Paradise Lost 4: Milton turning on a sixpence and heading towards Hell

yellow daisies.JPG
Yellow daisies becoming autumnal, back step, 10 September

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

Last week I’d made a start on the first paragraph, and got as far as line 32:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

So, now I’m going to continue with the answer, from line 33. Just watch the speed here, Milton  turning on a sixpence, and getting right into the thick of it. We are on our way to hell.

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.

I’m interested in  the fact that Milton, having posed  the question, how did this happen, must imagine positive, deliberate corruption – his word is ‘seduced’.

For Milton God is all  good, and all things so then how does evil get into the system? The question  Milton has asked is ‘what first caused our Grand Parents to fall off from God?’ The answer is ‘the infernal serpent.’ The bigger question ( ‘what first caused the infernal serpent?’) is one we haven’t come to yet – and I’m going to leave it here, in my list of  things I need to leave to one side.

It’s as if we start with the easiest bit – about us, humans. What causes us to fall away from the good? We are seduced by others, in this case ‘the infernal serpent’.

I’m thinking of a line from Les Murray, can’t remember the poem ‘ there never was a bad baby’. Are we born good?  Or born maleable? If maleable, then our  moral life is dependent on not getting involved with bad stuff, not being seduced by it.

But Milton doesn’t want to go into any of this now, just wants to head on towards the hero/anti-hero of his story: Satan.  Let’s read that sentence again. Remember punctuation is key to getting the rhythms:

Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.

‘Guile’, ‘envy’ and ‘revenge’ are the elements that lead our seducer to ruin us. And how  did he do it? He did it by deception. You may begin to feel Milton might be excusing us,  finding some leeway for the Mother of Mankind. Well, we’ll come back to that.

If I said, find the  strongest words in the above sentence? Almost all the words are powerful.  Behind the guile, envy, and revenge, fuelling the deception is pride:

what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels,

When did he  do it? He did it at that point when his pride had ruined him – his pride ‘cast him out’.

This is the first of many iterations in the poem of the argument that pride is  the ultimate catalyst for the fall.

Sorry, short post, busy day, late start, out of time.

I’ll try to  open up a new blog page  to list ‘issues’ I want to remember in these PL posts as they emerge… More next week.

 

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