Sunday, March 02, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 2

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.”


Andrew Philip said...

It's interesting to compare Satan's address of the rebel angels as "Powers/Matchless but with the Almighty" with this which I read yesterday in Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline:

"Perhaps you recall how, when Hitler used to speak about God, he called him 'the Almighty'. But it is not 'the Almighty' who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme power, who God is. And the man who calls 'the Almighty' God [NB not who calls God Almighty] misses God in the most terrible way. For the 'Almighty' is bad, as 'power in itself' is bad. The 'Almighty' means Chaos, Evil, the Devil. We could not better describe and define the Devil than by trying to think this idea of a self-based, free, sovereign ability. This intoxicating thought of power is chaos, ... which God in His creation has left behind him, which He rejected when He created heaven and earth. That is the opposite of God ...."

Ms Baroque said...

Rob, you put me to shame. I've mentioned you in my latest post, hope you don;'t mind...

Rob said...

You're reading Barth's 'Dogmatics' (even in outline)? You're a brave man! But yes, interesting. Thanks for the kind words on my manuscript on your blog by the way.

Katy - I don't mind at all. Thanks!