write blank verse:
So spake the seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only he;
Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud towers to swift destruction doomed.