Paradise Lost 9: When you ain’t got nothing/ you got nothing to lose

what kind of tree
What is going on with this tree in Greenbank Park? Is this a giant nest or a strange growth? Arborealists, help!

Continuing my weekly reading of Paradise Lost…

 

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’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

We’re still very near the beginning in Book 1. Last time, I’d read Beelzebub’s speech  which considered different possibilities re the devils fallen state and chiefly, what if they were still to do God’s bidding even here in Hell?  Satan, though racked with his own inner torments, is quick to respond and shut down doubt in his  second-in-command. worth reading the whole speech once through in and then we’ll go slowly:

Fall’n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.
But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

The line ‘Fall’n cherube, to be weak in misrerable’ is one of my favourites in the whole poem. Why? Well, it is true for one thing! It rings in my  heart and has done for many years,  as a way of  helping me think about  lots of different forms of  weakness, of misery and of the causes of  evil. I bring the line to life for myself by thinking of various instances of weakness I have known, having witnessed or experienced them.  Times when I or other people have felt or acted weakly, and I remember the misery that seems concomitant with such weakness.  I read it again and look up ‘miserable’ in the online etymological dictionary (main meaning: wretched).

I read it again in  the context of its sentence:

Fall’nCherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist.

Interesting that Satan introduces the idea of active weakness (doing)  first, before the more passive form (suffering) and that they seem in this context to be almost the same – it doesn’t matter whether you are doing or suffering, it remains the case that ‘to be weak is miserable’.

I wonder in what tone these words are spoken?  It feels sympathetic at first , ‘Fall’n cherube,’ feels almost affectionate but it quickly becomes  a sort of call to arms. Satan respondes very quickly to Beelzebub’s potential capitulation. ‘But of this be sure’  is a  rallying cry. See t how the tense remains in the present : we’re still fighting him, it’s not over, ‘contrary to his high will/Whom we resist.’ The acknowledgement of weakness is so fleeting!  It is made, but it is quickly transformed into something else, and that something else really says ‘we’re not weak, we’re active’.

If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.

Satan is a pragmatist: he doesn’t mind not winning the big battle, so long as he can continue: he’s content that  ‘oft times’ they ‘ may succeed’. Oft is one  limitation and feels a small one – often is not occasional. But there’s a bigger doubt in ‘may’, though the line is carried along by the hope in ‘succeed.’ So  we talk ourselves up.

Next comes a sentence I don’t think I’ve looked at in all my previous readings of the poem:

But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.

The storm of their defeat is coming to an end.  God  has gone quiet. What is this but a chance for Satan and his fellows to somehow act? The energy of  Satan’s will is an amazing power. It’s not  moments since we saw him at the nadir or despair – look back to line 55!

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 having Beelzebub to rally partly rouses him and now he is actively seeking to do something – to be weak is miserable, but his will is not to weakness:

Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

It’s interesting to note that Satan doesn’t understand the action of God. The storm of fury has ceased and Satan does not know why: ‘whether scorn/ Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.’ And it doesn’t matter, because the thing is to act and to

Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

Reinforcement is a building up, which may be possible if there is hope, resolution is reconcilation which will be necessary if there is no hope. Whatever else happens, Satan is going to find, it seems a way to continue to fight.  When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose, as Dylan sings.

All recognisable,  and all  too human.

More next week.

 

2 thoughts on “Paradise Lost 9: When you ain’t got nothing/ you got nothing to lose

  1. Chris Lines October 23, 2017 / 10:29 am

    Hi Jane
    This looks like a Lime tree. Lime trees tend to have lots of epicormic growth – they throw out suckers from the base and often also from higher up the tree, making it look like a massive nest. Some arborists trim back or remove the growth (although it usually just grows back again) but this is really just cosmetic in amenity trees, although if a lot of water is retained it can promote decay. The twiggy area potentially provides a home for all sorts of wildlife. In spring/summer the flowers of lime are attractive to bees, giving rise to a distinctive slightly tangy honey. And as the growth look like giant nests, they are great for stimulating the imagination – what could possibly have made that?!!

  2. drjanedavis October 24, 2017 / 5:29 am

    Thanks very much, Chris!
    I didn’t know any of this – except, now you say it is a Lime tree I can see it is… think I have always been so overawed by the ‘nest’ that I didn’t even look at the tree.
    It’s an amazing natural growth, and as you say, great stimulant to the imagination. My son and I stood looking at it the other day, wondering if the Canada Gees could have built it!

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