Thursday, March 06, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 5

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday, I reached Book 2, Line 910.

The fallen angels disperse across the plains of hell. Some find a land of ice, where souls are transported from the fires and then back again, so that their agony is made all the greater by the extremes. There is a Dantean, grotesque imagination at work here. The Lethe river offers possible relief, as anyone who drank from it would forget everything, including pain and woe, but the river is guarded by Medusa, the Gorgon of Homer, whose glance could turn anyone meeting her eyes to stone. If anyone got past her to the river, the water would recede from their lips: a desert mirage that offers hope and steals it away.

Satan moves through this landscape until the gates of hell, guarded by Sin, a half-woman half-serpent, and Death, a shapeless horror with a fatal poison-dart, and which “what seemed his head/ The likeness of a kingly crown had on.” (L 672-3). Satan is at first aggressive. He says he’s going through:

Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof,
Hell-born, not to contend with the spirits of heaven. (L 687)

This is, we later learn, highly ironic, as Death was conceived in heaven - Sin is his mother and Satan his father, when they were indeed both residents of heaven. Sin was so beautiful then that Satan doesn’t recognise her in her current, hideous fallen state. Death replies with scorn and echoes Satan’s “hell-bound” jibe (L 696-99):

And reckonest thou thyself with spirits of heaven,
Hell-doomed, and breathest defiance here and scorn,
Where I reign king, and to enrage thee more,
Thy king and lord?

It looks as though there will be a fight to the death. Satan remains calm, although inwardly furious. Sin breaks up the fight and tells Satan the truth about Death’s parentage. Also that Death (their son) had raped her and that the offspring, a pack of yowling dogs, continually feed on her bowels – again that Dantean horror. She has been given keys to the hell-gates and told by God she must never open them.

Why God entrusted the keys to Sin is a matter of conjecture! She clearly has little to gain from this arrangement, except perhaps the unsubstantiated hope that if she does her job faithfully, her suffering might be lessened. Satan, of course, is quick to spot an opportunity, and changes his tune. Sin and Death, who have been described by Milton in hideous terms, find themselves addressed by Satan:

Dear daughter, since thou claim’st me for thy sire,
And my fair son here show’st me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in heaven (L 817-19)…

Satan says he comes only to rescue them from their plight and that he will give them power on earth when his mission succeeds, a prophecy he will manage to fulfil. So Satan makes a promise and then later keeps it – a devil of honour! At this point, he sees the latent possibilities of Sin and Death, how useful they could be to him, not only to let him pass through the gates, but to aid his attempt to bring God’s new creation of humanity to ruin.

Sin sees the point. Why should she obey God’s command? What has God ever done for her? She turns to Satan and says (L 864-70):

Thou art my father, thou my author, thou
My being gavest me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow? Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

Sin had previously reminded Satan that, in heaven, “shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed/ Out of they head, I sprung” (L 757-8) and that they had become lovers. So she is speaking literally of her origins. And the final lines there parody the biblical picture of Jesus sitting at his father’s right hand on the throne of heaven, and the Nicene Creed (“on the right hand of the Father…[Christ] whose kingdom shall have no end”).

Sin opens the gates. Satan goes through to find himself in a dimensionless world where Night and Chaos rule. There is noise and confusion, nothing is clear. It’s an amazing feat of imagination to describe a place where nothing can be properly described but Milton manages it with style (L 891-94):

a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost;

a place where "Chance governs all". Satan has a lot of work to do if he’s to manoeuvre his way out of this one.

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