Paradise Lost 5: Paradise late, on regular falling and the power of hope

marigold
A marigold taking the sun this afternoon

For a number of reasons I lost my morning rhythm today. But never mind.

Later, I thought, it will be a nice afternoon, I’ll do some gardening, then do my  reading and writing. Lovely afternoon it is too, and I’ve been taking cuttings – lavender, box, hydrangea, clematis – thinking of building up a good stash of new plants for Calderstones secret garden when we reopen in 2018. I’ve also taken cuttings of the single red camellia outside my window, which is often the first big thing to flower in my garden in the new year, sometimes in bloom by February 14th.  I’ve tried taking cuttings before but always failed. Is it hope or foolhardiness that makes me want to try again? Here they sit, in a heated propagator which I can’t close because the cuttings are too tall – is that going to be the reason they won’t take this time? A little draft? Come on, you come from the Himalayas, don’t you? Harden up!

 

And yes,  it looks as though the leaves are touching – which would be fatal – but, don’t worry, they are not.  And to the side they are George Eliot’s eyes looking on kindly, even ardently. Let’s see if that helps. It’s certainly helped me keep  going over the years.

camellia prop
Red camellia under the encouraging eye of George eliot

Putting gardening from my mind, here I continue my weekly Sunday 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’.

The failure to propagate the red camellia is  not a moral failing but a practical one. Yet the mechanism may be similar. When I fail (or fall, to use the Miltonic word) to do the good thing there will be many likely elements in my failure – sometimes I don’t know what they are or cannot distinguish – in plant world: the draft, the temperature of the propagator, bacteria on the secateurs… all of which might translate in human world into ego, stupidity, greed … it’s hard to know which nasty bit of my being  is causing the fail/fall. In Paradise Lost,  it is  almost always pride (though sometimes love, and perhaps simple copying). But pride is the  chief sin. It is worth us spending some time, if not today, then soon,  thinking about what pride is.

Last week I’d made a start on the first paragraph, and got as far as line 44. Satan, whose name when we first hear of him is not Satan, and not Lucifer, but ‘the Infernal Serpent’  (by the time he got to corrupting us he had fallen very low indeed) had, motivated by pride to challenge God.  We’ll find out later that when he did that he was called Lucifer (meaning bearer of light: he was a very high angel then), – but by the end of this paragraph  he is renamed as ‘Satan’ (meaning enemy, adversary, astray).  It’s interesting to think about the way names change – here and elsewhere – depending on the meaning-place someone/thing has in the universe. I’m thinking of Mum, Grandmother, person.

But let’s read some:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

It’s fast! No sooner has  Milton introduce ‘him’ than he is hurled headlong and we’re suddenly all in hell. We started with a simple question – what first caused?…but before we’ve even got our breath we’re in a place of no light, ‘rather darkness visible.’

Let’s go into one sentence: read it aloud:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.

I have to look up some of these words.  ‘Ethereal’ is  delicate, so light as to barely exist. That’s one kind of thing, one mode.  But no sooner is that word uttered that it, and all thought of it is gone. Almost every other word in the sentence  is from another register – a register of fearful anger; hurled, headlong, flaming, hideous, ruin, combustion, bottomless perdition. (Perdition – eternal hellish punishment).

I notice that God is at the beginning and end of this sentence. In between – the punishment.

You might be thinking, because it is so very far from our own contemporary values,  how could a just God deliver such violent punishment? If we were reading real-time and in a group there would certainly be someone feeling worried by that. I feel worried myself. But I also think about the translation I need to make. If I  go away from my own idea of good or best – how does it feel?  It’s all very mild compared to Milton, but even so, it does not feel good.  The more you can feel or imagine or know the good, the most good, then the more bad you feel going in the other direction.  Is this religion or morality? If a species of moral being, is it innate?  Dr Johnson said somewhere that no man desires bad,  if he desires bad, he will make it good to himself.

The more Almighty the God, the more terrible must be being removed from him. The more you believe in the good, the worse would be the falling away from it? And it is a long way for  the Infernal Serpent to fall (later we will learn that they fall for nine days) but just now these nine days are spent rolling in the fiery gulf – perhaps like drowning in fire.

Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal:

‘Confounded’ here  means  what? Stymied, unable to think? ‘Confounded though immortal’ seems terrible because it implies a permanent state of being at odds. But it is worse than that. Milton makes us  experience this foul state almost through Satan’s eyes: we feel his feelings as he gains consciousness:

But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:

There’s a thing about time here, connectedto  both ‘lost’ and  ‘lasting’. ‘Lost happiness’, suddenly feels very real, very happy, very lost, though we know that at the time he did not prize his place in heaven. This sits alongside or even gives way to ‘lasting pain’ (so good that there is a  half rhyme  between those two very different states).  I’d always read ‘baleful’ as  ‘sad’ but have just checked and found it to be to do with rage, anger, wickedness, evil intent. How could I have misunderstood that word for  decades! I don’t think I know the word from anywhere else. Is it because I pity Satan at this point? Had I gathered that wrong meaning from ‘huge affliction’? from ‘dismay’? Is it because I am now seeing with his eyes:

At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:

Here, ‘hope never comes/that comes to all’. I wonder about the placement in time of this statement. We are fallen creatures,  yet that ‘all’ applies to us.  I will want at some point to link up pride with the absence of hope, hope to the possibility of  forgiveness or restoration. This place is stuck, there’s no change here; ‘torture without end
Still urges’, and the deluge is always ‘ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d’.

Is the fact that we are not in hell, but here on earth, in time, worth us thinking about?

Time makes a difference. One of the things that I had to process during the ten years after my mother died – we were  estranged when she died, our relationship was broken – was the fact that there was no more time for her, though there was for me. I was still in our relationship, but she wasn’t. My side of it was still live and I could therefore act, change, do something. But she could not.  this, I realised, over a long, slow, painful period of time, is one of the great things about being alive. You can change, be different. It was up to me to change my mind about our relationship, because she couldn’t. In this sense, being alive (however tough)  is like the  opposite of hell.

I think this stuckness of hell makes a difference to Satan and  differentiates him from any living human, however fallen, however bad.  The possibility of hope changes everything.  But for the fallen angels this is what must be for ever because they are defined in opposition, always:

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

More next week.

One thought on “Paradise Lost 5: Paradise late, on regular falling and the power of hope

  1. stayingfaithful September 17, 2017 / 9:19 pm

    Wonderful reading of these lines. Thank you. ‘Baleful’ definitely feels as if it should have sadness in it, I feel I know the word from Lewis or Tolkien or suchlike.

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