Monday, March 03, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 3

Another instalment of Paradise Lost in one month. I’ve now reached Book 2, Line 228

From the ores beneath the ground and by musical force, the city of Pandaemonium rises from the earth, an ironic reversal of the earth’s appearance out of Chaos at creation. The city has a classical design, but there is irony here – the glory of this city is a vanity. The fallen angels make their way there to consult on their next move, but must shrink down to the size of dwarves to fit in – the picture is one of farcical comedy, although the main leaders hold on to their natural size. The consultation begins and so does Book II.

Satan asks them to decide whether to use war or guile to defeat God. Milton presents Satan at his self-delusory best. In hell, he proclaims, life is so miserable that no one would want to rule. The sufferings of hell are a great leveller and:

With this advantage then
To union, and firm faith, and firm accord,
More then can be in heaven, we now return

Milton is certainly a master of irony.

Moloch stands and argues for war. He is the bellicose war commander who condemns those who counsel waiting:

For while they sit contriving, shall the rest
… Accept this dark opprobrious den of shame,
The prison of his tyranny who reigns
By our delay?

This is certainly a modern argument, one that has had significant consequences in recent times. Of course, Moloch is also deluded in believing their delay can have any effect on God’s rule, but he has another argument – that nothing could be worse than present suffering, that they have nothing to lose by fighting to the death. At the very least, they would inconvenience God, which is better than leaving him in peace.

Belial replies. He is the slick operator, the politician operating by spin, the last person you’d trust, but he sounds convincing. War, he says, would have little chance of success, and there’s no reason to believe that God would snuff out their consciousness and end their suffering if God won the war. Moloch’s claim that no suffering could be worse than the present is untrue, as God could inflict worse on the fallen angels if he so chose. Belial gives his counsel, therefore, that:

War therefore, open or concealed, alike
My voice dissuades; for what can force or guile
With him, or who deceive his mind, whose eye
Views all things at one view? He from heavens highth
All these our motions vain, sees and derides;

Belial believes that God is watching them even now and perhaps that’s why he’s so careful in what he says. Interesting, because it’s unclear whether Satan believed that. It’s also interesting that Milton uses a word like “derides” of God, seeing God not as a remote divinity beyond all feeling, but a being capable of emotional reaction. There may be an allusion to Psalm 2:4 – “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”

Belial feels that if the fallen angels endure their punishment for a time, God’s anger may well abate:

whence these raging fires
Will slacken, if his breath stir not their flames.
Our purer essence then will overcome
Their noxious vapour, or enured not feel,
Or changed at length, and to the place conformed
In temper and in nature, will receive
Familiar the fierce heat, and void of pain;
This horror will grow mild, this darkness light

Belial’s counsel makes their liberation entirely dependent on God’s will (“if his breath stir not their flames”), which seems something of a long-shot, a big if. And that’s the problem with his argument – it could mean an eternity of suffering and an entirely passive reaction to it. That’s why Milton writes:

Thus Belial with words clothed in reason’s garb
Counseled ignoble ease, and peaceful sloth,
Not peace

But it’s not all over for the fallen angels. Mammon is next on the podium.

3 comments:

Jane Holland said...

Moloch's speech is beautifully written, and Milton's description of him as being beyond caring about his personal fate superb; we've all felt like that at one point or other, I imagine.

There's a touch of Macbeth's black despair here - 'Blow, wind! come, wrack! At least we'll die with harness on our back' - which moves beyond despair and into that reckless courage which is in truth a desire for some extreme action, which will decide everything once and for all:

'... when to meet the noise/Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear/Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see/Black fire and horror shot with equal rage/Among his Angels; and his Throne it self/Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire,/His own invented Torments.'

RHE said...

Rob,

I applaud your determination, but I think you do Milton, the poem, and your readers some disservice by suggesting that PL is a nearly insurmountable mountain, to be climbed only by teeth-gritting effort and Sherpa guides. In reality, its stretches of angelic languors and theological unspeakableness* are more than offset by the constant surprises of the blank verse and those unbeatable phrasings of the sort my friend Hannah calls "immortal gobstoppers." I guess I'd stop short of saying it's all great fun and a jolly romp, but it's not the navvy labor you make it sound.

*One of these days you'll want to read Empson's Milton's God, the best corrective, though you could start with the Milton essay in his Some Versions of Pastoral.

Rob said...

Thanks, Jane. And yes, that desire for an extreme determining action does seem to be the driving force with Moloch.

Richard - I didn't realise I was making Milton sound such a struggle. I am very much enjoying it and I'd recommend it to anyone!