Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 4

More Paradise Lost in one month. I’ve reached Book 2, Line 569

Mammon’s argument is similar to Belial’s in that he counsels against war. Unless God is defeated, he says, any liberation from hell will mean only a freedom to worship God, their enemy. Mammon wants to build a kingdom in hell. The fallen angels should raise (L 273-281):

Magnificence; and what can Heav'n show more?
Our torments also may in length of time
Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain. All things invite
To peaceful counsels, and the settled state
Of order, how in safety best we may
Compose our present evils

The fallen angels look as if they are about to agree to this, so Beelzebub has to think fast. He has immediate impact from the moment he stands to speak – “princely counsel in his face yet shone.” (L 304) Beelzebub doesn’t want to build a kingdom in hell, a place where they are still in bondage to the whim of God. He overturns the fantasies of Belial and Mammon. But war seems equally a hopeless cause.

So Beelzebub turns his attention to a recent creation – Man. Let’s exploit this, he says. Let’s “seduce them to our party” (L 368), let’s turn humans against their creator. He demolishes Mammon’s argument with:

Advise if this be worth
Attempting, or to sit in darkness here
Hatching vain empires.

The fallen angels vote unanimously with him. Beelzebub has cleverly made the task sound a bit easier than it’s going to be, to get their assent. But he now has to make the task sound difficult, so that only the most able will step forward in the attempt to make it happen.

There is silence. All sit mute and each “in other’s countenance read his own dismay” (L 422). Until Satan readies himself to speak, “with monarchical pride/ Conscious of highest worth.” (L 429) Satan says he’s prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause and he amplifies how hazardous the voyage ahead of him will be, but his sacrifice is deliberately made to contrast with that of Jesus’ humble walk to the cross. At the end of his speech Satan stands up to bring the debate to an end, but even more to stop others from then volunteering (to make themselves look brave) now that his decision to go alone had been made. Otherwise, those volunteers (L 471f.):

might in opinion stand
His rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn. But they
Dreaded not more the adventure then his voice
Forbidding; and at once with him they rose;
Their rising all at once was as the sound
Of Thunder heard remote. Towards him they bend
With awful reverence prone; and as a God
Extol him equal to the highest in heaven

Again, it’s really well done. The relationship between Satan and his followers is one of fear – his fear of rivalry and their fear of his anger. And when their rising produces a sound of thunder, one can’t help but remember that God’s thunder is what they most fear, as if even in their own movements in this place most remote from him, God is routinely present. Then the fallen angels proclaim Satan equal to the highest in heaven. He is a typical despot standing before his grovelling (‘prone’), fearful populace, and then proclaimed as divine.

But it all a great show of unity and Milton makes the point that while devil with devil “firm concord holds, men only disagree/
Of creatures rational” (L 497-98). The fallen angels leave the consultation, some to work off their adrenaline in random acts of violence, others to sing, presumably in ironic allusion to the Psalms (L 548-50)

With notes angelical to many a harp
Their own heroic deeds and hapless fall
By doom of battle.

Others go off on their own to think quietly to themselves:

In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixt fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

!8th century critics noted that the fallen angels, by resorting to such rational enquiry, have in fact “lost the power of intuitive reasoning which differentiates [angles] from men,” (Rajan) and have ended up trapped within arguments that have no end.

6 comments:

Jane Holland said...

I'm reading Beowulf (again, only this time in the original) at the moment, in fits and bursts, and can't help seeing the parallels and contrasts between these two 'societies': that of the fallen angels gathered together in Hell, fearing their own leader as he puts himself forward for this great Mission Impossible; and that of the Germanic hall of heroes, Heorot, with Beowulf being called upon to undertake the great battle against evil and accepting, as a hero always must - for the glorious name of a hero must live on after death through the memory and reciting of his great deeds.

For Milton, the study and reciting of poems like Paradise Lost is what ensures that his name lives on in the same way. Though that can't have been a given at the time of composition; the sheer length and controversial content of PL, the leap into the unknown, these are what make the poem heroic, the inherent risks weighed against potential but still unguessed-at rewards.

I wonder how much Milton identified with Satan, especially at this point in the poem. Hard to imagine that he didn't, given the power and peculiar luminosity of his portrayal.

RHE said...

"I wonder how much Milton identified with Satan, especially at this point in the poem."

You know Blake's opinion, that Milton was of the Devil's party, whether he knew it or not. Shelley said the same: "Milton's Devil as a moral being is … far superior to his God .…" Satan "perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture," whereas God, "in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments."

Of course Blake and Shelley prized rebellion as an end in itself. Still, Milton had some small experience of revolution, too, and of its undoing; and I see no reason to believe he had a temperamental affinity to omnipotent monarchical power.

Jane Holland said...

It's fun to think of Milton as being on Satan's team, and certainly makes for some interesting critical directions, but that's not a given. It's always easier to write colourful villains than saintly heroes (who tend to be rather dull in their saintliness) and most people enjoy stories about the underdog who gets to bite back.

I was thinking about Paradise Lost quite frequently today - a strange admission! - and began to wonder if it would be possible to see all the different fallen angels in this scene as different aspects of the one devil.

We tend to conflate this assortment of baddies into one definitive Satan-figure these days, but if you google 'thrones and dominions' you should eventually find vast lists of angels, both heavenly and fallen, all with individual names, talents and responsibilities, and some even with elaborate back stories.

I know all this because my ongoing novel - I'm into year three now, fgs, but one day I will finish it, honest - is about fallen angels.

Rob said...

It might also be due to Milton's subtlety. The easiest solution would have been to created an awful villain with no redeeming features - a comic book villain.

But instead he gives Satan all those heroic qualities, his commanders such as Beelzebub have a "princely" air, there are frequent allusions to great armies from ancient literature, e.g. Homer and Virgil, when Milton describes the fallen angels. He makes Satan a complex character, with much to admire in him, and in so doing gives the story a highly subtle layer.

I think Blake is being mischievous in his analysis, even though his point isn't without foundation. But Satan reminds me of a typical Robert deNiro character in a gangster movie - very friendly, smiling, calm, and then next minute he's slit your throat. Not the kind of guy you'd want to trust for an unguarded second...

Rob said...

Interesting idea on the 'one devil in different guises.' Certainly, the next bit, when Satan meets up with Death and Sin, is seen by some commentators as a rival "Trinity", and both came directly from Satan's essential substance.

Andrew Philip said...

"I see no reason to believe he had a temperamental affinity to omnipotent monarchical power."

With the use of "omnipotent", I assume this refers to God, but let's not forget that Satan's power is also monarchical, not to say despotic. As Rob points out:

"The relationship between Satan and his followers is one of fear – his fear of rivalry and their fear of his anger",

which sounds like any old despotic regime to me! I don't see any reason why Milton would have had a temperamental affinity to that either.