It’s Paradise Lost in one month again.
Today I got as far as Book 1, L669.
Satan’s made his speech and the innumerable fallen angels begin to stir. Among them are those who had corrupted humans from their worship of God and set themselves up, “with gay religions full of pomp and gold, / and devils to adore for deities.” (L 372-73). There are twelve of those, a significant number, corresponding to the number of tribes of Israel and the number of Jesus’ disciples.
But there are millions more swarming around the plains of the abyss like locusts. They gather and when they see their leader, Satan, they begin to believe in themselves again, as another cracking passage shows:
All these and more came flocking; but with looks
Down cast and damp, yet such wherein appeared
Obscure some glimpse of joy, to have found their chief
Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost
In loss itself; which on his countenance cast
Like doubtful hue: but he his wonted pride
Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore
Semblance of worth, not substance, gently raised
Their fainting courage, and dispelled their fears.
Satan looks confident, and Milton brilliantly strikes beneath that surface. Satan has to recollect himself from his “doubtful hue” (and “hue” meant more than a shade of colour. It connoted an entire way of being). His words are “high” and bear “semblance of worth”, but “not substance” – so the dispelling of their fears is based only on an effectively created illusion.
Satan rallies them round. They appear heroic, a defeated army, but ready to fight all the way. Milton again achieves this with immense skill, alluding to Greek historical writings to give the fallen angels that same heroic ‘virtue’ as the great Greek armies. Like the Spartans who would march off not to the trumpet but to the flute, the fallen angels march off (L 550-54):
to the Dorian mood
Of flutes and soft recorders; such as raised
To height of noblest temper heroes old
Arming to battle, and instead of rage
Deliberate valour breathed, firm and unmoved
They aren’t just a human army but a formidable force of angelic beings. They are given a heroic cast to emphasise still further their strength and power.
Then something very interesting happens. Satan looks out at the huge gathering and begins to feel hope. He sees how faithful they are to him despite their losses and suffering, “their glory withered.” And Satan can’t get his words out. He chokes up (L 618-21):
attention held them mute.
Thrice he essayed, and thrice in spite of scorn,
Tears such as angels weep, burst forth: at last
Words interwove with sighs found out their way
And Satan begins to speak. He feels it’s impossible that such massive force can’t win. Last time, it had appeared to them that God had ruled simply through custom and tradition, but when they rebelled, they realised that they had grievously underestimated God’s strength. So this time, they will be more prepared (L 643-49):
Henceforth his might we know, and know our own
So as not either to provoke, or dread
New war, provoked; our better part remains
To work in close design, by fraud or guile
What force effected not: that he no less
At length from us may find, who overcomes
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
That’s brilliant writing. Satan deludes himself again, in that he mistakenly believes God rules through force when in fact Satan’s own confidence comes from looking out on his own forces, whatever he says here in praise of “fraud or guile.”
The speech works. The fallen angels beat their “millions of flaming swords” on their shields, making a terrible din, “hurling defiance toward the vault of heaven.”