Friday, March 07, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 6

More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday, I reached Book 3, Line 216.

The gulf between hell and heaven is long and chaotic. No substance holds its shape, nothing is constant, and Milton describes it brilliantly (L 911-20):

Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

And there you have it in Line 917 – if you want to create a best-selling series of books for children, with movie offshoots, grab your title from Milton!

Satan negotiates this confusing world with difficulty, but for Milton, the fall of man must be caused both by Satan’s evil will and by contingency. Satan flies on a gust of surging smoke and then next minute plummets into a bottomless chasm and still would be plummeting today “had not by ill chance/ The strong rebuff of some tumultuous cloud/ Instinct with fire and nitre hurried him/ As many miles aloft.” (L 935-38)

He comes before the thrones of Night and Chaos, rulers of this place, and asks for directions to heaven. He promises them that his plan will reduce the earth to its “original darkness” and that Night’s standard will once more be raised there – a little misleading as that was only one of the options the infernal council had discussed in Book 2, but it works. Night and Chaos give Satan the guidance he needs. Book 2 ends with Satan at the walls of heaven, and a fantastic image, adapted from Homer. Homer’s Zeus asserts that if he lowered a golden chain from heaven, he could draw up by it all the other gods, the earth and the sea, and hang them from a pinnacle on Mount Olympus. In Paradise Lost, lines 1051-55, Satan gets his first sight of his destination, our poor old planet:

And fast by hanging in a golden chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accursed, and in a cursed hour he hies.

In Book 3, the action switches to heaven. Milton invokes his heavenly Muse again, grateful to have got through the poetry of hell and the gulf kingdom, but troubled. Milton had gone blind. It’s astonishing to think that a blind man could have written anything as lengthy and ambitious as Paradise Lost, and he certainly strikes a melancholy note (L 40-48):

Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summers rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank

A couple of evenings ago, at the reading I went to featuring Kapka Kassabova and Tracey Herd at the Scottish Poetry Library, a member of the audience wanted to know what it would take for them to write “happy poems.” I wonder what he would make of Milton! The truth is that the above is a beautiful, lyrical passage that possesses its own illumination, and without it the world would be that microscopic amount darker. Perhaps that’s one oblique answer to the audience member’s question?

Anyway, God surveys his creation from his throne – heaven, earth, hell, the gulf, and Satan at heaven’s walls. He can see it all. He says he created free will because no act would have meaning without it, and he won’t change the aspect of creation. When humanity falls, it will have fallen partly through being deceived rather than a fully conscious choice. Jesus, on his right-hand side is nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity. Will they continue to follow Satan, or will God eventually have to abolish what he had made? God has said that “I made him just and right/ Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (L 98-99). So humanity had been given the resources to withstand the temptation – deceived, but not altogether blameless. Humanity can find hope only in God’s grace, he says, and must respond to him.

This negotiates complex theological arguments of the time. God’s mercy and grace are the “instrumental cause” of human salvation, but humanity’s prayer, obedience etc are a “helping cause”. This compares with the more extreme Calvinists who didn’t believe in a “helping cause” and the Catholics for whom the “helping cause” was as integral as the “integral cause.” Well… I’m glad we’ve got that one sorted out!


Jane Holland said...

Manic day today - car broken down, loads of work etc. - so not sure I can comment on this extract today. But you can hear my husband Steve warbling on about Milton in relation to revolutionary thinking, climate change and political poetry, halfway through the second half recording of an ecopoetry debate that took place in London last week.

Andrew Philip said...

The anthropomorphism at this stage in the poem is a bit of a weak point, I think. It reads very much like God the Father and the Son are entirely separate entities, rather than two of the three "ways of being" (Barth) in the Trinity.
I appreciate that this affords Milton the opportunity for all that expository dialogue, but there's something faintly comical about it. The Son doesn't know what's in the Father's mind, which can't be right (except perhaps in the incarnation, which hasn't happened by this point in the poem).

And where's God the Holy Spirit?!

Rob said...

Thanks, Jane. I'll check that out. Hope you've recovered from the car experience.

Andy, yes, it's purely a dramatic device. But it is also a bit strange.